We took a 5 hour flight from Seoul to Ho Chi Minh, and were relieved to finally get out of the freezing cold of Korea. Mostly because we were seriously under dressed in our T-shirts and light zip up hoodies heading up to Seoul the night before our flight. That didn't, of course, stop us from venturing an hour away from our guest house to find an On the Border for some Mexican food. Even though we flew Vietnam Airlines, I was still surprised that the two primary languages used were Vietnamese and English, with very little in Korean. English truly is the language of travel.
Ho Chi Minh will always remain in my mind with two dominant images: motor bikes and power lines.
The power lines were so packed together- I can't imagine how the power can all be sustained. What would happen if one of these was hit by lightening?
Riding away from the airport, these were the two things that struck me immediately. There are remarkably few cars, and I felt like we were adrift in a sea of motorbikes until we washed up on the curb of our hotel.
Every bike comes with its own unique personality. It is not simply a road packed with motorbikes, it is a high-fashion woman sitting side saddle on the back of a dirty white bike, a wicker bar stool set up between the legs of a father with his infant propped in between him and the front of the bike, a man weaving through the streets with has balance alone while his hands grip his spaniel, whose paws are planted firmly between the handlebars.
Or a yellow scooter covered in cardboard panels.
Crosswalks were an adventure in themselves. Unless at a major intersection, although they are printed in their familiar block white lines, none of them have lights or walk timers. None of the drivers stop, but are very good at maneuvering. Crossing comes down to guts and confidence in a real game of Frogger.
Katie and I were insistent on getting in plenty of cheap shopping, which we did a lot of in and around the Ben Than indoor market and, our favorite, the nearby night market. Out of one of our shopping excursions came a phrase we continued to quote for the whole trip: "Only for ladies" in a kind of brisk robotic tone. It came from a very joyless vendor when Andrew tried on a pair of pink sunglasses.
Outside of shopping, we spent our time in Ho Chi Minh sightseeing. Our first big stop was to the War Remnants Museum. I'm not sure what I expected being in Vietnam, because in America the primary thing we are taught to associate with it is the war, but it was easy to forget about the war outside of this museum. For that, I'm glad we went. The other name it's known as is the Museum of American War Crimes, so we really had to go in there with the expectation of some bias. Not, of course, that inside or out the Vietnamese treated us with anything other than respect now.
Before entering the museum, a variety of tanks and planes were on display. Inside were guns and shells, grenades and mines, and the most disturbing, pictures of war victims. The most disturbing being the victims of Agent Orange, and I'm not sure how I managed to go my whole life ignorant of it. It was used as a herbicide to spray and reduce the density of jungles, but it has continued to effect the children born to those exposed to it. After leaving, it was much more apparent too. With millions exposed, it would be hard to miss. Everywhere are people with physical deformities on their faces, or with missing or abnormal limbs. Some of them even seem as young as me.
Ho Chi Minh has such a beautiful and unlikely collection of architecture. As it has been heavily influenced by France, there are several building that seemed to transport me right back into Europe. Cafes with tables spilling into the sidewalks, Romanesque arches, and stone carvings made it seem odd to glance away from a building and suddenly see a woman wearing a traditional hat and selling coconuts on the side of the road. It's a very charming mixture.
The most obvious was probably the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.
A lot of the buildings in Ho Chi Minh are also very tall and thin when you look at them from the front, stretching far back. Sometimes they weren't even wedged between other buildings so the choice seemed odd to me. I imagine them as buildings full of hallways.
We spent most of our time walking around the city, but one time we took a pair of Cyclos out to China town.
Perhaps the strangest thing we did was get blind massages at the Vietnamese Center for the Blind. It sounded like a good idea at first, until Katie and I were ushered down a creepy chipping hallway to the girl's section. I'm glad nobody could read the anxiety on our faces as we entered a dim, isolated, room and were greeted by a woman with one bulging white eye and one closed eye. Not that I want to sound insensitive, of course, but the general ambiance of the surroundings made me feel like we were just sent into a dirty hospital where our organs might be harvested for the black market.
Katie and I were put into separate curtained sections, and I was told "off" as the woman felt me and tugged at my clothes. I laid down on my bed and gripped the stained bear pillow reading "happy time," listening to an aged woman in the room next door repeating "are you OK?" to herself in a deep raspy voice that made her sound like a dying witch of old. After awhile I calmed myself and closed my eyes, and realized the whole place smelled like fresh wintergreen and everyone was very kind.
One of the biggest surprises of Vietnam was the coffee. It was by far better cold, but it tasted like dark chocolate, and never needed creamer. While most people our age might come to the city for cheep beer, we probably spent most of our time downing coffee.
Not that we didn't also sample the local beer. With our options of cheap beer being limited to three light varieties in Korea, it was nice to expand our palate. With countless options, we finally found a wonderful bar called GO2 with a section on the top floor overlooking the city. It was the most relaxed we were since we left Andong, chilling out in the company of each other without any itinerary.
The best meal of our trip was also in Ho Chi Minh, and I believe I can safely speak for all of us here. Down by the night market we stopped by an outdoor restaurant, lured over by the delicious smell of fish on the grill. Because the whole place was set up with cheap tarps and plastic tables, we knew that the place had to be all about the food. Correct. I have never devoured such a giant fish before. It was so soft, and each bit of it was dipped in a dish (right) with fresh squeezed lime and a kind of special pepper combo.
All of the food in Vietnam was incredible, especially the large pho noodles in a kind of soup. Most meals came with a plate of bean sprouts, fresh hot pepper and mint leaves to add. My only difficulty might have been my unnatural aversion to cilantro, which was quite plentiful.
I might still have dreams about dodging motor bikes, but Ho Chi Minh was a memorable city.