The bus to Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) was about 6 hours long from Phnom Penh. The border crossing was extremely quick and easy compared to the Cambodia/Thailand border experience. No scams and no issues with visas since they were obtained ahead of time. Immediately upon entering the country, we started to see motorbikes driving alongside us. The number of motorbikes continued to increase as we approached Saigon as did the amount of honking. We quickly learned that Vietnamese people use horns for absolutely everything. They beep them to note their presence, to inform you that you are going far too slow for their liking, to tell you they are going to pass you, and simply just because they can. We were dropped off in the center of town and set off on the hunt for a room. We ended up finding a basic place with A/C and a private bathroom for 10USD a night at a tattoo/barber shop. The man who ran it, Mister Anh, was a nice Vietnamese war veteran who had stories for days. His English was pretty good because he fought with the Americans in the war. One of his first stories to us was about how people steal things from tourists in Saigon. He told us that at night when “lady boys” roam the street, one will come up to a male tourist, grab his junk, while another lady boy pickpockets the now very surprised victim. Motorbikes are involved so that they can get away quickly and leave you in the dust with no way to find them or your belongings. Purses are also slashed fairly often (which meant my slash-proof purse was quite appropriate here!). We appreciated his words of wisdom and felt like he was our protective uncle over the course of the two days we stayed with him. We were very cautious with our belongings in Saigon and left with everything we came with, but the number of people we met who had passports stolen, iPhones pick pocketed, and purses snatched in Saigon increased drastically as we continued our trek through Southeast Asia.
After we checked into our room and Alex found a hostel nearby, the first item on the agenda was to find some good Pho. Pho is Vietnamese rice noodle soup and typically has chicken or beef. We found a small stand with some locals indulging and sat down to partake. We were given some delicious chicken pho for a little over $1 each. We continued our food hunt by finding a tasty bakery and John tried his first Vietnamese coffee which he would continue to enjoy two to three times a day for the rest of our time in Vietnam. As we wandered the busy city, we tried our luck at crossing the street several times. As one Vietnamese guy we met put it, the rule of crossing the road is, “Look and never give up”. Traffic laws are pretty much useless and the only way to get from one place to another is to step off the curb into the sea of motorbikes, continue to be aware of what is going on around you, and never stop walking at a slow, but steady pace. Miraculously, the motorbikes flow right around you and you (usually) make it safely to the other side without becoming road kill. As scary as it was the first time, it is amazing how quickly we adapted to this new idea and we became Vietnam street crossing professionals within a day or so.
That night, we randomly ran into a few of Alex’s friends as we passed a side street where crowds of people were sitting and enjoying a Saigon beer. We joined them for a few beers and some fried spring rolls before heading back to Uncle Anh’s house for the night.
The next day in Saigon included a visit to the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The Reunification Palace was not too exciting aside from the visit to the bunker within. The war remnants museum was really emotional and we spent a few hours reading stories and taking in the photos taken by gutsy journalists during the war. It was definitely interesting to see how the war is viewed from a Vietnamese perspective. Once we were good and sad from yet another depressing museum, the three of us decided we would treat ourselves to happy hour cocktails at the sunset bar on the 55th floor of the Sheraton Hotel. The cocktails were delicious (although expensive, by Vietnamese standards) and the views were stunning. We were all amazed by the clean, western style bathrooms. After traveling in Thailand and Cambodia for the past few weeks, the facilities in Vietnam seemed super high class. We could even flush toilet paper in most places!
After our cocktail splurge (OK they were only $5 each, but that is a lot in SE Asia!) We had another delicious pho (with beef this time), wandered through the Ben Than market, watched some people who were amazingly good at that badminton kicking game we learned in Cambodia, and booked our tour for the following morning to the Cu Chi tunnels.
We woke up early to pack our bags and find some breakfast before boarding our bus to the tunnels. We found an awesome bakery making fresh bread and ordered two steaming hot baguettes as our breakfast. The lady put them in a plastic bag for us which proceeded to melt instantaneously. Who doesn’t like a little plastic with their bread? Someone needs to teach them about paper bags.
A man arrived at our guesthouse to retrieve myself, Alex, and John for the Cu Chi Tunnel tour. He told us to follow him and took off on foot faster than I’ve ever seen anyone walk. He stopped for a moment, we looked away, and within a matter of seconds we lost sight of him completely. We got distracted by a New Yorker asking for money because his passport and wallet was stolen and eventually meandered back to the hotel to tell Mister Anh that we lost our guide. He scolded us like little kids, made a phone call, and told us to follow the guy who came back to get us. We darted across the road, trying to keep up and made it to a very packed bus where we all found seats separate from each other. The road to the Cu Chi Tunnels was about two hours long and we stopped over at a factory where victims of agent orange (a devastating chemical used in the war) made beautiful artwork. As we approached the Cu Chi Tunnels, we passed through a forest with row after row of rubber trees. The tour started off interesting but we wondered if we would actually get to visit the tunnels used by the Vietnamese during the war. When we thought the tour was over, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that we could go down inside the tunnel system if we wanted to. The original system had been widened to twice its size so that Western tourists could actually fit. An exit was placed every 15 meters to allow claustrophobic people to climb out if needed. Of course, John, Alex, and I were three of only five people in our group of about 20 who decided to continue through as much of the system as they would allow. The tunnel was incredibly tight and I couldn’t imagine how it would feel if we had half as much room to navigate. We squeezed our way through the windy tunnel until we exited into a bigger room and then further out to meet the rest of our group. Our tour guide told us we could walk for 2 months inside the maze-like tunnel system if we wanted!
We spent the end of the tour drinking tea and eating kassava with a group of ridiculously friendly Filipinos. The tour bus returned us back to Saigon to finish our tour of the War Remnants Museum, eat more delicious food, and shower before boarding our really nice night bus to the beach town of Mui Ne.