My second day in Ho Chi Minh was Tuesday and I spent most of it with Jake, the guy I met on the plane. He only had one full day in the city and wanted to do as much of the touristy stuff as possible. We met at the Cho Ben Thanh market which was a middle point for both of us.
The market is on a crazy roundabout in the city centre and it was quite a daunting task trying to cross about four of the roads on no breakfast! You do get used to crossing roads here (I know that sounds really silly because it’s such an everyday thing, but when I first arrived in Bangkok I didn’t think I’d ever be able to cross a road on my own. Even after a year I still don’t really like it.) It’s funny though because I seemed to be pretty confident crossing roads in Ho Chi Minh and that’s even crazier than Bangkok!
A girl came up behind me as I was plotting my route across the last road and she was like excuse me, do you know how to cross this road? I said I was thinking the exact same thing and we should do it together. It was an absolute breeze, it really does look a lot scarier than it is, but as we got to the other side she said, well originally I’m from Iran, so I’m totally used to this… WHY WERE YOU NOT HOLDING MY HAND AND GUIDING ME ACROSS THE ROAD?! I almost demanded… Instead I wished her a nice day and told her it was nice to meet her.
I eventually got to Jake and my journey was ended with a well deserved smoothie and a baguette. Then we were off to the Independence Palace. We were robbed blind on the way there by a friendly chap selling coconuts (we were totally unaware at the time that we were spending about £9 on two fresh coconuts) but we got a damn good picture!
We bought our tickets into the palace and took lots of pictures, the front of it was very grand and there was a huge garden with a water fountain in front of the palace. We wandered around wondering how many important bottoms had been on the chairs in the various chambers and then we went downstairs for a look through the bunker. The bunker was solidly reinforced and the prime minister had a staircase down to it from his first floor office. He and his family took shelter there during bombings and attacks during the war.
There were lots of different rooms and a whole section full of communication devices and desks and telephones. We had a nosey at the living quarters, bedrooms, dining rooms, a games room, a theatre… There was even a ladies chamber, which was where all the wives of the important fellas would be entertained by the prime minister’s wife while the men sat downstairs and discussed the important things… My feminist senses were tingling but this was South east Asia in the 60s and 70s. We had some pictures on the balcony pretending we were royal and important. We were surprised to learn that the palace hasn’t actually been used for meetings or important visits since around 1975.
We wandered back out into the garden and took a few pictures of the military vehicles and then decided it was time to move on to the museum. We got lost on the way and it took us quite a while to find it.
The War Remnants Museum is a MUST SEE in Ho Chi Minh. Now I’m not usually a fan of museums but this one was incredible. Outside the museum they have massive remnants like planes and bombs and military vehicles. The bottom floor is the most upbeat (since I went, I’ve been telling other people to go upstairs first) The bottom floor is dedicated to the end of the war, the support that Vietnam received from other countries and the release of prisoners of war. Then we went upstairs. There were a few floors and although we didn’t get round everything it was totally harrowing. There were so many horrific pictures and stories and it made us realise just how little we actually knew about the Vietnam war.
We learnt about fearless war photographers and war medics and some of the atrocities committed by the American soldiers. One of the last floors we visited was about Agent Orange, the toxic chemicals that were sprayed everywhere to kill people. But those chemicals didn’t just kill people in the war. Generations of Vietnamese and American families have been and are still affected. Brain damage, deformities, diseases, lack of limbs, again, the pictures and stories were just awful. There were some happier photos and stories that we finished on and I was particularly moved by a letter from a young girl to president Obama. The museum was about to close and we felt that we deserved a cocktail by the river. With a quick stop at the Cathedral of Notre Dame (there’s apparently a lot of French influence in this country) we found ourselves a nice little place by the river (if I’m honest it was in the street just before the river.
We were too intimidated by rush hour traffic on a main road to even get to the river) and had ourselves a couple of glasses of bogof prosecco and some complimentary canapes! Jake left me to be reunited with his boy and I decided to have a little wander back to my hostel. I’d been told by my friend Josh (who lives and works in HCMC) that there was a street he called “pretty street” I accidentally stumbled across it and it didn’t disappoint.
There was a pedestrianised section up the middle of the road that was lined with trees and dotted with colour changing fountains. It was indeed incredibly pretty. There was a building at the end of the street and a statue outside, there were lots of people taking photos. I had a selfie or two and spotted a nice looking rooftop restaurant. You know when you’ve already decided that you’re going into a restaurant but you still have a little look at the menu outside? Well there were three men looking at the menu and one asked where I was from. I told him England and he told me he was American and we had some very small small talk. The men went to walk off but just as I decided to walk in, they walked in too which confused the waitress and she asked table for four? They didn’t correct her so I said oh do you mind if I join you? The other two ummed and ahhed which was a little awkward but the American guy was like yes please join us! They were at a conference, the American guy was the main speaker and the other two were from Singapore.
The American was very eccentric and he was wearing a T-shirt with his own face on it. They talked a lot of shop but tried to involve me in the conversation where possible. We shared some starters and enjoyed a bowl of Pho (tasty Vietnamese soup) I thought we were splitting the bill but they very kindly paid for my dinner! After dinner we went our separate ways and I eventually found my hostel.
On Wednesday, Josh had a day off. When we were working in Bangkok together and we went on trips as a group, I would usually ride on the back of Josh’s motorbike if we rented them. I was always a bit scared to do it myself because I have no coordination and I’d probably be that girl who died… (Not that I’m dramatic or anything) So actually I got to experience HCMC with a local and from the back of a motorbike! We went to what we thought was a Chinese market and the ride was along the river. It was a little scary at times but I have always trusted Josh, I knew I was totally safe. We missed a few turnings and we saw one road quite a few times! We parked up and had a wander round, but there wasn’t much to see. We had a giggle making up our own tour guide speeches and then we saw a real tour guide not even talking to his group! Josh admitted that he just didn’t know how to “do” touristy things and we went outside to get a coffee. We sat at a little plastic table surrounded by Vietnamese fellas relaxing on a Wednesday afternoon.
They were hugely entertained by our presence and after a few spoken exchanges they quickly realised that Josh’s Vietnamese didn’t quite stretch to conversation and mine doesn’t go any further than “thank you”. More fellas appeared and Josh nudged me and said “have you seen his tattoo?” I looked, and a topless fella was standing to my right. He had the word SEX in big letters tattooed across his lower belly, with two topless women on either side, whose bodies disappeared into his pants… And I just couldn’t stop looking at it! It was incredibly classy. I should have married him… We rode back into the city and again it was time for cocktails! We had a couple in a pretty rooftop garden and emerged a few hours later ready for some dinner! We had dinner and another drink or two and then headed home.
Today I was going to go on a trip up the Mekong river or to the Cu Chi tunnels, but my bus was leaving at 8pm and I didn’t want to be stressing. Something about the tunnels just doesn’t quite sit right with me. But I will definitely visit Ho Chi Minh again in the future and maybe that is an excuse to! A friend from college arrived in HCMC last night and I spent the day wandering and relaxing and drinking and giggling with him and his fella. I need to stress that this was not the highlight of our day but it definitely deserves a mention; in one of the bars we went to I visited the (unisex) bathroom. I saw it and thought well that’s nice there’s a TV in here… And how clever that they have water running over it because it’s behind thick plastic. Only when I got closer did I realise WHY it had water running down it… It was a urinal! When I came out I left it as a surprise and simply told the boys that they had to go for a wee. I didn’t see everything there is to see and do in and around Ho Chi Minh but I have had a wonderful few days of touristing, drinking, eating and relaxing! And so to my plan. Well I still don’t really have one. However I do have an open bus ticket up to Hanoi. That basically means that I can get the bus whenever I want and it stops in various cities on the way up depending what I want to do. I’m on an overnight bus as I write this. It’s what’s called a sleeper bus, the seats are all like beds. Ironically, I can’t sleep.
Another thing about traffic here is that they’re EXTREMELY horn happy. I’m travelling to a beach town called Mui Ne. We’ve been going for about four hours now and I really need a wee… The driver got off and had one in the bushes about an hour ago though so I’m not hopeful of a stop anytime soon! Wish me luck…