My first impression of Ho Chi Minh City was that it seemed like a baby version of Bangkok. It has the backpacker district with the flashing lights and street hawkers, it has the numerous food carts selling a variety of local cuisines, and it has a lot of busy traffic. However, it’s almost as if the vehicles are in baby form, with the motorcycles being to cars what tadpoles are to frogs, and the motorcycles are everywhere. I know I’ve said it before, but literally everywhere – they put the gangs of Central Coast NSW to shame. So the city may feel a little smaller than Bangkok, but in no way does that make it feel any less busy, at least in District 1 in the central part of the city.
There is also a confusing aspect in that this city has two names – something that puzzled me to no end in the early stages of planning my side-step detour to Vietnam. Pretty much all the native locals call it Saigon, even a lot of the travel agencies do too. Ho Chi Minh City, taken from the name of the Vietnamese leader during the wartime period, is the name used by the government and officials and anyone else of relative importance. As a traveller, I don’t really have a preference, and will use both interchangeably throughout this blog, just to keep y’all on your toes.
My first few full days in Saigon were spent doing some sight seeing. I decided to tackle the city on foot – after letting my guard down and being scammed into paying an exorbitant amount of money for a brief ride in a cyclo, which is basically a bike with an oversized basket for passengers, I became a little mistrusting of all the locals who approached me, offering rides on their various street vehicles. I also found myself slightly terrified of the traffic, although I quickly learnt that in Saigon, being a pedestrian is just as hazardous as being behind the wheel of a car or on a motorbike. Which is not necessarily saying that it’s risky – you simply need to really keep your wits about you at all times… although, it is risky. I’ve had a number of extremely close encounters where my attention lapsed for just a moment, and I came this close to being far too acquainted with the front end of a motorbike. Look both ways, amnd look all four ways at intersections. Sometimes it’s easier to just slowly wander out onto the road and let the bikes move around you. This is particularly terrifying though and by no means safe – sometimes I just got impatient waiting for a legitimate gap in traffic.
Another thing Ho Chi Minh City seems to have a lot of is museums. As well as the War Remnants Museum, I visited the Fine Arts Museum and the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. I took some refuge from the bustling city outside to observe some of the paintings and sculptures in the Fine Arts Museum, almost all of which are created by Vietnamese artists. I’m no art critic, and I don’t know the first thing about techniques or designs or any of the fine details when it comes to the fine arts, but the museum did have a huge variety of works on display, much of which represented lots of aspects of Vietnamese culture. As I wandered through the halls, I noticed that many of the paintings depicted soldiers and other wartime themes. Despite being beautiful works, that saddened me a little bit, and I was beginning to understand just how much the war has affected the mindset of so many local people here, and had branded their cultural history with a very distinct and conspicuous mark. It was a mark of remembrance and mourning, but also hope for the future.
Then I came across a piece called ‘Agent Orange’, where the oil painting had been textured so that it recreated the horrific deformities of the victims of the harsh poison, to a point where the art was almost three dimensional, and the suffering reached out from within canvas to force you to feel the emotions it depicted. I both loved and hated the painting, because it was so confronting, and because it filled me with the similar feelings I felt at the War Remnants Museum. I took a few photos, which I think I probably was not supposed to do, so I won’t upload them. I also feel like these works are best experienced in their true medium, and not from within a computer screen.
The other museum was also interesting, learning about the history of the the city. I don’t really care to regurgitate everything I read though, so make sure you check it out if you’re ever in Saigon. The building did, however, have a nice view.
My first evening in the hostel was when I began to experience the tourist nightlife. As people began slowly arriving home from their days activities and trawling into the dorm room, one of the guys made an open invitation to anyone who was interested in joining him and a few other guys in getting some dinner. Having no plans and nothing to lose, I tagged along and found myself with four guys, respectively originating from Germany, Wales, America and New Zealand, and a Hungarian girl. Our small international party set out looking for cheap street food. I’d always been a bit of a fan on Vietnamese food back home, so it was kind of a novel thrill to sit on a tiny plastic chair on the side of the road, like all the local people did in District 1, and eat my pho noodle soup. After that we were joined by two Argentinians and headed to a bar to drink some beer. I say “bar”, but in reality it was a little hole-in-the-wall joint with tiny plastic chairs (and slightly bigger plastic chairs that were used as tables) littering the footpath out front, sprawling out onto the road when it got busy enough. Later in the week, when I explained this scene to a New Zealander expat now residing in Ho Chi Minh City, he merely chuckled and said, “Yep, we call that a bar here.”
However, what the place lacked in bells and whistles, it made up with value for money. Draught beer was 7000 Vietnamese dong per glass. That converts into approximately 35 Australian cents. It seemed criminal to drink anything else when you could drink for so ridiculously cheap, and not for the first time on this trip I found myself succumbing to peer pressure and going in for a round of beers, only to be surprised that I actually quite enjoyed the taste of it. I didn’t love it, but for a few quiet drinks on a Tuesday night it doesn’t get much better than three beers for a buck.
The weekend was a different story though – I met a bunch of Australians who had been in Vietnam for the last month or so for work, and they took me out to some of the nearby nightclubs. The bars were a little more sophisticated then plastic stools on the pavement, and the drinks were more than 35c, but they were still exponentially cheaper than back home and the cocktails were lethal. Two Long Island Ice Teas later and I have to confess that I couldn’t tell you much about the difference between the clubs in Saigon and the clubs back home. Except that in one of them I ran into a Tasmanian couple casually smoking a hukka, and I’m pretty sure the flavour was “blue”. And security guards loved to pose for photos, something I have never seen in Australia.
In an e-mail to my father about my trip down to Krabi, I had mentioned how good it had been to get out of the city for a while and see the rest of the country. His response triggered something in me that I’d never really considered before: “Yes, cities tend to all feel the same after a while. It’s best to get out and see the real country”. While I could see comparable differences in each city I had visited, I promised myself that I would make my best effort to see a little more than just the major cities in each country went to, wherever I could.
Because at the end of the night, whether its beer or spirits, Sydney or Saigon, hangovers are generally all the same too.