The bus journey into Vietnam was long and the roads were incredibly trafficked, especially when we arrived into Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as a lot of the locals still call it). Per every car there were about 15 scooters, all uncoordinatedly buzzing in and around eachother, probably in a rush to head home and get ready for Tet, Vietnam’s new year. This celebration lasts 3 days and initiates a week’s holiday for the entire country. The positive side of this was that we had the chance to see everyone let their hair down and come alive with festivities, but the down side was that most of the city was shut down.
Our family run hotel was in a teeny tiny alley just off the main backpacker’s road, so as soon as we arrived we dropped off our bags and went to explore the area. Neon lights blazing, music roaring, glasses clinking, crowds heaving – it felt like being in Las Vegas. So much was happening in this single road that the following morning we barely recognised it. As dutiful tourists we joined in the crowds (composed mostly of foreign travelers), had some beers, lost at pool a couple of times and celebrated midnight by observing the local rituals of incense burning and prayers.
With 3 days to explore the city, the next morning we put our walking shoes on (aka faithful flipflops) and headed out the door to see what life would throw at us. Unfortunately it didn’t throw us any markets or shops which were all shut, so we focused on learning about the country’s history and the American War (interestingly, whilst the world knows it as the Vietnam War, in Vietnam they quite rightly call it the American War). The war museum is a large 3 floor building filled with exhibits, photos, stories and remnants from those days. Our knowledge of the war was minimal so being exposed to such an intense and raw exhibition left us with a very weak and aching heart. The recency and duration of the conflict is a terrible thought in itself, given it lasted 20 years and ended merely 35 years ago, but the atrocities which occurred is really what tore our hearts out of our chest. Agent Orange in particular is what struck us most. From 1961 to 1971 US air forces sprayed hundreds of millions of litres of toxic chemical substances onto Vietnam’s lands with the aim of desertifying the country’s tropical rainforest where Northern Vietnamese forces were ambushing. The defoliants – called Agent Orange – contained highly virulent and contaminant toxins which had serious effects on whoever came into contact with it, therefore affecting both Vietnamese and American people. The aftermath saw numerous deaths and severe illnesses spread, including cancer, organ damage, reproductive complications and birth defects and deformities. Sadly it was also discovered the virus could be transmitted from generation to generation, and still today babies are born with defects and deformities caused by the toxins.
Visiting the museum was certainly a highlight of our visit and one we won’t easily forget.
The remaining couple of days had a very similar agenda – walking, exploring, eating – and it’s the latter which made us happiest. Vietnam’s flavours are enchanting. Soups, noodles, rice, beef, chicken and everything laced with fragrant notes of local spices and herbs. We tasted Bahn Xeo, a local crunchy rice paper filled with pork and shrimps – both from street vendors and from restaurants – which was amazing. We had numerous Phos (Annalie’s now an official connoisseur), so many varieties of soups with noodles we’ve lost count, and the delicious Bahn Mi which I can best describe as beef roast dinner in a baguette. Everything’s been delicious, especially my personal favourite: Vietnamese coffee. Hot or ice-cold, with condensed milk or without, the coffee here is not for the faint hearted. It is packed with strength and flavour and it’ll give you a kick up the bum you won’t forget. Food is also what drove us to walk a short distance of 8km to discover Ho Chi Minh’s Van Kiep road which is known for its steet food. Happy to say, it was worth it.
Before leaving there was only one thing left to do and that was to properly explore our little alleyway and make it our own. So whilst the locals sat at small tables playing cards and tourists popped in and out to check out the local street food stalls, we enjoyed a couple of hours in a beauty salon getting a pedicure and a haircut. This alleyway is a small representation of Ho Chi Minh City itself – a chaotic and loud assault of the senses, but mesmerising and intriguing.
Next up: a flight to Hoi An in central Vietnam.
Ciao for now x