Describing Ho Chi Minh City is easy - hectic, fast-paced and crazy. The beeping is enough to bring on a heart attack and kill you with anxiety. It's not a case of getting used to it - there's a real risk that you'll be mowed down or run over by the scooters. The drivers go as fast as they like without paying the littlest bit of attention or obeying the rules of the road.
Of course, Harmony and I had a good idea of what to expect from Ho Chi Minh - it's the biggest city in Vietnam! We were excited to spend Halloween there like a lot of other people we had spoken to. However, when we arrived, all we thought about was when we were going to leave (sooner rather than later), and that didn't change anytime soon.
We spent the first day repenting for our alcoholic antics from the night before. It wasn't Halloween for another couple of days, but it was Saturday so that's when we celebrated. The hostel's pub-crawl took us to a few different bars and we had lots of fun and a lot of good conversations! Our second day in Ho Chi Minh City was spent waiting to check into a different, quieter hostel. Sure, it wasn't exactly a thrilling day, but it was our chance to research what to do in the city, put together a plan and catch up on my blog posts. By the third day, we were going to do something exciting - explore the Cu Chi Tunnels.
The tunnels are located about an hour and a half away from the city center, on the northern outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. They sit beneath one of the most famous battlefields in the world and allowed the Viet Congs (North Vietnamese Soldiers) to fight, hide and communicate throughout the Vietnam War. They run for roughly 200,000 meters across three different levels, each level with it's own purpose. It's hard to comprehend how extensive and impressive the system is!
Our guide told us how easy it is to get lost in the tunnels. He said, "go left and you'll go to Cambodia!" We were shown some of the trapdoors and alternative entrances that I presume are linked and could act as an exit if you get lost, but I could barely squeeze through anyway. The small openings were designed to be too small for the enemy to use (effectively at least). They were also amazingly well hidden thanks to a simply sprinkling of leaves.
As well as these openings, we were shown some of the techniques that were used to trick, injure or kill the enemies. The traps that the Viet Congs would set would be incredibly innovative. Pits would be dug and sharpened bamboo sticks would be placed at the bottom or arranged in a certain way. They would also confuse the search dogs by laying pepper around the tunnels' entrances and air holes, and they would wear rubber sandals to combat foot rot. Tracking the enemy would be easy once they knew how to use the jungle and vegetation to their advantage to!
Entrance to the area costs just 20,000 dong and, for an additional 90,000 dong, you can go exploring underground in some of the tunnel system! A 20m stretch has been widened for westerners, but I still had to shuffle along with a bent over back! The tunnel is dark, damp and dingy. Only a few dim lights guide the way and, apparently, there are bats down there. I wouldn't want to be down there for any longer than I was. Which, in comparison to how long the Viet Cong's were down there, is a minuscule amount!
Also at an extra cost is a go at firing your choice of riffles and machine guns. To me, it seemed like a complete waste of money, but other members of the group jumped at the chance. I'm actually kind of glad that people were firing the guns because the sounds set the scene as we explored! A documentary being played in a dug out, thatched roof building usually starts off most tours. I found the documentary really hard to watch - mainly because of how anti-America it was, but also because other members of our group were spraying insect repellant in the semi-enclosed space. My advice is to put repellent on before the trip.
We were at Cu Chi for the whole morning and I'm happy with how much time we had. I wasn't happy when I had to wake up early, but I slept the whole journey there and back on the bus. After lunch, Harmony and I met back up with some of the others from the group, as we were spending the afternoon together on a city tour! Our first stop was something that comes highly recommended - the War Remnants Museum. It tells the tragic tale of how Vietnam suffered during the war, so we prepared ourselves for some hard hitting and horrible truths. Of course, everything is shown from the Vietnamese point of view and, in turn, the exhibits are entirely one sided. However, their stories need to be told, the photos need to be seen and the affects of war need to be known and remembered.
Upon entering the courtyard, we saw many different American aircrafts, tanks and weaponry. To me, this was uninteresting, but it did make the point of what the Vietnamese were up against. On the first floor inside the museum, images of "international support" for Vietnam cover the walls. Propaganda posters, pictures from protests and even people setting themselves on fire - it was all there and from all around the world.
Other exhibits on the other two floors showcase the affect the war had on the environment and the "Agent Orange Aftermath". Lives are still affected today because of the amount of toxic chemicals that were dropped across the country. Unexploded bombs also continue to kill and injure the innocent. I was brought to tears by the brutality. Images depicting the disgusting war crimes are shown, as well as pictures of mutilated men, worried women and children and the famous "Napalm Girl" photo. I'm still affected by what I saw, I can't imagine being on the battlefield. Another fantastic exhibit is a touching tribute to all of the photographers that died during the war. Their fantastic photos were shown, without bias, big and with a bold message.
The next stop on the city tour was the Independence Palace (otherwise known as Reunification Palace). It struggled to hold my interest after coming from the Museum, but it does actually have some cool history. My favourite bit was the bunker in the basement - strong enough to withstand a sizeable explosion. It also holds radio transmitters and receivers for communication and has it's very own tunnel system (where it leads is strictly top secret).
The building as a whole reminded me of the White House, but with less impressive architecture. We were told that it was rebuilt this way after it was bombed by a member of the Vietnamese Air Force instead of him doing a raid on the Viet Cong. The building was used by the President of South Vietnam until a tank smashed it's way into the grounds and the Viet Cong took power. The building is now occasionally used for important meetings, but is otherwise open to visitors for 30,000 Dong. If you're planning on visiting, you can avoid the crowds by going in the morning when everyone's at the tunnels!
The third place our tour guide took us was the Central Post Office. Again, I struggled to show an interest in it, but I did have some postcards to send so it was a perfect place to go! It was kind of cool that it was designed by the same architect as the Eiffel Tower! Just around the corner is what I like to call the Notre Dame Version 2, but it is literally just another Notre Dame Cathedral. Amongst the rest of the European Architecture, it fits right in. However, after a month of temples and Buddhas, it would be a strange thing to stumble across. If it wasn't raining and we had more time, I would've liked to walk around the area. It's not a far walk away, so I might suggest you cut out the time constraints and just go by yourself.
The next day was our last full day in Ho Chi Minh. So, I planned to pack it with as much sightseeing as possible. We began walking to our first place of interest - a Hindu temple called Sri Mariamman. The inside looked very beautiful and everything was very intricate but, in honesty, I was expecting a little more... Something bigger from the outside. Perhaps a bigger tower. Still, I'm glad I saw it.
We began walking again to our next place of interest, but we noticed that Ben Thanh Market was just a short walk away via a side street. Ben Thanh is the biggest market in the city, if not the country, so it's full of exciting stalls and narrow walkways you have to push your way through. In this crazy chaos, I couldn't find any good photo opportunities but I did enjoy the experience!
Also along the way to where we were heading, we came across Ho Chi Minh square - an open, paved space with a statue of Ho Chi Minh. It's opposite the City Hall, surrounded by skyscrapers and cluttered with tourists. I didn't get any photos there either and started to feel like I was failing myself.
We continued on our walk and nearly arrived at the Vietnam History Museum. That's when the sky started to turn grey and things took a turn for the worse... A rain storm was on it's way! We thought we could make it to the museum in time but the rain came and we had to seek shelter. Then came the flashes of lighting and loud thunder that lasted for minutes!
Just like that, our last day was almost completely ruined by the rain. I was disappointed, but more desperate and determined to get some photos once the rain blew over. I had a quick shower, changed my clothes and got a hot cup of coffee in me, and was straight back out the door! A taxi took us to Quoc Tu Pagoda for the equivalent of about £1. We turned a corner along the way and there the temple was, standing at the end of the road, seven stories tall. I wasn't expecting it to be that big, and it just kept growing taller and taller as we got closer. It actually dwarfs many of the other buildings that we've seen in this city of skyscrapers! Everything about it was amazing. The size, the design and all of people crouched in front of it taking part in the evening prayers. I had to contest with the construction work (so I couldn't get the perspective that I wanted), but at least they weren't working on the temple itself.
I also had another photo in mind that I wanted to capture before we left the city. We walked most of the way there and Harmony started to get really hungry. I took a big risk and said that they'd be restaurants where we were going. Fortunately, there was! We found a vegetarian place with great food so Harmony was happy, and it even had an upstairs. I needed a high vantage point to take the photo I wanted but, unfortunately for me, the restaurant didn't go high enough. We left the restaurant and stood outside assessing the surrounding buildings for at least half an hour! I noticed a sign that said "Rooftop Bar" and knew we had found the answer to our problems! I was thrilled!
A bellboy standing outside of a hotel pointed us inside, but I still had no idea where we were going. We hopped into the hotel's elevator and went to the highest floor we could. It wasn't the right floor, so I just poked my head inside one of the kitchens and said "Sin Loi... Erm, rooftop?" A lady showed us the rest of the way and we were finally where we needed to be. Not only did the bar have the best views of the city, but there was a DJ and great vibes in general. It was the perfect place to spend our last evening in Ho Chi Minh City!
WAIT - THERES MORE!!!
When Harmony and I left Ho Chi Minh, we only went back to Da Lat. That means that we had to come back through Ho Chi Minh City on our way into Cambodia! And we still had so much to see!
We arrived on Monday afternoon, had dinner and went to sleep. In the morning, we woke up with a list of places that we had to see! It was our mission and we weren't going to fail. I certainly wasn't going to be happy if I didn't get any more photos!
First, a taxi took us to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. The air con was amazing as it was awfully sunny and we didn't want to get sweaty walking in the sweltering heat. It took a while to get to because of the traffic, but it was only 3.5km away and only cost about £2. When we arrived, I was immediately in love - an overhanging tree in the courtyard, smoke from countless incense sticks and a ponds full of fish and a pond full of turtles. Inside the temple were lots of little rooms that you could explore for free, and even a roof you can look down on the courtyard from. Many people pray amongst the smoke, so I snapped a few photos and then left them alone.
The Vietnam History Museum is actually just around the corner from The Jade Emperor Pagoda, so we actually got to check it out this time. I was quite impressed actually. It's full of dioramas depicting great battles and other displays that show primitive life, as well as weaponry, jewelry and decorative ornaments. Stone display stands are topped with old antiques and sculptures. The museum can be seen in an hour or two and only costs 15,000 Dong. Though, We spent another 300,000 in the gift shop on books about the Napalm Girl picture and the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The museum is also next to another temple (Hung King), which is definitely worth a quick visit due to its interesting interior.
We spent the next day exploring the Mekong Delta - one of the most important river systems in the world! The day after, we did something extremely adventurous - we got tattoos! The idea was a lotus flower to symbolise the trip. Harmony even got three smalls dots inside the petals for each of the three countries we were visiting. Say what you want about matching tattoos, but I loved what the lotus flower represents in Buddhist ideologies and, as the Vietnamese would say, the tattoos are "same, same but different". Harmony's cost £20 and mine cost £30 because I went a bit bigger. It was more than I hoped to pay, but it was totally worth it when we saw how good the results were. I've had tattoos before and I might go as far as saying this one is the best. The aftercare instructions were different to what I was used to, but I stuck to it incase the ink was different or the change in climate would effect it differently. The shop was called Tadashi Tattoo and I'd definitely go back. They even gave us a free baseball cap and a few stickers!
After the tattoos were done, it was time to shoot the sunset! I had an awesome idea in mind, but it involved a bit of exploring for the right vantage point. I had a closer look at Google Maps and realised there was a tunnel that went under the River Saigon. From the other side of the river, I could capture the skyline in all of it's glory. A taxi took us through the tunnel and we walked the rest of the way to the perfect place for the shot. It involved walking on a bit of a beach, and through a lava field that was probably poo and sewage that had washed up on the rocks. Nevertheless, it was worth the effort, especially when the city lights started to turn on.
We didn't do much more in Ho Chi Minh City after that, but we did stay for a few more days to see some friends from home. They had just come from Cambodia, so talking to them made Harmony and I really excited to head there next!