Notes: travel date, summer 2014
The first stop on my trip across Cambodia and Vietnam (Cambonam) was Ho Chi Minh City. I flew into the city solo, after a complicated series of layovers. It was a bright, sunny, and hot morning when I arrived. After wandering around the taxi stands outside of the airport, I finally decided to accept the extra cost and bought a taxi ticket from a counter inside the terminal. The man at the desk wrote my destination on the ticket and said the fare covered everything, including the toll at the airport gate. Of course, the taxi driver tried to make me pay at the toll gate. Expecting it, I pretended to be clueless, insisting that I had already paid. There was a short standoff and then he begrudgingly paid the toll and we drove into the city.
It was a short drive into HCMC. The streets were busy. Mopeds and motorcycles far outnumbered the cars and wove between lines of standing traffic without a care. I saw bikes weighted with giant baskets or boxes, balanced precariously on the small vehicles. The sounds of motors, people talking, horns honking and the general noise of the city was loud and demanding. The taxi man did not drop me in front of the correct hostel (whether this was intentional or an honest mistake I don’t know) and I had to walk a bit and ask for directions. Thankfully I wasn’t far from my destination. The hostel was on a street crowded with hotels overlooking a large park that ran the length of the street. Palm trees sprouted from the sidewalks and dust covered every surface. The sun was bright and hot. It was a new place; I was excited.
After reuniting with my friends we set off to explore the city. The first matter of business was mastering the art of crossing the street. Dozen of Youtube videos and blog posts document the fear and danger of pedestrians in a country where motor bikes and mopeds rule the road. The streets of HCMC were wide and sidewalks were uncommon, as were crosswalks. Crossing the street meant braving no less than six lanes of traffic at once, usually with additional motorcycles rushing past between the irregular lanes. Sometimes a traffic light accompanied a rare crosswalk, sometimes it didn’t. There was nothing to do but take a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other. Horns and yells and flashing lights wailed and pulsed but surprisingly, there was no collision. The best method is to walk in a straight line at a constant pace to the other side of the road. As if fulfilling an unspoken agreement, the motorcycles and cars navigate around the pedestrians and everyone continues on their journey.
We wandered around the city and visited the Cho Ben Thanh market. During the day the market stays within the large, covered building. Hundreds of stalls are crammed into the dusty space selling everything from tourist T-shirts to spices to wooden crafts. At night, the stalls spill into the surrounding streets and vendors shout and haggle for the attention of prospective customers. The market was very high energy and the overbearing vendors were surprisingly touchy. In my previous experience with dedicated sales people, they’ll say anything and flash plenty of items in your eyes, but they seldom touch you. Here, the vendors were quick to put a hand on my shoulder or take my elbow to lead me into their stall. It wasn’t necessarily threatening but it was uncomfortable. Still, the lights and the shouts and dozens of beautiful textiles and handicrafts were exciting to browse through.
In addition to the markets we also perused the convenient stores. These small shops were the only stores I saw selling food in the city, beyond the produce vendors at the markets. I’m sure HCMC has grocery stores but I have no idea where they are located. The convenience stores were often small and slightly dirty, with packets of cookies open on the shelf. We constantly needed to pop inside to replenish our water supply (dehydration was a serious fear). Beyond water, it was interesting to see the strange flavors of Oreos and ice cream on the shelves.
We walked around the old city and visited the cathedral and the post office. Both are beautiful examples of French colonial architecture. Notably, the post office was designed by one Gustav Eiffel. Yes, that Eiffel. The colors and arches of the buildings in the old quarter reminded me of Puerto Rico. The details were different, Vietnam had French influence not Spanish, but the pastel shades coupled with the vibrant greenery created a tropical vibe.
We also visited the Reunification Palace. Also known as Independence Palace, this building was the headquarters of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. On April 30th, 1975, the northern army entered HCMC (then known as Saigon) and took control of the palace. Seen as a monument of the enemy southern state, the communist party closed off the palace and ignored the building for years. The building and rooms are now displayed in their 1975 state, complete with Brady Bunch-style couches and horrid orange carpeting. Visitors can view the banquet rooms, the lounges, and some of the war offices that were once used by the southern pro-democratic parities. In a corner of the palace grounds is a replica of the tank that drove through the gates, signifying the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.
The museum was interesting, like a painting showcasing the political styles of the 70s. Personally, I’ve always hated the decor from this decade and some rooms were more humorous rather than interesting, due to their drab fittings. Throughout the palace were gifts from foreign countries made to the then head of state, including a gorgeous woodblock painting which I instantly, and proudly, recognized as Japanese. Other hunting trophies and random artwork dotted the museum.
In the basement we found a room playing a documentary of the Vietnam War. Propaganda was plentiful throughout Vietnam but watching the movie was particularly interesting. Clearly created by the victorious northern forces, the script constantly referred to the “American aggressor” and applauded the efforts of the northern military to push the Americans back. Reading different museum excerpts and seeing the giant posters throughout the city made the Communist messages clear. In America, we refer to the Vietnam War as a war between north and south Vietnam. In Vietnam, it’s known as the War of the American Aggressor and was fought between Vietnam and America. Perspective is everything.
Like most major cities, HCMC has a giant tower with a great view. This tower is called the Saigon Sky Deck. The view of the sunset over the city was quite pretty. From the top of the tower it was clear that HCMC is still very much a developing city. the cluster of sky scrapers was quite small and most of the city was covered with small concrete buildings, very tightly settled. The general colors ranged from dull gray to dull brown, with dozens of thick dark roads weaving between the blocks. After decades of colonial rule, a devastating war, and the influence of a Communist government, HCMC is still growing into itself.
No description of HCMC or Vietnam in general would be complete without praise of Vietnamese coffee. It was delicious! Traditionally brewed in a small metal drip over a cup, the coffee was rich in flavor. Hot or cold, the traditional drink is mixed with a sizable amount of condensed milk. The waiter at the first cafe we visited was careful to explain the procedure, checking periodically to see if the filters were finished draining. Once the coffee is brewed, it must be stirred with the condensed milk to make a sweet, thick deliciously caffeinated beverage.
We walked across the city to visit the Jade Pagoda, a small temple venerating the turtle, a sacred animal in Vietnam. The Taoist idols inside the temple were beautifully carved from wood and cloaked in darkness. Unlike the Buddhist and Shinto temples that I’ve grown accustomed to, the Vietnamese temples were darker and smokier, with more incense. Inside the temple grounds was a small pond overflowing with turtles. The Chinese influence on the architecture and style was very strong and I was reminded of the temples in Taiwan.
Our final main activity in HCMC was the famed Water Puppet Show. This traditional style of theater is listed as a must-see in every guide book. Inside the small theater, instead of a stage was a giant pool of water. The musicians and singers sat on the edge of the pool and provided a soundtrack of string and percussive instruments. The puppets popped out of the water and darted around the pool, guided by long sticks controlled by puppeteers behind the curtain. The performance consisted of a dozen short stories, reenactments of Vietnamese folktales. They were simple and easy to follow. The dragon puppets even blew fire. It was a very unique show and highly entertaining.
We only had two nights in HCMC, which seemed like an appropriate amount of time. The city was constantly bustling and full of people, although it didn’t feel overwhelmingly crowded. Despite the pushy vendors, I felt safe walking the streets, even after dark. The food was interesting and the coffee was fantastic. It was a colorful city, if a little sun bleached. Overall, a great place to begin our adventure in Cambonam.