Friday, November 13, 2015

Ho Chi Minh City

After our 24-hour layover in Shanghai, we hopped on a short flight to Ho Chi Minh City, which as I previously mentioned used to be called Saigon. It was re-named in 1976 in honour of their beloved revolutionary leader but somehow that name change didn’t reach the western world because most people still know it as Saigon. I guess their branding company didn’t do a great job. Or more likely, they don’t really care what the rest of the world calls them. We spent three days there.

I loved Ho Chi Minh City. It was busy and crazy but it seemed less crowded and chaotic than Hanoi. Since we arrived late at night, the tour only started around noon the next day. Dale and I went for a walk and soaked in all the sights and smells and sounds. There are very few cars, trucks or buses – the streets are dominated by motor bikes everywhere we went in Vietnam. I could have watched them for hours. Often there would be families of four on a bike. The things they could transport were pretty amazing. You might not think of bringing home a fridge on a motor bike, but apparently it can be done. There aren’t lanes or any rhyme or reason or method to the madness but it somehow all works out. They just slowly merge along and beep their little horns as a warning when they’re getting close to another bike. There are very few traffic lights and crossing the street as a pedestrian is tricky. We were told not to wait for a break in traffic because there never is one. You just have to step into traffic and keep up a slow, steady pace and you won’t get hit. Don’t stop in the middle of the road because that messes everything up. Just look straight ahead and carry on. It took some nerve and some passionate prayers but it worked.

Helmets are mandatory in most of Vietnam but there aren’t strict standards so many of the helmets are basically hats that wouldn’t save your head in an accident. I rarely saw children wearing them. Apparently there aren’t many accidents in the city, but it’s worse in the country where the speed limit is higher. I only saw one close call; someone wiped out right in front of our tour bus, but we were able to stop in time. Well actually I saw lots of close calls - like bikes squeezing between the bus and the curb around corners – but they weren’t close calls to anyone except tourists.

Our guide in HCM City was exceptional. He was so passionate about his country. You could tell it wasn’t just a job for him; he sincerely wanted to educate tourists about Vietnam and its history. It was interesting hearing another side of the story, especially about the Vietnam War. They call it the American War, which makes sense when you think about it.

We toured the Reunification Palace, which was the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Here’s a pared down history lesson: the Vietnam war started as a civil war between North Vietnam (led by Ho Chi Minh) and South Vietnam. North Vietnam was fighting to establish a communist regime, so the US stepped in and tried – unsuccessfully - to help South Vietnam beat them. In April 1975, a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through the north gate of the Reunification Palace, and the fall of South Vietnam ended the Vietnam War. Vietnam is still a communist country but it’s quite open with lots of free enterprise. We noticed many communist signs with flags and “revolutionary” messages/propaganda, especially in Hanoi. Our guides downplayed the control of the communist government (“we can still vote,” they said) but there were a few instances where I could sense their desire for change.

We also went to a factory/shop where victims of Agent Orange are employed. Agent Orange was a chemical that the US army used to defoliate the jungles and forests so that the Vietnamese soldiers wouldn’t have cover or food. The effects of Agent Orange were bad; causing everything from diabetes to birth defects to death. There is now a second generation of Agent Orange victims since the first generation passed it on to the next. People with disabilities are looked down upon in Vietnam, often even by their own families. So this workshop employed people to do laquer work and other crafts. This was definitely near and dear to our sensitive guide’s heart and he was so happy when we bought things there. At the end of our time in HCM City, we collected a tip for him and he was near tears when we gave it to him. He said, “I don’t know how much is in the envelope but I promise you that first thing tomorrow morning, I am going (to the Agent Orange victims’ workshop) to buy 100 kg of rice for them.” (I don’t know how much 100 kg of rice costs but I sure hope it was enough!)

My second favourite day of the trip was spent in the Mekong Delta, an hour or two from HCM City. We went on a boat ride down the river, past little businesses and houses and fishing boats. It was a beautiful day and they served us tropical fruit and coconut drinks as the river got narrower and the jungle got more dense. We stopped and got out in the middle of the jungle to hear music performed by some locals, and made another stop at a tiny coconut candy factory. Then it started pouring. They gave us rain ponchos but we got soaked anyway. This is the only time it rained on our entire trip but no one minded because it felt kind of right. We walked down little paths in the jungle to a spot in the middle of nowhere where we had lunch. When we were done eating, the rain had stopped and we walked back to the river where we boarded small boats called sampans. It was so cool. I can’t even describe the experience; everyone kept saying, “I can’t believe this is happening!” It felt like we were in a different dimension. While we were drifting down the Mekong River, I got a few texts from Chloe. That was bizarre – we’re in the middle of this primitive, foreign world unlike anywhere we’d ever been before and Chloe’s halfway around the globe in totally opposite surroundings and yet we’re communicating. It’s a crazy world.
House in the jungle

Old man in the jungle

Boats in the jungle

Rain in the jungle

Kids in the jungle

Lunch in the jungle

After that adventure, we drove back to the city and went to a Cirque-du-Soleil-like performance at the Opera House. It was so good. Then we went for dinner and got back to our hotel late. That’s an example of how full our days were. We usually got going at 8 a.m. (after eating breakfast at the hotel and checking out unless it was one of the rare days we stayed at the same hotel a second night). The pace of the entire tour was … how can I put this positively … hmm I can’t really … frantic. Insane. Exhausting. We had almost no down time. I can think of only two occasions when we had more than a two-hour block of unscheduled time. But as several of the people in our group put it: we didn’t fly halfway around the world to sit in our hotel and do nothing. And do nothing we didn’t (best sentence ever). We made full use of every minute. We were normally out from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or later. Then we’d all fall into our beds exhausted from the heat and the pace and the early mornings.

This entry is getting way too long but I’ll end with our last day in HCM City. We went out to the country again, into the dense forests where the Viet Cong dug their tunnels that they hid in during the war. We saw different weapons and booby traps they used to defeat the enemy: no guns, only primitive yet brilliant (if you can call it that) torture devices made with wood and metal and bamboo sticks.
Entrance to a tunnel

Those of us who wanted to could go down into the tunnels. There was a short stretch of tunnel that had been enlarged for us chubby tourists, so a bunch of us went down with our guide as the leader and me at the back. We still had to crouch down and shortly after we started, the man in front of me decided he couldn’t do it. So I had to back up to the entrance to let him get by me, then I went back in. By this time, I couldn’t see the group anymore so I started to get a little panicky. I was hurrying as much as I could – all hunched over – and then I came to a fork in the tunnels. They had told us the tunnels went on for miles but they got smaller and tighter. My heart started pounding and I was starting to get claustrophobic. I thought I heard voices coming from the right, so I took that route and was SO relieved to see my group ahead. However, one of the guys in our group was having a panic attack. He was crawling on all fours and was breathing fast and loud and freaking out. Let me tell you, I was never happier to see the light at the end of the tunnel than I was at that moment. It took a while for my heart rate to go back to normal, but it took even longer for the guy with the panic attack.
I don't know how the Vietnamese stayed underground for weeks at a time. They had schools and hospitals and kitchens down there. In some places the tunnels were so narrow that they had to pull themselves along on their stomach, and even then they could still feel the top of the tunnel on their back.

Rice fields in the country. They bury their family members on their land, so those are graves you see.

Next time: Central Vietnam


Daniel said...

“I can’t believe this is happening!” I'm sure that was the overwhelming feeling many times! Fascinating journey you took, and I love hearing about it!

Anonymous said...

I commented on your last post but it didn't show up. Basically I said, "more pictures please" and I still request that this post. :)

Wow. Frantic pace is right. Very cool though.

Also, I can't believe you got in that tunnel and then guessed which way to go at the fork. S**t! That's crazy. I'm a wee bit claustrophobic so I don't think I could have done it.

I love motorcycle traffic. Riding a bodaboda (motor bike taxi) in Kampala, Uganda was one of the most fun things I've ever done. Life ending scary when you think about it, but still super fun. :)


Anonymous said...

You are making me want to go there! It sounds amazing. And oh that sweet tour guide. I hope he had enough too .... and then maybe a smidge extra for himself. Which knowing you.... I'm sure he did.