22-23 December 2011
Having walked the whole length of the promenade left of the hotel on Wednesday night, we walked the length right of the hotel when we got up on Thursday morning. Sadly, it was still drizzling on and off, but we still found a beautiful beachfront restaurant with carved wooden pagoda decks to enjoy breakfast overlooking China Beach.
The only thing notable about Da Nang airport is that it has the only Burger King in Viet Nam, which we didn’t even try since we’d already eaten! I would have had the bacon and onion burger, I think…
A lovely nap on the 1hr20 flight and we were met with a wall of heat on disembarking in Ho Chi Minh City. It was 31 degrees and (at least) 80% humidity. Stinking stinking hot!
HCMC has even worse traffic than we’ve seen so far! Every road and side-street is a bustle of scooters, with cars and buses dotted intermittently. There are far more cars here than in Hanoi (which incidentally is home to 5 million people and 3 million scooters!), but it’s a far more modern city with wider roads, distinct islands and more traffic lights so it’s better equipped to deal with the 4-wheelers. Riders and pedestrians alike wear cloth surgical masks, presumably to protect against the fumes, and these are readily available in all sorts of colours and patterns, seemingly adopted to be a standard apparel accessory. Some roads are simply impossible to cross in one lights change, with vehicles coming at you from all directions (and not always stopping at red lights) – and I’m sure that pedestrian injuries must be rife!
Despite the immensity of activity, HCMC isn’t a huge city centre and we spent the next few hours taking in all the local sights. Starting with KFC, where we mix-and-matched to make our own Fully Loaded Box combo. The staff were very confused that we wanted to swap coleslaw for mash and gravy when the combo already had chips and they checked several times and then exchanged words in Vietnamese that clearly had something to do with thinking us “crazy Westerners” (we’ve seen the look often).
They serve their eat-in meals on a moulded tray with sections for the various elements, dished straight onto the tray rather than in packaging. The mash is a little moulded mound with a gelatinous but tasty gravy, the chips are skinny like McD’s and the chicken pieces come standard with the spicy cornflaky batter. The burger meat is pink, which looked weird but tasted delicious, and the Zinger is spiced in the batter with ordinary mayo not perinaise style like at home. Was odd to get a real glass with metal knives and forks, but all in all, a great meal.
And just the fuel we needed for another mega sight-seeing walk, at pace (we’ve been averaging about 20,000 steps a day on the pedometer, except Bangkok which was about 30,000 and HCMC on 28,420). We whipped around the Pagoda and then headed for the War Remembrance Museum. I didn’t like it – lots of pictures of soldiers threatening and torturing; women, children and old people crying and begging for mercy; dismemberment and disfigurement from Agent Orange fall-out. Not nice. Clearly, skewed to represent the Americans as the bad guys, not a single picture of the Viet Cong throughout the museum. It’s heart-breaking to see the pictures of the towns post-war and how complete the devastation was from the ‘clear and burn’ policy, but a little brighter seeing the aerial photos of those towns today, restored and growing.
The outside display of a host of tanks and choppers is cool though. Christian seemed to recognise them by their alpha-numerics and was stoked to see the real-live battlecraft up close and in person.
We were very lucky to catch both the Presidential Palace and the Notre Dame Cathedral as they were closing, to catch a quick look-see and some snaps and move on. We took the Kong Dohi strip, which was the main fancy drag in the 20s and 30s under French rule, which shows by the tree-lined avenues, draped flowers overhead and very symmetrical and structured jardins.
We had made plans to meet the NZ’ers at 6 at the Crazy Buffalo – a shrewd landmark for its enormous neon Buffalo signage at the entrance – so only had time for a quick whip through the famous Ben Thanh market… But managed an armload of shopping bags nonetheless! 🙂
Met up with our mates and began a supermarket pub crawl. No 711s here, but Circle K and Stop & Go seem to work just as well… And the air-conditioned pitstops were welcome relief from the asphyxiating heat outside!
Our market crawl was interrupted by an Italian Mexican Vietnamese restaurant whose host offered us a free beer to eat there. Who could resist?
It turned out to be a great choice and we shared a chilli con carne and ‘Special’ pizza (shrimp, chicken, bacon, onion, garlic, mushrooms) – both really good! – and ended up just dumping the con carne on the pizza, which was amazing!
Enjoying being a bit more settled, we started a more conventional pub crawl. Lured and repelled by combinations of drinks specials, cooling fans and music, we eventually settled at Lily 2 (across the road from Lily, we’ve seen a few chains that use the same name and just add numbers), where they stream their music from You Tube and we managed to gain control to VJ music that suited us and sampling each other’s favourites and guilty pleasures over many Tigers.
Had to be up early for our Cu Chi Tunnels tour, so called it a night at a (relatively) respectable hour and wheedled our way through the streets and alleys like seasoned residents.
Surprisingly good breakfast (included) consisting of a light and fluffy omelette, a piece of bacon, an exploding sausage (like you get at cocktail parties), slices of tomato and cucumber, and 2 slices of toast with butter and jam. I got freshly squeezed OJ (from actual oranges) and Christian got a cup of coffee with a rich cocoa aroma.
The tour fetched us from the hotel (Saigon Mini Hotel 2, US$29 per room per night including breakfast) and we headed into the traffic to make our way to the countryside.
The 2 hour bus trip included a half hour stop at a workshop where Agent Orange victims work at making furniture, art and curios with mother of pearl inlays and egg shell mosaics. Really pain-staking work – especially for the bargain prices of the end product (even converting from ZAR!)
The tunnel tour was fascinating. Started off with a video and tutorial using a map and tunnel model, showing the multi-layered interlinking tunnel community that the VC had built over 20 years. A very impressive infrastructure with some simple but effective tricks to keep the inhabitants undetected, like a series of smoke chambers to filter out cooking smoke before releasing it above ground in barely perceptible whiffs.
We got to see the entry tunnels and try out the trapdoors, which the US soldiers might easily have missed seeing as they’re so small they don’t look like they’re big enough to fit a human. I managed to slide in (arms in the air above my head), but Christian’s shoulders are too broad for him to get in. We did both get to crawl through the demo section of tunnel though. It’s horrible. Dank and dark, with moisture on the walls and only high enough to walk through monkey-style. Every time you turn a corner it goes completely black. The crafty VC built them with constant changes in direction and up and downs so that they could easily move through the familiar territory, but Tunnel Rats would get disoriented and/or give away their position when they used their torches to light their way. It’s a hell of a thing that those people lived down there (on and off) for such an extended period. We were in one of the enlarged tunnels (built for Western tourists, Vietnamese tourists are allowed to go in the standard tunnels) and it was claustrophobic and difficult to breathe. Very glad we’ve done it, but happy to keep it a one hit wonder!
On return to town we picked up a baguette from a street vendor (pork, chicken, pate, fried egg and accoutrements) and concluded our shopping (Christmas, souvenir and otherwise) at the Ben Tranh Market. It’s very choatic with narrow aisles, way too many people and way too little ventilation, but the prices are the best we’ve seen in Viet Nam so far and the vendors easier to haggle with seeing as there are so many stalls in such a close proximity that sell exactly the same wares so you can play them off against one another.
Our suitcases are now almost full. Am once again very grateful that I was ruthless when I packed what felt like half a suitcase on the outset (and wishing I hadn’t brought half of that stuff!)
Met our NZ mates at the 0ld Faithful meeting spot, The Crazy Buffalo, and grabbed a quick beer while strat planning our last night in Viet Nam. Settled on hitting a curry house and then the usual haunts and a few new ones on the bar street near our hotel. The curry was amazing – we had Lamb Karahi (with pepper) and Chicken Maglai (with egg) with pilau rice and garlic naan stuffed with cottage cheese. It was an enormous dinner and took away all the enthusiasm to drink!
We wandered around and ended up back at Lily’s since it has the biggest fan on the street. And were quite happy there until they took our VJ rights away from us to resume awful dance music… so we resolved to be done with the place.
We did a last loop of the bar streets, stopping in for one or two here and there and then headed back to the hotel to prepare for our early departure, the bus fetching us at 6.30 for the 6 hour journey to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Looking really forward to seeing what the next country has in store for us. We have a private taxi for the duration, so am confident that the sight-seeing will be complete, epic and painless. And have been told that the shopping is every more of a bargain!