Ho Chi Minh City, land of the motorcycles. When we landed Mer and Lois told me to be ready, we were about to be surrounded. I don’t think there’s any way to be ready. The motorcycles swarmed around us like bees in a hive; the road was theirs, we were intruders made mercy to their whims. But more on them in a bit. It was an entertaining ride in to say the least.
It was my last night with Mer and Lois so we toasted to a great trip with prosecco, red wine, and a much-needed (for me at least) steak tenderloin. Yum. I still had another night at the hotel though, the end of my break from the backpacker life before I would return to cheap multiple bed dorm rooms and shared bathrooms. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Not like Ho Chi Minh City wasn’t great, but a plushy queen bed with movies on TV and a final massage was just what I needed to decompress from the Amanoi experience and get ready to take on the next part of my trip. Again, thank you Lois and Jack. Seriously. I feel so lucky.
So Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. It’s huge. It’s like any modern metropolis; constantly busy, too big to get everywhere on foot, with different neighborhoods all offering different experiences. There’s a lot of history in HCMC, former capital of South Vietnam (when it was still Saigon). I saw this walking around past the old train station, Cathedral, Imperial Palace, a visit to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, and the War Remnants Museum.
For starters, I’d like to elaborate on “walking around” for a minute. I like to walk around cities without headphones, hear the noises that come with it, but in HCMC you can’t hear anything over the buzz of motorcycles. At stoplights they look like an army ready to pounce as soon as the order is given. Green light, ATTACK! They don’t care if a car is coming or trying to turn, the car must wait until they let it ford the river; the bike is the king of the road here not the car. As a pedestrian you just have to take a breath and move forward with confidence, telling yourself the motorcycles will not hit you. It’s possible to walk around, but it’s not easy. More than once a motortaxi driver mounted his bike just to make sure I got across the street ok. I figured it out though and I started to see it like spiders in the Amazon: if you don’t attack them they won’t attack you; if you keep your pace then the motorcycles will keep theirs and everyone is safe. It ended up being good training ground for Hanoi (which is even worse with the bikes, if you can believe it).
I went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda on a Sunday, which I’m guessing had something to do with why it was so crowded. I enjoyed seeing it this way; instead of quietly walking around an empty temple, I saw people using it as it should be used, lighting incense and making motions in their prayers to Buddha. The smell of incense was overwhelming, unescapable, wafting around me as I roamed through the networks of rooms. From the appearance it’s easy to see that this temple has been around for a long time. I felt like I’d stepped back in time when I was in there.
The War Remnants Museum was a harder experience. It’s mostly dedicated to the American War, or what we refer to as the Vietnam War. The images and stories in this museum I could never imagine being present in a museum in the US. It was honestly a little uncomfortable to be in there as an American. On my way back to the hotel I encountered another American who had trained with forces that fought in Vietnam, the war ending before his own deployment by just a few months. The helicopter he was learning to fly was in the images. He felt obviously much worse than I did, and I already wasn’t feeling so good. It was interesting to see how the other perspective talks about the war. When we were touring around Dalat with Thanh he spoke to us about what was happening when the US entered into war with Vietnam, and we learned things we’d never heard before. We appreciated the honesty. All of this (and more in Cambodia) just made me question what else is left out of our history lessons. Tons, I’m sure.
When the time came to leave Ho Chi Minh City I was ready. I had been told in the past to skip it, but I think it’s worth a visit. On my way back through a week later (between Hanoi and Cambodia) I briefly encountered the backpacker area of the city and it seemed like a bustling fun place to stay. If I ever go back I’d try it out.