Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) formerly known as Saigon provided the base for my travels in Vietnam and Cambodia over the festive season not just because of its location but also because it was where my friend and ex-colleague Richard now lives and works.
It’s a bit of a cliche but this city was like no other I’ve ever experienced. A very noisy and polluted place packed full of about three million motorbikes and few cars with seemingly very few rules on the streets. You’ve really got to have your wits about you in this place to survive. It’s certainly not for the feint hearted but for a thrill-seeker like myself being ferried around on the back of these motorbikes as I navigated the city was very very exciting. The roads in HCMC are basically a free for all with bikers weaving their way around the traffic and pedestrians while constantly beeping their horns. The roundabouts were particularly mad and a bit like Shibuya crossing here in Tokyo but with bikes instead of people criss-crossing and cutting through each other.
I was fascinated by this form of travel and could have taken a photo of nearly every single vehicle as helmets are not worn and people ride whilst carrying all sorts of strange and unbelievable artefacts like trees, long pipes, fruit produce, boxes stacked up high and of course the family all piled on to the one bike! Makes all those ‘crazy’ people that you sometimes see on ‘Police, Camera, Action‘ seem very tame!
HCMC appeared to me to be like just one big market. For the Vietnamese the streets are their offices with every part of the pavement being used to sell fruit, shoes, books, sunglasses, drinks, food or whatever and then their are the ubiquitous offerings of a ride to somewhere on the back of the motos.
Not knowing how long I was going to be back in HCMC for I wanted to get a fair few things done before I went to Cambodia so I hired two guides who approached me as hundreds of different people did every day trying to get something out of me. Both guys were very nice and spoke reasonable English beyond the usual “You want moto?” and so on but there’s always that slight sense of mistrust as so many people seem intent on ripping you off even though its all very cheap by our normal standards. Given that I was on holiday and on limited time I couldn’t really worry so much about doing everything on such a shoestring budget.
In terms of the sights I visited many Chinese style pagodas and temples in Cholon but nothing too spectacular in my opinion. The War Remnants museum was my first stop and that had some very graphic photos and the Re-unification Palace followed that before I got a bit war-ed out.
For one day only though as the following day the war theme continued providing one of my highlights as I went to see the Cu-Chi Tunnels where I was able to crawl through the underground tunnels and drop down into the tiniest of holes where the Viet-cong guerillas used to hide themselves. Plenty of booby traps to look at too before I headed back to HCMC to visit the Binh Soup Shop which was the secret HQ of the Viet-Cong where many attacks were planned. My only plan was of course to have a cheap noodle soup (Pho) dish which was my staple Vietnamese diet during my stay.