24 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City
Somethingyousaid.com headed to Ho Chi Minh City, just about managed to avoid being involved in numerous traffic accidents and achieved bugger-all sleep:
I asked a friend who used to live in Vietnam “What’s Ho Chi Minh like?” and he replied “It’s Bangkok on speed!”. He totally hit the nail on the head as it is a crazy, open-all-hours city with a gazillion people all riding around on scooters.
After not having slept much on the flight from Gatwick my wife and I were bleary eyed and dazed when we arrived at Ho Chi Minh airport at 8pm local time. I had read up on the best way to get a taxi to the centre so proceeded to the counter and bought a coupon for $12. I confirmed with the lady that this included all tolls etc as I had read that taxi drivers try to get these extras out of tourists even with a coupon. I found the right taxi and we got going. We quickly reached a booth requiring payment of 10,000 Vietnamese dong ($0.50) to get out of the airport. The driver started shouting at us in Vietnamese and we assumed he was trying to get us to pay this. We stood our ground and refused saying it was all included in the coupon. He continued shouting but we ignored him and after a couple of minutes with taxis beeping him from behind he paid the money and we got moving. This is when the fun really started.
As soon as we got out the airport there was four lanes of traffic, jam packed with scooters, bicycles, taxis and buses. Our taxi driver was speeding along and would get to within about six inches of scooters, beep his horn repeatedly expecting them to get out the way and then slide through the smallest of gaps ignoring the lane markings to get through. This carried on for the next 20 minutes and each time I was convinced he was going to knock one of the scooters over and particularly one of the scooters that had a man, a woman and two or three children on all without helmets. Our driver managed only to bump briefly into the back of one other taxi and show his amazing death-defying driving skills. It was like being in a real life version of the classic game “Outrun” where you just zoom left and right through the traffic until you get to the checkpoint which in our case was our hotel. When we arrived I almost kissed the floor. The driver again demanded his 10,000 dong and suggested I give it to him as a tip. I was happy to be alive and we had had one hell of a ride so I gave him the money.
Ho Chi Minh is divided into districts and our hotel was in the tourist area District 1. After a quick shower we wandered out onto the streets and got thoroughly lost as they all had similar looking bars, restaurants and street food vendors. Eventually we found our way back to our street and had our first beer – a large bottle of Tiger which cost $1.25! Back in England that would cost at least £5 or £6, so this was a bargain. We had a couple more before moving on to another large bar with thumping European techno blaring out. We were given the only available table which was situated on the actual road with very low seats like those children have at school. It was great for people watching as life is lived on the streets over here. We spent ten minutes observing one western man who had obviously been in the country far too long and/or had consumed far too many drugs. He was swaying from one side to the next, talking and laughing to himself before doing a 180 degree turn walking off. A few seconds later he was back doing the same thing and narrowly missing a constant succession of speeding beeping scooters. We called it a night and retired for some sleep.
Unfortunately we had arrived on the last day of the annual Tet festival which is described as being Christmas, New Year and your birthday all rolled into one. We didn’t get much sleep as the music blared out all night in what sounded like a Vietnamese man singing karaoke but not quite knowing all the words and going back to the beginning of the song every time he made a mistake. Hence we heard every song about 4 or 5 times until he eventually gave up at about 4am.
Breakfast was served on the 10th floor of our hotel which afforded us great views of the city and made us appreciate just how damaged and narrow a lot of the buildings are and how densely populated the city is. Our food, a large baguette – the French influence – and eggs, was accompanied by a soundtrack of Christmas songs sung in Vietnamese which was odd as this was February. It was very surreal listening to their versions of Frosty the Snow Man, Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is coming to town.
We walked towards the centre and experienced for the first time the joys of trying to cross the road. It’s probably best described as like the game Frogger. You wait and wait until there is a gap in the multitude of beeping scooters and then take your life in you hands moving across each lane until you get to the other side and breathe a huge sigh of relief. The unofficial rules say that you must keep moving, not hestitate, not move backwards and that the scooters will drive around you. That sounds easy on paper and seems to work for the locals but is quite scary to do until you get used to it. You walk a block and then have to do it all again, then again, then again. It certainly makes you feel alive. They do have so-called pedestrian crossings marked out on the road but no one stops at them or seems to care about pedestrians so they are largely redundant.
We visited the Reunification Palace, a striking building which had been the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. It was the site of the end of the war on April 30, 1975 when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates. The palace has been left pretty much exactly as it was in 1975 and has a very surreal feel about it. There were a series of war rooms and some interesting kitsch furniture. The basement was a number of small minimalist rooms with just the odd desk, telephone, or radio transmitter filling them. We then moved onto the the war remnants museum which was an extremely moving and tear-jerking place, depicting the devastation of the war and the continuing impact on the Vietnamese people and in particular the use of Agent Orange. This is one place that I feel every visitor to the city or country should experience.
At the centre in Tao Dan Park the road had been blocked off and there was a spring flower festival which had been decorated with more than 8,000 flowers, ornamental fish and rock sculptures including many large snakes as 2013 is the year of the snake. There were thousands of people out jostling for position in front of each display to get their “unique” photo taken. Everyone seemed to have what they considered to be their own signature photo pose however this fell into two types namely the obligatory peace sign and the catalogue pose cupping their face with their hands.
Along the way we tried a variety of sweet street foods including mini banana waffles, green coconut rice rolls filled with peanuts, and crunchy sugar cane in soft pastry. It was very hot – 32/33 degrees – so we made our way back to the hotel stopping on the way to grab some food. We shared fresh spring rolls – prawn, pork, mint and thin noodles wrapped in rice paper. I had a clay pot dish which consisited of onion and prawns cooked in caramel and was sweet, salty, sour and delicious. My wife had the national dish Pho which is a broth containing rice noodles and thinly sliced beef, to which you add herbs and chillis.
We had a siesta and went out again and wandered through the night market around Ben Tanh. There was numerous stalls selling many types of presumably counterfeit clothes, bags, and electronics, alongside food stalls that we could not work out whether they were offering fish, meat, desserts or a combination of all three. I found some great ice cream at a chain called Fanny accompanied by an amazing vietnamese iced coffee which is made in an unusual drip-method at your table. Back near our hotel we found a tiny narrow little bar on three floors where we sat on the balcony people watching and tried the local Saigon brand beer which tasted like a slightly watered down Tiger but cost less than a dollar for a large bottle. By this point we were exhausted and had heard enough beeping horns to last us a lifetime.
Overall Ho Chi Minh is a mental place and I thoroughly enjoyed its manic nature, delicious food and cheap beer. I was glad however to be moving on to the more relaxed Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Words and pictures by 25ThC