Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam

17 Aug

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Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam

It was an all-day 13-hour bus journey from Sihanoukville, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam but lucky for us we weren’t missing anything weather-wise as it poured rain during most of the trip. It also helped that the Asian karaoke DVDs were kept to a minimum and that English movies such as The Avengers and Fast and the Furious 5 were played.

Something to know about bus travel in Southeast Asia is that more often than washrooms can be found on the vehicle however there is almost always a sign on the door reading something along the lines of “For your convenience this washroom will be locked so as not to smell.” As our British friend Olivia whom we met in Sihanoukville would say, it depends how you define convenience.

Because it was a long travel day and we were arriving in HCMC after dark we decided to book a hotel in advance of our arrival. We had received a recommendation from Rob and Meghan in Phnom Penh to stay at PP Backbackers which was  conveniently located a 5-minute walk from where the bus let us off. While it had very helpful staff (Duncan and Bich) and was clean the room had a lingering smell of smoke. PP Backpackers was fully booked for the following evening so that night Bich asked around the neighbouring hotels and found us a room for the same price next door.

Before heading to bed we walked the area surrounding our hotel, sitting down for a delicious dinner of pho (Vietnamese soup) at the local Pho 24 restaurant. While the streets were busy, mostly populated by motorbikes, we had been expecting a lot more chaos based on everything we’d heard. That said my opinion is all relative. I have not seen traffic anywhere that rivals that of New Delhi, India or Kathmandu, Nepal so for me, Vietnam wasn’t so bad.

The next morning we checked out of PP Backpackers and stored our bags in their back room for the day while we went off exploring. We started the day with breakfast at the nearby Pure Café before embarking on our own variation of Lonely Planet’s city walking tour. We first visited the Ben Thanh Market which is an assembly of fully covered shop stalls selling anything from coffee (Vietnamese coffee is amongst the world’s most popular and like Indonesia they too have a bean harvested from animal droppings, the animal in Vietnam being the weasel) to cooking oils to fresh fruits and vegetables to clothing to souvenir trinkets. The oddest thing we saw was the oil-like liquid being sold in glass bottles containing a dead snake in the bottom.

Next we passed by the statue of Tran Nguyen Hai before walking through the cleanest outdoor street market I have ever seen on Ton That Dam. And no, I didn’t see any women with their feet soaking in the buckets of fish to be sold as I had in Battambang, rather I saw multiple shop keepers wiping down the surfaces of their stalls and sweeping up anything that had fallen to the ground.

We decided to stop for some gelato, our true weakness on this trip. We found Fanny’s, a trendy upscale French-inspired dessert shop offering the most elaborate gelato presentations including gelato in  the configuration of sushi, including black sesame seeds pressed around each ‘roll’.

We headed to the restored Opera House located in a busy roundabout. Unfortunately the building was closed for rehearsals and we weren’t able to go inside but we managed to get a few shots of the outside. Just then it began to downpour and we ran across the street and into the closest building open to the public, a mall. We waited out the storm by checking out a popular indoor arcade located in the basement where we watched a Vietnamese boy kill it at Dance Dance Revolution.

We headed back to our hotel to clean up, hoping that the rain would soon die off but no such luck. As such, we didn’t venture far from the backpacker ghetto for another delicious dinner of pho. J.J. still wasn’t feeling great and wanted to have an early night after booking a tour to visit the Cu Chi tunnels.

The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast to go and met our tour guide, a loud Vietnamese guy in his 20s named Po, like the panda from the movie Kung Fu Panda, he explained. Funny enough, he was round and looked similar to the panda, again a fact pointed out by Po himself.

We began the trip by picking up passengers from the surrounding hotels and on the last pickup onto the bus walked the British couple, Olivia and Troy, whom J.J. had met in Sihanoukville at the casino. They had met up with an Argentinian friend they’d made on their travels, Pato, and also met a Columbian girl at their hotel whom they were with.

Our first stop was about halfway to the Cu Chi tunnels where we visited an art studio. There all of the art was produced in the open by survivors that had suffered permanent injuries during the war, including amputations. We had the opportunity to watch as these people create the art that was being sold and it was incredible to watch them pounding eggshells and seashells on to their black shiny canvasses to create something truly beautiful.

The next stop was the Cu Chi tunnels. We did the 2-hou tour, following Po around as he told us of the history of the tunnels. We even had the opportunity to walk 100 meters through one of the tunnels, though I was too claustrophobic to do it. Luckily J.J. wore his GoPro camera through and he has a great shot of my chickening out, which I’m sure he’ll waste no time in showing my family once we get home.

After we’d completed the tour we were taken to the firing range where you could pay to shoot a variety of guns. J.J. and I chose to shoot 3 each, an M1, an M16 and an AK47. I expected them to have more kickback but I think the reason they didn’t was because they were mounted to the shooting booth. What I didn’t expect was the magnitude of the volume elicited by these guns. Even when wearing noise cancelling ear muffs (not the right terminology, I know) it was still insanely loud. I also wasn’t expecting the shell casings to kick back into the shooting booth, where the bounced off the ceiling and the wall behind us.

After the shooting range we got back on the bus and were driven back to the backpacker ghetto of HCMC. Olivia, Troy, Pato, the Columbian girl, J.J. and I decided we’d all have lunch together at Allez Boo. Lunch turned into drinks which turned into dinner and more drinks and pool. In total we spent 11 hours at Allez Boo.

At one point in the evening Pato requested that we play the game where you wear the name of a famous person on your forehead and ask yes or no questions to determine who you are. As we were playing a young boy of about 7 came up to our table, first trying to sell us bracelets and when we said we weren’t interested he then asked to play. This little boy was big into soccer and so we continued to give him the names of globally recognized soccer stars. In the middle of our third round, the little boy’s mother spotted him sitting at our table from the street. She stormed into Allez Boo and slapped her son upside the head and hard for taking a break from his job of selling bracelets. The little boy began to cry and because we all felt so badly for him we each bought a bracelet at the proposed price without bargaining. Around 2am we said goodbye to Allez Boo and headed back to our respective hotels.

Not surprisingly by the next morning J.J.’s faint cold turned into a full-blown flu. He spent the day resting, only leaving his horizontal position to eat and to book our bus ticket for the following morning to Mui Ne. I took advantage of the quiet and caught up on some ‘admin’ work – writing, photo editing and correspondence before falling asleep to a movie.


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