June 4, 2013

Ho Chi Minh For the Win! (Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam)

Vietnam was a place that both of us were very excited to visit and after our time there we realized we loved it and we can't wait to get back!
HCM - Yes please!
Before we got to experience anything good that Vietnam had to offer we had a 16 hour, miserable, overnight bus ride from Sihanoukville that was supposed to be 11 hours (read about our time in Sihanoukville here), we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCM) exhausted. 
Sleeper bus from Sihanoukville to HCM - a rough night
(In case you're curious or unsure - Ho Chi Minh was once called Saigon and was only renamed after the Vietnam/American War.) We only scheduled two nights for HCM as we had heard mixed reviews from other backpackers that it was too hectic, too loud, and that there were too many scooters. We were sure that two nights would be enough.

Typical traffic light in HCM
After we settled in to our guesthouse, we walked around the city and began perfecting the art form that is crossing the streets in HCM. There are very few traffic lights or pedestrian areas to cross and thousands and thousands of motor bikes.  You can stand on the curb for 20 minutes hoping for an opportune time to cross, and it won't come. Essentially you have to just pick a time to go and step off the curb with confidence. The key to surviving is to keep the same walking pace while crossing, and the motorbikes and scooters will adjust around you, sometimes literally enveloping you. Trying to pick up your pace or stopping unexpectedly will only cause confusion and possibly an accident. It takes some getting used to but, like so many things in Asia, the chaos actually works. We also found unsolicited help when we needed it. After a full day of walking around, we were headed across a 4-lane road during rush hour and were overwhelmed by the traffic. We must have been standing on the side of the road looking aghast and terrified because two teenage girls (who had just crossed the road from the other side) motioned for us to follow them and slowly walked across the street, leading us like shadows until we were safely across. Then, with a wave and a smile, they turned right back around and crossed the busy street for the third time in 60 seconds. It was a kind gesture but very humbling to be walked across the street like a couple of old ladies.

Despite the chaos of the streets, we quickly realized we should have spent more time in HCM. While it can be very crowded and busy, HCM has a vibrant energy. At night, the sidewalks are crowded with people chatting with their neighbors and sitting at cafes and restaurants. It is a very sociable city that stays awake till the wee hours. In fact, when we got up very early on our last day in HCM to go to the airport, the streets were still lined with beer drinkers from the night before. They weren't being unruly or raucous, they were just sitting together with their friends, drinking the fresh beer (Bia Hoi, brewed every day without preservatives and only 25 cents per glass!) and talking animatedly.

One of the Must Do things in HCM is visiting the War Remnants Museum. (While we call it the Vietnam War in The States, they call it the American War in Vietnam.) The museum has four floors detailing the war, including the US-funded French combat against the Viet Cong from 1950-55, all the way to the fall of Saigon in 1975. It was a difficult few hours spent at the museum and really brings home the atrocities of war. One of the biggest problems with any war is that it drives normally rational people to do awful things, and the museum exposed us to dreadful crimes of war committed on both sides of the battle. As Americans, we have no recent examples of the aftermath of war on our own soil. Visiting Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, we were exposed to the long-term effects war has on a country and a people. Perhaps if more people could see these things, we would spend more time considering our actions.

The most difficult section of the museum focused on Agent Orange and was absolutely gut-wrenching to explore. When we initially walked in the museum there was a group of about 20 young Vietnamese in the corner dressed in orange shirts with some serious deformities such as no legs, blindness due to malformed eyes, shrunken bodies, and misshapen heads. Each of these people were 2nd and 3rd generation victims of Agent Orange. There was also a photo exhibit of babies born affected by the chemical which was one of the hardest things I have seen in my life. We had both known that Agent Orange has caused and is causing deformities in the people exposed to Agent Orange and in their children, but neither of us had any idea how severe these deformities are. In some instances, it was difficult to identify the babies as humans. Agent Orange was used to kill over 400,000 people during the war (most of them civilians) and has resulted in birth defects of over 500,000 children since the war. And while there has been some paltry court settlements in favor of US military affected by Agent Orange, the attempts by Vietnamese people to sue the manufacturers of it (Dow Chemical and Monsanto) has continually been thrown out by the US court system. It is truly sad that people living today (Vietnamese and American) are still being affected by a war 40 years ago. Before arriving in Vietnam we both wondered if there would be any animosity or anger towards us when we told people we were from the US. There wasn't. And while starting our time in Vietnam by going to the museum for a couple of hours was hard, it made us appreciate the kindness and pride these people have even a little bit more. We'll share a bit more about our experience as Americans in Vietnam a bit later. To learn more, visit Vietnam Village of Friendship or watch the below video. (Warning: It's a bit graphic.)

One reason we were excited to visit Vietnam was the food. We love Vietnamese food at home and were excited to try the different dishes and see how the food changed from South to North. A great thing about HCM is the street food is everywhere and safe to eat. In our time there we loved sitting on a sidewalk in tiny plastic chairs (the seat of choice in SE Asia) eating street food and watching the blur of traffic go by. Some of our favorites: pho, banh mi sandwiches, bun cha.

While the city is hectic and there is a constant blur of scooters we found the people very relaxed, friendly and playful. We really loved HCM and could easily see ourselves spending more time there. Overall, we loved HCM and would have spent longer there, and in the Mekong Delta, if we didn't have a flight up to Da Nang previously booked - to celebrate Steph's 30th in style. You probably can't wait to hear how great of a husband I am right? Stay tuned...

Check out all of our pics from Ho Chi Minh here. A few more favorites are below.


Steph, sleeping at the HCM airport

Check out all of our pics from Ho Chi Minh here

1 comment:

  1. HCM was a little bit of a bust for us as it was where I got my first stomach bug and despite spending about five days there, didn't see or do much! Have absolutely loved Hoi An, though - and we're currently in Hue, heading to Hanoi shortly.