Wow, wow and wow! What an introduction to Vietnam! Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is like an over excited child on a sugar rush, wearing bright vivid colours, shouting, dancing and dragging you by the hand to come and explore, and absolutely not taking no for an answer! Possibly the most vibrant and alive city we have been to so far. It's hot, crowded, noisy, and yes, fun!
Formally Saigon until 1976, it was re-named after the North Vietnamese troops captured the city, most of the locals however still refer to it as the more sentimental Saigon. The population is 8.224 million and the most recent count I could find for January 2016, stated they have 7.4 million motorbikes!! Due to an extensive number of fatalities caused by motorbike accidents it was made law in 2007 for helmets to be worn on all roads, by drivers and passengers , however there seems to be a loophole for children - so everyone seems to wear helmets except the little kids , which to us was a bit odd - surely they are the ones you want to protect most of all!
There are whole internet forums dedicated to how to cross the road in HCMC, with over 7 million motorbikes, plus cars, trucks and bicycles it feels like you are taking your life in your hands when you cross the road, the traffic doesn't really stop so you just have to take a deep breath, and walk - slowly and steadily, look straight ahead and NOT at the traffic that is heading straight for you, don't hesitate, don't run, just walk it will flow around you - honestly! (or in Suzanne’s case, dragged by the arm whilst I do the walking) The Vietnamese are an impatient lot so if there is a traffic light or reason to stop the motorbikes often take the path of least resistance and drive around the obstacle which usually means on the pavement! Click here to see a bit of traffic light avoidance!
Whole new meaning to taking the dog out!
This is the first time we are travelling without Tigger, although after seeing the manic traffic, maybe it's not such a bad thing. (pah! I would have enjoyed the adrenalin rush. Not sure if I would have enjoyed the tongue lashing I would have undoubtedly received from the navigator) We feel a bit vulnerable, no trusty Tigger to fall back on if we can't find anywhere to sleep, or whisk us off us off to our chosen destination at our bidding, we are tourists here, not overlanders, and this requires planning! Tigger-less we decide to try using Air B&B, instead of a hotel, this will be our first venture into the Air B&B world and we don't really know what to expect, but we strike lucky. “Christina's”, an Air B&B in HCMC, has a great central location, is beautifully furnished and goes the extra mile on attention to detail. This was 5-star accommodation for us after our rather basic guesthouse in Laos, we almost want to spend our whole time in our room!
Get up - we have sight- seeing to do!!
We only have a visa for a month so we are on a tight schedule to see everything we want in Vietnam, so when Christina's told us they organised motorbike tours to see the Cu Chi tunnels we take it up. The tunnels are around a 1.5hrs from HCMC and we are going by motorbike, after seeing the roads I am a little unnerved by the prospect but have faith that the guys driving the bikes don't want to meet their maker either and go for it!
You can't see just how tightly I'm holding on to this poor chap!
It's pretty exciting whizzing along the streets of HCMC with the 7 million other bikes and mopeds, weaving in and out of traffic, as I hang on to my lovely guide for dear life! (not me – I’m having a great time and only wish I was riding my own bike. I miss my Harley back home) Junctions and roundabouts are interesting, traffic going in every direction all at the same time, I mostly shut my eyes at this point but we didn't collide with anything so it must work.
Who is that?
On route to Cu Chi tunnels, we make a couple of sightseeing stops and much needed "Butt Rest" breaks - big respect to all of our overland friends who ride motorbikes around the world you guys must have Buns of steel!
To make rice noodles, mix rice with water to make a paste, put into the sun to dry on wooden racks as above then cut into noodle shapes - easy!
A quick look at a rubber plantation and how they Collect rubber from the tree
The Cu Chi tunnels are part of a large underground network that was used during the Vietnam War by the Viet Cong. The tunnels were more than hiding spots during combat, they were several storeys deep and included living quarters, supply routes and field hospitals. They were accessed by hidden trap doors and allowed the VC to control a large area, at its peak, the tunnels stretched more than 250km
As a tourist, you get the opportunity to crawl through the tunnels, if you can get through the tiny trap door - which apparently have been made bigger to accommodate the larger western frame!
One of the" must see sights" according to the most guide books is the Saigon Central Post Office, designed by Gustav Eiffel. As it's early December and we have some Christmas gifts to send we think it would be a novel idea to send our gifts from this famous landmark. We spend the best part of two hours individually wrapping each present - and there are a few of them! We then pack them carefully in two boxes, lovingly wrapping these as well. Very pleased with our efforts we arrive at the post office boxes in hand, only to be told at the counter that we have to unwrap everything!!!! All of our lovely presents so beautifully wrapped have to be unwrapped and shown to Mr Post Office man, documented what they are and then re-wrapped - so top tip if sending a parcel from Vietnam, don't bother with the gift wrap until you get to the post office and declare what you are sending.
The French built Post Office
Parcels all ready to go - or so we thought!
We have come to realise that this part of the world holds some very sad memories. The War Remnants Museum documents the atrocities of the Vietnam War, from a Vietnamese perspective. Before you enter the museum in the courtyard is an impressive collection of American military planes, helicopters, and tanks, emphasising how much military power the Americans had and yet, they still lost.
Mostly this is a photographic documentation, with some of the most disturbing and graphic photos of war we have ever seen, and not appropriate to share here. It is criticised for being one-sided with an emphasis on the victim, not the victor, but many of the distressing photographs illustrating the US violence are actually from US sources.
Included is the iconic photo of the girl running, screaming after suffering napalm burns - you can read the wonderful story of how she not only survived but recently had laser treatment to help heal her wounds click here
Despite the grim content we would still put this on the list of top places to visit, but make sure you take plenty of tissues.
No visit to HCMC would be complete without a mention of food. We booked a street food tour with XO tours, and of course, the only way to get around is on the back of a moped! XO tours USP is that is the only "all-female motorbike tour company". (the”lovely gels” as Father Ted would have described them, give us specific instructions on how and how not to hold on to them although I think that was directed at the chaps, not the ladies!)
The" Lovely Gels"
We were taken to a number of districts around HCMC and given a little bit of history and information about each place as well as stopping for some street food. You can eat and drink as much as you want and the food was pretty good but the highlight of the tour was being on the bike a night. Whizzing through the busy streets was really exhilarating! Our only criticism would be they don't let you take photos while on the back of the bike, probably because they want to sell you their video (they have an accompanying backup crew with them, taking photos) They do email you some pictures afterwards but we never got round to downloading them.
This is Hot Vit Lon or Balut, a developing bird embryo which is boiled after 19-21 days incubation. You get to eat duck and egg at the same time, well John did, I didn't!
Yummy food to BBQ, well some of it anyway - not so keen on amphibian on my grill!
We were in Saigon for 4 days, 3 nights and this was just about the right amount of time. Would recommend a visit if you happen to be passing. Mekong Delta next stop