Beach bum bronzed, I left Phu Quoc for the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. The journey was uneventful, bar the fact I realised on the plane that in the delirium and darkness of my 5am wake-up call I’d managed to leave my towel and favourite bikini hanging up in my dorm to dry. Doh. Guess I’ll have to continue practising my bartering skills to replace them locally.
When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh, it was time to conquer my first public bus of the trip. Luckily, it wasn’t difficult to find and I bought my ticket and hauled my bag on without any trouble, and even managed to get off at the right stop. I’d definitely recommend this over a cab to travellers on a budget; the 109 goes from right outside Arrivals and ends in the backpacker area of the city, costing only 20,000₫ (80 cents). If you don’t fancy the bus, or for late nights/further distances, download the Grab app – it’s like Uber but fixes your fare and you pay in cash.
Getting off the bus, the next challenge was crossing the road; infamously difficult in Ho Chi Minh, where not only do they drive on whichever side of the road they fancy, mopeds also drive on the pavement when they haven’t got patience for the road. After a few failed attempts and a lot of beeping I managed it, realising the technique is a slow but purposeful and consistent walk into the traffic, where they will predict your movements and avoid you. If you stop, you risk becoming a traveler pancake. Take note.
Most backpacker hostels are in District 1 in Pham Ngu Lao. My hostel was a short walk away from the main ‘beer street’ Bui Vien, which I was actually very glad of once I’d seen the area at night – if you fancy sleeping at any point in Ho Chi Minh City, don’t stay on Bui Vien. It’s a great place to go out and meet people, but the music from competing bars is so loud it makes your organs vibrate. Less fun on nights off.
I got chatting to an American girl at my hostel who’d also just arrived in Vietnam and we headed out to explore the city. We started at Ben Thanh market, a huge covered market in the centre. It was the usual organised chaos of Asian markets, but we found that Ben Thanh actually has some fixed price areas and isn’t as good value as some of the other markets due to its centrality and popularity with tourists. For better bargains, head to the smaller night markets.
Stomachs filled, we headed to one of Ho Chi Minh City’s top attractions: the War Remnants Museum. As with the Killing Fields and S21 in Cambodia, it was quite a harrowing experience. The museum tells the story (in somewhat loaded language) of Vietnam’s struggle for independence from France, and then from American intervention. Having chosen Vietnam as the subject of my university dissertation it’s something that interests me greatly, but in my research for that, I hadn’t come across so much devastation in picture-form. The war was very well-documented by photo-journalists and work from photographers all over the world is on display – all too often accompanied by the story of a certain photographer’s death in the war detailed at the end of their section. The shots of the effects of Napalm and Agent Orange were particularly upsetting, with birth defects continuing into the 1990s. It’s odd to think that, as with the Cambodian experience, this upheaval is such recent history. I’m glad we went, and would recommend it to give some context to the Vietnam of today. It’s only 15,000₫ (66 cents).
Feeling a little deflated about the state of human decision-making, we treated ourselves to a ‘kem’ – Vietnamese ice cream. We wandered back to the hostel to relax in the air con for a little while, and then headed out to Bui Vien for dinner. We went to anamazing place we found on TripAdvisor’s Top Cheap Eats list for the city (it’s been incredibly useful throughout my trip so far) – Bun Cha 145 Bui Vien. We had to queue for about 10 minutes to get a table but it was definitely worth it. They have only about 8 things on the menu but they’re really well-suited to getting a bit of everything and sharing. We got ‘bun cha’, (a soup with beef patties and rice noodles), some Hanoi spring rolls, some beef wrapped in leaves and some delicious fish balls. We even managed to squeeze in a dessert of tropical fruit spring rolls with chocolate sauce. This feast cost me all of $4, which I was more than happy to pay as it was the most I’d enjoyed food since I first got ill. Jackpot. Feeling full, we wandered back through the street, listened to a live band for a while, then enjoyed an early night to aid digestion.
The following day, I went on a tour of the Mekong Delta. The agency my hostel offers tours through (YTC) wasn’t very well-reviewed, so I did a bit of my own research and booked myself onto a different one with Kim Travel. This also doesn’t have the top reviews of the bunch, but is middling price so more the kind of balance I was looking for. I was picked up and shown onto the bus with the rest of the group, mainly older travellers but from all over: South Africa, the Philippines, Germany, Poland, Finland and China. I attached myself to a friendly Scottish couple for the day. We drove 2 hours south west of Ho Ch Minh City to a town called My Tho, where we were put on a boat to take us to our first stop: Unicorn Island. It’s lovely and luscious and green, with lots of palms and colourful plants. The Vietnamese sales conveyor belt then started, with a sampling of the honey and royal jelly they make on the island, and a ‘buy 5 get 1 free’ offer. Tempting, but not today, thank you.
Next stop was to listen to (and tip, obviously) some traditional Mekong Delta musicians and eat some tropical fruit (which I wasn’t also wasn’t allowed to eat) so that wasn’t really a highlight. The following activity, however, was great, albeit brief. We walked through the palms down to one of the tributaries and climbed into rowing boats, 4 of us in single file. We were rowed about half a kilometre through the leafy green waterways, with coconuts bobbing past us and the odd water snake rearing its scaly head. They even gave us woven pointed hats for that authentic edge (read: to make us look even more like tourists).
Boat ride over sooner than we would have liked, we were shepherded to the next destination on the sales tour: showing us how to make (and buy) coconut candy. The machines and the ladies working very quickly with the caramel was quite impressive to watch – but sadly, the buy 5 get 1 free still didn’t win me over.
Piling back into the motor boat, we headed to another island in the delta for lunch. Through more green-lined waterways, we arrived at a fairly random little spot they’ve created as a restaurant and hangout area, nearby to a local village. We were served elephant fish, ginger chicken, rice, vegetable soup and some spring rolls, most of which was nice but unfortunately the fish tasted much like I imagine the river to taste like: mud. Probably won’t be a repeat order.
After lunch, myself and my Scottish companions went on a wander and discovered that the area was acting a bit like a quasi-zoo. There were maybe 20 crocodiles in a water pen, some porcupine-like creatures in another, birds, and two huge snakes in a cage. We couldn’t quite work out what the place was or why the animals were there, but it made for a memorable lunch stop! Steering clear of the napping crocs, we headed for some hammocks to swing in the breeze until we met up with the tour guide again. We headed back to the boat and the bus, and drove back into the city. It wasn’t the best tour I’ve ever been on; the guide was very friendly and enthusiastic but the balance of the day did fall maybe a little too heavily on plying local goods. I’d heard this from a few others who went with other agencies, so I think it’s probably true of most Vietnamese tours, and you do get what you pay for. Still, the delta was lovely so I’m glad I went, and you can’t fault the locals for wanting to make some money out of the tourists. The overnight home stay tours are better reviewed, if you have the time and budget.
The following day I partnered back up with Kim Travel for a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels: the network of tunnels built by the Viet Cong to move their lives and guerrilla operations underground in the face of American attacks. It’s another 1.5-2 hour drive out of Ho Chi Minh City, this time to the north. The number of tour buses in the car park when we arrived alarmed me a bit, and it was very busy, but I suppose this is to be expected at this kind of attraction. Steeling myself against the crowd, we embarked on the tour. We were guided round a number of different tunnels, air vents, fighting trenches and booby traps, some of which had been opened up for tourists to see and others that have been kept as they originally were. It’s quite a feat of engineering, with fully-functioning kitchens, medical bunkers and homes all connected by the tunnels. Cu Chi covers an area of 150km squared, and the network of tunnels and bunkers underground was in constant construction and use for almost 20 years. There’s only one tunnel you can actually squeeze through, and that’s one that has been widened for tourists. It’s crazy to think whole communities were living in these tiny tunnels, with only oil lamps for light, whilst artillery fire rained above.
The tour moved at quite a fast pace due to it only being a half-day affair (mostly taken up by the return bus journey), but it was enough time to get a feel for the terrain, the extent of the tunnel network and the guerrilla warfare of the Viet Cong. The spikes in some of the booby traps were enough to make your hair stand on end. Again, there are companies such as Vietnam Adventure Tours and Handspan Adventure Travel which have more consistently strong reviews, but these were a little out of my budget in terms of time and money. It’s worth researching before you get to Ho Chi Minh if you’re on a tight schedule but are keen to pack everything in.
It’s been an enjoyable few days in old Saigon, despite not being able to enjoy the famous beer that shares its name. Next up, a bit of mountain air to cleanse my lungs from the smog…
Until next time,
Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 13, including a Brazilian man who used to live 3 minutes’ walk from my house in London.
Interaction was: confirmation that is really is a small world.
One Woman and her Backpack x
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