HCMC - Noisy, sweaty, dusty, dirty, alive

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog

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I appear to have done it again.  And by me, I'm blaming my watch entirely.  Just like my last trip, my watch alarm ha failed to get me up on the morning of the first major thing of the trip.  Which made me pretty mad, again.  We were meant to be going to the Mekong Delta today, but slept in, and missed the tour.  We start again tomorrow (albeit for a hefty fee) and can afford to lose a day at this stage of the trip. In the meantime we spent a second day in HCMC.  This is our story....

Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as its known to pretty much everybody) is a vast sprawling concrete mess, stretching for miles.  It has a population of at least seven million motorcycles, each of them with an owner.  Its big, dusty and dirty but it throngs with a busyness and a life that's hard to match anywhere.  The motorcycle is synonymous with Saigon, with millions of them criss-crossing the streets in a continuous stream of horns, fumes, and noise.  The way they move, intricately dancing around each other at junctions, shoaling together at traffic lights and fleeing from the unstoppable forces of buses could possibly remind you of schools of fish.  Except without the coordination, elegance and ethereal shimmer.  Perhaps more like a swarm of bees then.  Its quite a polluted city, we reckon the sky was meant to be blue, but you just can't quite tell.

Our first day involved finding out about some tours, and booking ourselves onto a Mekong Delta tour.  We practiced crossing the road (definitely needed this) and made our way to one of the big indoor markets.  A veritable feast of colour noise and the smell of dried prawns.  With all the touristy stuff located near the edges (silk mainly!) and the real people stuff (why so many plastic chairs?) on the inside it was worth a wander and an explore.  Lots of stalls selling an improbable amount of stuff in such a small cramped space.  Don't think I've ever seen so many pairs of shoes in such a small volume.  There were lots of clothing stalls, souvenir stalls (mainly lots of cool arts and crafts stuff rather than pointless cuddly teddy-bear holding on to a heart kind of rubbish tat, and coffee stalls, including jars of the famous weasel coffee.  So called because its been digested by a weasel prior to being sold.  It will be very easy to buy souvenirs I feel towards the end (coffee anyone?), but am currently trying to save weight and space in the 'ol rucksack.  Though it would be easy enough to get another one.  Vietnam being the manufacturing hub of the world's rucksacks there are plenty of rip-offs, fakes, not quite good enough for the west types, and potentially a few real ones lurking in between.

We moved on the an outdoor market, got a quick drink from a disappointing (but LP rated) New Zealand ice-cream outfit and admired some of the remaining French architecture such as the Opera House and the People's Committee Building (formerly the Hotel de ville).  Lunch was a curious affair consisting mostly of starch and gluten.  Namely rice cakes made of the jelly-like rice starch you sometimes get, with strange gluteny, chewy packages of prawns in jelly.  All with grated carrot.  Doesn't sound too appealing, but actually tasted pretty good, perhaps mainly because it was all in a tasty sweet chilli soupy kind of thing.  Post-lunch we toured the deeply in need of air-con War Remnants museum, which details the American War (20 years long not 8) which was wonderfully one-sided (in amongst all the depressing and quite moving parts concerning the atrocities of the American forces).  But then it is the victors who get to write the history books, so this is as much the true story as any history I've ever learned before.

The classically 60s arhcitecture of the reunification Palace was also viewed from outside as we balked at this entrance fee.  We then found the brick neo-classical cathedral which would have been some kind of Victorian fantasy but it was badly in need of something other than beige paint covering the inside.  The central Post-Office was pretty cool and we wound up at the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a little oasis from the smog filled instead with smoke from burning incense sticks.  Not deterred by the cannibalistic terrapins in the pools outside we viewed the smoky interior with its fantastic grotesque heroic statues and panels depicting scenes from hell, before catching our first motorcycle taxi back home (as talked about yesterday).

So, waking this morning to find out it was too late to make our tour, we headed to the tour office to change things to tomorrow instead, and decided, at ten minutes notice (so a quick run back to the hostel to sort out bags), to get on the uber-touristy here's what everybody who visits HCMC does tour: the trip to the Cu Chi tunnels.  Didn't have breakfast but then we did get to go on a tour so I think I've learned my lesson:http://www.travbuddy.com/travel-blogs/56974/Raindrops-keep-falling-head-2.  The Cu Chi tunnels are the 200km, three story tunnels that hid villages of Vietnamese from the americans, about 50km north of Saigon, and so provided the main location for the resistance movement in the south of the country.  Again, it was brilliantly one sided with a fascination documentary/propoganda piece from 1967 detailing the former beauty of the region, how the americans killed mostly women, children, the elderly etc and how heroic the locals were at resisting near constant bombardment.  We viewed all kinds of traps, bolt holes, got an inside view of a fox-hole (a 1.6m deep pipe in the ground with a tiny hole (14by7inches perhaps!) that I had a go at clambering into.  There was a tank too!  And an option to have a go at firing an AK-47 or something decidedly bigger.  I declined.  Then there was a crawl/low walk through a recreated tunnel which was lower and narrower than the Sarajevan version!  All presented by a very excellent and funny guide who learnt most of his english off cartoon netowrk.  Very touristy though.  Our bus of forty odd was just one of several touring at the same time.  Very interesting, and very informative.  Plus one of those guides who really gives you a decent feel for the country.  So that was good.

We were forced through a handicapped arts and crafts centre.  The results were very good and probably its the factory for most of the good-quality lacquer souvenirs found in the country, but it did feel like this was a national tourism agency gimmick to force all tour groups to stop here on their return to the city to try and extract more money from them.  Back in town we switched hostels (no room in our first one for tonight) and caught another motorcycle taxi (a lot less scary this time, quite enjoyable really) with a very talkative driver to the suburb of Cholon, the Chinese quarter.  A perusal of the beautiful pagoda styled Chinese market resulted in the trading of of silk based goods for local currency.  Didn't haggle quite as much as I should have.  Blowing the game by being genuinely surprised at how cheap the original price kind of prevents further negotiating.  It was shutting so we didn't spend to much time there, so we attempted to explore the pagodas in the gathering gloom.  Unfortunately Pagodas shut at dusk so we didn't get a further look inside any of them, but the local church with its pink-neon cross was a real treat.  Dinner consisted of fried macaroni (for when you just don't fancy noodles) which was actually rather good, and we walked back to the hostel rather than taxi it again.

Hopefully going on the Mekong Delta tour tomorrow!
Adios
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