I had never really considered visiting Vietnam until my mom insisted that I should go there instead of Indonesia, which was my original idea for spring break. In her mind somehow Vietnam sounded safer than Bali. And being the respectful daughter that I am I decided to listen to her...somewhat. When I went to the library I checked out guides for both Bali and Vietnam and in the end Vietnam won out. I haven't been to Bali so I can't compare but I think I made the right decision. It was easily the best vacation I have been on in a long time. Vietnam and I got on rather well.
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it used to be called (and still is by many residents) definitely shows its previous French influence in both the architecture and the coffee. But despite this, there's no way you can forget you are in southeast Asia. Woman in conical bamboo hats line every street, some of them carrying loads of fruits and vegetables over their shoulders. Hundreds of auto bikes and scooters whiz by, casually pulling up to street vendors to buy the day's food or a drink before whipping back into traffic again, sometimes driving on the wrong side until there is an opening to move back to the right side.
Men sit hunched over on plastic stools at impromptu sidewalk cafes, sipping tea or iced coffee while others lounge on parked bikes blocking the sidewalk and forcing pedestrians into the street with the traffic. Crossing the street is a nightmare preceded by a prayer. If you can find a local then follow them. One older lady saw me looking nervous my first evening, grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me across. She hardly waited for my relieved thank you on the other side. The trick, I was told, is to walk slowly so the bikes have time to swerve around you. They will but not without a lot honking first. The honking never stops actually, even late into the night, you can hear it. It's like the heat in that way.
If you are a tourist then you are constantly beset by men offering to drive you wherever you want in their taxi, cyclo, or on their auto bike. Women hawk different wares from food, toiletries, to cheap plastic toys. I learned quickly that an insistent "NO" along with avoiding eye contact kept them from harassing me too much, but not before I was stalked by a cyclo driver I had been too friendly with. An Australian couple near me at a cafe the first day was harassed into buying something from an elderly woman and her smug smile and laughter at the man's irritation made me lose any sympathy I might have had previously.
I didn't actually see many of the sights that the city had to offer. I refused rides by the cyclo drivers on principle and after observing the traffic there was no way I was getting on an auto bike taxi, which left me only my two feet to get around. I still managed two lovely parks, the Ben Thanh Market, walked by the Renification Palace (a horribly ugly concrete building from the 1960's) and over to the War Remnants Museum.
The museum was interesting though completely unreliable historically with its obvious bias. It did a good job of showing the horrors of the Vietnam War while managing to lump all the blame on the murdering henchmen of the American Army. Despite the harsh language though I was never made to feel uncomfortable being an American there. Maybe its because I'm young and female and they wanted my money, but I hope it was more than that.
I will say though that the pictures of Agent Orange victims combined with the heat made me sick to my stomach and I retreated back to the hotel for a few hours to rest before I ventured out again to do some more shopping although I didn't stay out long. I'm sad to say that the first day I went to bed early. The heat and pollution combined with an early start the next day to begin my bike tour had me showered and watching American Idol in the hotel well before 9pm. But since I rarely get to watch real TV I counted even that as a treat to be savored while on holiday.
Next up: Four days in the Mekong Delta