Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is a city which was clearly influenced by the French when they ruled Vietnam for about a century. There are still lots of examples of lovely colonial architecture including a Cathedral and the post offices.
HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam with 8m residents. It however feels much larger with the main roads packed with a constant steam of mopeds flowing along each of the main roads.
The mopeds flow along main roads like a stream with each moped going different speeds, overtaking and undertaking each other with less than a foot between them. As a pedestrian you watch this dance with both amazement and dread; to even go short distances you will need to cross similar roads as there are few pedestrian crossing.
The old reliable green cross code can not be used here. The idea of waiting for a gap in the traffic is pointless; you have 3 choices: use a taxi, ride pillion on a moto-taxi, or cross like a local.
The locals take the simple approach; wait for traffic to ease for a second; then walk slowly, confidently through the swarm of mopeds. The mopeds move slightly to either side of you leaving just a few inches as they pass.
As a foreigner, you know walking slowly at a constant speed works but it terrifies you. When you do reach a busy road you find yourself waiting minutes to cross. As you cross, your reaction to seeing the next moped approaching makes you want to pause and not take the next step further into the path of the moped. If you pause and don’t take the step your movement will be unpredictable. The moped passing behind you will have predicted your movement and will use the space you should have left. Telling yourself this you cross the road and are only partly relieved at reaching the other side as you know there will be another similar experience in a few minutes.
The moto-taxis are available on the corner of most roads in the city centre. These offer an exciting experience to be part of the stream of motorbikes flowing through the streets. From the back of the bike, with an experienced driver, you feel safer than on foot. The steam seems to flow more naturally from within it and the bikes go with the current which feels safer than fighting the current as a pedestrian.
The final method and most comfortable option is a taxi. There are frequent taxis on the roads and can be flagged down easily; these have meters but rates vary between taxi size and company; so you may want to wait a minute or two for your favourite company. Our favourite is a distinctive green cab which cost about 50p per km.
Our time here was spent going to museums, visiting the Cu Chi tunnels and enjoying relaxing in restaurants. In this heat you don’t want to do anything too strenuous.
The Cu Chi tunnels were used during the Vietnam war by the Viet Cong. They are an example of the 250km of tunnels used against the American (actually American and South Vietnam) forces. These tunnel networks were used to move weapons from Cambodia to resupply Viet Cong forces and used to launch hit and run attacks. The Viet Cong would use the tunnels to move unseen through the jungle; then attack unexpectedly from any direction and then disappear just as quickly.
The half day trip to the Cu Chi allows you enter and craw though the tunnels. The main tunnel for tourists has been widened but still required me to get down in my hands and knees. There was also an original hatch to the tunnels which had not been widened where you could drop down inside; I just fitted but once inside I would have struggled as they were deliberately small to prevent enemy solders following them into the maze of tunnels.
We also visited the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants museum which are well worth a visit. The Reunification Palace is a beautiful 1960s building. It was used by the American’s puppet government (South Vietnamese) until Saigon fell in 1975.
The War Remnants museum covers the history of the Vietnam War. Outside the building there are examples of tanks, helicopters, planes and guns used during the conflict. Inside the museum, the displays explain the war, war crimes during the war, the effect of use of chemical weapons (especially Agent Orange) and worldwide protests against the war.
These displays are moving and well presented but have a very selective history; I remember only seeing one information board with information mentioning that their were 1m South Vietnam troops, the rest classifies all opposition as American.
The Agent Orange display is the most moving; Agent Orange was the defoliant used to strip trees of their leaves and kill forests. This was done to stop the devastating attacks from the Viet Cong forces from within the forested areas. However it is impossible justify its use when you look at the effects (and side effects) on the people and countryside. Agent orange kills not just trees but crops, animals and people. The herbicide will stays present in the soil for years and this exposure has led to wide-spread miscarriages, birth defects, cancers and make the area unusable for food production.
Eating and drinking
HCMC has loads of places to eat from lots of stalls on street corners to posh restaurants.
The stalls with tables on the street corners normally only specialise in one dish but they are experts at producing this one meal. These have so far turned out to be the best tasting option but are also cheap. Some also offer ‘Ca phe sua da’ a type of ice coffee made with condensed milk which is lovely. However hot teas and coffees here are quite poor here due to the wide-spread use of condensed milk instead of fresh milk! We chose a good area to stay in north of the backpacker district. Our accomodation was Ms Yang’s Homestay and she was fantastic taking us to her favourite food stalls and eateries nearby, it meant we got to try some excellent local food. We were really glad we stayed there.
One evening we went to the Chill sky bar. This was great sitting watching the sunset from a roof terrace on the 27th floor with a few glasses of wine. However be warned it’s not cheap; about £10 for 2 glasses of wine, which is about the same as one nights accommodation. It was worth it though for the views.