I was up early in the morning and ready to hop on my bus to Saigon at 8am. The city is officially called Ho Chi Minh City now but it’s sort of funny how all the locals still refer to it as Saigon. The new name has not been adopted by anyone but foreigners. I paid 10 USD for the 6 hour bus which is the most efficient and comfortable way to cross over into Vietnam from Phnom Penh. Our bus stopped at a ferry station about one hour into our trip and I was startled when a sea of hands started tapping my window. I looked down and noticed thirty or so street vendors frantically trying to get our attention and tourist dollars. There was another tourist bus directly across from us and I laughed as I saw a few older ladies napping. They were soon screaming as hands filled with hotdogs and bagged watermelon thumped at their window.
After a short cruise across the river we zoomed back on the road and arrived at the Vietnamese border. Everyone on the bus got off and spent the next 40 minutes eating at a roadside restaurant while our driver dealt with all of the Visa stamping. I was amazed at how efficiently the day went. Once finished lunch we were driven to the immigration office where we showed our stamped passports and breezed right through the building in seconds. In just a few hours we found ourselves being dropped off right in the heart of the backpacker friendly neighbourhood of Saigon.
I arrived rather exhausted and hadn’t booked any accommodation beforehand. I was attacked by local ladies who tried to sell me expensive hotel rooms. I just simply shouted, “cheap cheap cheap,” and soon found myself directed to the city’s most affordable accommodation option. The building was run by a family who operate an internet cafe on the main floor and three levels of dorm rooms above. The going rate for a dorm bed was 3 USD a night. I was too tired to really think straight so lugged my things up a tiny flight of stairs and found an empty bed in front of the balcony which overlooked the busy street bellow.
I was starving as it was now dinner time so ran out into the street. Low and behold I ran right into a group of Korean teachers who I had met several times in Seoul. We found a restaurant together and spent the next hour or so chatting about our travels. I ordered a Saigon and Larue Beer (I wanted to try both of the local brews all at once) and munched on pork fried spring rolls and stir fried pork with fresh soft rice noodles.
I spent the early evening walking up and down the glowing shop filled streets. Most of the shops sold classic tourist products such as Communist T-shirts and hats, local handicrafts, pirated DVDs and the more shocking Vietnamese whisky bottles filled with cobra snakes and scorpions (supposedly this cures impotence, among other things). People also bring goods from their shops into the streets. Vietnam is notorious for piracy and I found it rather odd when I first saw a lady holding a huge tower of books over her head. She placed the tower on the table and asked me if I wanted to buy any books. You can buy any of the Lonely Planet travel guides for a fraction of the retail price. They painstakingly photocopy every page of the books and then have them bound and published to look exactly like the real thing.
Saigon is the most notorious city in Asia for traffic. Approximately 95% of the traffic in Vietnam consists of mopeds or motorcycles. Watching a car drive by actually makes you turn your head and go, “Wow I haven’t seen a four wheeled vehicle in a while.” Truth be told, crossing the street anywhere in Vietnam is a frightening first experience. The traffic never stops. You actually have to walk right into a busy intersection and walk straight without stopping. The thousands of motorcyclists that zoom and zip by are very good at slowing down for pedestrians as they cross a rather rambunctious river of traffic. Once you get the hang of it, crossing the street transforms from a high anxiety necessity of each day to one filled with excitement and confidence.
I went back to my hotel to grab a shower just as the city streets were filing with an evening glow. I arrived in my room on the 4th floor and just as I grabbed my towel the lights in the room went off. I fumbled around in the pitch black and finally found the balcony where I looked out onto the street. The entire block was blacked out. Later I found out that it is normal for the government to just switch off the electricity when they feel enough has been used for the day. I certainly couldn’t shower in the pitch black so I walked back down the stairs and followed the candle light out onto the street. I ran into two guys (from Paris and Porto) who were just about to walk around the old part of the city. They invited me to join and we spent the next hour or so getting lost amongst many of Saigon’s dead end streets. I realized about an hour into our walk that I was on the verge of sleepwalking. After an exhausting day I realized I had to get back to my bed. The guys pointed me in the right direction but I obviously found myself lost for the next hour.
It was in this sixty minute period of total dumbfounded lost-ness that I would encounter the cities most notorious locals. I was a single male tourist wandering around dimly lit parks and vacant streets. It is almost as if I had a target on me which read “In need of prostitute.” It works like this: you walk along the street and a moped drives right up next to you, slows, a lady boy grabs your arm and pulls you onto the street. They scream, “Boom boom penang,” and giggle and continue to follow you for the next few minutes until you bark or scream at them to go away. Most of the trans prostitutes (who are fierce ladies that you do not want to mess with) ride on the back of the motorcycle while a man or other lady boy takes the wheel. I also experienced a few solo drivers who were more adamant at getting business. They would actually drive right off the road and onto the sidewalk. Stop their moped right in front of me and taunt me.
I woke up in the morning and had to go to the washroom. I looked around my dorm room and realized that the bathroom was open concept. Mortified, I took a 360 survey of my surroundings and couldn’t believe that I had voluntarily stayed in such a place. Had my standards plummeted? It was 6am and without even thinking I grabbed my bags, walked down the stairs, dropped 3 dollars on the table and left without a word. It’s amazing the hotels you will stay when you are tired and too exhausted to barter or walk around town to do price comparisons. I walked right into Yellow Guesthouse which was the first place suggested in my Lonely Planet. I quickly used the bathroom then walked right up the stairs to my room. I opened the door and found a beautifully clean, cool room with a bed ready for me to fall into. Later in the morning when I woke up I told everyone in my room about the place I had stayed the previous night. Yellow Guesthouse dorms sell for 7USD a night and I was happy to splurge on the four dollar difference for a bit of luxury.
I started my day properly by walking to the Saigon’s most famous pho restaurant. I gobbled down a delicious bowl of beef soup with a dab or two of hoisin sauce and a squeeze of lime. After a delicious breakfast I walked across a busy intersection (and survived) and reached the Ben Thanh Market (the city’s largest). Vendors grabbed me, pulled my fingers, smacked my head and shouted at me to try on their clothing. The place was packed full so I wrapped my day bag around my chest in order to prevent any dubious pick pockets. I then walked past the Opera House, Grand Hotel, Notre Dame Cathedral and through Cong Vien Van Hoa Park which surrounds the cities famous Reunification Palace. The Palace was built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam’s presidential palace. This is where the communist tank crashed the gate on 30 April 1975, the day Saigon surrendered. The building is really not much to look at but sitting on a park bench and staring at the large gate and communist flag fluttering in the sky above. One appreciates the significance of the spot you are in.
My friends had suggested that I head to Press Cafe a famous eatery where elite locals come to see and be seen. In the middle of the morning Press Cafe plays blaring electronic music. Well dressed locals sip on tea and watch the city pass by during the hottest time of day. I found the whole concept of enjoying the morning in a nightclub atmosphere rather alluring. I ordered an iced cold green tea, espresso, yoghurt and strawberry parfait on ice and a plate of fried pork with egg on rice.
After a delightful lunch I walked to the city’s most popular tourist attraction, The War Remnants Museum. The museum documents the atrocities of war and is the kind of place where even the museum-adverse will appreciate; but it’s not for the faint of heart. The museum displays the relics of war and a heartbreaking array of photographs of the victims of war. When you first walk into the museum you arrive in a courtyard where several American tanks, and fighter planes can be seen. The museum is popular with tourists as it gives us Western folk a glimpse into the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese, who in fact refer to it as the American War.
I walked around the museum with a couple from Australia and we mentioned several times how difficult it must be for American tourists to walk through a museum such as this. To see what their government and army did to innocent poor farm families. I was mortified by a section on dioxin deformities. The wall was covered in pictures of children and adults who had the most gruesome deformities from being exposed to the dioxin chemical which the Americans used during the war. I have seen several of these deformed people begging on the street and it was shocking to learn about why so many Vietnamese people today suffer from these ailments. Most disturbing is the fact that these deformities are now embedded into their DNA and are being passed down from generation to generation. A war that never seems to be forgotten. I then walked into the Historic Truths room where I read a selection of quotes about the war. Such as, “Only the American imperialists are the losers. All the people of Vietnam are the winners.” And, “The peoples of the world note with repugnance the U.S. Government’s violation of all principles of international law. They demand that an end be put to all these barbarous acts. Such an aggression is threatening South-East Asia as a people, and peace all over the world.” The museum thankfully ends on a positive note. The last room is full of art created by local children, many of which feature doves, hearts and a string of children from all over the world holding hands. Peace is possible.
In the morning I hopped on a tour bus and spent the next hour staring out the window as we slowly drove out of the city. I noticed a few things when driving out of the city. Saigon loves posters. The most common posters are of Ho Chi Minh (you can’t walk ten minutes without spotting one), Communist posters promoting Socialism which usually feature women holding babies and men in military uniform holding guns and AIDS/HIV awareness billboards.
Our first stop was a Handicapped Handicraft workshop where I saw hundreds of disfigured artists (all victims of war) creating beautiful works of art. The Vietnamese are famous for their eggshell arts. They crack eggshells into various tiny pieces and then meticulously place them on painted boards to create a mosaic image. We then hopped back on our bus and an hour later arrived at The Cu Chi Tunnels.
The ground around the tunnel network is marked by shallow craters made by American bombs in a futile attempt to dislodge the Viet Cong from the tunnel network here. This subterranean web of hospitals, kitchens, and armouries once stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border. In the district of Cu Chi alone, there were more than 200 km of tunnels.
The group is seated in a small hut where a tiny television plays a very informative (and eye opening) documentary about the Cu Chi Tunnels and the locals who lived here. When talking to tourists in Vietnam, the Cu Chi Tunnel video always has people laughing. Many westerners in the crowd bite their tongue. I had my notepad open and was writing down as many of the ridiculous quotes as I could. “The innocent locals were blasted by merciless American bombs like a crazy batch of devils they fired into women, children, ducks, pots, pans, schools and even statues of Buddha.” An award was given to a local girl whose family had all been killed by the American enemy. Set on revenge she killed over 100 American enemies and was given an award entitled, American Killer Hero. To say the least, the documentary was full of Communist propaganda. Once again I thought to myself, “what on earth must American tourists think of all of this!?”
We spent the next thirty minutes with our tour guide who showed us a map of the area and explained how the tunnel system worked. It was made for the small frame of Vietnamese people so it was almost impossible for large American soldiers to enter. The guide also showed us several of the famous booby traps which were used by the Viet Cong. He also explained that the people in Cu Chi were not Vietnamese soldiers. They were simply poor, patriotic farmers who were trying to protect their families. “With a rifle in one hand and a plow in the other,” these people were awake night and day as they had to work the fields at night in order to prevent themselves from starving.
The tour defiantly had its dubious moments and will defiantly be the most ridiculous tour I have ever taken. My tour guide called John McCain a soft ass several times throughout the day (but seemed to warm up to President Obama). He also commented that Mr. McCain used to be handsome but not anymore. When describing how people oriented themselves within the tunnel he mentioned that Americans are fat, big and weak asses (once again I had to bite my tongue in order to prevent myself from laughing). He then started a very patriotic speech about why the Vietnamese won the war, we were many small groups fighting one big group. He also explained that the Vietnamese AK47 rifle was a perfect gun to use in this part of the world as it was made of wood and could float above water.
Today the Vietnamese army still controls the tunnels so you have to be conscious of their presence. We walked around the forest and saw a huge crater created by an American B52 bomber. I was sort of irritated when our guide pointed to an American tank which he encouraged tourists to jump on and take pictures with. Not the most respectful gesture, but I’m getting used to this sort of thing in Vietnam. As we continued along the path we could all hear the loud boom of gun shots in the distance. We arrived at the shooting range which was by far the most ridiculous part of the tour. Tourists can pay to shoot M16, M60, AK47, M30, M1, COL45, K54 and K59 rifles. You can shoot twenty bullets from an AK 47 for the cheap and cheerful price of 20 dollars!
The sound of hundreds of bullets going off was an attack to my ear drums. Many tourists who didn’t really get a kick out of shooting up shit walked as far away as possible from the range as possible, to the gift shop. I couldn’t help but recall my high school history class when we were taught about men at war who went a bit crazy from the repetitive noise of gun shots.
Our last stop on the tour was a walk through the tunnels. Many tourists started to panic as we formed a line and prepared to walk through the tiny tunnels under the ground. I waited with my friend to walk through last so we could stop and panic if we felt like it (without having to worry about 100 people behind us who were screaming for us to move forward). I crouched and crawled through the tunnels for about five minutes and once I saw the first exit I took it. It was dirty, claustrophobic and dark as night down there. I give the Vietnamese credit for creating such an amazing network, but more so, for actually being able to live in such conditions for the many years that they were at war.
As our group walked back to our bus I couldn’t help but laugh as our tour guide shouted, “this is your last chance for toilet. We have local squat toilets or you can use western toilets. Locals call these toilets Lazy Toilets because you are all soft asses.” Classic.