Saturday in Saigon and we slept in to fight our jetlag. So in the early afternoon we left the comfort of the hotel to confront the chaos that is downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Armed with a simple map we navigated the foreign street names and hordes of motorbikes. Just crossing the street in Saigon can be a harrowing experience. Taxes on imported cars are extremely high in Vietnam, making them a luxury for the wealthy while most people get around on motorbikes and scooters. To cross the street, forget about looking both ways and waiting. There aren’t many breaks in traffic. Thus, the best approach is to step out into traffic and let the motorbikes flow around you like water as you confidently walk at a steady pace. The motorists are adept at avoiding pedestrians, but they will still honk at you as they swerve around.
Most of the main attractions of Saigon are within walking distance of our hotel. We saw some old French colonial buildings, including the grand central post office and the majestic Notre Dame cathedral (we call it Notre Dame East). We spent a bit of time walking through the huge Ben Thanh Market, a permanent indoor market selling everything from silly souvenirs and silk scarves to fresh squid (Rose really enjoyed the smell of fresh seafood in the wet market area). We walked to Turtle Lake, a large round about area with a pond and sculpture garden in the middle. We almost got an apartment in this area on AirBnb but opted for the livelier backpacker district and a more conventional hotel.
We then saw the Reunification Palace, formerly the seat of the inept and corrupt South Vietnamese government. This is the spot where the North Vietnamese tanks famously broke through the gate and officially liberated Saigon on April 30, 1975. This was two years after the end of American military involvement in Vietnam. The fall of Saigon happened faster than American officials predicted and thus a comprehensive evacuation plan for the tens of thousands of South Vietnamese who had aided the Americans during the war was nonexistent. The airport had fallen, and so in late April 1975 countless South Vietnamese tried to escape by any means necessary, often boarding dangerously overcrowded or dilapidated boats as the Vietcong army closed in around Saigon. The American embassy arranged for helicopters to airlift people to the US ships anchored in the sea outside Saigon. The need was too great however, as thousands of South Vietnamese stormed the embassy desperate to escape. The last chopper lifted off from the roof of the embassy with the US ambassador and his staff aboard. The thousands of South Vietnamese below were left to fend for themselves; many of them were killed in “re-education camps”.
After seeing the Reunification Palace, we walked back to Bui Vien Street and found a restaurant where we ate a quick meal and watched the people and motorbikes stream by. We went back to the hotel and took a nap, still coping with a bit of jetlag. We woke up around 9pm and then headed out onto Bui Vien to have a few drinks.
The street was buzzing with activity as backpackers from all over the world and locals as well gathered to mingle. We found a table right near the street where we could watch the people stream by. A few fellow travelers sat down at the table next to us and soon we had pushed our tables together and were exchanging tales of travel. There was Brian from Oregon, Jori from Sweden and Liam, Anette and Paul from England (okay, so his name really wasn’t Paul but he kinda looked like Paul Rudd so we called him that). It was fascinating hearing everyone’s travel stories. Notably, 19 year old Liam was doing a gap year and had been all over the world.
For you Americans, a gap year is taking the year between high school and university to travel the world. It’s popular in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. This needs to be a thing in America; I think it could go a long ways in improving the often myopic view of the world that most young Americans have (my past self included). His favorite country so far was Myanmar, largely untainted by the West. He had also been to Africa and South America. Brian, the American was also well traveled and was heading north up the entire length of Vietnam before meeting his parents in Calcutta, India and then heading to the Taj Mahal in Agra.
We exchanged some stories about the Angkor temples in Cambodia, definitely one of my favorite spots on this planet. Annette and Paul had just come from Koh Samui in Thailand where they witnessed the aftermath of a car bomb on the small tropical island. Rose and I were very glad that we had chosen to avoid this politically unstable area. We were, after all, in Malaysia which borders Thailand during the coup in 2014. Jori was in Vietnam for a few weeks before returning to Sweden.
The beers and cocktails were super cheap and we kept them flowing. We moved to another bar down the street with even larger, stronger drinks. I have a vague fuzzy memory of a Vietnamese guy dressed in full body black spandex running around the street like a ninja.
Things were getting crazy. It was 4am. I thought I read that the bars in Saigon close at 1am. Apparently this isn’t strictly enforced. It was time to pass out. We exchanged contact info with our new friends and stumbled down the street to our hotel. The poor night worker at our hotel who we had awoken the night before upon our late arrival was a good sport as we woke him up to let us in. Okay, so the night before we had scheduled a day trip to the Mekong Delta that was to depart in a couple of hours. There was no way we were going to make it. I told the hotel worker who had arranged the trip that we were “ill.”
Unfortunately, most of the day Sunday was spent recovering. We had sacrificed one day in Saigon for one crazy-ass night. I’m not proud of this and I don’t recommend it. We managed to find a McDonalds at lunch to quench our hangover with greasy American burgers and fries. Then we went back to sleep for a bit. Feeling a bit better after our nap, we headed back onto the street to find some food. We ate at Baba’s kitchen and it was some great authentic Indian food. Tandoori chicken and garlic naan finally got rid of my hangover. After dinner Rose and I walked around a bit more, enjoying being sober. After returning to the hotel I found a soccer game (there’s always at least two games on TV in Vietnam; awesome) before going to bed. I managed to reschedule our Mekong Delta trip thanks to the nice front desk lady at our hotel. So after a great night’s rest we are ready to escape the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City and see the countryside of Vietnam. I’ll let you know how it goes!