After an underwhelming two weeks in Cambodia, Jake and I had high hopes that Vietnam would be able to renew our passion for travelling. It was the country I knew the least about of our trip so I really had no idea what to expect. And personally, I get the biggest kick when visiting a place I know nothing about and then being pleasantly surprised when I get there. Our plan was to start in the south of the country and work our way north, our ultimate destination being Hanoi’s airport where we would catch our flight to Hong Kong. Entering the country on a bus from Cambodia, our first destination was therefore the legendary metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City.
The first realisation we had about HCMC was that it was clearly a huge place, with crazy traffic. Our hotel was located in the touristy area of $$$ and upon arriving there we were amazed. It was Saturday night and the whole district was a complete assault on the senses. Bright lights, blaring music, shouting vendors, weaving traffic, tantalising and offputting odours… the place pulsated with energy and excitement. Everywhere you looked there was something. It was exactly what we needed after Laos and Cambodia.
We spent our first day exploring and getting our bearings of the city. Despite HCMC’s scary traffic it’s a pleasant place to walk around with wide pavements on leafy streets. First we found our way to the Reunification Palace. It was here in 19** that a tank of the Liberation Army crashed through the front gates, bringing an end to the Vietnam war. The next sight was HCMC’s Notre Dame Cathedral which made for an interesting change after seeing nothing but buddhist and hindu temples for the past couple of months. Jake unfortunately felt quite ill at this point so headed back. I explored by myself for a couple of hours (which felt really weird!), walking along the river and to the botanical gardens (but not inside them cus you have to pay!).
Jake wasn’t feeling great the next day either so I took the opportunity to visit a museum (because Jake prefers a poke in the eye to a history lesson) about the Vietnam War – or American War as it’s called here. It was fascinating for me to learn how although the war ostensibly occurred in Vietnam, the whole world was watching – it was a manifestation of the tensions of the Cold War. Russia and China vs. American and the West. Clearly the whole thing was a disaster, with both sides committing awful atrocities… the museum only detailed the dreadful things the Americans did though. I filled in the rest with some Internet research later. Despite the bias, the museum was awesome and very moving. At times it was difficult to take in what happened. Pictures of napalm victims and mutilated children were not pleasant. There were a lot of cool artifacts though, especially outside where a handful of army vehicles were laid out. I enjoyed a couple of hours here, and I would say the War Remnants Museum is a must-see in Ho Chi Minh City.
On another day we checked out the Art Gallery which I can’t say either Jake or me were particularly excited about. But it was quiet and uncrowded (always appreciated in a crazy city) and we enjoyed looking around the beautiful old building and seeing some Vietnamese paintings (and pots of course).
The main thing that made Ho Chi Minh City so memorable for us was how friendly people were. The locals would not stop talking! Every time we took five to chill out in a cafe with a cold drink, an eager staff member would end up talking to us. They were super interested in what life was like in the UK and Australia – and especially how much money you could earn working there. Many young people in Vietnam seem to have huge aspirations and find their opportunities in their home country limited. Therefore they are frustrated and really dream of bigger and better things elsewhere. I have never seen such a drive in a country’s people to work so hard and to improve their own lives. I found it actually quite inspiring.
By far the friendliest person we met was our hotel receptionist named Ben (real name Thinh). He loved practicing his English with us, and it turned out we had a lot in common – he had studied the same degree as Jake for example. He was super eager to show us around some places he liked, including the large walking street (a favourite hangout at night for cool local youngsters) and a local food street we would never have found on our own. Through him we learnt loads about what it’s like growing up, living and working in Vietnam as a young person which was so interesting! I was surprised by how similar the youth of Vietnam the UK/Australia are. He definitely has a better work ethic than me though! He also turned out to be the kindest person ever when he bought us sandwiches and snacks for our onward journey.
Ho Chi Minh had made a great impression on us. It was modern, exciting, cultural, historical, beautiful and welcoming. There was awesome food, architecture, nightlife and people. It definitely stands out as one of the most memorable and awesome cities in South East Asia for me. After 5 nights, we teared ourselves away to start our journey north, starting with an 8 hour bus ride to Dalat.