Well, I have been making my way through Vietnam this week. After the Mekong, my first stop was Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. I had heard from friends and my dad that Saigon was a mess. Crossing the street felt like, “an army of motorbikers coming at you,” according to my dad. “It’s crazy, loud, too crowded,” he said.
With my expectations set extremely low, I was pleasantly surprised with my time in HCMC. Yes, it does feel like a gang of motorbikers is on attack at every intersection, but overall, I found the city to be well manicured, with very interesting museums and unexpectedly affordable. It has all the symptoms of a large city- it is extremely crowded, a bit dirty and there are large blaring lights starting down on you as you walk home at night, yelling, “Toshiba,” “Sony”!
My only night in the city I went to the night market outside Ben Thanh market. On my way, I saw an aerobics class taking place in the park and a salsa class under a pagoda, lots of women following a blasting boom box and their instructor.
The market was filled with vendors selling cheap shoes, shirts, shorts, you name it. Row after row of similar products. (The vendors here are so aggressive, it is a huge put-off in going to these places. “Hey, what you looking for?” “You buy something,” “Happy hour, buy one get one free.” I understand it’s just a cultural difference, but I honestly find it hard to get used to. Everywhere you go here, someone is yelling at you for something. They all want something from you. Every time I find a space of quiet, I just sit in silence and breath, appreciating the break from chaos.)
Besides the to-be-expected pestering, I enjoyed the market. I ate at an outdoor restaurant, all plastic tables and chairs but with waiters in suits. It was excellent. I sat down right after opening and in about 10 minutes the place was full; “I chose good,” I thought to myself. I ordered a Saigon beer (green) and banh xeo, a prawn and pork filled omelet/pancake wrap. It arrived about twice the size I’d expected, with an array of goodies to eat it with: lettuce, Thai basil and mint. I was sitting next to two girls from Japan, Ann and Ying, who I’d introduced myself to, and we were all baffled as to how to eat my dinner.
I kindly asked the waitress to demonstrate, and she picked up two pieces of lettuce, laying them atop one another, then layering a good mound of basil and mint, finally grabbing a piece of the pancake. Then she rolled it ever so neatly and motioned that I then dip it in the sweet chili sauce. Heaven. Basically fried goodness wrapped in the clean, crisp vegetables and herbs. Genius, really, and totally easy to replicate at home.
Ann and Ying looked over, eyeing my food, and I pushed the plates their way. “Go for it,” I said. “Really?” Ann said, “Eat some of our fried rice.” And that was how a friendship was born, haha. It’s such a great way to get to know people, over food, isn’t it? It was a lovely dinner and I was glad to have nice people to share it with. Before I left they had a bowl of flaming prawns and told me I couldn’t leave before trying one. The shrimp had been pre-boiled, it looked, but then a flame was lit under their heads, arranged like an opposite shrimp cocktail, tails in, heads out, ready to be cooked. A very fine finale to the meal.
The following day I took myself on a walking tour of the city. My Lonely Planet has a tour mapped out and I followed it to a tee (well, until the 6th hour when I felt my legs were about to collapse under me). The first stop was a morning breakfast of pho bo (Dad, it turns out “bo” is beef) at Pho Quynh. They presented me with a steaming bowl of beef soup with noodles, and sides of greens (not sure what) and basil along with bean sprouts, limes, and a salt and pepper mix. I began tossing things in and the waiter gave me a thumbs up. Quite yummy, though I’ve decided I like chicken or pork pho more than beef. The beef soup is super think. It’d be perfect for a cold night, but a hot morning? Not so much.
Moving on, I went back to Ben Thanh to see the market in full force during the day. I bought a hat and ran into Carolyn, who I’d parted ways with the day before. From there, I was off to the Fine Arts Museum. I found the building to be the most interesting part, yellow and white walls and slight Chinese and French architectural influences. Next stop a street market where locals rode up on their motorbikes to collect their goods from stalls, women still sitting on their bikes, ordering cuts of meat or fruit. After, Lonely Planet wisely schedules a coffee and ice cream stop at Cafe X. Lovely lovely. Great coffee here! Much better than at home!
The next stop was the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, where I again ran into Carolyn. The museum is housed in a building from 1886 and was originally a palace. The museum showcases paraphernalia, maps, works of art, and replicas concerning the last 300 years Vietnam’s history. Some of my favorites were a double floor boat used to smuggle arms during the Vietnam War (which here they call the American War). I also found the basement of the building fascinating. Floors down is a bunker that runs all the way to the Reunification Palace. My book notes that in 1963 President Diem and brother hid there before fleeing to Cha Tam Church during a coup attempt. They still have some of his living room furniture on display in the bunker.
Next stop, the War Remnants Museum. Growing up hearing about the Vietnam War, I was never able to really wrap my head around the scale, the purpose, who it affected, etc. This museum helped put a lot of that into perspective, which was in many ways hard to see.
Walking in, there is a photography display of all the rallies that took place around the world against the US war in Vietnam, an entire room dedicated just to rallies in the US. Upstairs is an exhibit called Requiem that showcases the photographs of Tim Page and other photographers on both sides who covered the war. This was the hardest section for me to see. Photos of VC suspects stripped naked and roped together, US soldiers bloodied, so many atrocities. But what makes this museum different than others is the personal quality to it. Below each photo is a description of the situation or who each person is, how they die, what their job was etc. Further into the gallery is a collection of photos of victims of agent orange, a pesticide the US used on the forests to find the Viet Cong. Today it’s created a multitude of genetic mutations that continue to affect Vietnamese and Americans today: deformed limbs, lack of sight, skin disease, conjoined twins and many stillborn births. I heard of a speech therapist who just hired by the Vietnamese to work with the large numbers of Vietnamese children born with cleft palates due to agent orange.
The museum kind of sucked out all my oomph, plus the exhausting heat, so my last few stops were brief: the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame (yes, you read that right), and the Post Office. The post office was actually awesome, built from 1886 to 1891 in French style. There are wonderful old maps of Vietnam and SE Asia and was a beautiful final stop.
From there, as you can imagine I was totally exhausted, so I headed back to the hotel to get ready for my night bus to Nha Trang, a beach town 12 hours north of HCMC.
I could have spent more time in the city, but I think I accomplished all the things I had set out to. I am not sure if I could live there, it may be too hectic for me on a day-to-day basis, but as a place to visit, I really enjoyed my day and a half there. I would certainly go back, and take a second visit to the museums.
As a younger American, it gave me a whole new perspective on the Vietnam War, not necessarily from the propaganda in the museums, but just becoming familiar with the people, who it seems live quite happily under a Communist government (or a Socialist Republic, as they call it, with a reigning Communist party), and the spaces where the fighting took place. It just makes the whole event even more awful and mind-boggling than I could ever feel before.