Blog // Tales from the trail
We had arrived in Vietnam and seemingly into a city of two names: Ho Chi Min City.... or is it Saigon? It was an intriguing observation after a few days in the city that sometimes when we mentioned HCMC in a conversation with a local, we were often quickly and politely corrected, "Saigon". T-shirts, postcards, hotel names, coffee shops - Saigon is still very present. It was clear that the wars of the 60s and 70s were not far from peoples' minds, although apparently this is a subject that is rarely, if ever, discussed; especially not in public.
The border crossing from Cambodia was very smooth, some of that accounted for by the fact we already had visas in hand, the rest of the paperwork was efficiently taken care of by the bus company. Very first observations of Vietnam compared to Cambodia (as we whizzed along on our bus): seemingly more developed in the suburban areas (one-room-wide-skinny, tall buildings lining the streets); more (perceived?) organisation; no tuk tuks!; perhaps a greater general affluence; and brands brands brands brands everywhere as we entered the big city itself! Ford, Porsche, BMW, Starbucks, Popeye's Chicken, Gloria Jeans Coffee, Versace...
If I'm honest, and maybe a little naive, it wasn't really what I had expected to see in a communist country. Politics and political ideals in general are not my forte, but the idea of communism confuses and intrigues me. In theory, it sounds alright; all for one and one for all! But why did its spread scare so many? What does it really look like in theory? Would everyone be singing "Everything is Awesome! Everything is cool when you're part of a team!", like in the Lego movie? The presence of the brands, American brands, threw me. And it was quite clear that everyone was not equal.
We were very fortunate to be staying with some friends of friends who live and work in Ho Chi Min City. Grant and Lorna love living in HCMC and their enthusiasm for the city was infectious. As well as providing lots of advice about places to see, how to get around, they very patiently gave us some inordinately valuable language lessons - namely how to order all the delicious food we were eating and how to order a coffee the Vietnamese way, and without sugar! Oh - and they 'let me win' a game of Settlers of Catan and kindly helped us celebrate Keith's birthday with cake and cocktails, in the rooftop bars down back-packer alley.
The city itself is bustling and growing; skyscrapers are going up and an inner city metro is in the process of being built. As well as the infrastructure looking more developed than that in Cambodia (probably not a fair comparison but a relevant one all the same), we noticed progressive development in terms of safety. All motorbike riders must, and do, wear helmets and building sites are much more safety-conscious with ropes, harnesses, safety hats and protective nets around scaffolding to ensure pedestrians don't encounter any nasty surprises whilst walking past. The French influence is still visible, HCMC having its own scaled-down version of the Notre Dam in the middle of the city and all businesses have their full addresses printed on the tops of their signs, a very useful addition after struggling to find places in Phnom Penh, where building numbers were often in duplicate or triplicate down the same street.
We stopped at the Post Office, a beautiful colonial building, having a few items to post. There were several different counters involved in the process of international packages, the first one being the 'what do you want to post, how heavy is it and do you have an appropriate box?' counter. The latter question was a negative. "Go outside and turn left, you will see the box shop." So we followed instructions and at the end of the road was a lady and lots of cardboard - flat-pack boxes, poster tubes, cut-offs - all sizes. Showing her what we needed to post she found a large enough piece of cardboard and with her ruler and screwdriver proceeded to calculate some dimensions and score a net of a box. It was then neatly folded and using an industrial-looking stapling machine, stapled it all together. The whole process tool about 10 minutes and our box was completely made to size, no unnecessary excess room inside. We went back to the counter, this time with an affirmative for the latter question. The man agreed and we were sent to the next counter for further processing and payment.
After learning about Cambodia's history as we travelled around Cambodia, we wanted to do the same for Vietnam, especially as so much of that history overlapped. After visiting the Independence Palace and the War Museum however, we started to get the impression that our history lesson would be a very one-sided affair; the fact that it doesn't implicate the south specifically, but eludes to a general resistance against American imperial oppression and anti-communists is telling. This doesn't take anything away from the horrors that lay within the museum, still a truth of history - even the one-sided views have innocent people who legitimately suffered their share of violence, destruction and loss and sadly still do, with the chemical weapons then used still having an effect on unborn babies, generations on, and hundreds of thousands of mines still active but unfortunately very well-hidden. It was worrying to see an excerpt from a letter written to President Obama by a girl asking for assistance for her and other children like her, born without limbs and other gross disfigurements. It was true that we saw many disfigured and handicapped people while wandering around town and we wondered whether the American Government, or even the Vietnamese Government, takes any responsibility, financial or otherwise, for them today, or whether they are now the responsibility of the NGOs and charitible organisations?
The Independence Palace or Reunification Palance was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. The bunkers underground were quite eerie; they are still set-up with the maps and communications machines that were used up until the north crashed a tank through the palace gates and 'liberated' the south. It was ironic to learnt that the final bombs that were dropped on this all-important hub came from an American plane flown by a member of the North Vietnamese army who had successfully infiltrated the American forces. The very same plane now sits in the grounds of the museum. After these final two bombs were dropped, the locations now mapped out on the roof of the building, the palace was abandoned and the northern tanks rolled in; parking themselves on the front lawn marking the liberation having been completed.
As Grant was, fortunately for us (and him too!), still on school holidays we decided to set off on a moto adventure one day outside of the city, My Tho, the general direction we were headed.
A long day of driving in hot weather ensued but we had a great time meandering through villages and farms, stopping for cold drinks en route grabbing the attention of local kids generally who would sidle up and start showing off in one way or another to gain our attention back. We drove past huge farms of dragon fruit plantations at one point, the trees pleasingly as weird-looking as their fruit. I tried to buy a dragon fruit to snack on from a local seller who had a pile in front of her, however she was very reluctant to part with one. Grant came over and tried in his best Vietnamese to get her to sell me a piece of fruit and after much gesticulating she eventually sighed, shrugged her shoulders and sold me a dragon fruit for 2,000 VND. A fair deal I thought and after handing over the dosh and and turning to leave, she quickly slipped another couple of dragon fruit into the bag. It wasn't clear why, until we drove past a sign: '2,000 VND/kg' - just less than $0.09 for a kilogramme - clearly there was no value in selling me just the one and she obviously felt very guilty 'ripping me off' as well!
As time was getting short, or rather daylight was getting short for the return journey, we opted for the main highway back, which is of course when the skies suddenly darkened, rain broke out and rush hour began in earnest along the entire 70km stretch home, or so it seemed. Swarms and swarms of mopeds from the factories along the road suddenly descended on us, with the maniac trucks bearing down at full speed blaring their horns for us to make way. We thought there were motorbikes in Phnom Penh, but the number in HCMC takes the absolute cake baby!
HCMC is a city that I could imagine settling in for some time. I think that experiencing it from an 'expats' point of view has definitely helped to shape that opinion - you can be part of the hustle and bustle but there is also an escape route to quieter suburbs; there's a lot going on culturally, you can escape the city relatively easily into countryside, you can mostly walk on the pavements, and the food is wonderful. After 6 great days, as is always the case when travelling that when you get comfortable somewhere, it was hard to gather together the motivation to move on. Vietnam is an exceptionally long country and only having a months' visa, we decided on a night bus up to Nha Trang, a coastal town a good 9 hours away, but still only less than a quarter of the way up!
Thanks Lorna and Grant for having us and showing us such a good time!
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