Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

14 05 2009


May 12, 2009-May 14th, 2009

“Come on” means ”Thank You” in Vietnamese! We are now in Ho Chi Minh City, which actually used to be called Saigon… and Saigon means ‘Cotton Tree.’ Another cool fact… there is no letter ‘F’ in the Vietnamese alphabet. So here… we would be known as Arhan and Arah!!

Vietnam has been an absolutely fantastic experience! In our cab ride on the way from the airport to the hotel… the first thing we all noticed was that ours was one of the few cars on the road. Everyone here drives a scooter! They even have separate lanes for cars and scooters in some areas. And from the looks of things, I don’t think there is much of an age limit on when you can own one of these things. It was 8:00am when we arrived and the road was packed to the max with scooters…souped up ones too. We even saw one with a Louis Vuitton seat on it! Hilarious!!! I think all of our jaw’s dropped when we saw a pregnant lady (at least 7 months) sitting on the back of one sideways…. and of course, there were tons of people who were sitting one behind the other and then a teeny weeny little baby in the middle… on a scooter, speeding, on the road, with other fast cars… and no car seat or safety precautions in place! Have I mentioned that I am a Child Protection Social Worker? This is a social worker’s worst nightmare come true!

After the shock of the whole infant on a seat-beltless scooter was over, we began to appreciate this city for the fantastic place it really is! We got to the hotel, dropped off our bags and away we went!

Our hotel is walking distance from most of the tourist places which is in district one. The first place we went to was the famous Benh Thanh Market. Pretty much like all of the other markets we’ve been to but wow are these sellers aggressive!! We walked in and before we could even turn our heads to look at something in a store, sellers were on us. One lady told Zaileen that she was just going to find her size in something and Zaileen had to sit and wait at her store… she wasn’t allowed to go and browse anywhere else!! Well, one this is for sure… mine and Farhan’s bargaining skills are slowly getting better.

 After the market we went to eat at this great restaurant we stumbled upon called Pho 24. Great Pho!!! We were so proud of ourselves for finding it and then we realized that Pho 24 is actually the McDonalds of Ho Chi Minh; there is one restaurant on pretty much every street.

 Walking down the street is even quite the adventure here…which could be a problem since my blogs are so long as it is! Everyone is wearing straw hats and masks here… people are making omelette’s and waffles on the street… and life s wonderful. Well except for the fact that we went to a ton of pharmacy type places and not one person had any Calamine Lotion! I may come back to Calgary with no legs if I don’t find a remedy soon. So as I was saying…. walking down the street can even make for a great story. As we were walking, trying to find some Calamine, this young guy- maybe 18-19 years old, starts talking to us in Vietnamese, waving his hands to give him five. Now whether that means five dollars or some sort of a sign for drugs or the five knuckle shuffle… I have no idea. I just know that it was creepy and even though we did our best to ignore him and his antics…the guy followed us down the street. So we slowed down… he did too. We stopped and went into a random store and when we came out we thought we lost him… but, he showed up again a few minutes later when we were in some other store. Luckily he didn’t actually follow us out of that one or I think I would have made a scene. The truth is the guy was pretty tame and obviously harmless but still, he was scary…kind of like seeing ants or spiders – you know that can’t really do anything to you, but you scream a little inside whenever you see one.

In the early evening we decided to venture out past district one which is the ‘touristy’ district… and head on down to district 5 – Chinatown!! We asked out cab driver to drop us to a specific Pagoda which is supposed to be the biggest and oldest one in Vietnam. He obviously had no clue where he was going seeing as he circled the same place three times. Finally he dropped us to a pagoda in Cholon (means Big Market) which is in Chinatown… even though it was the wrong one, it was still a cool sight to see.

The minute we set foot outside of the cab in Chinatown- what a culture shock it was! I felt like we may as well have all had six legs, twelve arms and be painted purple based on the way people were looking at us. I have never felt so many eyes on me at once… and I think all four of us felt the same way. It was really like they had never seen tourists before. Seriously people… the next time you go to South East Asia – please go to Vietnam so it doesn’t seem so strange!

Since the cabbie dropped us to the wrong Pagoda, we figured we may as well try to find it on our own. This is where we learned quickly that crossing the street in Vietnam “truly is an art” as Farhan would describe. You have to take two steps forward, a few steps back, time each step perfectly… and as you are doing this, the most important thing you must do is pray! There are tons and tons of cars and scooters everywhere… and they don’t stop for you or even slow down! There are hardly any cross walks, and even if there are… they aren’t really used so much. There aren’t really even any sidewalks… in Haji’s words “they end up being parking lots for the scooters”. You just have to be aggressive and go…and hope that the scooters will at least attempt to dodge you when they see you… and lucky for us, they did! Haji was actually telling us that this morning as we were sitting in the lobby of our hotel, these two older North American ladies were getting directions to go somewhere, and five minutes later they came back into the hotel saying they ‘got lost and couldn’t cross the street so they would just take a cab.’ – If you saw the chaos… you would totally see why!

 As we were exploring Chinatown, we saw a ‘pointed roof’ amid a bunch of buildings in the distance… so we walked towards it, weaving in and out of roads and crossing all sorts of life threatening streets. It turned out to be a Church rather than a Pagoda and since services were actually going on inside we couldn’t really go beyond the gate. We did manage to ask someone to point us in the direction of at least another pagoda seeing as Chinatown is supposed to be full of them. We were given really good directions and the guy even led us there with his scooter. I was happy because even though it wasn’t the one we planned to see… at least we’d get to see a couple of them since we came all the way here. Well… at least that’s what I thought – the guy ended up leading us right back to the first one we were dropped off at in the beginning! Ah well… at least we got a good laugh out of it.

The next day… our last actual day in Vietnam, we took a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is an underground tunnel system designed by the Vietnamese during the war to avoid capture and American bombs. The actual tunnels are about an hour and a half away from the city centre… even though it’s only really 17 km away – this is the kind of traffic there is here! Our tour guide was named ‘Doong.’ Super cool guy, didn’t look more than 25 years old… and full of knowledge. I did find it rather hilarious that Doong had a full on Australian accent but he was born and raised in Vietnam!!!! He has never even been to Australia, or left Vietnam for that matter! He said he just ‘picked it up.’ I guess it’s kind of like Canadians and Americans who go to the UK for a few weeks and come back with British accents all of a sudden… you just want to shake them and say ‘Dude, you’re Canadian!!!!!’ (obviously not you Tash and Al). He actually turned out to be a super cool guy so I decided against hassling him about the whole accent thing.

On our way to the tour we stopped at the “Handicapped Crafts” shop (obviously there is always a catch in the tour). Everything that we saw… all of the paintings, sculptures, and carvings were all made by Handicapped people…I know it’s not really politically correct – but these are the words they used. Anyway… the art and the pieces that we saw were so incredible, such intricate detail and so professional….in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have a piece of art in your home right now that was made here!

 Finally the main attraction – the Cu Chi Tunnels!! They were so so amazing… the tunnels were so deep underground and sooo tiny and narrow that they’ve actually widened them since the grounds became a tourist attraction in order accommodate North American bodies since Vietnamese people are so small and these tunnels were originally made solely to fit Vietnamese bodies. We actually went inside one of the tunnels (that ran for about 270kms) and had to squat inside of it and crawl through for about 20 metres. I was freaking out completely for just those three minutes… I can’t imagine having to do it for days on end the way they had to back then. Some of the traps that the Vietnamese made and set for the Americans were unbelievable… they really thought of everything in order to stay safe and protect themselves during the war. I was in total shock and amazement through all of it. If you want to learn more about it, check out the site…. http://www.cuchitunnel.org.vn/.

 3/4 into the tour… we stopped at the shooting range that was on site. All of us got to shoot an AK47 and an M16! I don’t know a lot about guns… but I know those guns were unbelievably powerful! There were so many people there and the headphones we were given to cover our ears weren’t the greatest… I think all of us lost our hearing for a good 5-10min afterwards. It was a neat experience to be able to hold a real gun that huge and shoot something…. but I’m definitely not cut out to kill people that’s for sure!

In the evening, we set out to find this random little local place Doong told us about that makes Vietnamese Subs… or Hamburgers as they are called in Vietnam. Doong only remembered that the place had the word ‘Hoa’ in it and it was number 26 on a street he didn’t know the name of. He circled the place in a general location on a map… and now it was up to us to find it. This truly felt like an Amazing Race test to see if we could find the ‘famous burgers’ in time!! And of course we did or I wouldn’t be telling you this story… but it wasn’t easy!!! Only after walking for about 25 minutes, getting lost a couple of times, having to cross a traffic circle/roundabout, ask a bunch of people who could barely understand us and actually led us the wrong way the odd time… we landed at ‘Huang Hoa’ on Ben Trieg’ street… at least i think that’s what the street is called. It was well worth it too… great sub and only $0.90 Canadian!!!

After the sub came Benh Thanh Market!! It was one of the more impressive markets we have seen so far…. and I can proudly say that mine and Farhan’s bargaining skills definitely have improved!!!

A few hours later we went to ‘Wrap n Roll’ for some salad rolls…again, it turned out to be a chain more than an authentic place, but still – a cool concept. You choose from a bunch of different salad rolls and spring rolls and then you ‘wrap and roll’ them on your own! Ohhh and I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet how amazing the fruit juice is in South East Asia… Zaileen and I can’t get enough of it!!!! It is soooooooooooooo fresh and sooooo bloody fantastic!!!!

 Throughout the day, the four of us had been talking about how even though there is no structure or any enforced rules here when you’re driving… it still somehow works in this city. We hadn’t seen any accidents and everyone still gets to where they need to go… including pedestrians. What was ironic was that about 10 minutes after we had that conversation… we saw a scooter clip the side of a car and the car’s entire bumper fell off. The scooter… not a scratch. In fact, it just drove away as if nothing happened. Then… at the end of the night, right before we were about to walk into our hotel and say good-bye to this great city, two scooters collided and one looked pretty damaged. Still though… only two accidents in the entire day of that madness… makes you wonder whose system is actually safer?

I’m a little sad that our Vietnam experience has come to an end so quickly. It’s definitely become one of my favorite’s and Farhan’s too. Zai and Haji are pretty amazed by the experience we’ve had here and it’s definitely unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It was such a culture shock and so great to see such a different way of life than what we are used to. Rush hour is literally from 12:00am-11:59pm, the whole city is so alive and always soooo so busy… and we learned so much here about Vietnam’s culture and history. Even the getting lost part was a great experience!!!

 Well… as all of our parents say, “all good things must come to an end.” Now we have to get back to packing and leave for our 6:30am bus ride tomorrow to Cambodia!!!!!