Ho Chi Minh City
4th July 2012 13:14
After the journey I'd been on to get here, Ho Chi Minh City certainly had a lot to live up to. I'm delighted to say it didn't disappoint.
The first thing I noticed is how much bigger and more modern everything is compared to Hanoi. Staying in the old quarter there, everything feels almost claustrophobic as street vendors, motos, taxis, buses and pedestrians all jostle for position. Don't get me wrong, I like this as it's part of what makes Hanoi feel unique, but I think I like Ho Chi Minh better.
Maybe it's my familiarity with London which is swaying me in that direction. In my opinion there is a stronger sense of being in a big city when wandering the streets of hcm, compared to Hanoi.
Also if you measure a city by it's skyline, hcm isn't doing too badly:
There were plenty of tours available via the hostel and the various travel agents in the backpacker area, as per usual. Two that I wanted to go on were the Cu Chi Tunnels tour, and the Mekong Delta tour.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a network of underground tunnels that were used by Viet Cong guerrillas during the war. They inexplicably used to live down there. I still have no idea how they could possibly do it, I was uncomfortable enough as it was and the tunnels have since been made wider and taller for tourists to move through! Here I am:
Ok so that's not really me. I did go through the tunnel but I had no one to take a photo of me. Choose to believe me or not - I won't hold it against you if you don't! You can see from that random internet picture just how tight it is though. Not the most comfortable of places to be, that's for sure.
They showed the booby traps that the guerrillas would set to injure and kill enemy troops. This isn't somewhere you wanted to end up:
Not only did the guerrillas have to crawl around in the ridiculously cramped tunnels, they didn't exactly make it easy for themselves to get into them in the first place either. This hatch shows the size of a typical entrance, which would then be covered with leaves and dirt to conceal it:
The above photo shows our tour guide, Hai. Hai was quite a character. He was explaining to us how the Viet Cong guerrillas living underground during the war were not only male, but female also. He went on to explain how the majority of these women were virgins, as was the lady who worked in the coffee shop (whom he obviously knows on a fairly intimate level). As if this information wasn't enough, we were asked the question... "You know what virgin means?". You could sense the discomfort in the air. Some people nodded uneasily, collectively we were willing him to stop talking. "Virgin means she not yet married, and doesn't know how big the banana is!". Thanks Hai.
The Mekong Delta tour took us an hour and a half outside of the city, to Turtle Island. We were first able to try some honey directly from a beehive, before drinking tea with royal jelly added. I don't usually drink tea, but this was actually pretty tasty. Then again I do have a sweet tooth. You could of course purchase the royal jelly for a small fee. We were also presented with a selection of exotic fruit, including the smallest banana I have ever seen:
While all this was being consumed, we were treated to some traditional Vietnamese folk music. If I'm honest, I didn't enjoy it that much. At the risk of sounding like an old lady talking about heavy metal - it just sounded like noise. The singing was very unusual. Maybe if I'd have been able to understand the language I would have appreciated it more. But maybe not.
A trip in a rowing boat was our next activity. This was very peaceful, and was a really enjoyable way of travelling down one of the tributaries of the river, but unfortunately it was over a little too quickly.
The area we were dropped off at had people making coconut candy sweets. Grinding up coconut produces coconut powder, which is then pressed in a vice to produce coconut juice. This, plus malt and sugar is cooked together for forty five minutes, when it takes on a 'gloopy' consistency. As it cools it becomes harder, so it is pressed into moulds to produce long strands, then chopped into smaller, sweet sized pieces. These smaller, sweet sized pieces are little cubes of joy. They taste so good I bought three packs of them, one with added chocolate, one with nuts and one plain. Chocolate is the best, just because, well, it's chocolate.
Our trip to the free lunch was on a bigger boat with an engine, which took us on the huge Mekong River itself.
There was a moany Canadian woman on our table at lunch, because apparently we were supposed to get some fancy fish to eat, instead of the fried rice we did get. I don't know, just be quiet, eat and be happy woman!
Before returning to the city, we visited a pagoda that I didn't catch the name of:
The tours were definitely worth doing. They are very popular, which does mean you end up plodding along in a big group of people, but with the added benefit of a tour guide they do have their benefits. Also for something like the Mekong Delta tour, I think you'd find it difficult and expensive to arrange each individual element yourself.
The War Remnants Museum is a very worthwhile place to visit while you're here. It pulls no punches in delivering the cold, hard realities of war and some of the photos in the exhibits there make for difficult viewing. It is obviously very biased against America, but definitely a must see.
The Reunification Palace didn't impress me too much, other than the architecture of the building itself which was of course very impressive. However, I didn't find the inside all that engaging.
On the outskirts of the city lies Binh Quoi park. This place is a real change of scene to what you encounter every day on the busy streets, and is a great way to relax and chill out for a bit. In the evening they also do an amazing outdoor buffet dinner with a huge number of dishes available. You just wander from bamboo shack to shack sampling the delicious food they're cooking up. It's fair to say I quite enjoyed it.
On the subject of food... this little gem would have been more suited to the Hanoi to Saigon post but I forgot about it, and I want to include it here somewhere so I remember it in future (although it is hard to forget). At the various stops along the way during our epic ride, the most common food you encounter is pho, which is a noodle soup with either chicken (ga) or beef (bo). However, on one terrifying stop we were served the most disgusting looking boiled eggs you have ever seen. They appeared to be covered in veins and looked malformed and misshapen. It was something I imagine an alien egg to look like if it were boiled up and served on a plate. Needless to say, we didn't eat them. I've looked online since, and I think they were duck embryo eggs. This image certainly looks very similar to what we had in our bowls:
The closest beach to Ho Chi Minh is at Vung Tau, around one hundred and twenty kilometres away. This is the place the city dwellers head to on the weekend to get away from the city and enjoy some sun, sea and sand. I thought it would be rude not to check it out while I was in the area. I must admit, I was quite disappointed, in the beach at least. It was very dirty, I guess due to the huge numbers of people who flock there at the weekend. The best beach I came across in Vietnam by far, was at Hoi An, and I didn't spend any time on it! I do slightly regret that one.
Vung Tau luckily does have more to offer than its beaches. Ontop of Mount Nho, after a gentle seven hundred step climb lies the Christ of Vung Tau - a thirty two metre high statue of Jesus. Just in case you weren't exhausted enough from the hike up the mountain, there are an additional one hundred and thirty three steps inside the statue itself. The climb up these is well worth the effort, however. At the top you can exit onto the outstretched arms of Christ, affording a magnificent view across Vung Tau:
I really enjoyed Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding area, I thought personally it was nicer than Hanoi, but not the nicest place I visited in Vietnam. That one is a really tough decision in fact. It's a choice between Sapa, Hoi An and Da Lat. Each of those places are quiet and peaceful and I'm fast learning I prefer that environment to the busy cities. Having said that, it's far easier to meet people in hostels and go out for drinks and things in the evenings when you're in a vibrant city.
One thing remains constant regardless of where I visit though, the time seems to fly past and before I know it I need to move on to my next stop. From Ho Chi Minh, I ride across the border to a brand new country; Cambodia.