Recounting my first two crazy days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
06.02.2012 - 08.02.2012 32 °C
So! Here we are - in the crazy land of Vietnam. On Monday afternoon after rushing to pack up my apartment I popped over to Sydney Domestic Airport to board flight JQ73 to Darwin, and then joining flight JQ77 to Ho Chi Minh City. Nothing all that interesting happened on the flights, though after about 3 hours (they were 5 hours each) I was ready to jump out the plane. Customs and baggage collection and all that jazz went much more smoothly than I'd feared for my first lonesome international flight, and soon enough I was in an $8 cab to my hostel.
Virtually immediately it was pretty obvious that this city is absolutely bonkers, and I had to keep jotting down my first impressions of the city before my mind imploded. Predominantly, the way that the traffic system works is mind blowing - cars and motorbikes (so many motorbikes!) swerve in and out of each other, constantly beeping, which I was told by a hostelmate is basically how they tell other motorists they're coming and that they designate themselves right of way. It also appears that traffic lights serve a mostly decorative purpose, and what determines the right or wrong side of the road may be subjective - to my taxi driver at least.
To my surprise, I survived the taxi drive - but my next task was to actually cross the road without getting hit as, like many road rules, pedestrian crossings are apparently insignificant. The best advice I've been told is to walk slowly and confidently, as they don't want to hit you in the likely event that you could mess up their motorbike.
At about 10pm I got into my hostel - which I cannot recommend enough. I'm staying at Long Hostel right near Pham Ngu Lao, which is one of the main backpacker areas right in District 1. Miss Long gave me some Ice Tea and in the reception were a few other travellers, who happened to all be sharing my dorm. Surprisingly, since I've been here I've mainly met Americans, and the 5 dorm mates I've had have all been from the US. I didn't really expect this as I've been told it's always the Aussies, Kiwis and Europeans that have enough expendable income to travel, but it's been really great, as the girls in my room tonight are really nice and I've learnt a great amount about the US political system and social structures (which sound kinda sucky...health care mostly).
On the first night I didn't really do anything except haul my backpack up the five flights of stairs (hell) and chat with my roomies (Alicia, Miles, Tamara and Mary Anne..tonight Tamara and Miles have gone and Mary Anne's friend Ailien is here instead). On Tuesday I decided I just wanted to walk around and explore to get a bit of a feel for the city, so Miss Long gave me a map and sat me down to explain it all to me, which was so useful. I got very lost a lot, which was actually pretty fun. Eventually I was able to recognise a few streets on the map and decided I'd try to head towards the War Remnants Museum, which is one of the more touristy things to do. However, I was starving and desperate to have my first bowl of pho. I'd been a bit nervous to order it in case I sounded like a total wanker and ordered the wrong thing etc (there were a few places on the street that I'd been keen to try something mysterious looking but couldn't because of the language barrier). Finally I stumbled upon a pretty swanky looking place that had free WiFi and beef pho on the menu so I thought I'd give it a try. Yet, when it came out it didn't taste like the delicious pho I was used to... and there was something very mysterious looking lurking in the side of the soup. When I asked the waitress she confirmed that this was actually 'pork belly blood jelly', which is created when the blood from a pigs stomach congeals. YUM. Although it smelt and looked disgusting, I thought 'hey, I'm in Vietnam...' and tried to take a bite, but quickly learned that I'm not as adventurous as I thought and quickly spat it out. Luckily, the whole meal cost about $2.50 so I wasn't all that phased.
The kind staff gave me some directions to the War Remnants Museum, which cost 15,000VND to visit (about 75cents) - and was absolutely incredible. I studied a bit of Indochina and the Vietnam War in high school, but this museum really put everything into its horrific context. Probably what I found most disturbing was the Agent Orange exhibition, which had some terribly sad pictures, a letter that a second generation Agent Orange victim wrote to Obama, and preserved foetuses of Agent Orange affected babies on display. Downstairs when I entered there were a group of Vietnamese students (I assume) singing to a small group of children who had clearly been born with birth defects because of Agent Orange. The children belong to a group to support these victims, and had a table selling all sorts of handicrafts they'd made to raise funds. I bought a cute little bracelet for about 50 cents. All in all the museum was incredibly disturbing, but I think that seeing things like this are necessary sometimes as there is no point denying the horror of humanity.
After that I decided to walk back to a park I'd visited briefly earlier (where I attempted to communicate with some old ladies exercising in the park but the only way they could reciprocate was by squeezing my arms and saying 'you beautiful'). I sat for a little while relaxing in the heat and a lady came to sit with me. She is a beautiful lady named Tanh, but her story was quite sad. Her husband and her entire family were killed in the war 37 years ago, and she had been alone since. She said she doesn't have any friends because she is too poor and spends her time walking through the parks selling manicures and pedicures. She gave me a manicure for $2 and I am now typing with some perfectly painted, vibrant blue nails.
After Tanh left I walked around a bit more, meandering back to the hostel as I was quite tired and my knee hurt (it's infected from a skilful stack I performed at Laneway on Sunday). I bought some coconut milk and went into an empty temple - well it wasn't quite a temple but it was clearly some sort of religious site). I eventually made it to September 23 Park, where I'd heard that sometimes students will come and sit with you to practise their English. Surely enough, within about five minutes of sitting down, a young girl named Tuyen came and asked to speak English with me. We had a long chat about friends, family, work, studying, etc, which gave me a bit more of a unique insight into the cultural differences between Australia and Vietnam. We then went to the supermarket (incredible) so I could get something for my knee and I went back to the hostel for a rest.
I was getting peckish and decided to try a hot pot place I'd heard about near my hostel. Back in Sydney I used to have this delicious Vietnamese dish called clay pot pork, and thought it was the same thing, but rather it's this spicy shrimpy soup type thing that you're given over a flame, and then you're given beef (or whatever you order) and noodles and vegetables. A Chinese girl walked past and asked if it was any good, and decided to sit with me while we ate. Her name is Lan, from Beijing, (apparently her French name is Sonia) and she was in Vietnam on a four-week holiday. we spoke for a while and I showed her the supermarket, where I got some Peanut Butter/Chocolate oreos (!!!) and yoghurt, and then we parted ways.
The next day (today), I also wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. Tamara had a free day before she left and wanted to go to the markets, so I went for a walk with her. Just outside the alley in which our hostel resides are some groceries markets in the morning, which I had only smelt but not seen yesterday. Incredible! Of course there was the standard fish, but also incredible frogs, crabs, eels, snakes etc - all ALIVE! The market was very lively but also disgusting for someone who isn't a big fan of seafood (let alone frogs). There was also a lot of dried fish, fruit, vegetables, and a number of things that I simply couldn't tell you what they are.
After this we walked to Ben Tanh market, which I had only briefly visited the day earlier, and like everything here it is amazing. I've seen a few wallets and handbags I have my eye on but I really don't want to buy much crap or go over budget so I'm a little torn. Tamara on the other hand appears to be a shopaholic and couldn't stop herself!
We walked up towards the Reunification Palace (but didn't go in - I'm still deciding if I will tomorrow), which is conveniently right near a branch of my Australian bank, so I got a bit more money out. We went to Notre Dame and tried to find the Central Post Office, which is apparently a converted train station, but the map was misleading, so we just wandered around for a bit. We went to a few more markets (of course) before going to Pho 2000, which from what I understand is like fast-food pho. But hey, it was air conditioned. I got a delicious beef stew thingo and a pineapple shake...nom nom. I then tried to get back to the hostel but ended up near the supermarket so I looked around for a while, and then rested at the hostel for a couple of hours. The other girls returned from the tours they'd been on and Alicia showed us to the night markets. They were cool, and we got some dinner at a street restaurant at the markets (delicious beef noodle fried thingo) and I had my first Saigon Beer! We looked around the markets a bit more and then I was convinced to try Sinh To, which is like a fruit smoothie but made with condensed milk. I tried a bit of Alicia's avocado one - which was surprisingly good for a condensed milk/avocado combo, but I stuck it safe with mango.
And that was pretty much my day...
Tomorrow I'm up bright and early to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, and then on Friday I leave early to get the boat to Phnom Penh! So I have very little time left here. I still need to get decent pho, banh mit, rice paper rolls and ideally caramel clay pot pork - but I doubt I'll be able to fit that much food into one day. I guess we'll see how we go! I'm also kind of interested in seeing the Reunification Palace still, so I might go tomorrow after Cu Chi - I guess we'll see!
Hope all is well in all your various parts of the world xx
PS I'm definitely adopted a Vietnamese child.