Ho Chi Minh, formerly named Saigon, was our last stop in Vietnam. It was supposed to be a long but relatively easy bus journey from Hoi An, with a short layover in Nha Trang. (Just a warning, if you don’t want to read my rant about an awful journey, skip to the next paragraph, it’s long.) However, after an overnight bus we were dropped off at 4:30am in Nha Trang and told to wait by the side of the road for our next bus due in two hours time. We passed the time watching the city’s very early risers exercising in the dark; the elderly on bikes, adults jogging and kids going for swimming lessons, all before sunrise. It was bizarre to see, but the whole of SE Asia very much promotes healthy living and exercising so it kind of makes sense to use the relative coolness of darkness rather than the scorching heat of day. At 6:30, a lady arrived to check our group’s tickets; when she got to us, unfortunately, we were not in the right place and told to walk to another office down the street. Now daylight, we walked 15 minutes to find the office shut and locked. After asking for help at the hotel next door, we were told to come back at 2pm to book seats on the next bus. So the guy I asked at Hoi An to book us on consecutive buses straight to HCM had not done so and instead left us stranded in Nha Trang with no information on what to do. After sulking on the pavement for a bit and getting disdainful looks from passing Vietnamese, Blake picked me up and took us to a cafe for food. I re-evaluated and decided to scrap the awful bus company we’d been with so far, and marched us to another company’s office. An hour later we were on a bus headed for HCM!
After hearing mixed reviews from other travellers, I was pleasantly surprised by HCM. It was far busier than Hanoi but felt less chaotic, and we stayed in a cool hostel that felt more like a flat share – plus the view was incredible as it was an apartment block outside the main city centre!
Then we headed across town to the presedential/indepedence palace, which is definitely worth a visit. It’s similar to a National Trust country estate in that the furniture and decor is stuck in a certain time of historical significance and plaques around the building explain the final days before Northern forces toppled the Southern government. A skewed story but interesting nevertheless.
We moved on to the War Museum afterwards, which had a really interesting exhibition on the Tiger Cages used to incarcerate and torture Vietnamese revolutionaries; another exhibit exposed the supposed consequences of Agent Orange, a toxin distributed over vast areas of Vietnamese rural land by American forces in an attempt to draw out the guerilla armies. A difficult read, as is much about the American War.
Following on from this, the next day we took a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, an underground network of tunnels used by guerrilla fighters in the jungle. Over 200km of tunnels connect to form a vast underground village, complete with kitchen, weapons factory and hospital. The short route we took through the tunnel was extremely uncomfortable and slightly terrifying; it’s almost impossible to imagine living in such basic, cramped spaces as bombs dropped overhead. We were also treated to an extremely propagandic film at the end of the tour, not sure why.
The following two days, we joined another tour to the Mekong Delta, including the huge Mekong river which runs through much of SE Asia and the estuaries and plantations it feeds. The first day was very touristic, as we were boated around a small area of the river to sample different local products and customs. Our favourite was ginger tea with honey and lime, the honey coming fresh from the beehives on site. Then was the coconut farm where we watched coconut candy being made from scratch and could buy various coconut products. The best part of the day was navigating through bamboo and palm trees on one of the many canals stretching from the main river, complete with conical hats and obligatory tipping. It was almost as busy as M25 rush hour!
The strangest sight of the day was the crocodile farm situated on the island where we stopped for lunch; hundreds of crocs filled a shallow pool and were fed bits of meat on fishing lines by goading tourists.
In the evening we drove into a town and most people stayed the night, but Blake and I opted for a home stay a bit outside town, and right by the river. We helped make dinner and enjoyed talking to the helpers who were local university students practising their English.
In the morning we hopped onto a boat which took us along a canal and back to the Mekong floating market. Here, hundreds of boats sell their wares on the water, all jostling for position and beckoning tourists on board to try their produce. We stopped at one to buy pineapple lollysticks (pineapple cut four ways down the stalk) and from the boat’s roof could see the whole market, which was really cool.
Once we joined the rest of the tour again, we visited a rice noodle factory to see how they are made and a fruit farm.
That night, we returned to our hostel and paid an extortionate amount to have a drink at the top of the Finance Tower, the tallest building in HCM. It was a really impressive view, even if the drink did cost us our daily budget. Oh well, last night in Saigon!