Sapa to Saigon. Part IV: Ho Chi Minh City.

3:57 AM Jessica Montgomery 2 Comments


     My flight ended up being an hour before Emma's into Ho Chi Minh, so I waited around the airport and people watched. Airports, in my creeper opinion, are the best places to do this. My favorite thing about people watching at airports is airport style. Typically, I'm a bum on airplanes and this trip was anything but an exception..even more so I fear. I admire people that cling on to that 1960s travel vibe and actually dress up to fly. High heels on anything longer than a two hour flight? Psssh, you must be as crazy as Howard Hughes himself. But, I admire those who do, and like to watch them click along like Victoria Beckman gathering up their matching luggage.
     Emma arrived with another guy that we'd met in our hostel and we made our way to the bus post outside of the airport. This proved to be a challenge and the scam-demeanor of Hoi An had evidently made its way South to Ho Chi Minh. No one was able to point us in the direction of the bus stop. But everyone was more than happy to direct us to a taxi. A taxi that would sit and stall in Ho Chi Minh's insane traffic. Finally one taxi attendant made a faint gesture to the right and we continued down and across a median until we reached the bus stop. We gathered up our packs and squished on to an already packed bus with a British family composed of three generations. They had been traveling together for quite some time and still intended to go through Cambodia and Laos. I simply couldn't imagine the patience and planning that must go in to taking not only your two children, but also your in-laws in a cross-country, SouthEast Asia, trip. I was starting to get annoyed with myself let alone with a group of six, all of them being family! Wow. Impressive.
     
     Ho Chi Minh City is huge, and fast, and noisy, and intense! It reminded me of a combination between New York City and Hong Kong, but with the outwardly visible infrastructure of Phnom Penh, will all of its exposed wiring and madness. Vietnam is the fastest growing country in all of South East Asia and Ho Chi Minh City is its glistening symbol of proof. My preconceived idea of what Vietnam would look like in no way resembled Ho Chi Minh. It was astounding.
     Emma, our guy friend whose name escapes me, and myself navigated the streets and hoards of motorbikes in search of a hostel. We had an idea of where some could be, but were ultimately alone in this venture. We made our way to a notorious 'party backpackers' on the main strip and was immediately confronted with backwards caps, Spring Break tank tops, and 11am beers in the street. Now, I'm all for a good day-drinking party...but when your bros are having petty arguments over the price of noodles for fun with a street vendor who doesn't understand your sarcasm, it's time to put the beers down and smack your fellow bro in their, patchy, ironic, beard.
     Emma and I ditched the bro-scene and went with our second option: Long's Hostel. Long's Hostel was located down a small alley connected to another area of the backpacker's scene. I loved this hostel. The staff was great, the rooms were beautiful, comfortable and new, and the air conditioning was to die for. Based on the outward appearance of Ho Chi Minh I was expecting something similar to my hostel in Hong Kong, complete with bed bugs. But! Appearances do deceive.
     Within an hour of Emma and mine's arrival, we were already part of a multi-nation group dead set on finding some yummy pho for dinner. My Aussie and myself were mixed in with some Brits, Canadians, Hollanders, a Scot, an Austrian, and a nice guy from Zimbabwe. We were a force to be reckoned with when we arrived at the restaurant and were promptly seated upstairs in the foreigner-friendly executive suite (AKA we were too big and too noisy to be seated on the ground floor. Best hide us away~).  The pho was good, but the street pho in Hanoi was far superior. But I must say I wasn't there for the food but rather for the vivacious foreigner cocktail I'd found myself in.

     But wait. Crime. Let's back up and talk about crime in Ho Chi Minh City here for a second. One tip I have for you: Do not take a bag or backpack out with you into the streets. Just don't. Theft is rampant here. The main culprit of theft: Motorcyclists. A popular practice in the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City is for a motorcycle to run up next to you and grab the bag from right off your back as they zoomed past. The group I'd met at Long Hostel had already witnessed this happen three times in one day. Two of my friends even witnessed a girl being drug through the streets because the motor-biker grabbed on to her backpack and wouldn't let go. An entire side of her body, as well as her face, had been severely scratched and injured. Insanity. I highly suggested you ditch your bag and stick to a fanny-pack or a wallet that you can wear underneath your shirt. We asked our hostel how often things like this happened and they shrugged their shoulders and said "everyday". Ho Chi Minh City is pretty ruthless.

     Our hostel group made a plan to hit the town at night. I think most of us were taken away by the hustle and bustle of the NYC-esque city and decided to let in envelop us. We had a large group, mostly men, and left our bags at home to ensure a night out without incident. We got as gussied up as much as a group of backpackers could be and set our sights on the 52nd floor, helicopter bar, Alto. This bar totes itself on being for exclusive cliental, hence the helicopter pad for a flashy entrance. I had no plans to ever do something like this on my travels. $12 drinks in a country where I'd just spent 9cents on one seemed outlandish and ridiculous to me! But that ended up being the overall sentiment of the night and I wouldn't of had it any other way.
     We ended up taking a private taxi van (another luxury) to the base of the building and escorted ourselves up a rather fancy escalator and elevator. The doors opened and we had the entire lounge and staff to ourselves. Dimly lit and twinkling with club lights, the windowed walls showcased the incredible city skyline. I felt like I'd touched some sort of faux-celebrity status. This feeling of excess only increased once we ordered bottle service. Bottle service at a club? A club with a helipad? Isn't that the type of thing the Yakuza does? Was Tony Jaa going to burst through the double doors at any moment fighting a group of twenty men all wearing matching suits? Maybe. One could dream~
     We ordered. We laughed. We drank. We danced (horribly). It was so much fun! Truly a night I will remember forever. The staff even gave all of the ladies complimentary cocktails and red roses, because, yah know...VIPs and all.
     
Ho Chi Minh City as seen from the Alto Heli Bar, 52nd floor.
     We left the heli bar in search of our next few conquests and slowly but surely our group ended up dwindling down until it was just Emma and I at the end of the night. We went to a few more bars and checked out a few more scenes until we posted up on the sidewalk of one of the last few bars open. We ended up staying there all night, met some locals, listened to a waiter sing, convinced one that i was Brazilian, and caught the sun rising from between the mesh of power lines lining the street. The day after was a pure recovery day. I slept in 'til 2pm, ate a falafel, then went straight back to bed. My 24hour Korean-bender days are surely behind me. I'm getting too old for this nonsense...ha! It was an unexpectedly lavish night and, in a way, celebrated the vivacity and tenacity of a city quick to rebuild.
     But! The backseat penny-pincher in my mind was surprisingly pleased. For a relatively excessive night out in one of the fastest growing cities in the world, my wallet was only down approximately $30 USD. If this had been Seoul or any other metropolis, you could easily add a zero to that number for what we just did. South East Asia is definitely the place to live like a Queen on the budget of a Jester.

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     My main reason for heading to Ho Chi Minh City was Vietnam War history. Ho Chi Minh City, formally Saigon as it was called during the War, was no doubt on of the most crucial and infamous cities during the Vietnam War. The city, as well as the surrounding area and Mekong, tells a complicated tale of one of the darkest times in recent US history. The Vietnam War is and will forever be a complicated issue. Who was "right"? Who was "wrong"? It's an astounding mess and one that honestly does not have a clear answer.
     I will be the first to tell you how ignorant I am about Vietnam and The Vietnam War. The War itself is obviously a challenging topic with many complex and intricate causes and sides to the same story. I grew up interested in history and took those courses very seriously while in school. But I can not for the life of me remember being taught anything about Vietnam in any of my K-12 education. I remember dates and presidents and numbers and the overall dark and mournful sentiment of The War and the culture clashes happening Stateside, but that's it. We were never taught anything more about it. And to me, that is very disturbing and disrespectful on all fronts. It's disrespectful to not only our veterans suffering PTSD, but also those Vietnamese still reeling from the effects of Agent Orange and other atrocities. War is disgusting. War becomes even more disgusting when its stories and people are forgotten.

     Ho Chi Minh was a pilgrimage for me of sorts. Traveling as an American, you do encounter your fair share of resentment and I assumed that Vietnam may be its epicenter. Travel has challenged me with stereotypes abound and the weight of our past and current politicians follow us like a dark, heavy cloud. I can't tell you how many times I've had someone tell me while traveling, "You know, 70% of people in America don't have passports!" or "Why are you in Iraq?" or "'Murrica!' or, my personal  favorite, "You are a lot quieter than most Americans. I thought you were Canadian!" I take that last one as a compliment just because it sets me outside of a stereotype, not because I appear to be "unAmerican". I question how many US citizens they've actually met when I hear that last one.
     It's a fact, and the world-view stereotype reigns true: Americans are hated. It's difficult to escape a pre-conceived, bias view being thrust upon you the very moment you introduce yourself. And yes, it gets trying. And yes, at times you want to give up. But, all you can do is be educated and prove yourself better. Education is the biggest weapon of outward ignorance. Debunk stereotypes (not just Americans, but any country you call home) by proving you're better than them [the stereotypes] and move on to more productive means of conversation. Set a good example for your country and leave a lasting impression. Share ideas, facts, cultures and customs; not stereotypes. Isn't that more productive? Stereotypes hold us back and let backwards thinking from previous generations grab hold of what could be a more useful outlook. Not only do stereotypes affect the one being accused but they also showcase the ignorance of the accuser.
 But, that being said:

  The actions of one's government do not necessarily reflect that of its own people.  

That's my stance.
Anyway. Moving on...

     Emma, myself, and a few other friends from our hostel booked a half day tour to the Cu Chi tunnel system just outside of Ho Chi Minh City. The Cu Chi tunnels are part of the massive underground network set up by the Viet Cong long before US involvement in the conflict. These tunnels, being on average less than 3ft in height and width, sprawl through much of the country.

     We were picked up by our guide Mr. Bin and after meeting this man, I will truly never view war (especially The Vietnam War) the same again.
     "The good" and "the bad" sides of the Vietnam War have long been blurred and muddy. They were even more so for Mr. Bin. Bin was born half Vietnamese and half Philippine and was involved in many aspects of the war as a military man and as a civilian. On our drive out to the tunnels he gave us a brief history of the conflict pre, during, and post US involvement directly from scenes of his life. His story is long, heartbreaking, and full of more death and grief than anyone I'd ever met prior. Listening to him on the bus was... actually, it's rather difficult to put into words how I felt.
     Mr. Bin used to drive his fiancee around her university in Saigon before the war on his Vespa. They were very much in love and he planned on marrying her in a few months time. She was killed in Saigon during protests. He fled to The States with his father, who was a outspoken political activist, and Mr. Bin joined up to fight alongside the US Navy. His father returned to Vietnam and was eventually assassinated due to his opposition to Ho Chi Minh. Mr. Bin fought with the US Navy for many years and watched many of his friends die. He recalled watching one of his good friends, Mr. Steven, die in his arms. He had to place numerous dog tags into the mouths of his friends so that when their bodies were recovered they could be identified and sent home.
     Mr. Bin was taken as a prisoner of war and was sent to a POW camp for six years to be "re-educated". He was tortured and repeatedly asked his allegiance until he finally conceded. He said that his mind had been beaten and broken during those six years and he left the camp lost. He was branded a traitor and was placed in the front lines to fight the Chinese during a border war post-US conflict in the late 70s. He is still considered missing in action by the US Navy. He eventually returned to his home, Saigon, to find it in ruin and that his mother had also been killed. He scoured the remains of his home in an attempt to find his most prized possession: The vespa he used to take his fiancee to university. It was gone.
     Mr. Bin was not without humor though. He told us his story while he cracked open beer after beer and decided to lighten the mood as we arrived closer to the tunnels with world capital's trivia and jokes about his wife being ugly but making up for it by being a good cook. Mr. Bin's one concern was that his and the stories of his friends will be forgotten. He asked that we not forget the "ramblings of an old man" and have a drink of Johnny Walker Black to remember him by.

     The tunnel complex themselves are worth the trip. The tunnels are undetectable from the surface and are flanked by bomb craters. The tunnels themselves are well preserved and partially widened in order to accommodate larger, Western, tourist bodies. "Escape stairs" were in place every 3m for those that found them too claustrophobic. I made it for about 9m before I had to surface. The original tunnels are incredibly small. So small that they went long undetected by opposition forces for years. Accompanying the tunnels are booby trap displays and sniper hideouts, both tourists can try. I'm all for experiencing history. But. I couldn't bring myself to pop down into a fox hole, smile, and have my photo taken next to spikes used to impale soldiers. I found it slightly distasteful. But my main complaint about the Cu Chi tunnel tourist site would be the firing range. Mr. Bin told us that if we wanted to at the end of the tour we could pay, per bullet, to shoot our choice of weapon. He said, "Go on ahead if you want, but I've already done it".
     We approached the firing range and gift shop with teeth rattling explosions as a greeter. Mr. Bin left the area promptly and could be seen sitting off into the distance chain smoking by himself. Others on our tour got in line and oogled at the big booms they could make. I was completely revolted by this, as was Emma; especially after all we've heard from Mr. Bin. If anything, I feel like this place, as all war monuments, should be treated with respect. Think. Really think before you pour your money into something like this. Aren't their larger principles at work here aside from your need to fulfill your big-man-big-gun esteem? -These are my own opinions. You are entitled to your own.

Crawling on my hands and knees through a Viet Cong tunnel. Cu Chi Tunnel system, Vietnam

     At the end of our tour we were subjected to a Vietnamese propaganda video. The invading forces (The US) were often referred to as "White Devils" and Vietnam as a fruitful and peaceful place up until their appearance. We know both of these to be false. Mr. Bin actually came in halfway through the video and turned it off. He couldn't take it anymore. He took charge and gave us a little more history on the tunnels and the war as seen from his perspective before we crawled back onto the bus, sweaty and morose.
     After the tour we had to option of being dropped off at the Vietnam War Remnants Museum (formally The Museum of American War Crimes). As if our day wasn't cheery enough... Emma, myself, and two other friends of ours took up this opportunity and walked its halls for a short time before it closed. The main floor displayed a large room and collection of photos of people and children affected by Agent Orange. If you are unsure of what Agent Orange is, I suggest you read up on it. It's absolutely horrifying. The entire museum was absolutely horrifying. Level by level was full of extremist propaganda, graphic wartime photos, relics from war and villages affected by it, glorified body counts of US soldiers, letters to and from the war front, stories of massacre... It was abysmal and truly tested my love and hope for humanity. I'm sure anyone, from either side, who experienced the war first hand would have an extremely difficult time viewing this collection. This war had no winner. Everyone lost.

Anti-war poster from Australia. 

     Our final night in Ho Chi Minh was spent like many before in SE Asia: Out on the streets drinking with the locals. A small group of us went out and stumbled across a bustling after-hours street packed with people sitting in little plastic chairs munching on snacks and downing local brews. We sat in silence for a bit and simply observed. That is until a local Vietnamese man, maybe around 20 years old, wanted to chat to us and offer up some of his boiled quail eggs to snack on. He was very sweet, had a mohawk, had minimal English, and was already a bit too drunk for his friend to handle. We cheers'd and with every 10 minute interval came yet another cheers. It felt good. I felt like I was leaving the up and downs of my time in Ho Chi Minh on an up.

     Overall, Ho Chi Minh is worth a stop. I wouldn't consider it beautiful like Hanoi it's sister to the North, but history is the real draw. It's also great to experience a different form of the 'Asian Mega City'. Just remember to stay safe and go in with an open mind. And always cleanse the palette from a day of war site-seeing with a fresh beer out on the cool streets at night. If you don't, you might just go mad.
 

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2 comments:

  1. I've really enjoyed your Vietnam posts, Jessica! Thanks for taking the time to write about all the different places. My hostel in HCMC was also really adamant about women not taking bags when they go out for the day/evening, even going as far as recommending that we stash money in our bras!

    I was just wondering - is the situation the same in Hanoi? I'm going next week and trying to plan what to bring and more specifically, what to bring it in!

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    1. Ahh! Thanks so much! :)
      And nope! Hanoi is far more relaxed. Of course exercise caution as usual, but! I felt extremely safe walking around by myself and had no problems with my bags at all. I had my cross-body purse on me the entire time and never felt like I needed to stash it.

      Hope you enjoy Hanoi! I absolutely loved it. Such a great vibe~

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