My Vietnam Experience: Pre-Stray, Ho Chi Minh City

Keys (aka Eileen) is a Tour Leader with Stray New Zealand, and also our Environmental Officer, based in our head office in Auckland. A keen and experienced traveller, we sent her off to Vietnam for the very first Stray trip, to explore and report back on her experience…

Good morning Vietnam!

I arrived in the old capital of Southern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City and the first thing that impressed me was the airport. It’s really modern and state of the art, not to mention clean – I had the impression I could easily apply the 2 second rule to any food item that should accidentally fall on the floor.

I already had my visa so whizzed through immigration and out on to the bustling streets of HCMC. Considering the volume of traffic and the fact that 80% of the vehicles were motorbikes, I was really impressed with how well traffic flowed. I didn’t see any near-accidents during my three days in the city, however I did observe some driving techniques which definitely wouldn’t work in New Zealand (where I’m from). Later on, negotiating the roads as a pedestrian, this sea of traffic took on a new perspective. I found that walking deliberately in a single direction and at a constant pace was the key to getting across roads and avenues as vehicles whipped by me on all sides. They do have pedestrian crossings and also traffic lights but these are not ‘respected’ in the same way we use them back home. Learning to cross the road in Vietnam is definitely one of the fun aspects of your visit and for the most part, easier than one would suspect.

District One

I was staying in District One, the main backpacker area, at this cute guesthouse which had about 8 stories. There was no lift but they had an ingenious method for getting your bags up to your room. A humungous hook on a metal cable was lowered by pulley and the bags were secured at the bottom and winched up to whatever floor you were staying on through the middle of the stairwell.

Wandering around the streets of District One, I found the locals to be friendly and not too in your face as far as offering tours, food, massage etc etc. Although bartering is the norm for street purchases, most restaurants had signs up indicating the price of certain dishes and beer so you knew without going in if it was within your budget or not. And just what was my budget you ask, well one of the cool things about being in Vietnam is you become an instant millionaire because 1USD is worth about 21,000 dong. This is both daunting and disorientating at first as everything costs thousands and you have the sense that surely you are being ripped off as your dinner bill comes to almost 100 grand. But hang on that’s less than $5US and you had some drinks with it too so really it’s pretty cheap. Street food ranges from as little as $1.50 and a bottle of beer 50cents.

One of the standard local dishes is pho pronounced like ‘foe’. This is a clear noodle soup with beef or chicken in it and some vegetable but then on the side they bring you a whole bunch of herbs, chopped chili and cut limes to add to the flavour as you like. You can get different types of noodles in it, the clear vermicelli style or rice noodles which are a bit thicker like fettucine. HCMC is well known for its street food and there is a tour you can do to check out the local flavours. I didn’t get a chance to do this but it sounded intriguing and looking at the wonderful treats that were being grilled on the side of the road, such as octopus tentacles, curried sea snails still in their shell and large prawns, I’m sure it would be great.

Reunification Palace

Ho Chi Minh has an important role in Vietnam history, once the former capital of the south. I joined a city tour that included the Reunification Palace, formerly the government palace until the war ended. The architecture was classic 50s style and you could walk around the rooms and see furniture and electrical devices from back in the day.  There is an actual helicopter on the roof and this is a replica of the one that flew over the palace on a stealth mission and detonated a couple of bombs within days of the war ending.

War Museum

Another must-see is the War Museum; of course nobody likes war and some of the photos were quite graphic but the 3-storied museum is really well done and gives you a sense of the different facets of what was an incredibly long, brutal and ill-conceived war involving more countries than just the U.S. and Vietnam. Outside the museum are tanks, missiles, helicopters rocket launchers, and planes that remained after the war was over. This visit was sobering stuff but essential to try and understand a long chapter of Vietnam’s recent history and one that continues to affect the country today.

Chinese pagoda

Another place we visited on the city tour was a Chinese pagoda. There are a variety of religions in Vietnam and Buddhism is the most common but Catholicism and Chinese religions are also common. We visited a government-run handicraft centre where people affected by Agent Orange work. In exchange the government provides them with accommodation and 3 meals a day. The work was both exquisite and pain staking involving a mosaic on wood made with duck eggshell, mollusc shells and hand painted with a finishing coat of lacquer. These mosaics are available for purchase throughout Vietnam and were incredibly beautiful.

We also visited a huge market, there are many around the city and they are all chocka block with pretty much anything you could ever hope for and a lot of random things which you can’t imagine what they are for or who might purchase them. In the market my phrase book came in handy as not all the vendors spoke English but in most other parts of the city this was not an issue.

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