Vietnam Diaries Part 1: Ho Chi Minh City & the Mekong Delta

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All photos by the author.

It took an 18-flight – the longest journey I had ever taken, let alone by myself – to get me to Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam. There was no hassle, my journey was delay free and my bags were the first on the belt. Before I knew it I was stood outside the airport in an entirely new city with no immediate plans.

I had a few days before the scheduled meet-up with my tour group, a transition period to adjust to the new time zone and culture. It was time well needed, for the city once known as Saigon was a wondrous shock to the system. Wildly busy and teaming with people, it was the organized chaos I had always associated with South East Asia. Mopeds everywhere, an incessant racket of horns and voices, and the pressing cocktail of humidity and pollution in the air. My naivety in this new place showed almost instantly as I tried to overpay the bus driver nearly ten times too much (it was 20,000 dong for a ticket, not 200,000).

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I then proceeded to get off at the wrong bus stop and become quite lost nearly two miles from my hostel. The journey was interesting because rules are rather relaxed on the roads of Asia. If you waited for a crossing to clear, you’d be waiting a long time. I stood, looking a little lost, at the busiest round-about I have ever seen for a good five minutes before a kindly lady took my arm and walked me straight through the heaving traffic. Everyone just goes around you, it’s a surreal experience. Forty-five minutes later, I found the hostel, got settled and went straight back out for a quick bite at a vegetarian restaurant around the corner.

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Breakfast at the hostel was a simple affair made lovely by the quaint rooftop garden and views of the city. My first day was relaxed, spent exploring the cities markets and parks, sipping iced coffees in roadside cafes and testing out my camera in a whole new environment. The evening brought beers on the rooftop terrace with some other travelers and another trip to that amazing vegetarian spot. That night, we hopped in a taxi and sped off to a rooftop bar across town, a place for which we were grossly underdressed. The drinks were pricey, but the views across the city were unparalleled. I felt acclimatized and ready to hit the tourist spots of HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) the next day.

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Everything in Asia felt louder and busier than anything I’d ever experience before. I joined up with some other travelers to visit the Ben Thanh Market, an impressive 20th-century building stuffed to the brim with stalls and food vendors. The place feels packed,  stalls brimming with vibrant cloth, ornaments, garments, and foodstuffs practically overflow onto one another.

We continued to explore, hitting some of the cities other highlights such as the high-ceilinged Central Post Office, the only post office worldwide that has managed to deliver my postcard home prior to my return. Next door was the impressive 19th-Century Notre-Dame Basilica, a less decadent cousin of the famed Paris monument, but nonetheless a pretty sight.

Our next stop, the Independence Palace, or Reunification Palace, was truly a grand affair, a decadent monument of white marble made up of grand hallways and stylish 1960s design. As palaces go, there are better ones, but it didn’t disappoint with its stately rooms, grand balconies and wonderous views of the surrounding city.

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There are no photos from our trip to the War Remnants Museum, there doesn’t need to be. The exhibits, eye-opening, harrowing and brutally honest as they are, should be experienced first-hand. Having studied the Vietnam War, many of the events and atrocities were familiar to me, but they had never been presented in such a raw fashion.

There were descriptions and photos of the My Lai massacre, accounts of the devastating impact of Agent Orange, and photographs documenting the brutal tactics used by both sides during the war. Vietnam has progressed hugely as a nation – the museum used to be called the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression – but it is still important to recognize the crimes of the past, to ensure they are not forgotten and so repeated.

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A short walk from the War Remnants Museum, and well worth a visit, is the Venerable Thich Quang Duc Memorial, a simple statue dedicated to the monk who set himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam. As you stand at the intersection, you can identify the same buildings today that stood around him in the photograph. Standing there, you feel a lot closer to the history of the Vietnam War.

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That evening, I left my traveler friends at the hostel and went to meet my tour group in the Backpacker District. Some cities lose their hustle and bustle as night closes in, some don’t. HCMC falls into the latter category. As time ticked on the streets only seemed to get busier, the deafening hubbub now accompanied by a spectrum of lights and flashes from the traffic and bars. Even into the early hours of the morning, local families with infants could be seen perched at tables in roadside cafes, dining casually as the city buzzed by.

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Stretching far from the buzz of the city, the Mekong Delta is a maze of rivers and tributaries winding through the landscape towards the South China Sea. The river was lush and peaceful, the air humid without the suffocating urban pollution. Spindly, mismatched houses clung to the riverbanks of the Mekong and the wide river teamed with boats forming floating markets, selling fresh fruits and local treats. We hopped off a coach and onto a boat to cruise down the river, fresh coconuts in hand, and take in our surroundings.

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After a delicious lunch in a local restaurant, we swapped our bigger boat for something a little simpler. The tiny Sampan boats cruised almost silently down the tiny tributary rivers which wound under bridges and hanging trees. As we breezed along, we caught a glimpse of the quaint houses and dwellings that lined our path. Often old and well-established, attuned to the nature that surrounded them, they were a touching glimpse into the daily lives of the people that called this beautiful place home.

Reaching our homestay in the late afternoon, we wasted no time in hopping on bikes and cycling around the tiny island we were settled on. Many of the aspects of daily life that we had seen in the city continued out here in the countryside, families sat on tiny chairs in roadside cafes, mopeds overloaded with people beeped politely as they passed, young children waved and laughed at the odd-looking Westerners.

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Our evening activity was one of the strangest things I have ever participated in: Mud Fishing. You stand, waist deep in actual mud, and move around to encourage the ugly looking fish to the surface. You then grab them with your hands (or a basket, if you’re squeamish) and placed them in the net hanging on the side. As a vegetarian, I wasn’t entirely sure of the ethics of taking part. Regardless, I got in and made some half attempts at catching a fish all of which failed, and settled with not eating the fish, which was served with dinner at our homestay. Apparently, they didn’t taste that great anyway.

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