Getting to Know You: Miss Saigon

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.

So. Many. Motorbikes.

So. Many. Motorbikes.

Vietnamese flag out the front of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Vietnamese flag out the front of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

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.

Outside the Ho Chi Minh City People's Council People's Committee Building .

Outside the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Council People’s Committee Building .

French-designed Cathedral in the city centre.

French-designed Cathedral in the city centre.

Reunification Palace.

Reunification Palace.

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.

View of city from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

View of city from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

***

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.

Riding Solo

After four weeks on the road, it’s safe to say I’ve seen quite a bit and had some new worldly experiences. However, something I never expected was that travelling by myself would play such a crucial part in the way that my journey unfolded. At the time of planning all I envisioned was complete, unbridled freedom. While that still might be true, travelling alone isn’t without its drawbacks, a few of which I am slowly learning to navigate.

***

Perhaps the first time the realities of traveling solo really hit me was when I was waiting for my train south to Krabi, sitting at a table on the elevated café level of Hua Lamphong Railway Station in Bangkok. All around me, I saw so many travellers in pairs: whether they were partners or friends, or sometimes even groups of three or four, almost everybody had somebody. And that started to make me feel a little lonely.

And I don’t necessarily mean the ‘longing for human contact’ kind of loneliness. It’s the practical advantages of having a travelling partner that I really began to notice when I was finally by myself. For example, I had an hour and a half wait at the train station. There was no table service in the area I was sitting in – if I wanted to order food, I would have to pick up my bags and take them to the counter with me. If I wanted to go to the bathroom… well, I couldn’t. Unless I either hiked in there with all my bags or left them out in the open when I went, completely unattended.

Luckily I didn’t need to use the bathroom, but it just made me realise how much easier some things are when you have a traveling partner. Initially I was quite drawn the freedom of being able to do exactly what I wanted and travelling whenever I wanted, but when you’re making these grandiose plans, those little details are often the first thing you lose sight of. They say that solo travelling can be much cheaper, but even that freedom still comes with a different kind of cost.

***

When I was on the beach at Ao Nuang beach at Krabi, I had no choice but to leave my bag unattended. It probably probably says something more about my paranoia or anxiety that I pretty much backed into the ocean, facing the beach, so that I could keep an eye on my belongings. But you loosen up eventually, for better or worse, and in the end you just have to calculate the risk and do your best to enjoy whatever it is you’re doing. And I did, eventually. Train stations are very different settings to beaches, and there was just the right amount of people present on the sand for me to feel more comfortable about walking away from my bag – enough people to be witnesses to a theft, but not enough for a thief to be lost in the crowd.

When I was at Rai Leh, I was able to ask Sam and Sarah to watch my bag while I went into the ocean. But eventually they wanted to swim as well, so we all just had to leave our bags in a cluster on the beach and keep an eye on them every now and then. Although again, maybe that’s my paranoia talking. As we walked out of the warm Thai water, Sarah peered out onto the vast expanse of sand and asked “Where are our bags?” We’d floated a little way down the beach, but I was immediately able to point out the location of our belongings. Seems not everyone is so highly strung as me when it comes to the location of their valuables.

***

Then there is the freedom of travelling solo – both a blessing and a curse. For starters, I know that had I not been travelling alone, I probably wouldn’t be on this mammoth nine month journey. Most people don’t have the time, or have too many commitments to take such a long term vacation from their real lives. But I did, so I set out with the intention of not letting anyone get in the way of doing exactly what I wanted to do.

But I felt it was impossible to plan an entire nine month holiday completely in advance, so I left a lot of the fine details up to chance and circumstance. Booking hostels and overland transport as I go, seeing wherever the wind takes me – it sounds like the ultimate travellers dream. I know for a fact I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done so far if I’d brought a travelling companion from home – beers with the British boys in Thailand, Couchsurfing in the Vietnamese slums, being sexually harassed by a monk, or even the SCUBA diving tour that I booked myself into on a last minute whim.

Then there’s even the freedom to do nothing. Those days or nights when you’re just too exhausted, and all you want to do is sit in the hostel and read a book or make a Skype call. You don’t have to make excuses to anyone or apologise for not going out and having fun. I accept the reality that out of my 275 days of travel, not every single one is going to be jam-packed with activities.

Yet this does run the risk of complacency. In a brand new city with so much to explore, after a few a days you can easily become overwhelmed. With a travelling partner, you always have someone else’s energy to bounce off and keep ideas coming, always planning something to keep the ball rolling. By yourself, it’s easy to feel at a loss, and waste days trying to decide what to do. I thought that hostels would help with this – it certainly did while I was in Krabi – but of the three nights I’ve spent in my hostel at Ho Chi Minh City, for two of them I’ve been one of two people staying in a 9 bedroom dorm. The other guy hardly speaks, and has spent the entirely of his time in the room editing videos and photos on his laptop. So it’s really up to me, and me alone, to get out there and explore this big city.

River Tour on the Mekong Delta - you get used to taking tourist selfies when travelling on your own

River Tour on the Mekong Delta – you get used to taking tourist selfies when travelling on your own

***

Being alone gives you a lot of time to think, which is also a problem. You end up thinking about home, and things and people that you miss in that state of loneliness, when you know you should be out there having fun and exploring the world. But I hope that writing about this will be cathartic in some way, so I might be able to let go of these difficulties in travelling solo and to fully appreciate the experiences that I’m having.

The weekends coming up, so I’ll probably hit the nightclubs and use alcohol as a social lubricant and find some new people to hang out with. No matter where you are in the world, some things never change.

Suburban Hikes on Motorbikes: My first 24 hours in Vietnam

The warm air of the night was countered by the wind that billowed against my t-shirt, as we sped down the highway on a motorbike. All around us were the chirps and toots from the traffic, horns and indicators blaring out into the night. There was the odd car or bus, but the majority of vehicles on the road were other motorcycles. In Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as its known to the locals, motorcycles rein supreme. They fill the streets, they clutter the sidewalks, and you can’t walk fifty metres without an old man waving his hands lividly in the air at you, screaming “Motorbike! Motorbike!” in an attempt to attract your patronage so they can drive you to your destination for a fee. It really was a strange moment for me, whose mother has such a vehement opposition to motorcycles that I’d probably get cut off from the family should I ever attempt purchase my own, to see hordes of them flooding the streets in a way that just seems so normal and commonplace.

“You want to ride the motorbike?” my driver had shouted to me over the roar of the wind in my ears. I let out a short, sarcastic “Ha!” at the very idea.
“Come on, it’s easy,” he tried persuading me again. Driving a motorbike was one thing, but the traffic in this city was just as reckless as the streets of Bangkok – in the “You have to know the city extremely well to avoid certain death” kind of way – and I don’t think even the most expensive insurance premium would cover the driving of someone like me in a place like this. So I just laughed again, a little more genuinely this time, and shook my head.

Motorbikes in close proximity.

Motorbikes in close proximity.

My first 24 hours in Vietnam would prove to be a ‘rinse and repeat’ in the culture shock process, but to explain it properly, I have to take it back to the beginning…

***

After landing in Ho Chi Minh City airport and dealing with the various visa and customs issues, I exited the airport into a heat that closely rivalled Thailand, and made my way to the bus terminal. My stay in Vietnam was to mark another of my many ‘firsts’ on this adventure – my first experience of being a Couchsurfer. For those not in the know, Couchsurfing is an online community that connects travellers from all over the world with people in cities all over the world that are able to host them, and provide a place for the travellers to stay while they’re in their city. The philosophy behind it is cheap accommodation when seeing the world, and at the same time creating global connections and friendships. Vietnam was to be the first country I was staying in where I didn’t have any contacts at all, let alone friends to stay with, so I figured it might be a good opportunity to take part in the Couchsurfing phenomenon that is taking on the travelling world. While I was in Bangkok I’d put a message into a subgroup created specifically for queer Couchsurfers – because sometimes it’s just nice to be around fellow friends of Dorothy – and after a few days I had a reply from a 22-year-old Vietnamese guy living in Ho Chi Minh City. We discussed the issue some, and he offered me a place on his couch.

However, he wasn’t able to meet me at the airport, and so gave me instructions on which bus to catch, and a time and place for us to meet. This involved me catching a public bus – something I was yet to do in South East Asia. As the bus rattled out of the airport and towards the city, I noticed a group of three girls sitting across the aisle of the bus from me, looking at me and whispering among themselves. Well… I assume they were talking, but I couldn’t see their mouths since they were covered by face masks. They’re the kind that doctors and medical professionals wear during operations, or that people in the street wear when they’re afraid of bird or swine flu – and suddenly I thought I may have missed some vital health information. I was later told there wasn’t too much to worry about, and that a lot of girls were just shy and wore them to hide their faces… Okay then.

I didn’t think much of it, until one of the girls reached out and passed me her phone. It was an iPhone opened to compose a new message, and in the typing section she had written ‘Where you from?, I smiled, passed the phone back and said I was from Australia. After a few moments she passed it back ‘What you do?’. I smiled again, amused by the exchange, and replied “I’m travelling.” The girl looked at me, perplexed, then back at her friends. Then back to me. Then back to her friends. Maybe I had overestimated their English? I took the phone from her and wrote ‘travelling’. She took the phone back, and I noticed the girls regrouping around another phone, perhaps for translation purposes. This exchange continued for the remainder of the trip, where they asked me where I was going, if I was alone, what I studied back home, and finally: ‘do you play facebook?’. I said I did, and gave them my Facebook name. ‘See you in facebook!’ was the last message I read. I hopped off the bus at the final stop, equal parts amused and confused.

Motorbikes take up every spare inch of the road.

Motorbikes take up every spare inch of the road.

***

The place where I was meeting my host was close by and I found it easily enough, and soon we were getting to know each other and chatting away. My host had previously spent time studying in Sydney – at the same university that I attended, as it would happen – and so we had a surprisingly large amount of common ground to cover. Then it came time to travel to my hosts house – knowing I had a large bag, he hadn’t brought his motorbike, so we caught another bus. Where I had stayed while I was in Bangkok was rather close to the major parts of the city, but after 45 minutes on this bus, watching the city scenery pass and eventually dwindle into the suburbs, I realised that my location in Ho Chi Minh City wouldn’t be quite so central. As we descended into the outer suburbs, out of the tourists areas and into the domain of the locals, it became clear I was going to get a very authentic Vietnamese experience.

I didn’t really have any definite expectations, but it was certainly a bit of a shock when we alighted from the bus. The city was well and truly gone, and all around us were either stretching roads full of buses and bikes, or narrow roads that forked off in twisting alleys and concrete walkways. We travelled through the dingy labyrinth until we got to my hosts house, where I made a few other unexpected discoveries: my host still lived with his parents, so I was staying with a family, and the ‘couch’ was actually a mattress, which I would be sharing with my host, in a room he told me he shared with his brother. The bedroom didn’t have a door, something that my host told me his parents did not allow. As we got chatting about it more, I learnt a whole heap of other things about Asian culture that were considered quite strange by my standards, but were completely normal for him. Though he had been to Australia before and understood the common practices and standards of living there, so I think he understood some of my confusion. They were quite middle-class living conditions for Vietnam, but that’s still very different from middle-class Sydney.

After I’d settled in, my host took me around the city on his motorbike, pointing out various attractions in the city centre, showing me his university where he studied, and took me to some truly local places to eat – the menus were entirely in Vietnamese, and had I come alone, I would not have had the faintest idea what anything on the menu was (besides ‘soda’, ‘Coke’ and ‘Sprite’). It was a great way to see the city from a locals point of view, and I am truly thankful for the experience and for the generosity of my host. However, the living arrangements weren’t exactly ideal. Sharing a bed is tough for me at the best of times, and the distance to and from the city meant it wouldn’t exactly be easy for me to get around without relying on someone else and their motorbike (I was not going to accept the offer to ride it by myself). So in the morning I headed off into the city, with a hand drawn map by my host, and found a hostel in the backpacker district to stay at for the remainder of my time in Saigon.

Motorbikes maintain the majority in the minor metropolis of Saigon.

Motorbikes maintain the majority in the minor metropolis of Saigon.

***

The rest of my afternoon was to be taken up by a highly recommended and fairly popular tourist attraction – the War Remnants Museum. My knowledge of the Vietnam War basically comprised of pop culture references and the part of the Australian History syllabus that addressed the topic and Australia’s involvement in it. I knew about the stigma attached to the soldiers and the war crimes they were accused of committing, but as a 15-year-old reading a slide from an overhead projector, the true meanings behind all of this never really sunk in.

The War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum

So I wasn’t expecting my trip to the museum to be so mentally and emotionally exhausting. The exhibit that particularly broke my heart was the galley titled ‘Victims of Agent Orange’. Agent Orange was a powerful dioxin that was used by the USA in biochemical warfare during the Vietnam War. It poisoned millions of Vietnamese people, but some of the most devastating impacts come from second-hand contamination – babies born with all sorts of horrific birth defects as a result of their parents being infected by Agent Orange. Seeing these images and reading their stories was such an intense experience – it took everything I had to blink back tears and not have a moment in the middle of the museum. The fact that many of these people do their best to live ordinary lives despite their crippling deformities just makes their stories even more amazing and inspiring. I thought about taking some photos of these powerful images, but I decided my poor photography would not do them justice to the incredible way that they affected me. But I urge anyone who visits Ho Chi Minh City to take the time to see this museum – it gave me a thorough schooling on what it’s like to feel compassion and empathy, and to be thankful for what you have. After viewing more galleries about war crimes, historical truths, and a photographic history of the Vietnam War, I left the museum feeling a little overwhelmed. I’ve long considered myself a pacifist, and seeing such shocking displays of the horrors of what seemed to be such a pointless war firmly re-cemented my position.

USA war plane outside the museum.

USA war plane outside the museum.

***

My first 24 hours really forced me to reevaluate some of the priorities in my life, both past and present – my future is just a big messy ball of ‘unknown’ that I’m not prepared to tackle right now. But I feel a little bad about the way I reacted to the Couchsurfing experience, simply because it hadn’t been what I had expected or of a standard I was used to. People make do with a lot less, and here I am complaining about not having my own room and/or bed. And to think that I ever felt that my life back in Australia was lacking or incomplete in any sort of way just seems completely laughable now. You really don’t realise that kind of thing until you step outside of your comfort zone and experience something that you would have otherwise never come into contact with. I know that no ones life is ever “perfect” or “complete”, and that you can always strive to do better, but this kind of experience really highlights how pointless and deconstructive complaining about it can be.

I don’t want to get all preachy or anything though, so I’ll just settle for saying that each and every day of this adventure is opening my eyes wider and wider to the incredible, immense, diverse and ever-changing world world around me.