Part One: Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog› entry 1 of 5 › view all entries
Vietnam is one of those countries that everyone says, "Oh yeah that'd be fun" but gets overlooked for reasons such as language, situation and expense. However, I think that it should be on the must-see list, especially if you're travelling to Asia/Oceania. There are many different Vietnams, that I got to experience: tourism and shopping form a large part of most big-city life but agrarian culture and village lifestyle in the nearby countryside is beautiful and so humbling to witness.
My Trip was with a group, we had both adults and children and our main objective in Vietnam was a charity we were doing for an orphanage in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh). We took toys to the children and re-painted the dilapidated centre. I would recommend NGO or private charity work as the most fufilling way to travel. Not only did I get to see an amazing country but I have experiences I will treasure forever! We also took medical and food supplies to a mountain village and got to see the first operation of some fresh water wells we had paid for. It was genuinely moving!
We stayed 2weeks in Saigon, (previously the capital of South Vietnam, situated on the Mekong Delta); balancing painting with activities, day trips and shopping expeditions. I have to say I loved the touristy side, we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Museum, which honestly you really need to visit. The Ve Vau Cong War Remnants Museum is at the same time horrible and moving, most of our group cried at some point, but the message of hope for the future is clear. NB: If you're squemish take a friend. I remember being shocked at the atrocities committed by all parties during the Vietnam War and that conflict has had an obvious influence on the shaping of modern Vietnam.
The orphanage is run by Bhuddist nuns and gets very little government funding, as you can imagine. The dormitory buildings are set away from the road behind a beautiful temple. It really was a very serene place, balanced by the wonderful spirit we encountered in the children. I made friends in particular with my "little sister" Trang who adopted me and spent much time brushing my hair and trying to convince me to join in the morning nap. Bonding with these kids, who have faced hardships I have never experienced, was humbling and uplifting. I will never forget that place and I genuinely hope to return someday.
Saigon was definitly my favourite city, the hostel where we stayed was clean and well run, it actually had a decent view from the roof (I would say check with someone to make sure you're actully allowed on the roof). The night markets were fantastic and the designer knock offs are top notch! They are cheap and really good quality... all mine are still in tact and most people don't immediatly pick them as fake! Our most exciting bargaining moments would have to be our Quest For the Perfect Converse AllStars (at $15 bucks a pop who would say no?) and the Perfume Incident in which I was conned into paying an extorionate amount of money (not really, probably around US$25) for a bottle of Madame Rochas for my mother... don't even ask. Some fun buys included Louis Vuitton- which I almost OD'd on!- Mossimo and Gucci sunnies (I still get asked if "those are real Gucci's?"). Although some less thoughtful buys were some hemp pants that made everyone that put them on seem to balloon into a severely obses person, and an abundance of T-Shirts with slogans such as "Same Same... But Different!" (???).
Bargaining is so much fun and to be honest pretty liberating! It's funny how you find yourself becoming more stingy and scrooge-like with every outing. I think it's just an atmosphere of "best price!" that makes a joke, sulk, plead and smile our way into getting what we want for the price of a packet of Gum. It's a little strange at first, to try and "cheat" these people out of an income but after a while I noticed that the Vietnamese will not respect or like a foreigner who doesn't bargain. Secretly I think they enjoy the challenge presented by someone who wont blindly hand over money. I found it was easiest to keep a smile on my face and bargain until I got tired of it then just give up. I put myself in perspective a few times trying to imagine what I could buy at home for the same price, so the words "keep the change" often just slipped out! The main objective after all is fun not the actual price!
One of my personal favourite memories about Saigon was one wander through the night markets that ended in a visit to an amazing ice-cream parlour! Unfortunately I didn't seem to note down the name but it's in the central buisiness/ market district. It was amazing! Four levels, yes, four levels of ice-cream shop with more whacky flaovours than you can poke a stick at! The service was great and my ice-cream (coconut flavoured for all interested parties) was "Yum"! Speaking of ice-cream, two of my girlfriends had a bit of a shock when the ice-creams they bought from the local mini-mart turned out to be Durian flavoured! If you, dear reader, have never had the experience of trying a fresh Durian- the custardy textured fruite tastes overwhelingly like feet and bad cheese. As you can imagine, the manufactured flavour was no better, but their faces were priceless!!
Oh another fun experience: for the adventurous diner, how about barbequed python and fried scorpian? We went to one of the many restaurants where you are given a personal BBQ and a platter of meats an sauces... not for the vegetarian I'm afraid. The most fun part about this place (which I think was called Benny's or Johnny's or some other generic western name) was that AFTER we had eaten these exotic morsels, spaced between some more regular beef (we avoided most chicken products during our stay), they brought out some live critters to show us the faces of those we had consumed. Now I'm not a very squeamish person and I actually find baby python snakes quite cute, so I was a little distressed to be holding one so soon after maing a meal of its pal/family member. Also fun, a live scorpian. Yes, alive. Our waiter let us hold it in turn and I made the mistake of saying breezily, "It can't hurt us can it?". The man replied (equally unfazed), "oh yes, if it stung you I guess it would take about two minutes for you to die."
This is not something you wish to hear while holding said animal. To be more precise a scorpian is an arthropod (with an exo- or external skeleton) from the Arachnid family. Yes folks it's a big, black, all-kinds-of-ugly spider-thing with a hell of a stinger on it's tail. Other fun facts: there are over 2000 species of scorpians and they are only NOT found in New Zealand and Antarctica. Mostly their venom is neurotoxic aka it paralyses you and then you die. Which is why it was so fun when the nice man put the critter on the table and said "Look, I'll show you how it stings, but it will only sting if I make it angry." So of course he starts poking it with a pair of chopsticks. Now I feel this sort of behaviour should be carried out with protection such as being far far away.
On that happy note, more soon dear readers! TTFN- Ta Ta For Now!