Ho Chi Minh City
17.12.2011 - 21.12.2011 24 °C
In an effort to make up for my slackness on my blog during the latter stages of my time in Siem Reap, here is a very timely update on my time spent in Ho Chi Minh City, my first taste of Vietnam.
Let’s just say that despite being less than an hour’s flight from Siem Reap, Ho Chi Minh is a world away. I don’t know what I expected when coming here, yet it is very different from my expectations. It is much ‘richer’ than I imagined it to be, and whilst I’m sure in the outer districts and villages poverty is rife, Hoh Chi Minh pretty much reminds me of a slightly smaller Bangkok, with less smell and more motos (if that’s even possible!) Brands are prevalent here. In Cambodia the only legitimate international brands I saw while I was there was KFC (which possibly stood for Khmer Fried Chicken) and believe it or not, Adidas. Here they’ve got everything, from Chloe and Gucci, right down to Gloria Jean’s!
I feel a little bit sorry for Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh on me coming here straight from Siem Reap, as I feel like Cambodia’s my second home by now and so my judgment is rife! However, so far I do feel that what I have heard about there being a certain warmness to Cambodia that there is not in Vietnam, is true. It’s not that the people are necessarily unfriendly, but they don’t go out of their way to talk to you or introduce you to their culture. Hence, I still know no words in Vietnamese after being here four days already, so everywhere I go I just want to say “au kawn” (Khmer for thank you). Also I suspect there is a much stronger Christian presence here, as it is like a typical Asian city that is obsessed with Christmas. There are decorations and carols everywhere, and you can’t walk into a shop without someone wearing a Santa hat. For those who think I am the Grinch when it comes to Christmas, never fear, Vietnam will get that out of me! Plus whenever people say “hello” to you here, there is not the obligatory bow holding your hands together in the praying position, as there is in Cambodia and Thailand. Maybe it’s the communism, I don’t know…
Also, given how big this city is and that it is a bit of an international business hub, it is surprising at how poor a lot of the English is here. Many shop attendants right in the centre of the district where all the tourist hotels are, speak very limited, if any, English, which is a shock given that this is a tourist town as much as Siem Reap is, and a much richer one at that. It’s got to come down to how much they hate the American’s here. I guess I expected them to still hate them, but just not so openly. If you’re an American tourist coming here, you better have thick skin! You can’t even change Vietnam Dong, the local currency, back into US Dollars, even though they accept both currencies here, which made it very difficult for me when I was trying to get my Indonesian visa, which like all countries pretty much, only accept payment for the visas in US cash!
I may sound like I am being negative but don’t get be wrong, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here. Unlike most places I go on holidays with Mum, I haven’t been here before, so this time we have been quite touristy and learned, visiting a lot of things, particularly to do with the war. First there was the War Relics Museum, which was interesting, mainly due to the fact of how one-sided it is. To be fair, the Vietnam War is one I know little about, but I feel coming here has not increased my education much as it is so one-sided! Inside it is full of exhibits showing letters from other governments and photos of rallies held around the world that were against the Vietnam War. Literally, there is a map of the world listing countries that are ‘friends’ with Vietnam, and every country is listed! However, outside was pretty cool, as there were all these restored US tanks and plane and choppers, which was pretty amazing that they actually went to the effort to restore them seeing they belonged to the US! It’s annoying in one way how one-sided it all is, but at the same time, what do you expect in a communist state? They have never been taught anything different so they don’t know any different. And to a much lesser degree, do we really know Germany or Japan’s perspectives behind World War II? Not that I think I would agree with them or anything…
Yesterday, we went to the Independence Palace, which I don’t really understand the significance of seeing it’s not where the President lives anymore, but it was bombed during the war and then when the South won their freedom from the US or whatever, they crashed through the gates and that was a huge deal apparently. However, ‘palace’ is a bit of an odd term to use for it, especially after seeing various ‘working’ palaces throughout South-East Asia. Seeing that it had to be restored after being bombed in the 70s, it is 70s architecture at it’s prime, which I’m sure was very hip back then, but now it looks somewhat tired. Wouldn’t dare tell the Vietnamese that though!
We also went to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are about 70ks out of Ho Chi Minh (which translates to two hours because of the traffic!) They are incredibly proud of these and apparently they were instrumental to their ‘victory’ in the South during the war, but I find this odd seeing Mum hadn’t even heard of them until she left home! However, to their credit, at least they achieved their goal of being secretive… Basically the tunnels are a network of 200ks of underground passages that the Cu Chi ‘guerillas’ and community lived in for 15 years, from 1960 until the end of the war in 1975. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but I would have just let the American’s bomb me and die a martyr and come back as something good rather thank live like that for 15 years. Seriously they must have really wanted to live. Although now apparently all the residents of Cu Chi live the life, as they get houses and rice fields and a never-ending pension from the government because of what they did for their country during the war. Thankfully they are looked after seeing that out of the 16,000 people that lived in these tunnels only 4,000 survived.
There is one section of the tunnels that they have opened to tourists and widened so tourists can go in them, and no joke, everyone had to crawl. I wouldn’t call myself claustrophobic, but there’s no air down there, and when people stop and it’s dark and you can’t move, it’s not fun at all…and that was only three meters down travelling for 20 meters! There were three levels of the tunnels and the deepest was 10 meters! Apparently the location of the rest of the tunnels remains a secret because quote, unquote “one day we might have to go to war with Cambodia or China”. Oh dear! However, out at the tunnels was pretty interesting, they showed you all sorts of things about how they lived out there, namely all of the different kinds of traps they made to kill the Americans and all the bomb craters where the Americans tried to kill them but they didn’t succeed because the tunnels were so deep…seriously there was a lot about how many Americans they killed and how dumb the Americans were…although to be fair at one stage the tunnel people built one under the US Army base and would sneak up there and kill approximately five soldiers a night, and it took the Americans a year to work out where these people were coming from… We also watched a lovely propaganda video, where again, quote unquote, they Americans were described as “crazy, evil demons”…
Anyway, besides exhibits on how much the Vietnamese hate the Americans, there is other stuff to do in Ho Chi Minh. Mainly shopping to be fair, although again, nothing is anywhere near as cheap as Cambodia due to the prevalence of all the air-conditioned, high-end shopping centres here. However, there was a good market right next to our hotel that was open day and night, which was rather convenient ☺ Also, the French influence is still very prevalent here, with some beautiful buildings such as the Notre Dame Church and the City Hall. I guess seeing this whole Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos region used to be known as French Indochina that’s pretty understandable, it’s just that you don’t notice the architecture as much in Cambodia and Laos, as they do not have the money to restore their buildings to their former glory.
Anyway, it has been quite a relaxing time here, and I must admit it has been lovely to sleep in a room with curtains that block out the light, and in a bed when I can sleep with a doona and I don’t get hot because there’s air con! Right now we’re at the oh-so-flash Ho Chi Minh domestic airport heading to Nha Trang by the beach so now I hope to get a real tan, not just a riding-your-bike-to-school tan!