I last visited Vietnam in 2011, when I spent only a few days in the bustling city of Hanoi, and for my end of term holiday last week, I decided it was about time to return to see more of this densely populated Eastern neighbor.
This time I passed over Hanoi, in favor of its modern southern sister, Ho Chi Minh City. Among travelers, HCMC doesn’t exactly have a glowing reputation. Given that neither does Vientiane, a city I love a lot, I knew it was still worth a visit to find out for myself. And indeed, I found it to be surprisingly pleasant and home to the best massage I’ve ever gotten…which certainly helped my impression.
When you mention HCMC, it’s nearly impossible not to make a comment about the traffic. It is rather incredible. There are an unbelievable number of vehicles on the road; with over 7.5 million people in the city (more than in the entire country of Laos) it sometimes feels like every one of them owns a motorbike. At every red light the bikes steadily accumulate, passengers all wearing helmets (impressive, though they are little more than laminated baseball hats), with 1-4 people per bike, perhaps 5 if there are particularly small riders. But what is most incredible is not the sheer number of vehicles, but the fact that they are generally not locked in a traffic jam, but rather going at a constant fast clip, mere inches from one another. In the first taxi ride form the airport, we narrowly missed other drivers by a couple of hairs at least four times. The taxi driver barely blinked, but said “many motobike” in response to my friend Misha and I’s cringes. By the time we arrived at our guesthouse, I was thoroughly convinced that Vietnamese people have superior reflexes. Perhaps it’s something special in their pho, or just survival of the fastest?
Next it was our turn to learn how to navigate the busy streets…on foot. HCMC seemed to me like quite a livable city—surprisingly green, graced with large, mostly pothole-less sidewalks (a novelty!), and a decent mix of Southeast Asian quirkiness and modern convenience. But I’m not packing my bags to move there just yet, in part due to the sheer peril and stress of crossing the road. The key, it seems, is to not look at the oncoming traffic at all if you can: it won’t stop for you. But if you walk at a steady (this is key, no unpredictable movements), slow pace, it will part around you, as if you’ve introduced a rock into a flowing stream. If you can’t overcome your nerves, you’re doomed. And even if you do master this technique, it’s quite draining.
Once we managed to cross a few streets, we eventually made it to the covered Bến Thành Market, where you can buy the usual tourist crap, knockoff goods, sequined fabric, coffee made from weasel poop, live eels, or dried sea cucumbers (over $100). Vietnamese bargaining is much more intense than in Laos, so it was good to start practicing for the rest of the week. In the end, I did buy candied ginger and the aforementioned sequins, and passed on the sea animals, both dead and alive.
It’s nearly impossible to visit HCMC without thinking about the war. After all, most people still call the city Saigon, although the name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 after the current government gained power. As such, we visited the War Remnants Museum, a sobering collection mostly of photographs of the horrors of the Vietnam War. Some are iconic, many are more unknown, of bodies of the young, or the wreckage of obscure civilian villages. Living in this part of the world has vividly filled in so many of the gaps of the parts of history quickly glossed over in school growing up (after a long time discussing WWII, most American history classes seemed to nearly run out of time for the many remaining more recent decades).
Saigon’s safety seat.
All that was left in our single day in HCMC was a dinner of “Vietnamese tapas”—ie. a sampling of street food. We nibbled on BBQ beef spring rolls (yum), grizzly fish spring rolls (not yum), deep fried tofu, dried fruits, and garlic butter corn (more to come on Vietnamese food in my next post). At the end of the day, it was just the perfect time to visit a spa for a late night pedicure ($3) and massage ($8)… Truly the best massage I have ever had (and I’ve sampled a lot in Asia); it released all of that tension from crossing the street.