Time to face Saigon traffic
03/22/2010 - 03/22/2010
Today we said goodbye to the questionable hospitality of the Hiep Thanh resort and headed to Ho Chi Minh City for the last phase of our trip: the Mekong Delta. This was the unscheduled part of our travels, in which we had originally planned to make our way by ferry from Phu Quoc up the Mekong river and eventually to Ho Chi Minh City. One of the best things about travelling with Chop and Nat is that they share our exact sensibility about the ideal ratio of gourmet to street food, adventure to vegging out, and spontaneity to planning. After a few days of slow cooking on the beach (not literally; we're still as pasty as ever), daily massages, and glutting ourselves on seafood, we each independently came to the conclusion that we had no desire to meander through the hottest, most humid part of Vietnam on a multi-day tour of what might end up being basically border towns. Especially when $50 and a half hour could get us to Ho Chi Minh City on an air-conditioned Vietnam Airlines flight with all the coconut-scented moist towelettes we could want. Judge us if you want, but we've all put in our time in hostels and one of the advantages of being too old for the student discount is that I can buy myself a plane trip out of Sweatland.
So quicker than you can say "miliaria," we were in Ho Chi Minh City (henceforth Saigon; we were told nobody calls it HCMC unless they are talking to the police). Saigon was a very pleasant surprise. I'm not really a city person, considering them pretty much all the same no matter where you go (yes, I know New York City family members, you just died a little, but seriously, the rest of us could not care less about the restaurants when the whole place smells like urine). And we had heard horror stories about the traffic. Plus we had loved Hanoi so much it was hard to imagine Saigon could compete. But we were wrong! People were even friendlier than in Hanoi, the traffic was crazy, but the streets were wider, and there were sidewalks! Plus there was a great night market which we were very happy to stroll in the relative cool after the sun went down.
Most importantly, being back in a city meant a joyous reunion with our first Vietnamese love: street food! We have been home 12 weeks as I am writing this and I would still kick a puppy to get my hands on a banh bo, a meat pie made of tapioca flour wrapped around ground pork with a boiled bird egg inside. Amazing!
It was a lot easier to get around than we expected and yes, traffic was out of control, but I think by now we were numb to it, having earned our traffic sea legs in Hanoi. Nonetheless, safety rules were broken! To give you a sense of the sheer volume of motor bikes, here are some photos of Saigon traffic:
Even scarier at night!
And the inevitable video of crossing the street in Saigon (I think they actually won't let you leave the country on an American passport without one of these):
We spent the day visiting some of the sites from the Vietnam war, including the Reunification Palace, which was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government. Americans will know it from the famous photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates (apparently a staged photo). Then it was off to the War Remnants Museum. This museum used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes, so that should give you an idea of the content. Some of this stuff was pretty hard to take, but really educational to see a war from the perspective of the other side. It makes you think a lot about how the current conflicts that the U.S. is involved in will be remembered by history. My aviation friends would be amazed by the American planes, tanks, helicopters, and artillery that is on display here (I guess it was all left behind for the South Vietnamese army).
One of Chop's Vietnam "to do"s was to have a drink on top of the Rex Hotel, so we ended the evening with a cocktail in the rooftop restaurant. The Rex was where the U.S. military gave daily press conferences to the foreign press during the Vietnam War. Apparently all the American war correspondents hung out here. Now it's a pretty swanky hotel, but I like to say I hung out where history happened, even if it was for just one drink.