6th – 9th March
In Vietnam they build things with concrete. Concrete, concrete, concrete.
There’s a lot of good things to say about this material… but one word that does not usually spring to mind is “beautiful”.
This is why my expectation was that Ho Chi Minh City was going to be a hot, infinite expanse of concrete and cables, that was beautiful only in the sense that your eyes are simply overloaded with stuff in a novel way.
We didn’t stray off of the typical tourist itinerary while we were here. We both felt that we’d seen plenty of untouristic Vietnam. It was time to investigate the famous bits!
We treated ourselves to lunch in Hoa Túc, a restaurant recommended to us by a friend. I had spicy noodles covered in fish sauce and dill, before trying the charcoal banana (basically a “pimp my banana” dessert).
We took a lift to the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, where there is a spectacular 360 degree view of the city. This was a bit more expensive than most other excursions at 200,000 dong each (£6), but the view was worth it.
In ten years I imagine the section to the right will be just as developed as the rest.
We visited Ben Thanh Trhu – the market where the tourists go.
In hard-sales markets like this it’s a relief to know that you can’t buy anything. (Cycle touring: you buy it = you have to carry it.)
We looked through the gates at the Reunification Palace – a 1960s style building, famous because it’s where the South Vietnamese handed over power to the North Vietnamese in 1975, when the Vietnam War ended. This is when Vietnam officially became a Communist country, so it’s a pretty Big Deal.
We learned quite a lot about the Vietnam War, or the “American War” as it’s referred to in Vietnam. We visited the War Remnants Museum, which has some pretty cool 1960s/70s US military vehicles outside.
This museum was very good, but it didn’t pull its punches. There were graphic displays about war atrocities and the terrible affects of the chemicals that the US Army dropped onto Vietnam. As well as killing, burning and maiming people at the time, chemicals such as Agent Orange caused severe birth defects for children whose parents were exposed (including the soldiers who deployed the chemicals). It’s estimated that 100,000 litres of poisonous chemicals were dropped, and the affects were devastating.
Knowing this now, I have thought back and realised that I have seen a few middle-aged Vietnamese people with slightly deformed limbs. It’s very likely that they are part of the generation born affected by Agent Orange.
This young girl was burned by napalm, but she survived and is now in her fifties.
We also took a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, an impressive series of tunnels that the Viet Cong built as part of the guerrilla warfare they waged against the Americans.
There were over 150 miles of tunnel in total, all built with basic hand tools.
The Viet Cong had very few resources, but used their knowledge of the land and what weapons were available to stage a fearsome resistance.
During the tour our guide demonstrated several different types of brutal booby traps that the Viet Cong used, all utilising metal spikes.
They used grenades connected to trip wires, as well as traps involving scorpions and snakes. With their cruel and clever booby traps and their ability to “disappear”, I could imagine the hatred they must have kindled amongst the US Army. But I had to admire the sheer determination of their resistance when they had so little and were facing the most powerful army in the world.
Looking at Vietnam now, you would not imagine that it endured such a terrible war only forty or so years ago. Vietnam has a feeling of industrious energy and friendliness that I like very much. From what we’ve encountered, it doesn’t seem at all like a “damaged” country.
One important job we finally ticked off the list was getting some bits of our bike replaced. We visited the Saigon Bicycle Shop based on its good reviews. It certainly lived up to the hype – the mechanic was very helpful, the shop was well stocked, and we even got a free drink while we were waiting.
We got new Kevlar reinforced tyres, new inner tubes, a new chain and new handlebars for me. The final bill was 2000,000 dong, or £60. Not bad.
We decided against throwing away our old tyres, so we will now be entering Cambodia with TWO spares. Let’s hope that’ll do.
On our final evening in the city, we met up with King, Tuyen and their very cute little girl, Annie. We first met them while on our way to Quy Nhon, and they invited us to meet with them in HCM. They treated us to dinner, and it was lovely to spend some time with them and learn a bit more about life in Saigon.
They even gave me a little hand-embroidered purse as a gift. What kind hosts!
Our three days here have been quite intense, but I am leaving feeling unexpectedly re-energised. It was good to have a change of pace.
We are now planning to make our way across the Mekong Delta, back to the shoreline where we will cross into Cambodia. Only four more days in Vietnam! I am heartbroken already.