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Published: September 22nd 2013
Vietnam is a bad-ass country that I have a crush on. A rebellious past, courageously standing up to big bullies, yet gentle, kind and damn good looking. We flew into Ho Chi Minh City on July 16 from Hong Kong, and for days "Ho Chi Minh, I'm in love"
kept swimming through my head.
Right off the plane, we got into a cab and were shuttled through the streets, a sea of motorcyclists. In Paris, I detested les motos
- they are smelly, loud and annoying. In HCMC, they somehow seemed much less loud and smelly, and I actually found them charming and a bit hypnotic. It's not really logical - they don't obey traffic signs, and crossing the street can seem pretty daunting at first. But then you just go, keep a steady pace, and they will slow down or go around you. Many motorcyclists wear bright, colourful masks so they don't breath in all the disgusting exhaust. I regret that I didn't buy one to bring home, even though it's not very often the smog is bad enough in Toronto that I would feel justified wearing one on my bike ride to work. In Paris though, like in
Toronto, people who ride motorcycles come across as dicks to me. They could take transit or ride a bicycle, but instead they want to blow exhaust fumes in everyone's face. In HCMC, however, there really isn't an alternative. The city streets aren't very bicycle friendly, there is no mass transit (only buses), and traffic would be horrendous if these people could afford cars. I think the scale of all the motorcyclists is the other thing - in Paris or Toronto, it's just a few here and there, and you can hear them coming from far away. In Vietnam, it's hordes and hordes of all different types of people - including women in skirts and high heels on their way to work. We saw whole families piled onto a little motorbike zipping through the streets. It's part of the cultural landscape.
There's something about Vietnam that seemed to me...authentic. That irresistible thing so many travelers seek, but in reality is impossible to find. Authenticity in a fake, flaky world, where everything is a copy of a copy, an imitation of an imitation, and consumerism reigns supreme. Perhaps poverty, the deprivation of crap that nobody really needs anyway, is the closest
you can ever really get to authenticity.
We quickly discovering amazing Vietnamese coffee. Very strong coffee is dripped over sweetened condensed milk, and it's incredible. Yet we saw on tv that young people in Vietnam today are apparently shunning traditional Vietnamese coffee in favour of Starbucks. There is a new generation who never experienced the war; they didn't fight themselves and lose so much, so maybe they don't appreciate what it was all supposed to be about. They seem to want consumer goods more than anything so welcome capitalism and brand name coffee. It's really bizarre to see people sport American flags in Vietnam. Do they not understand America tried to destroy their country and their people? Literally, with bombs, agent orange, etc. It's really sick. Ho Chi Minh on Revolution
(along with the Autobiography of Malcolm X
) was one of the first books I remember reading that really raised my political consciousness. So having known a bit about Vietnamese history, it was a place I always wanted to go to, just to see for myself what it was really like (just like Cuba and China - they are fascinating places because they are so different.) Yes, most
people are poor, but they also seemed to me proud and gentle - and also really good looking. We didn't see anyone starving or sleeping in the streets like you do in "rich" countries.
Cu Chi Tunnels was a major reason I decided to do HCMC and South Vietnam rather than Hanoi and Halong Bay in the north. Cu Chi Tunnels for me was like a pilgrimage. Also, to the north at that time of year, I read it rains more, and the best beaches are closer to the south; besides, I liked the idea of travelling to Ho Chi Minh's namesake city.
Cu Chi represents to me the ultimate in resistance against oppression. It pushes the envelope of the possible in terms of human ingenuity, endurance, courage. Not for a second do i think i could ever handle what these people lived through. The tunnels have been expanded to accommodate tourists, but they are still claustrophobic. I went about 100 meters and I'd had enough. Revolutionary fighters lived down in this enormous network of underground tunnels for months on end, in much more enclosed spaces. They found a way to cook underground while covering up the smoke
that rose above ground, so as not to be detected by American troops. They wore their sandals backwards so troops tracking footprints would go the wrong way. And they developed a whole system of booby traps to maim and kill Americans before they maimed and killed first. Cu Chi Tunnels is a significant example of why Vietnam won the war against one of the most powerful militaries. During the anti-war protests at the beginning of the Iraq War, it always drove me crazy to hear peace activists say protests stopped the war in Vietnam, and hence protests could stop the war in Iraq. Anyone who acknowledges history should realize what an absurd falsity that is. The U.S. Army was defeated by the Vietnamese people - a people who paid very dearly for their country's independence, as the War Remnants Museum will not let you forget.
At the end of the Cu Chi Tunnels tour they make you watch an old black and white propaganda video. Our tour guide was apologetic about it, like "I'm sorry, but you have to watch this film now." I thought it was a pretty awesome film. Even though the power of the tv kept
going out, and some assholes were snickering behind us, I was mesmerized. Especially when they highlight the women fighters, these beautiful, small Vietnamese women sporting big ass guns and killing American soldiers - and then being awarded and honoured as "American Killer Heroes."
This did not go over well with some of the tourists, but what did they expect? While some just laughed - ha, ha, goofy propaganda - there was no laughing at the War Remnants Museum. Just try cracking a joke after seeing images of children deformed by agent orange. Or any of the other photographs detailing the horrors of war. There is a nice part on the ground floor of the Museum where they pay homage to all the anti-war protests that happened all over the world. Those protests were important in terms of raising awareness - but they didn't end the war.
Another museum we went to was the Ho Chi Minh Museum, where there were a bunch of school children who were very excited to see white people and practice a little English on us. "Hello!! Hello!" So cute! They call him Uncle Ho, and there are propaganda images of him all over
the city - often with children. Gentle Uncle Ho. These kind images of him were in stark contrast to all the mean looking monarch iconography we found in Bangkok. But maybe that's my ideology speaking...I happen to think monarchy is stupid so I'm obviously not going to like a monarch, or a people who pretend to love him. I should have known better than to think I'd like Bangkok, and wish I would have spent more time in Vietnam instead.
We also visited the HCMC Fine Art Museum and saw some really good propaganda art, which I love. I like political art because I like art that actually means something. Art that just looks pretty is ok I guess. I also got my propaganda poster art fill by visiting two stores in one called Saigon Kitsch
, 43 Ton That Thiep. I bought a book of Vietnamese propaganda poster art. Then there was the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, aka Revolutionary Museum, which they started to close well before the 5:00pm closing time so we didn't get to see everything and didn't have time to go back.
Going to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater
was another highlight - absolutely not to
be missed. It doesn't matter if you can't understand what's happening, just enjoy the sounds and sights.
And of course the food was pretty awesome, and there's lots of cheap, good beer. The beer is almost always cheaper than water. Here are some of the good restaurants we ate at:
-Nam Giao, 136/5 Le Thanh Ton. Down an alley, this open concept restaurant didn't seem to have any doors. So of course we saw a big rat run through the restaurant after we finished our meal. But it was a good meal, the restaurant was recommended by our travel guide, and we didn't get sick so who cares, right? As long as the rat didn't touch me or brush up against my leg, urgh.
-Quan Ngon 138 Restaurant
, 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia - a very big place with a big menu. Really cool ambiance.
-Bien Nho Riverside Seafood, 5 Nguyen Tat Thanh - we killed time here after the Ho Chi Minh Museum kicked us out because they close between 12-1:30. We had to go back because we hadn't seen everything yet.
-Nha Hang Blue Ginger, 37 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia - musical entertainment was nice.
Since we stayed in HCMC for two small chunks between visiting Nha Trang and Mui Ne, we stayed at two different hotels: Hoang Hai Long
and Little Saigon Boutique Hotel
. Hoang Hai Long was better, but both were in good locations - Little Saigon a bit hard to find being down a narrow alley.
The Hoang Hai Long hotel seemed really nice and clean, and had an awesome breakfast buffet. It was great considering we only paid around $40 a night. We had an interior room with no windows, which meant we didn't hear any of the outside traffic. One night at 5am, I woke up to the sound of a rat scurrying around. I was horrified because it sounded like it was in our room, it sounded huge, and it was completely dark. I woke up my spouse and we turned on the light. Thank goodness it wasn't in our room, but was above us, in the ceiling or the air vents. We banged on the walls and turned the fan on in the washroom and it got scared away. Super creepy. Another night we took the stairs down to the lobby, and heard horrible noises coming from the basement. It sounded like
a cat getting skinned alive. We paused at the ground floor and looked at each other all freaked out, and the hotel attendant noticed, smiled, and closed the stairwell door behind us so no one else in the lobby would hear someone was making cat for dinner downstairs.
Most of the sites in HCMC are centrally located within Districts 1 and 3, and this area is pretty walkable. You have to watch out for the taxis and everyone else offering you rides on their motorcycles or rickshaws, as they will rip you off. We just walked everywhere, with the exception of getting to our hotel from the airport and getting to the train station and airport to leave. We asked our hotel to arrange the taxis in hopes that by paying a little extra up front we would avoid getting massively ripped off and our time wasted getting drove around randomly - as if we're too stupid to look at a map to figure out the driver is taking us in circles. But the language barriar was another issue that was avoided by arranging the taxi with English speaking hotel staff. When we took a taxi from Little Saigon
Hotel to the airport, we paid the hotel up front, I think it was 190,000 dong. They warned us not to give the driver any extra money, that if the driver asked for more money to send him back to the hotel as we had already paid for it. And of course, tipping isn't really customary in Vietnam, but they are starting to get used to Americans tipping all the time, which is actually bad because it throws off the economic balance that currently exists. If tourists don't stop tipping, Vietnam will risk becoming like Cuba, where people who work in the tourism industry make better money than doctors. Ridiculous. Anyway, we get dropped off at the airport and I notice the meter only read 110,000 dong, so I'm feeling ripped off anyway. The driver says "Tip for me?" We offered him 7000 dong, which was all the money we had left, and he made a very offended face and refused to accept it. Fine - we kept the money as a souvenir instead, and as instructed I told him to get his tip from the hotel.
It can be a little annoying just how aggressive the rickshaw drivers
Ho Chi Minh Portrait, HCM Museum
Does this look like an evil dictator to you? Funny how ideology can make us see completely different things. I don't like to be dogmatic, but come on. Ho Chi Minh was a great leader during a very difficult time. And he seemed to genuinely love his people and country.
can be. Sometimes it can come across that they're just trying to be nice and helpful - "Where are you going?" they ask. "Where are you from?" When we were walking near Ben Thanh market it was particularly bad, especially since I stopped to take some pictures. We got into a conversation with a rickshaw driver, and he was trying really hard to get us on his rickshaw. "Just come sit, I won't charge you." Yeah right. There was a military guy who had earlier helped us cross the street, and was now eying up the rickshaw driver as if to say "leave the tourists alone." And as we walked away, he didn't follow us, probably because he would have got in trouble. So while we saw a lot of military and/or police officers sleeping in the streets, it seemed nice that they sometimes at least served a useful purpose. Unlike in Bangkok, where they just carry around big guns and look menacing.
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