10 Million People, 8 Million Mopeds

Trip Start Mar 08, 2011
Trip End Jun 11, 2011

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Where I stayed
Green Suites Hostel

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, April 7, 2011

Welcome to Saigon!  Well, the official name is Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) but the locals still call it Saigon. 

Our travel from Hoi An was very smooth and uneventful (read: bug-free!).  We took the hotel taxi to the airport which was a quiet and smooth ride to the Danang airport about 30 minutes away.  We arrived in plenty of time to slowly make our way through check-in and security.  It is a very small airport so there's just 2 waiting rooms for all the flights.  We didn't want to use up the power on our ipods so this was the first time we were a bit bored waiting around.  At least the deck of cards Dave's been carrying around came in handy as we had a few spirited games of war (it's all I know how to play).  Eventually, the flight boarded and in usual Asian fashion everyone runs to cram onto the shuttle bus and then the plane (JetStar doesn't have any gates in the airports).  We lucked out with the exit row so had plenty of room to enjoy the hour-long flight.  We landed on time, collected our bags and went to the airport taxi stand for a ride to our hostel.

In the past, you'd have been able to show up at a hotel or hostel and bargain for a room on the spot.  Now, I think the process has changed thanks to the internet, specifically Hostelworld.com.  We've been using this site to book our hostels a day or so in advance so that we are guaranteed a room.  I'm glad we're doing this as it's a bit of security that you have somewhere once you get into a new place.  When we were enjoying breakfast at one of our hostels in Hue earlier in the trip a couple showed up without a reservation and asked for a room.  Unfortunately, the great hostel was sold out and had to turn them away.  

Anyway, we'd booked our hostel previously and the airport taxi brought us straight to the Green Suites about a block away from the popular backpacker area in District one.  The first thing that struck me about this city was the heat - literally!  We walked out of the airport and I gasped for air.  The smog is thick and it's hot here - 90 to 95 degrees F (30-32 degrees C) with a humidity of like 100%.  The second thing we noticed right away was the traffic.  We had just spent about a week in the small towns along the coast with plenty of cars and motorbikes but nothing like this.  We later learned that in this city of 10 million people there are 8 million motorbikes  (I'm convinced there are much more than that!).  This is like Hanoi traffic on steriods.  We'll try to post some pictures and video for you to see. 

Luckily, our hostel is set back in an alley about 40 meters off of a main street so it's quiet.  It's a newer hostel only open about a year and is very clean and efficient.  We were welcomed and checked in right away.  The front desk insisted on keeping our passports in their safe and even though we've done a great job hanging onto them so far, we obliged.  One less thing to worry about when out and about here, I guess (although Dave is still convinced a motorbike zooming by will take my bag from around my shoulders).  We were shown to our comfortable room and changed into more suitable clothing - shorts!  We hadn't had lunch yet so we decided to check out the backpacker area for a bite to eat.  It's just a block or so away and we found a number of bars, pubs and restaurants along with a lot of other tourists.  We found a place on a corner street with an extensive menu and enjoyed some pizza for a brief change.  The food was good and watching the street was quite the show.  The hawkers here accost you in droves for everything from shoe shines to selling wallets, sunnies, food, etc.  We spent about half of lunch saying 'No thank you" to them.  We didn't linger for longer than necessary so we decided to walk to the Ben Thanh Market a few blocks away. 

The Market is inside and is the size of a couple (American) football fields.  It's huge.  One end has little kiosks of food places and the other end has clothing.  The stalls in between carry everything from souveniers to rubbish bins.  It's got narrow isles and we mistakenly started in the clothing section where the vendors reach out and grab your arm or put clothes in your hands as you walk by.  I wanted to just tear through but Dave, ever the shopper, saw a cute Adidas shirt he liked and couldn't resist an opportunity to bargain.  Once free from the clothing stalls we found lots of souvenir shops and even a 'fixed price' section that was very quiet and where lots of locals shopped.  I purchased a tank top for $3.50US because it's so hot here I think I'll need it!  We were running low on cash at this point and thought it best to quit while we were ahead so we walked back to our hostel for a siesta.

We spent a few hours relaxing, planning our next few days in HCMC and where to enjoy dinner.  Our trusty Lonely Planet recommended a restaurant just 2 blocks from our hostel so we decided to try and find it.  By this time it was dark (the sun sets around 6pm here) so a little relief from the heat which was nicer.  We managed to side-step all the traffic, street vendors and stalls to find the Dinh Y restaurant.  We were shown to a table and given a poorly translated menu which made ordering difficult but we did our best.  Not our best meal here which is strange because the food so far in Vietnam has been incredible and is now one of my favorite ethnicities.  One thing I forgot to do was not drink the ice - we had ordered 7ups and they brought us warm bottles and glasses of ice.  It was just too hot to drink warm pop so I went ahead and took my chances with the ice.  I must have developed an iron stomach recently because knock-on-wood I was fine and no reaction at all.  Tired from the travel and still getting used to the heat and humidity we called it a night.

The next moring we woke up early as we'd booked a half-day tour of the Cu Chi tunnels.  The Cu Chi (pronounced "koo-chee") is the biggest attraction in Veitnam related to the "American War." These tunnels were the Viet Cong's main centers during the war, containing living quarters, hospitals and kitchens all 40 meters underground.  The tunnels were about 200 KM in length and reached from Saigon to Cambodia.  Today, you can book a tour for $5/person that includes a ride out there (about 2 hours), an English speaking guide through the tunnel areas, a rest stop for tea and tapioca tasting and a ride back to Saigon with a brief stop at a tea/coffee/tourist trap shop.  Our tour guide, Hung, picked us up last so we were waiting a bit in the lobby but the minibus was air-conditioned and the ride through the city was entertaining.  Hung also gave his spiel about the history of the tunnels and what we would expect to see once there which was helpful. 

We arrived at the tunnels and made our way to the entrance.  The whole area has been rebuilt with pathways and some trees although much of the original jungle from the wartime was burned long ago.  In any event, we were prepared with both layers of sunscreen and bug spray.  There was an introductory movie to watch first (read: propaganda video), but all the screens were full so we went full steam ahead into the start of the tunnels.  We first walked through a number of pathways to see the craters created by American bombings that the Viet Cong used to their advantage.  We then learned about all the booby traps the VC set for American soldiers on the ground, and the replicas were quite detailed.  We even learned about the proper uniforms for North Vietnamese soldiers versus South Vietnamese soldiers, down to their shoes.  Apparently Ho Chi Minh, in addition to all his other accomplishments, invented a type of sandal out of rubber from tires that allowed the soldiers to run quickly without being held up by bare feet and not crushing the bamboo with regular shoes.  We had the opportunity to purchase these shoes ourselves but I passed since walking across bamboo isn't something I have to deal with very often!

We then came up to the shooting range.  All the while we'd been walking through the booby trap tour we'd been hearing gunshots and they got increasingly louder.  Once at the range, Hung tells us that they have all kinds of guns that you can buy bullets for to shoot at targets just like the soldiers.  It was so loud I was having trouble hearing what was happening and before I knew it my nice, Jewish husband split a round with another tour-mate (a scottish fella) for 5 rounds each on an AK-47.  They motioned for me to join them and the 3 of us were escorted right up to the range.  We grabbed ear muffs which helped with noise and first our tour-mate enjoyed some time shooting the gun.  Then it was Dave's turn.  He goes right up to the gun and I thought the kickback from the first shot almost hit him in the face.  He didn't indicate anything was wrong so he continued shooting until our escort stopped him.  We have a good video of the event posted below.  I don't think he came close to any targets, but that's because he says the sight is off.  Whatever, I was just glad the whole thing was over and no one got hurt.  I high-tailed it out of there as quickly as I could!

Back on tour we checked out an exhibit of how the VC turned rice into wrappers and cakes and other things, including rice alcohol.  I didn't try any (of course Dave did without flinching) but one of our tour-mates showed me the hair standing straight up on his arm after he did.  Finally, we headed into the actual tunnels.  I should  clarify that the original tunnels are only 17cm wide by 40cm high and only the mal-nourished genetically gifted VC can crawl through that size.  Instead, they've widened the tunnels into 'tourist size'.  I don't know how big these actually are but after crouching in the dark, hot tunnel for a few meters I got out a the first exit I saw.  Dave continued through the first and through the second section to see the hospital, but then when he saw the third section required actual crawling he opted out.  Not only are the tunnels dark and tiny they are hotter than you-know-what.  I don't know how any human could have possibly lived in that kind of environment.  Once the group finished exploring the tunnel we enjoyed a brief snack of local tea and tapioca.  I think they meant yuca as it tasted like a piece of starch and looked like a sweet potato.  You dip pieces into peanuts for flavor.  Nothing like that snack and some hot tea after the tunnels!  Although our tour was complete we were taken back to see the propaganda video we missed at the front.  It was from this point on that we decided to tell anyone who asked that we're from Canada.  Just until we're through Vietnam!

Back on the bus we enjoyed the 2 hour ride back to the city and were taken to a tea/coffee house for some samples (read: tourist trap to purchase items at inflated prices).  We enjoyed the tea and coffee and learned about a special kind of coffee here that is made out of coffee beans that are eaten and then have exited from weasels.  It's called Weasel Coffee and some of our tour-mates seemed to know all about it but was new to us.  We asked for a sample but if that's what they gave us I couldn't tell a difference.  We did, however, notice a basket full of tiny little buddha figurines on the table and a piece of paper next to them described them as a 'peeing buddha.' When hot water is poured over it's head, a small stream shoots out to make it look like it is taking a pee.  Guess what we walked out of that store with - not tea or coffee but definitely a peeing buddha.  This might be Dave's perfect day now that I think about it.

The bus then dropped everyone off at their respective hotel or preferred location.  We decided to dismbark near the Market again to purchase a few additional items and visit a pho place for lunch that we'd seen the day before.  This time, we knew exactly where to go in the market and side-stepped the groping vendors to the fixed price section to purchase some final souveniers from Vietnam.  Dave had been eyeing one of those gold cats whose arm waves so we ended up with one of those among some other tschochkes (and tea that we tried at the tourist shop for a third the price).  By this time we were super hungry for lunch so we went across the street to Pho 2000.  We'd passed it the day before when visiting the market and found the sign out front that read, "Pho for the President" quite funny.  Turns out, Bill and Chelsea Clinton had visited the restaurant a few years ago when in town.  There were framed pictures all around the place of his visit.  We enjoyed one of the most delicious phos since we've been here, the broth was not too salty and clear (which is a sign of good pho here).  Satisfied, we returned to the hostel for siesta (which is becoming a daily routine since it is too hot to walk around during the day).

After the early wake up, tunnel crawling and long day we weren't up for a big dinner or evening event (not like we go clubbing every night anyway).  So we just went down the block to a bahn mi place I'd seen earlier in the day.  We actually hadn't had any bahn mis yet in the whole country which is strange because I love bread and sandwiches but I guess pho has been winning out!  Anyway, this was a little to-go shop where they spoke no English so we had a pointing-finger conversation to walk away with two bahn mis, some sort of large dumpling (couldn't resist) and a liter bottle of water for like $2US all in.  Have we mentioned how much we love this country?  We also stopped for some bubble tea to wash our sandwiches down with but we had massive communication difficulties with the staff and it turns out they have no bubbles, only tea but we didn't find that out until after they made our drinks.  No worries, we still have our bhan mis.  We didn't want to eat in our hostel room so we asked if we could use the breakfast patio on the 6th floor.   The staff was very helpful and obliged so we enjoyed our take-out dinner al-fresco with a light breeze overlooking the city at night in peace and quiet.  It was one of my favorite meals here because the food was delicious, cheap and we found a littel oasis in the crowded city.  Fully satisfied we called it a night.

Friday was our last full day in Saigon and we'd yet to explore more of the city beyond our few-block radius and the market.  After our morning routine of breakfast on the patio followed by 25 minutes of sunscreen and bug spray application we started the day by taking a taxi to the Central Post Office to send home our purchases from this country.  By this time we'd accummulated quite a bit, even though we tried resisting.  This stuff is just so cheap we can't help ourselves.  Luckily, it wasn't terribly expensive to ship from here although it took us a few tries (we visited UPS, USPS, DHL, and Fedex before finding the local cheaper shipping company) to find the cheapest (read: over land and by boat) method.  All shipping companies out here charge by the kilo and it's 3x the price to ship by air versus over land and boat.  If you're not in a hurry, then slow boat should be fine (although we might beat our packages home at this rate!).  There was also a Hard Rock Cafe across the street, so we picked up a shot glass for Dave's brother who collects them (hopefully he doesnt already have a Ho Chi Minh HRC shot glass).

Successfully having sent off our package we visited the Norte Dame Cathedral across the street and then walked over to the War Remnants Museum.  Unfortunately, we didn't read up on it before heading out for the day so we didn't know that the museum closes from 12 noon - 1:30pm every day. It was now 11:30am.  As we hustled to the entrance we came across a busy street and I took a quick video before an American woman told me to be careful because the locals may hit or smack or steal my camera when doing this.  Dave told them we were from Cananda so it was okay and they left us alone.  We made it to the entrance of the museum and the guard told us we had just 20 minutes.  We asked if we could get started anyway in that amount of time (I had almost had enough war stuff after yesterday's tunnels anyway) and he waved us through.  We didn't even have to pay the 75cents admission.  We started on the first floor and worked our way up to the third floor quickly but the majority of the museum attractions were the US tanks, planes and machinery displayed out front.  The rest of the museum was fairly graphic and gruesome detailing the American atrocities against the Vietnamese.  I think we saw what we needed to in that short time.  As we were leaving the front steps we heard a European fellow remark to his friend, "I can understand why the Vietnamese don't like Americans."  As our beloved tour guide in China, Robert, says, "every coin has two sides."

At this point it's mid-day in the city and it's hot.  Like everything-sticking-to-you-can't-catch-your-breath-sweat-dripping-in-your-eyes (carrying your sunscreen and bug spray)-hot.  We passed by Reunification Palace but didn't feel like trekking inside.  I had wanted to find relief in the form of a cafe along the riverfront but we were a bit far.  We tried heading that way but didn't find a lot of options so we finished our walking tour back in the backpacker area of town at an outdoor cafe for some beverages and lunch.  I ordered something I have no idea what it was, something with noodles, chicken, beef, mint, basil, peanuts and a cut up spring roll.  It was delicious.  We enjoyed the street watching and cooled off a bit but needed to back for a siesta.  En route, we stopped at a grocery store for some snacks for the bus ride the next day.  I enjoyed a long cold shower back at the hostel and we relaxed for several hours.  We also planned out our next few days: bus to Penomn Penh tomorrow, overnight in the city and then continue the bus to Siem Reap for several days.  We headed just a block or so away for dinner at a cafe for pizza (again) and then turned in early.
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