It took us the best part of 3 days to travel from Sapa to Ho Chi Minh City (still often referred to as Saigon or abbreviated to HCMC). The first step was a 6 hour coach ride to Hanoi which, although it wasn’t during the night, was still done on a korean designed sleeper bus. One thing the Koreans and Vietnamese have in common is that they are significantly shorter than me on average, which meant that Rosanna had a lovely journey to Hanoi in her reclining leather lounger and I discovered that sitting on the upper level of the middle row of seats doesn’t leave many polite places for your legs to spill into.
We stayed the night in Hanoi at a hostel we had booked a couple of weeks previously. We’d wanted to cancel it but the cancellation fee was the price of one nights stay so we decided not to waste our money. I am glad we made this choice because going from a cramped coach journey straight into a 36 hour train ride would not have been too fun. The train journey, along the evocatively named ‘reunification line’, is supposed to take 30 hours and showcase some of Vietnam’s most beautiful coastline. In the end we went though the beautiful section (Da Nang to Hue) at night and then the train was delayed by 6 hours because of the damage caused by typhoon Damrey. Travelling through some of the worst hit areas we saw the devastation that a severe storm can cause.
On our first full day we did a small tourist loop of the center on foot that was recommended by our hostel, encompassing the War Remnants Museum, the Cathedral and the historic Post Office that was built by the french in typical colonial grandeur. Behind the post office was hidden a street full of book shops that was a really nice find. We’d been tipped off about it by a British man who now lived in HCMC with his Vietnamese wife that we’d met in Cat Cat village near Sapa (he laughed when we called him an expat – “I’m an immigrant, but people tend to reserve that word for brown people”). Not only did I buy a few second hand holiday paperbacks but there was a cosy cafe there where we waited out a rainstorm, writing postcards and enjoying ca phe den da.
The War Remnants Museum is pretty much what you’d expect, a harrowing reminder of just how awful human beings can treat each other. Walking around the information boards describing the actions of the American Army, the Vietnamese fighters, even the photographers who went out there to cover the conflict, you are really struck by how horrific their actions were in so many ways. The unpleasant thing about this museum (and Rosanna said exactly what I was thinking when we left) is that it completely lacked the tone of reconciliation that was present in the memorials we saw in Nanjing and Nagasaki. There the message was clear, “we are not here to blame, we are here so this will never happen again”. I think the difference is that the War Remnants Museum is there to commemorate a victory, the Vietnamese are proud of the patriots who successfully fought off a superpower. Still, I’m not sure how I’d feel walking around as an American.
It was in HCMC that we really got our teeth in Banh Mi. This has quickly become a staple of our diet in Vietnam and I couldn’t be happier about that. It is essentially a french baguette filled with veg and meat (or tofu in our case) and then generously seasoned with Vietnamese flavourings. To eat real, crusty bread again after 6 months of the softer, sweeter, asian dough is heavenly. We’ve eaten these everywhere and the best one so far was in a place called My Banh Mi, near the cathedral. If you are in the area try the vegan option, it’s fantastic.
On our last day we took a tour out to Cu Chi, where they have reconstructed tunnels used by the Viet Cong in their defense of Saigon. They had made efforts to turn it into an entertaining outing with a ‘fox hole’ you could try to conceal yourself in and a gun range where, for a fee, you could fire the iconic weapons of the conflict, the AK47 and M16. Rosanna and I had no interest in doing that so we got to sit and listen to these implements of death amusing our fellow tour members. The decommissioned helicopter reminded me of Apocalypse Now, the guide’s explanation of how the locals had to be two faced – friends of the Americans by day and killing them at night – reminded me of Good Morning Vietnam and the exhibit about the effects of agent orange that continue to this day reminded me of the song Uncommon Valor by Jedi Mind Tricks (if you don’t know this song I would recommend it, the second verse is the true story of the rapper’s uncle who served in the conflict, it’s incredibly emotive). It is such a shame that this is the Vietnam I recognised. Huge shout out to Top Gear (and obviously, Vietnam itself) for starting to replace this image with one that is much more accurate and positive.
HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam. We were there for only two nights and in that short time probably did a few too many things we thought we should do rather than things we really wanted to. I’m glad to have experienced a lot of it but I would have liked to be able to spend some more time there. Unfortunately we had an appointment to make in Hanoi and we wanted to stop off at Hue on the way back so we didn’t have a chance to fully appreciate such a vibrant metropolis.
Full pictures from Ho Chi Minh City can be found here: