From Hoi An, Zak and I took a flight to Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City. While I wish we could have slowly worked our way there over the Central Highlands, there was simply not enough time. Although the distance from Hanoi to Bangkok initially seems small to any westerner, upon further investigation one will find it is actually quite long.
We arrived in Saigon early in the afternoon and our first challenge was finding our hotel. Saigon is famous for the mazes of alleys that snake their way through the center of every city block, and our hotel happened to be right in the middle of one such maze. As the official navigator of our trip, I was armed with a screenshotted map of the alley and ready to take on this challenge. Luckily, it wasn’t as difficult as originally thought. The alley location turned out to be probably my favorite of any place we’ve stayed. A plethora of local people live there, and each time we walked through we got an insight into their lives, as front doors were often open and people sat on their small plastic stools chatting with neighbors. We even made friends with the cutest little puppy there who would eagerly come to greet us each time we passed by.
That afternoon, we roughly followed Lonely Planet’s walking tour of the city. We got a little distracted by the shiny Bitexco tower rising out of the rooftops, so we took a slightly expensive detour up to the top to see the sights of Saigon. It was beautiful, and I’m glad we did it. A storm was rolling in, and the clouds were incredible.
We continued walking, past the Opera House, the coffee shop made famous in A Quiet American, the People’s Committee Hall and the Reunification Palace. Although we didn’t get to go inside any of them, I was happy to just appreciate the outside and think about the rich history of all.
The second day we visited the Jade Pagoda, which was a small Buddhist temple in the middle if the city, ad clearly one of those places where actual Vietnamese come to pray. People had left offerings of money, fruit, moon pies and burning incense, and some worshippers were visiting while we were there.
We also visited the War Remnants Museum, which features displays from the Vietnam war. There were planes, tanks and boats in the courtyard, and inside were several exhibits, one featuring photographs of those journalists who covered the war, a gruesome and disturbing one covering the last effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant the U.S. sprayed over much of Vietnam and still contaminates soil and water sources and causes birth defects in children and grandchildren of those exposed. Other exhibits covered the escalation and deescalation of the war itself. One photo that stuck with me was an aerial shot of land in northern Vietnam, dotted with hundreds of small lakes that are actually bomb craters. We passed many of these on the trip to Halong Bay, and it saddens me that many years later this country still bears many scars of the invasion. Although the museum is a one sided view of the invasion, what struck me throughout our journey was how the country and it’s people do not harbor any obvious resentment toward the USA or Americans. I’m not sure why that is, but I think it is truly incredible just how forgiving humans can be.
Both evenings there, we walked through a beautiful park to go eat dinner at the nearby market. Both times we were approached by young Vietnamese students (college age) and asked if we spoke English and would be willing to talk to them. We relished this opportunity, and it is probably my favorite memory of the trip. As a tourist, you tend to get a very one-sided view of the local people, the ones who want you to buy something from their shop or food stand, get a massage or take their tuk-tuk or moto. I loved having the opportunity to talk to people around my age and see a different side that you are so rarely exposed to as a tourist. One girl was about to graduate, and was looking for a job, so we were able to connect a lot over the struggle of finding employment. It was wonderful to be able to help them practice their English and ask questions we had been wondering about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.
Photos (may not be in correct order): selfies in the park, Ho Chi Minh statue in front of People’s Committee Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office.