Another long one….
An eight hour bus from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City arrived only 15 minutes late and we were fortunate enough to have time to meet up with a former travelling companion of mine from Costa Rica for a few beers before he had to catch a train north. Probably the most punctual we have been so far in Vietnam. Thrilled to be out of the cold temperatures and rain, we were greeted with thick heat and intense sunshine.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is still very often referred to as Saigon. It is the largest city in Vietnam, by a lot as far as we can tell. There are over 9 million people and I’m pretty sure they all own motorbikes. The city is teeming with them. Having been under French control, there is still some French influence here, most notably for us, in the bakery department. One morning, while sitting at a bakery (where we went numerous more times), we ran into a Canadian that we bowled with a month prior in Laos. This has happened to us a few times in the past few months. It’s a small world, even over here.
We always try to walk as much as possible for a few reasons. It saves money, keeps us in shape, and most importantly, we see a lot more. In many cases, we see a lot of strange stuff. Animals in cages on the backs of motorbikes being no exception.
We haven’t heard of Vietnamese in the south eating dogs, hopefully that’s just the north because these guys were really cute.
Our first day, we walked across town towards the War Remnants Museum. It being closed for two hours in the middle of the day caused a bit of delay, but we wandered the neighborhood while we waited for it to re-open.
Everybody naps in the afternoon, even the motorbike drivers.
When the War Remnants Museum re-opened, we joined a throng of other tourists to see the exhibit on the war crimes committed against the Vietnamese. There really should be an identical museum like this in DC. They displayed the “tiger cages” where the South Vietnamese government kept political prisoners. The small cages would hold 3 people, but they could only lie down.
It was a sobering exhibit, full of gruesome pictures that make you feel horrible for the people who endured such tragedy. The Agent Orange room is particularly depressing, as some of the photos are recent of people with disabilities related to their parents being exposed to herbicidal warfare by the Americans.
Despite the atrocities they have been through by the Americans, the Vietnamese people we have encountered have been so friendly and helpful. It wasn’t something I expected and many people, from home and who we have met here, are curious as to how we have been treated. And I guess it all comes down to, well, they won. And communism didn’t destroy the world. But there is a lot of propaganda here still – not that we know what most of it says.
We have been travelling for over four months now, which has flown by. However, it has taken a toll on us, specifically my backpack. Riki’s 30 year old bag, a loaner from my parents, is doing well – no rips, tears or even noticeable stains. Mine on the other hand (a $30 Hong Kong buy from my parents’ last visit) has been on its last legs for about a month. After repairing seams a second time, I decided to trade in (but not up). We visited quite a few markets around HCMC and I finally settled on a $20 knockoff which appears bus-worthy. Well, the zipper for the raincover broke on its first outing, but if I get three months out of it, I’ll call it even. Oh, and its green!
Our last morning, we checked out of our 3 room guesthouse down a narrow alley and hit the streets to kill an afternoon before our night bus to the coast. We encountered more sleeping in strange positions, animals on the back of motorbikes (goldfish & a chicken on a leash attached to a motorbike) and a cool sport played by all ages in the parks. The name of this game is unknown, including to the locals we spoke to (students trying to practice their English) but we now own a unique looking shuttlecock with feathers and plastic noise makers. Someday we will be pros.
Unfortunately, during our outing, Riki slipped on some garbage goo in the street and was coated foot to thigh in stinky black liquid. And we had stored our bags at the travel agency already. But we hiked back to our stuff and got him cleaned up a bit in the tiniest, smelliest toilet ever. That should have been an omen about the rest of our journey to come.
After watching a few hours of people practicing this unknown sport, we went back to the travel agent to retrieve our bags. They piled us into a taxi and dropped us off at the bus company’s office. We waiting almost an hour there and then we were summoned to put our bags in a minivan. Well, the minivan had no more seats, so a Vietnamese lady, Riki and I were put in a car without our bags (a first class no-no in Asia). But through hand gestures, we were told it was fine and we would follow the minivan. Well, we did, but not right away and the fear that comes as you watch your bag slowly disappear into the night is not something I’d like to experience again. With the bags long gone, we discovered our driver was only just learning how to drive (a car that is we think, everyone drives motorbikes). The other man from the bus company in the passenger’s seat kept pointing at the mirrors and yanking on the steering wheel, while the driver made his way slowly through the city. But he only stalled once and we didn’t hit anything, so let’s call it a win. It was a snail’s pace, but we finally made it to the bus station, where we found our bags waiting for us.
Six hours later, at 4 am we were dropped in the middle of nowhere at a gas station. We were the only Westerners told to get off, which was disconcerting, as we knew everyone was headed to the same island, Phu Quoc. But we got in the waiting shuttle and the driver left us at the ferry terminal to wait for three hours at an outdoor cafe until the boat left. We played cards and drank thick, sweet coffee until it was time to board. None of this was communicated to us when we bought the tickets.
Next stop, Phu Quoc, for white sand beaches and the best fish sauce in Vietnam.