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Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC - previously Saigon)

By marksams, 07/01/2010 - 08:10

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City was easy, thanks to the Mekong Express bus service from Phnom Penh. Expecting to be dropped off in some purpose built bus station somewhere on the outskirts (like in Bangkok), we were pleasantly surprised when the bus parked up adjacent to Pham Ngu Lao in the city centre, and the backpacker area Julie had targeted for our stay. We were met by the usual hustle & bustle of taxi drivers, touts and hoteliers, clamouring for our business, but it no longer seemed the hassle this once was. One man stood out from the crowd, with the look of a respectable family man. He presented a high quality business card with facebook and gmail contacts on, advertising his accommodation. He seemed genuine enough, and contrary to everything we had done before, followed him down a narrow alley into Pham Ngu Lao.

Our instinct served us well, for $12 per night, we stayed at "My Home", a nice family-run business with great facilities. Using this as a base we went on to visit a few sights including the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City Museum, Notre Dame, Reunification Palace and strangely, a very posh post office. Our primary city activity though, was frequenting coffee shops, restaurants and bars to gaze out at the local wildlife navigating the obstacle course (pavement) or the traffic, which looks like the first corner of a MotoGP race at every turn!

It was just as interesting watching the tourists walk by as the locals, mostly looking miserable because of either a) the constant approaches by street sellers, cyclos, motos, or restaurateurs trying to pull you in; b) trying to walk along the pavement whilst being approached by street sellers, cyclos, motos, or restaurateurs; or c) trying to walk along the pavement whilst being approached by street sellers, cyclos, motos, or restaurateurs, and watching your back as each moped whizzes by in case they try and grab your bag/jewellery/anything else that looks valuable. No-one was very relaxed, and we heard more screams than laughter during our stay, especially at night.

As with all countries, travelling in Vietnam was an education. This time the focus was on the War Remnants Museum, showing the impact of war on Vietnam since 1954, when the French (backed by the Americans) re-invaded after granting independence, and then the Americans took over in the 60's. The story was told from Vietnam's perspective and with many of their own internal struggles amiss. Unfortunately this presented a fragmented story, (until we visited the Ho Chi Minh City Museum to fill the gaps) but the pictures and atrocities of war left a significant impact. I remember talking to Julie after seeing the pictures of victims of phosphorus burns (among other things) and how phosphorus is still used by the British Army. Later that evening a street beggar with his face severely burnt by phosphorus tapped on my arm and waved his cap in my face. A reminder about how recent these events are...

Visiting Vietnam after four months of travelling in Asia, especially China, Thailand, and Cambodia, we were experiencing the popular SE Asia phrase "same-same-but-different", although this time it was "same-same-but-with-Vietnamese hats". After spending longer than expected in Thailand, we had already decided not to loop north through Vietnam and into Laos via Hanoi. Many of the other things Vietnam (and Laos) has to offer we had already experienced previously on our trip. A small taste of the south was enough and we look forward to Malaysia and Brunei, with the natural wildness of Borneo to complete our SE Asia experience.