Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta

The first time I visited Ho Chi Minh city in 2006 I was captivated by it. Never had I been somewhere so exotic. I was fascinated and terrified by the millions of motorbikes. The markets were filled with exciting and colorful items and the people SMILED. Since that time not only have I visited many more countries but I’ve also lived in Thailand. Still, Vietnam meant good memories and exciting experiences to me so naturally I was super excited to go back again.

While Ho Chi Minh city wasn’t my first choice destination, I would much rather have gone to Hanoi, it was the launching point for Phu Quoc so it’s where we ended up. When we planned our trip be purposefully left a couple days between our time on the island and when we moved on to our next destinations (Laos and Cambodia) to see some of the sights.
We flew out of Phu Quoc at 8:00am leaving us in HCMC an hour later. We got two taxis and headed back to De Tham Street with the plan to stay at the same guesthouse we had stayed at the night we first arrived. We got out of the taxis and before we could even get ourselves situated a woman was presenting her guesthouse to us. We told her NO, we already have a guesthouse. She demanded a name that of course we couldn’t remember because none of the names there are easy. She asked “how much you pay?” and we told her $5 per person. To which she responded “we can do $3 one person.” At that we figured it was worth a shot so we told her “Ok, we’ll go see it.”
She led us down one narrow alley, then another. Finally we reached a locked glass sliding door. A woman came running out of the home next door and quickly unlocked the door for us. The first things we saw were a kitchen table, TV and a motorbike. It was someone’s actual house! We gave each other looks like “what have we gotten ourselves into?” and pressed onward. We walked through the “living room” and reached one of the steepest staircases in a home that I have ever had to climb. The guesthouse had 3 rooms and 7 beds on 3 floors. Perfect for the 6 of us. Even though it was a little weird we decided just to commit to it since we’d already carried our heavy bags up the staircase of death. We dropped our things off, changed our clothes and headed out to find some lunch and talk about what we wanted to do that day. We decided to visit one of my favorite places from my first trip, the Ben Thanh Market as well as the war remnants museum.

For all the amazing times we had on Phu Quoc, HCMC gave a whole different impression of Vietnam. This trip I was able to look with new eyes. Eyes that had seen and experienced so much more and I was disappointed. The great HCMC I remembered wasn’t there. The Ben Thanh market was tiny compared to other monster markets like Chatuchak in Bangkok and the vendors were overly aggressive and manipulative. We came to one stall where Lucy decided to buy a dress and 2 aou dais (traditional Vietnamese outfit). The woman asked for $140. $140! Can you believe it? These items were obviously cheap and not worth $40 let alone $140. I told Lucy to just walk away but the woman was instant. After many rounds of bargaining I was able to get it down to $35. It was exhausting, but even worse were the women that would literally pull you into their stall and hold a death clamp on your arm to stop you from leaving. We were able to do some shopping. We bought some bags , trinkets and some cheap seasons of TV shows (one of my favorite things about Vietnam) and then we got out as quickly as possible. It was just to much, an assault on the body and mind.
From there we hailed a cab and got him to take us to the War Remnants museum. I hadn’t been able to visit it on my first trip to HCMC. Others had told me it was really powerful so I really wanted to go. When we were dropped off I saw that the “yard” was littered with US tanks, planes, trucks and helicopters. I immediately got a flashback to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the anti American propaganda spewed at every opportunity. It made sense though right? The Americans fought the war and the N. Vietnamese “won” leaving a communist Vietnam which of course would never speak against itself and bad things it has done so lets take some truths mix in some half truths and even some lies and then put some pictures on a wall to make a museum. Sorry, I’m slightly bitter. I’m not ignorant enough to believe that the Americans were always gentle and kind but I’m also not stupid enough to believe some of the things presented in this museum. I spent maybe 46 minutes walking around all the rooms looking at the pictures and reading the descriptions. One display that really moved me was on agent orange and it’s effects. There’s no doubt how inhumane it’s use was and how great the damage from it was.

After this intense day we decided to just head back to the guesthouse to eat dinner and book a tour to the Mekong Delta for the next day. Again, the first time I had been to Vietnam I had gone on a Mekong Delta tour and had loved it so I raved about it to all the others. Now why would I want to go on the same tour again? Well to be honest I was ok with it being a bit the same but I still wanted it to be different. Overall unfortunately it was pretty much the same with the advantage of a much smaller group and a very energetic tour guide named King. Oh well. We did the same things just at different shops. We ate fruit and drank tea, held a BIG snake, watched them making coconut candy, listened to some ladies sing and we took a boat ride down a canal wearing rice hats. We even ate lunch at the same restaurant that I did with SAS except the tour price difference was hugely evident here. With SAS I ate an awesome meal, with this tour it was less than stellar to say the least but, I guess you get what you pay for right?

Overall I had a good time in Vietnam I just wont remember it as the same awesome, exotic place I had after I had gone there with SAS. Will I go back? Definitely. There’s so much more to see! I still have the whole stretch between HCMC and Hanoi I need to cover and I must get to Halong Bay. It’s a life goal.

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