I knew Ho Chi Minh City would be loud, I knew it would be busy and I knew it would seem manic after the calmness or Cambodia. However, what I didn’t know was that my taxi driver would play chicken with a 40 seater bus, whilst in the wrong lane, on the drive from the airport to my hotel. This was an angry man and one that was undoubtedly prepared to sacrifice both of our lives to shave 2-3 minutes off the journey.
In some ways this was the perfect introduction to HCMC. This city feels like it’s travelling at 100mph with new skyscrapers popping up on every corner in it’s vibrant centre, roads with mopeds ten deep and a real buzz about future prospects when you talk to people who live and work here. On the other hand pretty much every other Vietnamese person I met was kind, considerate, helpful and friendly; the polar opposite of my enraged taxi driver’s approach to life.
After a read of my guidebook, accompanied by a couple of beers to get over the taxi journey, I had pretty much sorted my plans for HCMC and the surrounding areas; pho, museums, tunnels and a visit to the Mekong Delta. If I could summon the bottle to cross a road it would be a great few days (don’t stop walking and the bikes will weave around you was the general advice).
Fuelled by some tasty pho and a strong coffee my first stop was the War Remnants Museum that contains exhibits relating to the Vietnam War and Indochina War with the French (or War of Independence as it’s known in Vietnam). It’s truly fascinating and the stories that describe the conditions the Vietnamese people had to live through are extremely moving, particularly the section on the effects that Agent Orange had on Vietnamese children. The last section describes the normalisation of relations between America and Vietnam, Bill Clinton seems to be a bit of a hero, and the boom in trade between the countries since the mid 1990’s. But be under no illusion, history is written by the victors, and this museum’s story is about the battle between David and Goliath and the story of the underdog who fell the giant.
The following day, led by our tour leader Jackie, I headed to the Cu Chi Tunnels to see where some of the fighting had taken place and the conditions soldiers would have experienced. The Vietcong had effectively built underground towns in these tunnels with sleeping quarters, kitchens, hospitals, the ability to send communications miles away in a matter of moments and, of course, launch devastating attacks on the enemy and then seemingly disappear in to jungle.
I had the opportunity to jump in a hiding hole and later on to walk 40m along one of the tunnels. Three things struck me. Firstly the heat, it was almost unbearable. I was only underground for around 30 seconds but I came back up drenched in sweat. I don’t know how people could spends hours or days at a time down there. Secondly, the tunnels were so, so small. They had been enlarged by 40% for tourists to experience them and, even then, I could barely fit. Along with the heat, the feeling of claustrophobia must have been incredibly intense. Finally, the ingenuity, determination and resourcefulness of the Vietcong. The guide shared so many stories of how they outsmarted the vastly better resourced American army and the effective guerrilla-style warfare conducted by them. On the way back to HCMC our guide showed a film about the war but was quick to tell the group that “Americans may be offended” and they didn’t have to watch it.
The next day I was back with Jackie as my tour guide and heading off to see life on the Mekong Delta. If I’m honest this tour wasn’t as good as the Cu Chi Tunnels. The time spent on the vast river was fantastic and the Buddhist temple was interesting, but these moments were too short. The rest of the tour mainly consisted of being taken to various tourist attractions that didn’t feel particularly authentic and being asked to buy items ranging from coffee, to snake whiskey to leather goods. People in my group came home with their arms full of holiday memorabilia and presents for family at home but I would have preferred a little less shopping time and more site-seeing.
The rest of my time in HCMC was spent stuffing my face with incredible street food, watching sunsets, having a few beers at a sky bar 40 stories about the city and trying not to get run over by mopeds. HCMC is a city that has history and culture but it’s on the move too. Avoid angry taxi drivers and you’ll have a fab time.