Our last stop in Vietnam… Save the best for last?

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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City
August 27th 2013
Published: February 13th 2014
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So there it was… Our adventure with Vietnam was slowly coming to an end. And what better place to finish it than Saigon! Or Ho Chi Minh City! Or both! Since both names are commonly used still… Despite the short distance between Mui Ne and Saigon it still took us a good few hours to get there. We hoped to get there before sunset but taking into account the speed we were driving at and the road conditions, we knew our hopes were a bit too high. Ah well… Sure there would be plenty of guesthouses around and after all we would still arrive in the early evening, not the middle of the night so there was nothing to be worried about… We were dropped off just next to the main backpacker street, but decided not to look for guesthouses there, instead we found a nice cosy guesthouse at one of the narrow side streets. With our bellies growling, we left our backpacks and went searching for a nice place to eat. What a different place it was to the two previous ones we’ve been to! Noisy, chaotic, full of people… As much as I enjoyed peace and quiet the last few days I have to say that I did miss this craziness a bit as well. There were plenty of restaurants and food stalls on the main street so just picked a random place, ordered our food and just sat there observing busy Saigon. I’m not sure whether it exists in English, but in Polish whenever something is chaotic and in general all over the place we say: What a Saigon! I never gave it a thought as it was just somehow introduced and stayed in my Polish vocabulary, but being in this city now the saying certainly got a totally different meaning to me. Definitely more positive meaning – as despite the chaos, everything just seems to be working so well here as if creating… a perfect chaos! 😊 Restaurants setting their tables almost in the middle of the streets, bikes and scooters zigzagging right through them, people walking around selling all sorts of goodies, relaxing or simply getting on with their daily routines… I could sit for hours observing the world going by around me…

We booked a trip to Cu Chi tunnels through our guesthouse for the next day and in the morning were picked up by a very quiet rep who led us to the travel agency. We were wondering whether he was going to be our guide for the day as since he didn’t speak a word to us and barely even looked in our direction, we probably wouldn’t be getting much information? Haha! Once a few more people showed up, our proper guide appeared as well. His name was Jackie – not sure if it was his real name or whether he changed it not only to look like Jackie Chan but to share his name as well? Anyway even he was joking about it… We hopped on the bus and were off. Jackie was talking the whole way, giving us brief history lessons and sharing his experiences from the Vietnam War as he was actively participating in it, fighting for the South at the time. On the way to Cu Chi tunnels we stopped at a factory/shop where we could see the art of making decorative plates, vases, pots and all sorts of things like that and of course had a chance to purchase them as well. We were approached a couple of times by a few salesmen trying to convince us to buy some of their products. As beautiful as some of them were and as much as I could see some of these items at my home… well… they were a bit pricey, on top of that there was no way I would be caring any of this heavy stuff in my backpack (even if I had any space it was just way too heavy!) and as for shipping it home straight away (as they had all options available, no surprise here I guess), well… I would need to have a place I could call home first. 😉

As we arrived at Cu Chi tunnels, first we were faced with some heavy post-war propaganda watching a Vietnamese victory movie. We had a chance to see a few of the war heroes, great comrades who made their country proud… Cu Chi tunnels were used in the late 60s by Viet Cong to transport communications and supplies, conduct surprise attacks and above all to shelter their troops. US forces made several attempts trying to find and destroy Viet Cong troops in the area by sending specially trained soldiers, ‘tunnel rats’, to navigate the tunnels, detect booby traps and scout for enemy forces as well as by bombing the area and destroying the jungle with powerful herbicides. Viet Cong troops managed to hold the area and eventually used it as a base to conduct their attacks on Saigon. A part of the tunnels is open now to tourists and everyone has a chance to walk through them – as narrow and claustrophobic they seem now, they actually have been made wider and taller to accommodate the tourists. We had a chance to go through two different tunnels. Everyone from our group went through the second tunnel, but not all of us were brave enough to go through the first one. Including myself actually! The entrance to the tunnel was very well hidden in between the leaves and once we opened the door leading to it, I simply couldn’t believe anyone would be able to fit there. Jackie, our guide, chose the biggest guy from the group and asked him to go first – he said if he would fit, everybody else would fit also. He did fit in the end, but it looked like it was only the beginning… Now Jackie said that he would need some kind of light as there was total darkness inside, crawl slowly through it and make sure to take the correct turn as otherwise the next one was 2kms away… That didn’t sound too encouraging for sure! Still a few people joined while the rest of us were impatiently waiting for them to come out a few metres away from us. It took a while but eventually, one by one all of them got out safely. Pheeew! I managed to get inside the hole only, but that would be about it for me… The idea of crawling through the total darkness, with tones of ground on top of me, was just petrifying… I could see already everything collapsing the moment I started crawling right through it… I know it did survive all these years, many people used it during the war and there are still many tourists walking right through it nowadays, still I just couldn’t conquer my fear of tight spaces right there and then… The second tunnel was much wider with lights set here and there, so everybody decided to give it a go, to at least get the taste of what it was like for all these people living and hiding here during the Vietnam War. With this tunnel being expanded for the tourists, it really was only a taste… It’s really incredible what people can do and go through in order to survive... Many people did die in the tunnels, not only because of fighting, but because of all sorts of diseases and illnesses as well – with malaria taking a big death toll in these humid conditions, as well as lack of food or even getting bitten by many poisonous creatures which made their way into the tunnels. But then many did survive all these years living underground and lived to tell their stories…

Once everybody got out from the tunnels, we continued with our tour. We had a chance to see all sorts of booby traps and bombs on display that were used in the area. And then we headed to the shooting range. The sounds of guns being fired were present all around… I have to say it really made me shiver and jump a couple of times… It just felt so wrong to me… This place should never again be exposed to these sounds… I was also surprised how cheap it was to shoot these guns! With prices ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 per shot, it sure seemed like a bargain… Even if it was for free I wouldn’t take this ‘pleasure’ though… I don’t feel the need to taste how powerful these things are, they already look more than powerful just sitting there on displays… Guns are definitely not my thing… One of many man’s inventions that should never have happened!

That was the end of our tour at Cu Chi and soon after we headed back to Saigon. A few people got off at the War Remnants Museum, but we thought we would just leave it for another day – enough war history for one day. Instead we just walked around the streets of Saigon, found a nice restaurant with some perfect seats overlooking one of the main streets and just sat there observing... In the late afternoon we went… to the cinema! It’s been a while since we’ve seen anything on the big screen, so why not right? After the movie we went back to our area, treated ourselves to some lovely donner kebabs – what can I say… we just felt like eating something different that day as well… And later on we just sat on the side on the mini chars, sipping beer and watching the people around us… There were quite a few mobile fish stalls circling around which caught our attention – it looked like dried fish, which was later on cut into pieces and then deep fried… Hmmm… Looked interesting and Grant was really eager to taste it, we were quite full after the kebabs though, so decided to try it another evening… Seriously you could find something interesting to eat everywhere! There were quite a few other bikes circling around as well, sounding their bells once in a while… We were wondering what that was all about, but figured it out soon enough when one of the bikers spinning right next to us, sounded the bell and whispered ‘hash, sir?’… Hmmm… no thank you… maybe next time as well… or maybe not! 😉

The following day we decided to visit the War Remnants Museum. As we were walking towards the museum, we passed by one of the markets. Even though we weren’t planning to buy anything, we thought we might check it out at least. I regretted it straight away as we were bombarded from each side with vendors shoving their products in our faces. I wasn’t ready for this that day at all! So at one point I said out loudly ‘Oh, my God!’ only to be echoed by a few vendors around me imitating my ‘oh my God’ as well… I felt totally embarrassed… That was totally unnecessary and I shouldn’t have said that… After all it was their job, they were just trying to sell their products… Ah well… Learning valuable lessons on each step! With a changed attitude, we walked around the stalls for a while, treated ourselves to some fresh lemonade and as we were about to leave, I even decided to ask one of the ladies how much one of the T-shirts was. Well… Big mistake… As it kind of ruined it all again… Not my fault this time though… 😉 The vendor said ‘For you miss, special price!’ and started punching in the numbers on her calculator. First it looked very decent actually, but then there seemed to be too many zeros there. ‘Was it 35,000 or 350,000?’ I asked. It was the latter, which turned out to be a very special price indeed. I said no thank you then. I saw the same T-shirt at one of the backpacker streets with a price written on it – it was 40,000! Quite a difference then… Ah well… I wondered if anyone actually fell for these kind of prices… No shopping for us in the end, just as planned actually! 😊

War Remnants Museum is definitely an important stop on a visit to Saigon. Apart from a huge display of weapons and artillery, it has also a very impressive collection of photographs made by war correspondents who didn’t make it through the war… Very wide range of photos – from the war scenes which made the first pages in the papers at the time to brutal scenes of torture... On one of the other floors of the museum there is another heart-breaking collection which shows pictures of deformed men, women and children, the victims of Agent Orange… Even though the exhibits might seem a bit propagandist, after all they do show how brutal the war can be, how cruel people can be to each other and that it’s usually the civilians, who suffer the most… Really powerful experience…

After the visit to the museum we didn’t really feel like doing anything, so just had a quiet afternoon relaxing at our guesthouse. As we were about to leave to have dinner, I got a text from my sister wishing us a good time in Cambodia and saying they just arrived in Saigon… Whaaaat??? How did that happen? Weren’t they supposed to be in Malaysia? Straight away I sent her a text asking to meet on the main backpacker street somewhere but I had a strange feeling that probably she didn’t check her phone that often and wouldn’t get my text that day... There was not much I could do at that moment and we still had to eat something so just headed to the main backpacker street, took some front seats at one of the restaurants and just sat there enjoying our food… Or trying to enjoy it actually as I was very carefully observing every person walking by, thinking my sister might be one of them. It was seriously tiring and I couldn’t relax at all… In the end I just gave up and thought if we’re supposed meet, we will, if not, well… we could’ve arranged it a bit better… So later on we just walked around the streets for a while and were ready to call it a night when suddenly… I saw my sister in one of the shops! Well, she certainly didn’t get my text yet as was really surprised to see me! Who would’ve thought? We could barely find the time to meet up when both of us were living in Dublin and yet we just met randomly on the streets of Saigon! We grabbed a few mini chairs, ordered some beers and just on the side of the street exchanging stories and travelling experiences. And in general catching up on life… What a lovely evening that was! Not to mention that I had a chance to introduce Grant to my sister which somehow made this whole ‘dating’ and our relationship a little bit more real??? Not that I needed approval, I can certainly make my own choices, still it was nice introducing Grant to my family, now he simply became a part of it… 😊 Since we were all staying another night in Saigon, we decided to meet up the following evening once again. What a bizarre encounter! I definitely wasn’t expecting any of that to happen… Yet, so happy it did!

Our stay in the south of Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Mekong Delta. Unfortunately we had enough time only to do a day trip as our visa was due to expire very shortly. Still, at least we would get a taste of what it was like and since we have been enjoying Vietnam, it definitely wasn’t our last visit in this incredible country, so next time we could spend more time around this region then. Taking into account 3 hours bus ride from Saigon to Mekong Delta and 3 hours back, we wouldn’t really be spending much time there at all, but better that than no time at all right? We had quite a busy itinerary – starting with a long boat ride through the floating market, then a visit to a honey farm, then a pop-rice and coconut candy workshop, lunch at a jack-fruit farm with a traditional show and finally another boat ride, this time on a small canoe, through the canals on the Mekong Delta. Even though the schedule was quite tight, we still enjoyed every part of it. It was really nice to find ourselves cruising on the Mekong again – after all our adventure on the Mekong started already in Thailand when we took a slow boat to Luang Prabang, followed by a very memorable and enjoyable aerobics class by the Mekong in Vientiane and now we were seeing this mighty river once again… Mekong Delta definitely deserves more time than one afternoon and once we saw our group splitting and some of the people leaving us and heading to their homestay location, we felt a bit sad that our adventure here was already finished. Ah well… Next time…

Our last evening in Saigon, and Vietnam for that matter as well, we spent with my sister and her boyfriend, sharing a lovely meal, a couple of beers, laughs and stories. At this point our paths would go different ways, they were only starting their adventure with Vietnam and we were crossing over to another incredible country, Cambodia, really eager to find out what it had to offer… It was really nice and very bizarre at the same time to catch up with my sister – I still couldn’t believe that we just bumped into each other the previous day on the streets of Saigon… But that was it… It was time to say goodbyes… Our time in Vietnam came to an end… This country proved to be absolutely amazing, so many different sides to it – from wonderful rice paddies in Sapa, incredible limestone karsts in Halong Bay and Ninh Binh, beautiful beaches and finally to buzzling, full of history cities… Having read about so many scams before we came to this country, I was really sceptical of what we would find here to be honest… But we absolutely loved everything about it! Not to mention that we found Vietnamese people to be very open and friendly as well… Definitely I would like to come back here one day and explore some other parts as there is still a lot to see… For now it was time to move on though … Next stop: Phnom Penh!

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