Me, Madison and Erin took the bus from Mui Ne at 11am, paying 114,000 dong each (£4) and arrived in Saigon at around 4pm. Our hostel, Vietnam Inn Saigon, was close by so we walked the 10 minute journey with our backpacks and checked in. It was 165,000 dong (£6) a night for a 12 bed mixed dorm with air con and free breakfast but unfortunately I was I a different dorm room to them. After settling into my room, Madison and I went to grab some food, with me opting for Bun Bo Hue – similar to a Pho but with slightly more flavour to the broth.
For my first full day in HCMC I took myself off to explore, starting by walking to Ben Thanh market – an indoor market packed full with stalls selling clothes, bags, watches, shoes, sunglasses and more. I felt a bit overwhelmed as you are constantly stopped as you weave your way through, but I bought a cheap watch (my third in 3 months!) for 100,000 (£3.50) and two vest tops for the same each – vests of average quality and therefore not much cheaper than you can get at home in Primark, but I underestimated how many basic vests I would get through in South East Asia.
I then ventured past Cit Hall and Notre Dame Cathedral to get to Saigon Central Post Office – a striking French style post office built during the colony in the late 1880’s, it is quite common for tourists to come here to send postcards home. Inside, in the centre, there is a stall that sells postcards with various Vietnam destinations printed on the front for around 5,000 dong each (20p) and you can also purchase Vietnam stamps from here for 12,000 dong (45p) to send to the UK. I probably spent half an hour in here selecting, writing and posting my postcards into their mail box. Not only was it a really nice experience for me but lovely for those back home to receive something so traditional and personal.
I then went for a bite to eat at Nha Hang Ngon – a place recommended by Lonely Planet that was packed with both tourists and locals. The noodle soups and Spring rolls looked amazing but I was a bit done with these dishes by this point so opted for mixed grilled dumplings – really tasty and fresh but perhaps not their best, or most renowned, dish.
Afterwards I then walked to the War Remnants Museum. This museum touches on the invasion of France and the imprisonment of Vietnamese revolutionaries but it is dominated by the US war on Vietnam and the truly horrific impact. There is a whole section dedicated to photographs taken by journalists at the time that is so harrowing, as well as recounts of merciless attacks on innocent Vietnamese families – adults and children – by US military. I am not ashamed to admit that I spent most of my two hours there walking round with tears down my face, feeling all at once moved, horrified and devastated – by what people were capable of but still are capable of, and by what atrocities happened but also continue to happen; by the fact that we do not seem to learn from history, no matter how horrifying we find it and no matter how lasting the impact.
Another section details the impact of dioxin – contained in Agent Orange which was used by the US during the war – not only at the time but the long-term effects on newborns from Mothers exposed to dioxin and the deformities they are subsequently left with. It is literally shocking and incredibly eye-opening. Aside from the impact of the museum itself, I really struggled with the attitude of some tourists – I was surprised to see tourists posing for photos next to the tanks outside but was able to let it slide in my head, but then when I saw a female tourist posing beside the remains of a bomb, with devastating images of people fatally injured plastered on the walls behind, with a beaming smile on her face, I was shocked and angry – I think I just stared at her and made myself walk away. The lack of awareness and respect, when the information and detail is right there in front of you, is something I struggle to grasp. At moments like this, is a snapchat selfie really of that much importance? Finding my emotions quite overwhelming I left after 2 hours but could have easily spent 4 there – you must go.
On the way back to my hostel I was walking past the park when a Vietnamese woman came up to me and asked if I would spare some of my time to chat to some Vietnamese students wanting to practice their English. So I spent the next hour sat on a step by the side of the park chatting to 6 students, learning more from them than they probably did from me – whereas it is common for westerners towhees days to study then get a job, save money, go travelling and then settle down, for Vietnamese people it is very much about studying and getting a job yo be able to buy a home and have a family. When I asked where they most wanted to travel to, all of them being from HCMC, two of them said Sapa – the opportunity and affordability to travel for them is so much less than for me that their top pick in their minds is another destination in Vietnam. I felt lucky, blessed and humbled by their little demand. We also spoke about Brexit (something I have been asked about a LOT on my travels), they sang me traditional Vietnamese song about women bang beautiful as they are and not needing make up, tried to teach me some Vietnamese words, and at the end one of the guys gave me the scarf he was wearing as he said it is what they all wear in the Mekong Delta and I had told them I would be going there. It was such an overwhelming moment for me and I hugged them all goodbye, much to their surprise and delight (I think!)
Afterwards I grabbed a Banh Bao for a street vendor and then joined Erin and Madison in their dorm room before heading back to mine for bed. There was only 3 of us in there – me and a guy and a girl – when I turned my light out at 1am, and not long after I could hear movement and whispers. I rolled over to discover the guy had moved into the girls bed with her and they had put a towel up to conceal themselves. I then heard the bed creaking and saw their feet out the bottom of the bed, and politely asked if they could get a private room (I’m sorry, but it costs about the same for two people to get a private room as it dies for two dorm beds, and it is just massively disrespectful to everyone else). The guy acted like nothing was happening and all went quiet, until fifteen minutes later when they started up again – it may not sound bad but, believe me, when you are the only other person trying to sleep with a couple in the bed right next to you going at it, it feels really seedy, invasive and unsafe. This continued until just before 3am, when two guys came back completely wasted, turning on the main light and running around the dorm room. They eventually turned the light out but then used a lighter to see round the room, swaying it by my head and by my bed. They eventually found a plastic bottle and started smoking into it, filling the entire room with smoke and being aggressive towards me when I asked them to stop. It’s hard to explain how I felt – maybe more so to males – but to me they seemed completely out of control and I felt vulnerable and therefore very unsafe. I had no idea what they were capable of and didn’t feel able to defend it on my own. At 5am I made the decision to leave, packing my bags in the dark and going downstairs to reception – it may seem dramatic to some but I promised myself not to put myself into situations where I felt unsafe whilst travelling. Anyway, I told my story to the Vietnamese staff and they had a go at me for not telling them sooner, with a male member of staff actually shouting at me, and they refused to do anything until their ,anger arrived at 10am. I was so angry and upset that I burst into tears, but their lack of compassion of concern was paramount (making me feel worse) that I left and, at 6am, found myself another place to stay – at Thanh Thuong Guesthouse where they were warm, welcoming and helpful, and where I paid for a dorm room that had 4 beds but I had the room all t myself for 2 nights. Just what I needed.
I had a rest for a couple of hours but couldn’t sleep so I left the guesthouse, picked up an almond/cinnamon pastry from ABC bakery and walked to Bitexo Financial Tower where I headed to Cafe Eon on the 51st floor for a coffee with views over HCMC. It costs 200,000 dong (£7) per person to go to the top of the biking for views, but I went to the coffee shop for free and paid 110,000 dong (£4) for a (pricey) coffee with the same views. It was a gorgeous day and the views offered a peaceful, calming way to de-stress.
On my way back to the centre I decided to stop for a massage as my shoulders were really hurting – I passed a few spas but stopped at one that offered a 40 minute neck and shoulder for $6 which I managed to get down to 100,000 dong (£3.50). I went in, payed face down on the bed with my head through the hole, and the male Vietnamese masseuse proceeded to massage my neck and shoulders… Well, not quite. I heard him take a deep breath and then CLIMB UP ON ME, balancing with his feet on my bum cheeks. He started to move quickly on the spot so that each butt would get massaged by his foot, and he then would move one foot to my shoulder blade and push away from himself, massing one butt cheek and the opposite shoulder at once. I was surprised a tickled, laughing into the cushion hole, but actually quite delighted – I have always wanted a massage by someone walking on you and this was certainly an experience. I thought I might break in half when he sat on my bottom facing my feet and pulled my calf legs up to meet him, but apparently I can end in ways I wasn’t even aware of. I can’t say the massage worked my shoulders as much as I hoped, but having a Vietnamese man walk along my bottom with an acoustic version of Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” playing in the background made it worth it.
That afternoon I took a tour out to the Cu Chi tunnels (80,000 for the tour there including guide and 110,000 to get in, totalling almost £7), famous due to their role facilitating Vietnam Cong control and, at one point, stretching from Saigon to the Cambodian border. There we were shown the small holes in the ground they would hide in (with some of us getting to try them out), the various traps they would set up, and the underground tunnels they dug and would use to move from one point to the next – we also got to travel inside these, which were hotter and felt more claustrophobic than I expected, and you could easily get lost as there were various paths, but I made it about 2/3 of the way before I decided to exit!
At the end of the tour there is the chance to fire machine guns in their range – never having shot a gun before I paid 400,000 dong (£14) to shoot 10 bullets out of an M16. It was a short but thrilling experience, and made a day where I became frustrated by tourists (the sheer number of them as well as the rude talking-over-the-guide attitude) much easier to handle. I’m not a fan of going with a tour as I prefer the fun and sense of achievement of doing it myself, I like to dictate my own schedule rather than have someone dictate it for me, and I am increasingly finding that I do not like other tourists. Not all of them, mind – some are respectful and of a like mind – but a lot of them.
Ho Chi Minh City has been a weird one for me – it felt less intense and busy than Hanoi and I love love loved some of my experiences here (in particular at the War Remnants Museum and with the Vietnamese students) but I struggled a lot with other tourists and how disrespectful they could be, as well as how rude and unhelpful some Vietnamese staff could be (mainly at the big hostels rather than Guesthouses, who were so so lovely). Part of me just wanted to escape to Cambodia, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave without first going via the Mekong Delta…