So you have about a weekend free for Ho Chi Min City (HCMC) and again for Hanoi, the classic internal-external combination, reminiscent of Beijing and Shanghai or Johannesburg and.. the rest of South Africa. That’s quite a coincidence, since I just recently had the exact same opportunity.
Unlike other trips, I don’t believe my experience made the most of what Vietnam has to offer, although I loved all of it. In preparation for the visit I read a few other blogs and pieces about the country, and one of them caught my eye. The writer claimed that, unlike other SEA countries, in Vietnam your time is best spent moving slowly and soaking in roadside action from the window of a coffee shop, and not kicking up dust from one discovery to the next. Is he correct? Well let’s not intellectualise the point overly, fair to say I tried it a bit myself and next time someone says “Hey I’m moving to Vietnam”, I won’t be that surprised.
~Ho Chi Minh City~
Grab any tourist map of HCMC and you’ll find that most of the sights are within easy walking distance. Are they worth a look? Definitely. Will it take you days? No.
My absolute favourite was the War Remnants Museum. I’m a sucker for understanding a country’s history through its tragedies. The same way I feel about understanding people.
Cu Chi Tunnels
I definitely wanted to take a peek outside the city limits, and not by accidentally taking the right bus in the wrong direction as we did the first day. My choice was the Cu Chi Tunnels, which I got lazy on and joined a group tour (I know, I’m sorry). Partly due to getting a free lift in the morning traffic from an ex-tour guide the day of the trip.
One true bonus of the group tour was that our guide, Mr Nam, was ex-southern army. No lies (unless he did ^^). He was an officer with about 20 bodies under him, also involved in the assault on the Cu Chi district in some parts. He also had to go to ‘rehab camp’ after the war was over, but luckily got released after 3+ years and went on to build a life within the new Vietnam.
HCMC has the full range of options, from exclusive sky bars to corner-crate watering holes. in the area of Phạm Ngũ Lão (“backpacker central”) you will find mostly low-mid range spots. The actual action isn’t in this street though, it’s one block south in Bùi Viện, a narrower street with storied buildings on both sides, and a mix of vendors, massage girls and plastic baby seats packing all space outside of the road itself, which is equally impossible to get through.
Safety check: While in the park late one evening, a small boy approached us. He seemed to be selling something, but wasn’t speaking or even gesturing, he just stood there. We surmised he couldn’t speak and sure enough a passing man confirmed this, he also stood with us a few minutes to engage with this boy. Where’s the danger? Well it seems both of them were together, as was the third man strolling in silently behind us and trying to take a grab a the contents of my friends bag, which was on the bench next to us. They got nothing and everyone is fine, but if you have a bag with you, try keeping a hand on it.
I don’t know the names of most things I ate, but everything was delicious! Not all of it came from the weekends, we got to try various dishes and spots during the week itself while working, but my honest sincere emphasis on how good the food was.
Unfortunately I also focused so much on eating that I rarely took any photos. And as for Pho (basic noodle soup)? It’s a winner, don’t hold back. Just have exclusively for a day once.
When you find yourself in the Old Quarter or around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a bit outside enjoyable walking distance. You’ll want to get something better than your feet to move around in Hanoi when sightseeing. Hiring a bicycle isn’t a bad idea, although it’s difficult in some places to get past everyone else (they weren’t kidding about the motorcycle mania either).
You can skip: Hỏa Lò Prison a bit lacking in terms of content and physical elements to get curious about. It wasn’t pointless to visit but it really didn’t build much into my understanding of Vietnam’s past or wow’d me with stories of what took place inside its walls.
Coffee shop living
Vietnam has the most accessible wifi of any SEA country I have visited to date. Not only does 99% of all locations have wifi you can access, but the public wifi is accessible without SMS verification or other hassles. After getting familiar with a few of the coffee shop chains and public wifi networks, this really helps if you get stuck in traffic and need to kill a few minutes, since there’s bound to be one of the networks covering you.
On Friday we had taken a stroll and noticed a few shops to consider. Some coffee shops are standard western style, food, drink and so forth. Others, the more locals ones, are drinks only. It is quite literally a shop for coffee (and a few other drinks). Vietnamese coffee is really good too, but damn strong by my standards.
And did we see the country unfold while at the shop? Not quite as expected, but we got a very good look at the type of people we can find in the modern-day Hanoi.
It wasn’t exactly premeditated, but through some standard story lines we ended up clubbing the one night. It was epic, I just wished people did more dancing and less standing around. That being said, in some spots you can barely stand upright with all the bodies crammed in.
Hanoi has a great evening culture, one that I would recommend above HCMC in fact. We saw street artists, ate great food in one area and then went finding clubs in another. Where as HCMC felt very concentrated in one area (the part that I explored of course), Hanoi had a more natural flow from one location to the next.
And then my time had come to an end, my last bowl of Pho was lying empty in front of me and it was time to head to the immigration checks. Vietnam was such a surprise, such a wonderful discovery of similarities and differences against the backdrop of this gorgeous part of the world.
Vietnam, a new entry in the top 3 of next destinations when holiday hits.
What’s playing: John Mayer – Gravity / Perfectly Lonely
Where to next: Nowhere for a bit, then Jakarta maybe
What’s news: First world problems, distracting from third world realities