Wednesday was my first full day in Ho Chi Min City, formerly known as Saigon. I won’t sugarcoat it – it was incredibly tough. I pretty much faced all of the challenges I’d expect in 3 months, in just 1 day. The beauty of traveling is that you are your own captain and yesterday opened my eyes to that realization. Although I had hoped that this trip would have started off differently, I’m accepting the challenges for what they were and refuse to throw in the towel so early on.
What made Wednesday so hard? Well first off, very few people in HCMC speak english. I was expecting a majority of the population to at least speak basic english and I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve been relying heavily on google translate which works in some instances but not all. Perhaps the most difficult part of the language barrier is getting around the city.
About 8 million people reside in Ho Chi Min City so it’s quite a large city. Parts of HCMC are more walkable than others but as I mentioned in an earlier post, the main method of transportation is motorbike. Not only did I get lost on more than one occasion in the pouring rain, I also saw my life flash before my eyes at least 4 times. Trying to cross the street in Vietnam is most definitely, the most fear-inducing thing I’ve ever done. You are risking your life every time you cross the street. There are motorbikes, buses and cars coming from all directions. And when you think you’ve found safety on the sidewalk, a motorbike brushes the side of you.
Another less common form of transportation is tuk-tuks. They are little carriages that you sit in and the driver cycles and steers behind you. Knowing that the War Remnats museum was in a different district than the hostel and I had already gotten very lost on the way there, I decided to take a tuk-tuk home. Before I got in, I made myself extremely clear that I would pay the driver 25,000 VTD. He gave me an english “okay” and shook his head in agreement. I hopped on and we were off. Perhaps more frightening than crossing the street is riding in a tuk tuk because you are faced head on with traffic. I ended up closing my eyes for most of the short ride because I couldn’t bear to watch us dodging buses, cars, and motorbikes. When he dropped me off (nowhere near my location), I reached for my money to pay him and he snatched 500,000 dong (About $24USD) from my hand and cycled away before I even had a chance to process what had just happened. Although 24 bucks doesn’t seem like much, it is in Vietnam. That could easily pay for 4 nights in a hostel or a weeks worth of food. Word to the wise: Beware of very very friendly tuk tuk drivers – most likely they just want your money!!
Clearly I did not have a great first day in HCMC. Thankfully the next day was totally turned itself around. I will admit that I did not have much faith left in the city after that first day. I met up with a friend of a friend who picked me up from my hostel on his motorbike and gave me a local tour of the city. We stopped for coffee and for lunch and covered just about every topic in the book. In just 3 short hours, I learned more about Vietnamese culture than I could have learned in any guidebook.
Later that afternoon, I went to the Chu Chi tunnels with my Belgium friend, Dan, that I met at my hostel. We drove through part of the countryside to get there and stopped at a work site where victims of agent orange were creating works of art.They were beautiful. I was tempted to buy something but knew that I wouldn’t have the space to carry something for the next 3 months 😦
The Chu Chi tunnels were another reminder of the magnitude of the Vietnam war. We had the opportunity to climb inside of one of the tunnels; we were inching our way through on our hands and knees – it was hot, dark, and cramped. A part of me felt like I was a solider in the Vietnam war. It was a really emotional and captivating tour.
- Lots of rich history
- Too crowded
- Very dirty and lots of pollution
- Not a good place to start for a first-time backpacker
Stay tuned to hear about my experience thus far in Dalat! (I’ll give you a hint – it’s much more positive….)
Thanks for reading!