Published: November 9th 2011November 9th 2011
Suburbia sprawled for miles upon miles before reaching the epicentre of Ho Chi Minh. Street signs began with D for Duong or Dai Lo which is the shortened name for boulevard. It became fairly apparent on the journey into the city that we would easily be able to aptly rename streets for our own amusement based on the local shops contents. Usually when you require a particular item back home, lets just say for example; a new lawn-mower. I would expect to find this at the local home-improvement store some where within the gardening section or electrical power tool aisles (that's just a guess because I have never bought a lawn-mower before!). Here we've noticed that if you require a lawn-mower or anything else random such as a hotel safety deposit box, a fancy hand-carved wooden table, a coat stand, giant ornaments or god forbid a coffin, (by the way the coat hangers & coffins were always sold in the same shop - strange!) you would simply pay a visit to Tractor Street, or Coffin Boulevard! You would literally find at least ten stores next door to each other and across the street all bunched together selling exactly the same product!?
We just didn't get this, how could you possibly choose which lawn-mower to purchase when there would be thousands of different ones to choose from or most likely they all just sold the same one! Just a useless observation I thought I'd share.
Fear filled our eyes as we rocked up in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Saigon as it is more commonly known to all apart from Government officials. I agree with the locals and much prefer the name Saigon, my brain hurts already trying to remember all of these Ho town names! Saigon for us conjures up past memories of sitting comfortably at home with our dad's watching old Vietnamese war movies but despite its previous dramatic historical events we were ready to grab the bull by the horns so to speak, jump on and buckle up for a ride round Vietnam's fastest growing metropolis.
We knew as soon as we took our first few baby steps in backpacker central; Phan Nhu Lao, we were going to get along just fine with Saigon. The area around our new pad was absolutely buzzing, literally! If not only from each huge tangled mass of electric cables hanging
precariously off each pylon or the engine noises from each motorbike partaking in their own Wacky Race but just the friendly positive vibe that seemed to radiate from everyone and everything! Locals were chirpy and welcoming which was such a positive sign and a relief that we could drop our guard a few notches and actually enjoy what the city had to offer.
The first thing I noticed as we stepped out of the hostel were the cafe's that lined the streets, all seating facing outwards towards the pavement. It was as if we were fans at a gig with front row seats to the main event. The best people watching opportunities were to be had, which is what I seem to do best! We found a great local joint just a few steps from our hostel which was located right on the busiest corner! The major bonus was they whizzed up the freshest fruit smoothies, fried up the tastiest noodles and flipped the naughtiest double chocolate pancakes umm mmm!
Around town numerous local art shops were filled from floor to ceiling with hundreds of stunningly hand painted canvasses. Each artists would be sat rigid and upright upon
plastic stools perched in front of huge square canvasses carefully creating there next masterpiece while vibrant coloured oil paints roughly smudged on wooden boards balanced steadily on stained knees. I instantly fell in love with far too many, each totally different in style but all could have been a snazzy little addition at home, too bad they were all the size of skips and priced way over my limit!
After grabbing a map and circling what sights we were most interested in visiting we worked out a quick route and split them over the five days we had planned to stick around for. With blue skies overhead and some calories to burn off from lunch we set off pounding the pavements for a browse round Ben Thanh Market. We stepped inside and quickly realised the tin covered roof trapped in heat just like an oven. So rather than a slow mooch we would have a quick nosey and maybe come back another day at sun-down. Filled with handmade fabrics, handicrafts, so called "designer" accessories, dazzling jewellery and a vast assortment of food items - bags of shrimps, tripe and other delicious smelling treats. Walking past foods stalls is always
a major assault on the old sensory beak, they leave your eyes and mouth watering, stomach terrified and gagging if your reflex is as bad as ours. They do love ducks, in a meal. Every street vendor has at least one hanging in their little make-shift food trolley, with the best bits on offer piled up at the bottom. Best bits being organs, head and neck with other unanimous parts scattered about, looking a very unappetising pale grey/brown colour. Safe to say I'm not an adventurous foodie so didn't bother having a nibble myself but we agree with Karl Pilkington's explanation perfectly - What about if you end up addicted to ducks intestines or something equally as strange, you'd be buggered back home as there not really that readily available! And that's a good enough reason for us to not to bother trying!
Traffic in the city was even more bonkers than Hanoi but they at least had pedestrian crossings every so often. The lights would change to red and motorcycles would instantly begin to form en mass into giant 3 lane mechanical monsters - An image of a giant moped transformer emerging form the tarmac would flick through
my imagination. A conservative guess of approximately one hundred two wheelers would wait just beyond the safety of the green man with probably triple the amount of passengers, the obligatory random budgie cage and a king size mattress squeezed in nicely somewhere amongst the chaos! I feel the use of a surgical fase mask to filter out all the toxic fumes would have been of some use.
We took a leisurely gander past a few of the must see sights whilst in the government quarter such as the Central Post Office, the Independence Palace & the red bricked very regal Notre Dame Cathedral - Initially it was slightly surprising when we spotted a number of newly weds having their photographs taken in amongst the various buildings, however the Cathedral was a very impressive and ever so slightly romantic with it's church spires towering high above so I'm sure it made for an interesting photo album. Once we managed to pass the local lady without tripping over each other in shock; her face being conveniently shaded by her conical hat, skirt hitched up round her waist and legs spread squatting for a pee against a tree in what was a
fairly busy park area, we finally made it to the War Remnants Museum. Here is where we would come to realise and learn of some of the atrocities of the Vietnam War albeit a little biased against the US but I guess facts are facts and the pictures on display from those who suffered first hand torture or born with disabilities from the use of defoliants was actually a real eye opener. We spent hours here absorbing as much information as possible and trying to understand just a fraction of the who, what, why's and reasoning behind it but I couldn't work out if there was a plausible explanation for any of it?! We left the museum both feeling sombre and quiet but pleased we had visited all the same.
We relished in doing absolutely nothing for a day or two and spent the afternoons chilling, reading and catching up with family & friends on Skype, which left us feeling really perky and content and ready to hit the Cu Chi Tunnels we'd pre-booked for the next morning. Cu Chi; a district 30km from Saigon and the heart of an incredible network of underground tunnels that stretched from here
to the Cambodian borders, helping to facilitate the Viet Cong during the war. There were two hundred kilometres of claustrophobic and tiny passageways in Cu Chi alone and these were all part of an incredibly complicated and multi-levelled complex. We did jump down into a section of tunnel and only managed to crawl our way through twenty dark, smelly and swelteringly humid meters. During the war the Americans with the Southern Vietnamese tried to gain control of this area but failed miserably. We were shown first hand an array of brutal traps and weapons the Viet Cong used to defend themselves from military strikes. They couldn't afford to waste precious ammunition to fight so instead created the most wicked ways to debilitate troops using various methods some of which included hidden underground trapdoors with dual spiked rollers to initially maim & injure then usually a slow painful death would follow. The Viet Cong would visit the traps regularly to gather the Americans expensive bullets and weapons then finish off the troops if they weren't already deceased. As gruesome at it was, it was also really interesting and our guide turned out to be a total nutty character which made for
a worthwhile and fun day trip.
So, this was our last stop in Vietnam before slinking into long awaited Cambodia. Reflecting back on our three weeks spent in Vietnam winding all the way from the north east in Dien Bien to the southern most capital, it was most certainly an adventure filled with dramatic landscapes, sweeping coastlines, weathered history, charming towns and a lesson on how to survive living in the fast lane amongst a more often than not, welcoming nation - Thank you Vietnam!
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