After a long, arduous, hungover journey from sunny Borocay involving boats, planes, buses and taxis, we arrived in bustling Ho Chi Minh City in South Vietnam. On the first morning whilst getting ready in our rooms, I took a minute to stand outside on the balcony overlooking a busy side street, and watched the city come to life with street food vendors preparing delicious meals, workers busily eating their breakfast on tiny plastic chairs, and the incredible smell of spices and frying wafting in the air. After so long in Americanised Philippines, it felt like we were truly back in ‘real’ Asia, and I just couldn’t wait to start pounding the streets and exploring all the culture (FOOD) that the city had to offer.
We started the day with a stroll in the park, chowing down on banh mi baguettes bought for 50p from a local stall (the best banh mi we found in all Vietnam!), washed down with incredibly strong iced coffee (also purchased from a street stall) to get us buzzing for the day. In the park we watched locals getting over-the-clothes massages from entrepreneurial masseurs, and litter pickers in traditional Vietnamese rice-pickers’ hats. We wandered the city’s wide leafy streets, manically running across 6-lane traffic and dodging crazy bikers, eventually ending up at the War Remnants Museum.
A must-see in the city, the museum offers an incredibly sobering and detailed account of the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, ‘The American War’) – with entire floors dedicated to the War’s heartbreaking war crimes, torture methods, and harrowing after-effects like the ongoing legacy of Agent Orange, alongside remnants such as fighter jets, guns and other war regalia. It was truly fascinating reading more about the war, and taking in the Vietnamese perspective of America’s role and conduct (‘barbarian’ war crimes), as well as the more gruesome barbarian torture methods, and the involvement of other countries which I didn’t know about beforehand. Although fascinating, the museum had a huge emotional impact on us, and we all felt pretty drained afterwards from wandering through the walls of photographs and descriptions which were both shocking but entirely necessary.
To regroup, we decided to go eat our feelings and had some delicious Pho on a street corner, with beers and laughs to liven ourselves up! We spent the afternoon strolling the streets, the river, and the fancy financial district, stopping for selfies with statues en route. That evening we found an amazing restaurant on our street where we gorged ourselves on fat ‘kwe teow’ rice noodles, fried meats, veggies and crispy spring rolls.
We then hit up a bia hoi bar – omnipresent in Vietnamese cities – where they serve fresh barrel beer at a bargainous price of about 30p a pint! Needless to say, we got pretty merry, whilst crouching on tiny plastic stools rammed against long metal tables heaving with locals, and Jack made friends with some nice young Vietnamese guys who taught us how to say ‘Happy New Year’ in Vietnamese!
The next day, suffering from our bia hoi excesses but strengthened by a hearty breakfast of further banh mis and noodle soups, we deliriously dragged ourselves across town to visit the Reunification Palace which was probably the best thing we did in HCM: truly stunning! Having visited lots of palaces / temples / grand buildings during our travels, we were expecting the Palace to just be more of the same, but we were delighted to find a masterfully preserved art deco wonder, replete with beautiful ’60s and ’70s art deco furniture (like mad circular couches, gold cabinets, and even a party floor with a grand piano!) Every detail of the palace design is deliberate, from stunning multi-windowed walls that let in copious light, to the symmetry of the floors, to the mood of each room – from rest, to fun, to meditation, to scary big powerful conference rooms designed to intimidate with their grandeur.
We felt pretty proud of ourselves having done something so cultural whilst hungover, and justly rewarded ourselves with further delicious foods and some beers in the park, before catching a long train up the country to Hoi An. The train was super fun, and surprisingly flashy, boasting power sockets, lights, comfy fold-out beds and clean toilets. Giggly and excitable, we spent the journey talking nonsense, eating lots of foods, and watching the world go by.
The train cut across cities and through countryside, and was really scenic – one minute, slicing across lanes of traffic in a busy cityscape, the next cutting through endless fields of verdant green dotted with mini temples, buffalo, and rice field workers. So, after a night and half day spent on the train, we arrived in our next location: Hoi An!