After Phnomh Penh, I had another long, but thankfully less scammy border crossing into Vietnam, and on to Ho Chih Minh City- the historic Saigon. The first thing that you notice on entering are the motorcycles… motorcycles everywhere. Everybody has a moto here, and there’s no avoiding them, even on the sidewalks. In fact, motos have take precedence even there, as sidewalks have become motorcycle parking lots first, and pedestrian passageways second. If I was prone to nightmares, I’m sure it would have taken no more than a day or two where I had one with motorcycles chasing me everywhere, exploding through windows, dropping from the sky, etc, etc.
Not even rush hour.
Once you get the hang of that traffic, though, it’s not so bad. When crossing the street, choose a local to walk alongside, as they should know what they’re doing, and most importantly, just keep moving- the motorcycles and cars will flow around you, but if you stop and freeze, that’s when an accident will happen. A couple more random observations while we’re doing that:
There’s no toilet paper in Vietnam (or Cambodia, or India, as I was to discover). Instead they have, as one hostel called it, a butt gun. Think “bidet on a string” or more accurately, just a hose. Wasn’t a fan of that.
However, there was great coffee everywhere. Their preferred style is to make it thick and dark, like espresso, then pour a hearty dose of sugar in and whip it all together until you have a hearty, frothy mixture that will certainly open your eyes in the morning. I certainly became a fan in short order.
As for things to do in HCMC, number one would have to be… eat. There is so much street food here, and it is so, so good. From chewy, thick, translucent rice noodles smothered in fish sauce, sweet chilli paste, quail eggs, and peanuts to ban xeo, a rice paper crepe filled with pate, dried shrimp, veggies, and chilli sauce to street sandwiches on crispy French bread and filled with all manner of unidentified meats and sauces, you can go no wrong by just trying everything you see.
Oh, and of course there’s the one Vietnamese food most folks can name- pho. Honestly, I’ve been a bit under whelmed by the usual mix of beef broth, meat, and fresh veggies, but here in Saigon they do it up right, mixing in raw vermicelli, thick pieces of beef, and peppercorn-heavy sausage. And if that doesn’t do it for you, cha ca might- a very similar fresh veggie-filled fish broth. And failing that, there’s about 500 other Vietnamese soups to try, and I tried as many as I could (great for breakfast, especially).
On the sights end of things HCMC leans heavily on its French legacy (buildings like the Post Office even have serious architectural pedigree- that one was built by Gustave Eiffel) and memories of the Vietnam War.
One of the most famous images of the War, the helicopter taking off full of evacuated dignitaries, with hordes below clamoring for the same treatment, took pace at what is now called the Reunification Palace- before it was essentially the Southern Vietnamese White House. Apparently it has been preserved in exactly the same condition as it was found when the first Viet Cong tanks crashed its gates, and I’ve no reason to doubt it. Walking through there is like stepping back in time to the 1970s, with décor right out of Don Draper’s office and military offices straight from Good Morning, Vietnam. The underground bunkers and helicopter pad from the famed photograph were particularly interesting.
I also made sure to visit an infamous tourist attraction- the War Remnants Museum. It’s been described to me as a kind of shoddy, hilariously propagandistic collection of Vietnam War memorabilia, incendiary paintings, and captured American weaponry, but whoever runs the place must have been reading their reviews, because it’s been classed up considerably. There are still the odd bits of propaganda sticking out like a sore thumb, but honestly you don’t need propaganda when you have the sheer horror of photographs of bombing victims and Agent Orange-suffering children to speak for you, most of which were taken not by Vietnamese photographers, but American ones. This museum is an incredibly effective monument to the horrors, degradation, and pure evil of all war, not just Vietnam. Some of those images will stick with me always.
The panoramic function on my camera is also capable of horrifying things.
My next day was a bit less harrowing, but also a bit less interesting- a trip to the Mekong River Delta. Since it’s so spread out and relatively far from HCMC, I took a tour, which limited the appeal a bit. It was a nice tour, though, but I wouldn’t call it essential. The Mekong itself is an impressive river, with the fastest current I’ve ever seen. We boated across it to a series of islands, where we tried local honey, coconut candies, teas, and fruit, as well as the remains of a strange cultish colony that Shakered itself out of existence a few decades ago.
With bonus alligator pit
Oh, and I saw cobra liquor, so of course I had to try it. It was about as strong as you’d expect, but not terrible.
It’ll get ya drunk.