For me, Vietnam is some kind of bewildering paradox. We were quick to leave Bangkok in the dust and touch down in the mysterious, humid city formerly known as Saigon, where a quick ATM withdrawal made us millionaires. (The dong to USD exchange rate is nuts: drop four zeroes, divide by two. 200,000 = 20 = 10.) And so begins one of the strangest trips I’ve experienced.
I think part of the strangeness comes from not knowing what to expect. Here was a place I’d come to know expressly through history books, specifically in the context of war. And now it’s become a hotspot on the southeast Asia backpacking trek. To reiterate: I had no idea what to expect.
Lucky for us, Susannah’s friend Diane has been living in Ho Chi Minh City. Not only did she offer us a place to stay, she spent her time showing us around and generally being excellent – and informative – company. Aside from being genuinely nice and friendly, Diane has to be one of the most interesting people I’ve met. The story of how her family arrived in the US – after leaving China and Vietnam and spending a two year layover in Malaysia – is novel-worthy, and her own life follows the trend.
Our time in Ho Chi Minh City is a blur of activity – and by activity, I mean gorging ourselves on anything set in front of us. We travel with the “We’ll only be here once, and we have to try everything” excuse; we sampled pho (pronounced like the foo- in football), wraps (and rolls), Vietnamese pancakes, sticky rice, regular rice, vegetables, fruit smoothies, chicken, meat, French cuisine, and banaffi cake. (Sidenote: The banaffi cake may not be Vietnamese at all, but it was good, and we ate two generous slices of it. The American brunch we had after the airport was also not Vietnamese, and it included a milkshake.)
Like Cairo, Ho Chi Minh is cheap and doting. For 184,000 dong, I indulged in a full body massage (that involved a woman crawling over my back at one point before punching me in the head), a hair wash and dry, and a small haircut. That’s at least $50 in the States (a wash, cut, and dry is usually about $20-30 and unless you’re getting a massage from a dexterous homeless guy on a park bench, that ain’t cheap), a whopping $9 here in Vietnam.
Clothes and artwork follow suit. Susannah and Diane are marathon shoppers, and while I loathe shopping (loathe is really putting it nicely), I joined them on our first day. They picked out four dresses – a dress? what’s that? – for me to try on in a fitting room that involved the shopkeeper holding up a sheet in the corner of the store while I scrambled to put on the dress before her arm got tired.
The highlight of our shopping trip was when the police arrived and all of the upstairs shopowners sprinted madly about, closing up their stores and hiding the goods. One minute we were in a sea of faux Louis Vuitton bags and Northface gear, the next we were facing a desolate aisle of sealed doors.
I found Ho Chi Minh City to be fairly clean and modern, and loved it for all of its variety – and because it allowed me to wear a tiny dress and drink alcohol at its restaurants. Still, it’s a crowded city, with an unofficial population of close to 17 million. (And 4.5 million motorbikes inhabit the city as well, weaving in and out of traffic. Just like Cairo, except they remain in the proper lanes and they actually have laws in Ho Chi Minh requiring passengers to wear helmets. Who would’ve thought?)
We traded the city for a day-long tour of the Mekong Delta on Wednesday, which involved a two hour bus ride through lush countryside. It also involved a four year old Vietnamese child pestering me so much that I got up and changed my seat. (Side rant: I don’t mind kids when their parents are present and being responsible. I hate when parents offload their children. This child’s parents were sitting right behind us, watching their vociferous little chess prodigy talk my ear off and grab my arm, probably thinking, “Good thing we bought him that seat so he could ruin someone else’s day!” I was told that when I left, the child roamed the aisle confused before his parents had to split up their seats so one could sit with him. Good. That’s what parents are supposed to do. Watch their damn children. End of rant.)
We traveled the Mekong Delta by boat and watched rice paper baking in the sun, visited a bee farm, purchased scores of coconut products, sampled fruit, and fended off irksome mosquitoes. It was a fabulous time in the parts of Vietnam I’d actually been able to picture prior to the trip.
The Mekong Delta was not really a location involved in the war, Diane told us, which made it a bit more peaceful. But the serenity of the delta and the friendly bustle of the city were only one side of Vietnam. The other, located an hour out of the city in the town of Cu Chi, presented a very different picture…