Alright, listen. Tet (the Lunar New Year) is cool. In fact, it’s super neat. But it is not the time to be in Vietnam. The restaurants close down, the prices go up, and the pickings are slim in regards to potential tourist activities. The holiday itself is fantastic for the locals bc it’s about family time and religious observation and relaxation, but at no stage does this extend to tourists (aside from the literal NYE night which I wrote about in my last post). As such, our time in Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City) was not as enjoyable as it may have been otherwise. Granted I have heard from several people that if you have to skip somewhere in Vietnam, skip Saigon, but I had to know for myself and I REALLY wanted to visit the floating markets, so here we are. As it stands, we did not make it to the long-anticipated floating markets bc they were naturally shut down for the week-long holiday until today, which is the day we head to Cambodia. Obviously I was not meant to see the markets. Maybe if I had gone I would have drowned in the Mekong, who knows, maybe it’s for the best – it just gives me a reason to come back, right?
We got dropped off in HCMC at 3AM – what a surprise – but this time it was actually in the city center so we didn’t have to make another pilgrimage to civilization like we have so many times before. As the seasoned veterans that we are, we headed to a nearby coffee shop that was open 24/7 (just like apparently every other bar ever in Saigon) to research a hostel and plan our next move. After much deliberation, we settled on the Like Hostel and Café, which was both a blessing and a curse.
I will explain from the beginning. We spent our first day in HCMC wandering the streets and checking all the tourist sights off our list while complaining incessantly about the disgustingly high temperatures and humidity (100*F with 75% humidity) and sweating out any and all water we’ve consumed in the last week. It was unacceptable in so many ways, and yet that will be a constant problem for the next 5.5 months of my life. **complains as if I'm not living the literal dream** We grabbed dinner with some of our hostel mates before going out for drinks – this being the first time I’ve gone out since we got to Southeast Asia a few weeks ago. The aforementioned drinks made getting up for our 1PM tour of the Cu Chi tunnels (used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnamese-American war) painful, to say the least. It was a slow process, but we made it out of bed with 20 minutes to spare so that we could grab lunch before the tour. It was at this point that our hostel decided to inform us that we did not have a reservation for the coming night and that their rooms were all booked – effectively kicking us out even though we’d reserved till the 19th – and that we needed to pack up and bring our things downstairs. Awesome.
So we trudged back upstairs amidst a flurry of creative expletives to throw all our belongings haphazardly into our bags and drop them back downstairs. Naturally, by then it was time to leave for the tour, but we were allowed to run into the corner store to grab a snack bc they informed us we would not be fed at any stage of the tour (which would last approximately 7h). This would have been more helpful if Vietnam believed in snacks that don’t involve gluten, but as it was we ended up with a bag of mixed nuts and some of the worst “beef jerky” you could imagine. Think mulch, but spicy. Delicious. We were joined in conversation as we complained about the current state of affairs by David – an Englishman with the quickest wit of anyone I’ve ever met – who helped us to make light of the painful situation at hand. We spent the hour and a half ride to the tunnels in a state of perpetual pain resulting from our hangovers, the heat of the non-air-conditioned bus, and our lack of food. It was lovely.
On arrival, we experienced a new level of heat and I sweat more than I even knew was physically possible – it was super attractive. Our tour was informative and well organized, and there was an understandable implication of “boo you America,” with which I was inclined to agree. We spent the hour and a half long ride back talking politics and the end of the free world as we know it so as to distract ourselves from the pain and hunger we were experiencing before arriving in the city to search for sustenance. Dinner was – in accordance with the rest of the day – less than satisfying, and we made our way back to the hostel completely and utterly defeated. It was all we could do not to literally sob when we realized we couldn’t just fall into bed - bc we had had to check out early and unplanned from our hostel – and we set to work on finding a new one before collecting our things and effectively dragging ourselves to our new place. As luck would have it, the front desk worker spoke absolutely no English and our Vietnamese is nonexistent so Google Translate came to the rescue.
At this point it was 11PM and we had yet to book our bus ticket to Cambodia for the following day – and our hostel wasn’t going to be any help – so we booked online. AFTER we bought our tickets, the website told us we would be charged an extra fee for the handling of our visas, which was fantastic bc we’d already converted the exact amount of money it was supposed to cost to get the visa. Obviously this was not our day. Kyle went to heroic lengths to pull out more cash, convert it, and bring it back to the hostel while I did hostel research for the following day and waited impatiently for the day to be over. As soon as he was back, we both made very good friends with our respective beds, and I honestly think I was asleep before I closed my eyes.
As for right now, we have officially crossed the border into Cambodia and our time in Ho Chi Minh City has come to a close – thank God. In all honesty, while it was a damn struggle to get through yesterday, I don’t think I could have survived it with anyone other than the idiot next to me on this bus. The fact that we didn’t even try to kill each other once speaks volumes – potentially more about our lack of sufficient energy necessary to actually, physically kill one another than our actual self control, but whatever. For now, I think I’ll work on the masters application I’ve been avoiding by writing this post before we roll into Phnom Penh for the night.
Th-th-tha-that's all folx!
OH WAIT! I lied.
Side note: While we were in Saigon, we visited the War Remnants Museum, which is the museum dedicated to what is known in Vietnam as the American War. To say that it was a difficult experience would be an understatement. After visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland last month, I didn’t think I would ever visit anything so heavy, but I was mistaken. It was, of course, a different kind of experience than in Auschwitz, but the most striking distinction for me was that this time, we were the bad guys. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be an American, proud to be the daughter of a retired US Marine and the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of several Navy and Army veterans, and so beyond grateful for everything they and so many others have sacrificed for our well-being. But it is important to remember that we are not always the good guys. We do not always help. We do not always need to step in. The Vietnamese people are still experiencing the after-effects of the war and Agent Orange on a daily basis. It was a humbling and eye opening experience on so many levels, and one that I think everyone should have. If we do not learn from history, we will be doomed to repeat it, and I for one will not stand for it.
On a lighter note, here's today’s list of differences and surprises:
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