Vietnam started off a bit rough with a 7-hour delay in Hong Kong after our plane got struck by lighting on the way to pick us up. We ended up waiting for Vietnam airlines headquarters to send us a new plane. After a stressful wait to see if we would actually get on a flight that night, we landed in Ho Chi Minh City around 1 in the morning. We got in the taxi line and were quickly on our way to our hostel. When we got there we were excited because the meter on said it was 1,220 dong ($0.05). Unfortunately, we soon realized that in all the taxis in Vietnam you have to multiply the meter by 1,000, so the cab ride quickly turned into a rather expensive trip. It cost us about 50 or so U.S. dollars for a 15-minute cab ride which is crazy. Needless to say, we either walked or took a Grab car (their version of Uber but super cheap) for the rest of our time in Vietnam.
After our long day and night at the airport, we slept in on our first day in Ho Chi Minh. We got up around lunchtime and used a helpful list of good restaurants near us provided by the hostel to find our first meal in Vietnam. We decided to head to one of their must-try Vietnamese places called “Secret House.” They were not lying because the food was delicious. We got fried spring rolls, stewed beef, and grilled shrimp. We also got our first mango smoothie (one of many over our hot, humid days in Vietnam). What a way to start off the trip! Once we were full and happy, we looked up what to do for the day. We decided since it is already kind of late in the day we should pick something that won’t take that long, so we headed to the local market. When we got there, we were met with dozens of narrow aisles full of shirt, shoes, bags, wallets, and purses (all knockoff of course). We wandered through the crowds trying to find something to buy. I found an MCM fanny pack that I liked and gave Haley the go-ahead to barter because she is tougher than I am and likes doing it. We ended up paying 550,000 Dong ($23 USD) for it and a couple of gifts when she started out at 1,800,000. After that, we decided to leave before we bought anything else just for the heck of it and headed to our first real tourist attraction, the royal palace.
The palace was a very interesting experience. All the information was about how the North came and liberated the South from American control and aggression. We walked around the property as well as inside the palace. We got to see the famous flag pole where the North raised the communist party flag and signified that the war had finally ended. We saw the helicopter that the southern president kept in order to escape an attack on a minute’s notice. The helicopter was actually never used because the first time the president tried to flee he used a car, but then decided to turn around because “leaders do not run away.” He was quickly assassinated in the car before he got back to the palace. They also had painted circles where two bombs were dropped on the palace by a northern spy that diverted from his bombing run to carry out his true mission. He destroyed the main staircase and the main conference room. It was a very different experience seeing the U.S. as the bad guys in a war, but at the same time, we found ourselves agreeing with the Vietnamese in most aspects (such as the heinous war crimes and civilian casualties). We also toured the bunker where the president and his generals gathered to plan attacks and work out strategies. After taking in all the war we could for one day, we headed to the Notre Dame cathedral in honor of the one in Paris. Unfortunately, when we got there it was under construction so there was not much to see. We still snapped a few photos, and then headed to the post office across the street. This was not any old post office, rather it was once the only post office in the city so it is now considered famous. Inside, it has travel agencies, souvenir shops and a place to mail packages and letters which make it quite unique. At first glance, you may not even realize that it is a post office. After those two quick stops, we headed back the hostel to escape the scorching midday heat.
We cooled down in our room for a few hours trying to rehydrate and make a plan for dinner. We ending up decided to go to the Pho place that was super close to our hostel. I ordered the brisket Pho and Haley got the meatball Pho. The fun thing about Pho is that you get to dress it up however you want. They give you mint leaves, basil leaves, fresh chilies, limes, chili paste, and fish sauce, allowing you to decide your own ratio. To cool off our mouths and bodies we ordered some more smoothies. Smoothies truly were our saving grace during our stay in southern Vietnam. It is so hot and humid you can’t stop sweating or cool down in any way. Drinking a refreshing and cold smoothie is the closest thing you can get to satisfy all your needs and wants.
On our second day in Ho Chi Minh, we headed to the Vietnam/American war museum because we figured we couldn’t visit here without acknowledging what we did in this country. It was a very difficult experience reading about our war crimes and terrible things we did to the Vietnamese people and their land. In the States, we get a sense that we did some pretty nasty things during the war but seeing it laid out in photos and personal stories really made it sink in. Some things we saw we would have never seen or heard back home which really makes it apparent that many atrocities go largely unspoken in America. We left the museum feeling pretty shitty about our country and it was hard, if not impossible, to explain our way out of the crimes we committed. The most shocking thing to me was the amount of agent orange and other deadly chemicals we dropped on the entire country. There were maps of areas that were affected by the chemical attacks marked by black patches and there wasn’t a region that didn’t get affected to some degree. Some sections were completely covered in black. I am not exaggerating when I say completely, the whole region was black. The more terrible part about agent orange and the other chemicals is that they do not just affect the people that it was dropped on, but can be passed down for at least four generations. So the Vietnamese people still have two more generations of children born with physical and mental disabilities due to the dioxin in agent orange. One emotional section of the museum was children’s artwork of themselves and their families’ experiences of agent orange. We took in all we could but after spending several hours in the museum reading about all the atrocities our country committed, we were pretty drained.
Next, we walked to Anthony Bourdain’s favorite fast food joint “Jollibee’s” and got some fried chicken. After lunch and remembering Anthony, we headed to turtle park. We thought that maybe it would be in the shape of a turtle or have a lot of turtles in the park but when we arrived we found out it was basically just the center of a roundabout that had water in it. And not a turtle in sight! We were very disappointed. Not to mention, with the sheer amount of motorbikes and complete lack of any road signs, it was an adventure just to reach the park! It was another scorching day, so we looked up a smoothie place and made our way there to refuel. After some delicious smoothies, we felt rejuvenated and ready to take on our last site. We headed to the memorial site for the monk that self-immolated himself in protest of the war. We paid our respects and took in the beautiful low relief sculpture of the iconic image. Then, we headed back to the hostel because we were starving and melting in the heat. We cooled off in the hostel for a while and looked up where to get dinner. Haley ended up finding a Vietnamese/Mexican/Korean restaurant that looked interesting and it was only a 10-minute walk from the hostel. It was super tasty! We each got a burrito with Vietnamese flair. An added bonus was that they had a wall where you could write where you are from, and we were only the fourth group from the States. It was also an added bonus that the restaurant was on a big nightlife street with bars and late night food for about 10 blocks. We walked the length of it and just as we were about to settle for an average looking bar with cheap beer, we stumbled upon a cool little hole in the wall with craft beers. We didn’t know that Vietnam had such a big craft beer scene but that bar had some of the best craft beer we have ever had (mango IPA, elderflower sour, and more!). After spending a few hours there chatting with a worker who spoke amazing English, which he learned mainly from playing video games and watching youtube videos, we headed home for the night.