Just came back from a 4 days 3 nights trip to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam with Constant Companion RR. I must admit that I did not enjoy the trip as much as I hoped.
On foot (both mine and Constant Companion RR‘s preferred mode of transportation), exploration of the city was extremely tough. Our path are usually uneven and covered with potholes. The city’s traffic, heavy and uncontrolled. The constant, spirit-dampening rain certainly did not help.
There was one incident when Constant Companion RR and I were crossing a two lanes road at a zebra crossing. As it was a one way road, traffic was coming from our right, so naturally all our focus on that side, trying to “find the rhythm” to the in-coming flow of vehicles. We were about half way through when a man in a scooter, not even wearing a helmet, zoomed past us from the left, inches away. The daredevil then cut across the two lanes and rocketed straight against the flow of traffic. He must have broken so many laws that night; I pray that he would stop his menacing riding ways before he hurt himself or worse, someone else.
I will now talk a little about the various highlights of my trip.
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
Unfortunately, Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral was closed for renovation. We did not get the chance to go inside, so we took a couple of pictures from the outside just like everybody else and proceeded across the road to the right and paid Saigon Central Post Office a visit.
Saigon Central Post Office
Saigon Central Post Office is a huge, yellow building which can be seen across the road from the cathedral. Regrettably, it was at this point the rain started to drizzle again; I could not go around taking the exterior of the building. My precious, new camera is famous for not having weather-sealing and I did not have the heart to let it get wet.
Quickly, we rushed into the post office, seeking shelter. The first thing I noticed about the inside of the post office is that there are a lot of souvenirs to be bought. We walked about for a bit to soak in the atmosphere.
Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market is a huge, sheltered market popular with tourists and locals. It was bustling with activity. Stall owners trying to get the attention of people walking by, calling out to them while waving their wares. One can get pretty much all of life’s necessities here.
A Few Black and White Night Scenes
Due to the persistent rainy weather, I did not have much opportunity to take outdoor shots with my new camera (again, it does not have weather-sealing). However, I am quite pleased with these few black and white shots.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The 2nd day in Ho Chi Minh, I have booked an afternoon tour to Cu Chi Tunnels for us. Our guide, nicknamed “Paperman” because he is skinny, picked us up from our hotel a little later than the allocated timing, but I guess it cannot be helped in such traffic.
It was approximately a 2 hours bus ride from the city to the tunnels. About an hour in, we were brought to a place where they sell handicrafts produced by the people who were affected by Agent Orange. The proceeds will go into keeping the program running, enabling its handicapped employees to make a livelihood for themselves.
After a while, we were ushered back to the bus and continued on the path to Cu Chi Tunnels.
Soon we arrived at Cu Chi Tunnels. We stood around and waited for a bit for our tickets and soon, found ourselves through the gantry. First, we were made to watch a black and white video, introducing us to the tunnels and the Cu Chi people. Once the video has looped once, a on-site guide came up and talked, extremely softly and devoid of any enthusiasm, giving us (or those who could hear her) further information with the two displays in front.
We continued with the tour, our guide “Paperman” leading us forward. The dirt ground was partially muddy and there were puddles formed by the earlier rain. The humidity caused some discomfort together with the various jungle bugs, flying or non-flying.
We were shown some traps by this on-site guide who was, like the lady guide before him at the video hut, lack of energy in his presentation. He quickly breezed through the models of the traps on the ground before him, triggering them by probing them with his long wooden stick.
One by one, we visited the various sites/ stations each touching on a specific subject about how the local fought the war and lived their lives under such conditions.
Soon, we were brought to an area where they have a firing range where visitors can fire a selection of firearms after paying for the ammunition. I had no interest in shooting a gun. In fact, I thought that it was distasteful to have something like that in an area where a real war took place and human lives were lost.
There was a souvenir shop selling some standard tourist stuff. I noticed that there are uniforms and items made from the actual bullet casing on sale. The food stall selling junk food to hungry visitors, is right next to the souvenir shop. Further down, a hut where they do rice paper making demonstration.
Constant Companion RR and I walked all the way to the end, past the hut to put some distance between us and the loud gunfire from the range. It is extremely poor planning to have the firing range so near the food stall and sitting area. I could not understand how there are still visitors willing to take a seat and eat their food with the deafening gun shots going on.
Away from the crowd and closer to the trees, Constant Companion RR and I enjoyed the light breeze and chatted while we waited for the rest of the folks in our tour.
One of the last couple of things we did that day was to to go through a couple of underground tunnels. According to our guide, we were supposed to go through 3 different tunnels, each is supposed to be longer than the previous. To ease us into it, we started with the shortest one which Constant Companion RR and I skipped since we could not make up our minds whether or not do we really want to go through the tunnels at all.
At the second one entrance, I thought to myself since we came so far (and most likely never to be coming back again), we might as well give the tunneling a chance. The tunnel measures about 1 m by 0.7 m, there was really no chance to get stuck between the walls. With Constant Companion RR in front of me, we went straight down along with our tour mates in a single file.
Almost immediately, I felt a sense of dread being confined in that tiny space where I could only move forward and backwards, even then restricted by the person in front of me and behind. The cold walls brushed against my shoulders, I waddled forward with my head bent down. Instinctively, I wanted to leave the tunnels as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, we could only move as fast as the person ahead. Whenever someone decided to pause to take a quick and dark selfie, the entire file stopped. I know it was just a short distance, but somehow, it felt longer than it actually is. Suddenly, over Constant Companion RR‘s shoulder, I caught a glimpse of an exit opening up.
Thinking that my tunnel crawling was finally over, I excitedly but patiently move forward, giving Constant Companion RR the necessary space if, for whatever reason, she needs to suddenly move back. Tailgating is bad, okay people? When I arrived at the “exit”, my heart dropped that it was an entrance to a tiny tent-shaped space with the start of another tunnel ahead. This was nothing but a pause and a false hope.
Without stopping, everybody moved forward. I was wondering how long more of this tunnel, repressing the budding sense of dread with logical thinking and self-assurance, when I saw the real exit which I know for sure because of the welcoming natural lighting. I climbed up and out of the tunnels and a sense of relief washed over me. The air felt cool to my skin.
I believe the whole thing took less than 5 minutes. But boy, were those few minutes uncomfortable.
Skipping ahead, we were brought to this “canteen” where our guide started to talk about the food of the locals during the war. Several plates of sliced, steamed tapioca were placed along the long wooden table where we sat down.
Accompanying each plate of steamed tapioca, was a small saucer of grounded peanut and sugar mixture. We were supposed to eat the steamed tapioca with the peanut sugar mixture.
Sharing a plate of tapioca with a fellow tour mate, I grabbed one piece of tapioca, lightly dabbed one end of it in the peanut sugar mixture and fed Constant Companion RR. Once she had taken a bite, I dabbed the other end of the tapioca into the peanut condiment and popped the entire thing into my mouth.
As we chewed on our simple snack, we started observing the tour mate sitting directly in front of us, munching on the steamed tapioca sticks like a kid eating french fries. Nonchalantly and repeatedly, he stabbed his tapioca into the peanut sugar mixture after every bite, making sure he gets maximum coverage on it before taking another bite of his snack, stopping exactly where the coating of peanut sugar mixture ended.
Each dip into the peanut sugar mixture with the bitten end of his tapioca seemed to grab hold of increased amount of peanut sugar mixture; I have no doubt it was because of all that saliva. When he was done with the piece on hand, he immediately followed up with grabbing another piece while he continued chewing. Very efficient.
Constant Companion RR and I did not go for a second piece.
Soon after that, it was another hour and a half trip back to the city.
Food of Saigon
I must say both Constant Companion RR and I enjoyed the local food immensely; we relished all of the flavours and the variety of Vietnamese cuisine. As much as we could, we insisted on having the local food during our trip.
The restaurants/ eateries we went to were the ones we found online (Google/ Trip Advisor) and, fortunately, we were not disappointed. However, it is a shame I did not try an authentic, local style Banh Mi. We had two Banh Mi on our trip; one came with a bowl of meatball in tomato sauce to dip into, the other had a thick slab of tofu because Constant Companion RR ordered vegetarian style.
We spent a lot of time in cafes; mainly because of the delicious Vietnamese coffee, partially because we needed shelter from the rain/ heat or we did not know what to do at that point of time.
The Vietnam coffee was fantastic. According to “Paperman”, our guide for an afternoon, Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee beans in the world. I am pleasantly surprised when I bit into my straw and the end split opened with a crunch, only to realise that it was part of a plant instead of plastic.
Some of these cafes are very cosy; hidden away in some building, well away from the bustling city life.
Like I have mentioned at the start of this post, I did not enjoy Ho Chi Minh as much as I would like. The rainy weather (I really chose a bad time to visit the city) was especially hindering and bothersome.
One plus point is that we finally got to use our yellow, disposable raincoats that we bought in Chiayi, Taiwan though. The raincoats were meant to be used in Alishan, but since they were not needed and they remained in my luggage until Vietnam. It was an act out of desperation as we did not want to waste our time stuck in the hotel and the hotel was all out of umbrella that day.
Constant Companion RR and I decided to get ourselves a better set of raincoats after this trip for our future trips.
Restricted by the bad weather, the few “Places of Interest” we were able to get to, are somewhat underwhelming and really do not have much content or stimulation to offer.
While the tour to Cu Chi Tunnels provided us a way to spend an afternoon, I cannot helped but feel as though the whole place operated a little like an amusement park with the main purpose of milking tourists’ money. It felt like it is making a mockery of the sober history and kind of disrespecting the lives that have been lost in the war.
We enjoyed the unique Vietnamese coffee and many of the city’s little hidden cafes. The food we had certainly made a lasting impression on both of us.
The best way, I feel, to visit Ho Chi Minh is to have a knowledgeable guide with transport to bring you exactly to what is worth seeing and experiencing. From what we have been through, it is not a place Constant Companion RR and I can fully and effectively enjoy using our usual method of wandering around on foot.
Regrettably, this trip may not be the best attempt to introduce myself to Ho Chi Minh, in all honesty, I am still glad for the unique experience.