We came into Vietnam with a little trepidation. Our friendly guesthouse proprietor in Phnom Penh had warned us that the Vietnamese tend to view outsiders solely as potential money sources ("wallets with legs" was the phrase he used). We weren't exactly sure what to expect when we got off the bus at Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon-- the two names are still used interchangeably), but we were pretty surprised to find a modern but still-growing big city that wasn't all that different from Bangkok or Taipei. Compared to even the most developed parts of Cambodia, it was light years ahead in terms of infrastructure and amenities.
Not sure how to find our hotel, we asked a bank security guard for directions. He wasn't much help, but a passing guy on the street who spoke some English offered to show us the way. Turns out it was just around a corner and down an alley. Not only did he lead us straight to the hotel, he didn't even ask for anything in return. We didn't completely let our guard down, but it was kind of a relief to know that not everyone was going to take advantage of the disoriented tourists.
While HCM has more traffic lights with crosswalks than Phnom Penh, many crossings are of the uncontrolled, endless stream of motorbikes and cars variety. There is something of a method to the madness-- scooter drivers are surprisingly adept at weaving around pedestrians, which means you can (and pretty much have to) walk right out in front of oncoming traffic with some confidence that you won't end up in a neck brace afterward.
After getting settled, we set out for our first day of sightseeing. First up was the Reunification Palace, which was the official residence of the president of South Vietnam prior to the fall of Saigon. The building was of a neat mid-century-meets-traditional-Asian design, if a bit empty, but you did get to see things like the actual furniture, maps, and radio equipment they used during the war. There was also a pretty swanky roof patio, and a slightly creepy, labyrinthine basement that featured a lot of empty desks with decades-unused phones and radio equipment on them.
This was followed up by the nearby War Remnants museum, which featured some leftover American jets, helicopters and tanks on the outside, and some awful, depressing (if excessively slanted toward the North) pictures of the human effects of the war on the inside, including a wing specifically dedicated to picture of birth defects caused by Agent Orange, and glowing tributes to Americans and others who self-immolated in protest of US military involvement in the region. The most interesting part was an authentic reproduction of the brick prison cells and tiny barbed-wire cages that the South used to contain Northern POWs, which offered a mirror image to the infamous Hanoi Hilton torture techniques of the North.
After that fun bit of business, we checked out Ben Thanh market, which apart from some decent hand-painted reproductions of Tintin comic book covers, offered nothing but the same old parade of tacky t-shirts, handbags, and other tourist junk. That night, we enjoyed a fantastic meal at Saigon Vegan, which was one of several restaurants that catered to our diet in the city.
The next day, we took a long trek on a near-empty public bus to Suoi Tien theme park, which I think is one of the most bizarre places I've ever been to in my life. It's got standard theme park stuff-- roller coasters, laser tag, little kiddie rides, a water park with slides-- but everything is Buddhist themed, which came in the form of numerous shrines, giant statues depicting legendary creatures, and groups of visiting monks who apparently like to take in a roller coaster and snow cones from time to time.
And did I mention the crocodile park? One of the big-ticket items at Suoi Tien was an elevated walkway above a pond with at least a hundred of those things staring out with their beady, dead eyes, in each tiny brain solely a lament of the existence of the metal barrier between it and the gawking meatbags taking photos from above. For a fee, you can tempt fate and feed them hunks of meat from a fishing pole. We declined, but watched a few others go for it. I couldn't tell you what's more terrifying-- the slow, mindlessly deliberate opening of the jaws when it sees a piece of meat in front of its face, or the deafening, heart-attack-inducing THUNK of the jaws suddenly closing at a million miles an hour.
Leaving our reptile friends behind, we continued to one of the more interesting attractions at the park, called the Citadel. You cross a bridge to a building in the middle of a man-made lake, where you proceed to take a creaky old elevator down, leading into a pitch black hallway with faintly glowing arrows on the floor. Having gone in with no idea what it was supposed to be, we quickly realized it was some kind of odd haunted house, with a shaking floor, some crude animatronic monsters and gruesome still displays, and (best of all!) some guy who grabs at your ankles from a hidden booth underneath the floor. Can you imagine having that job-- waiting in a pitch black room in the middle of a pond just for some confused people to wander in so you can grab their ankles and freak them out?
Shortly before we decided to leave, while eating some much-needed fruit chip snacks before the long ride back to the city, this adorable, smiling old Vietnamese lady comes up to us out of nowhere. She must have assumed we were French, because she told me "Bon voyage, et a vos santes"-- have a good trip, and to your health-- which was by far the most use I've gotten from my four years of high-school French in a long time, as well as an unexpectedly warm and genuine gesture.
The next day, after a couple of rounds of bowling on the fourth floor of a trendy shopping mall just to kill some time, we boarded our sleeper train headed for Da Nang. We shared a room with a nice older Australian couple, who expressed relief that they wouldn't have someone noisy who they couldn't understand, but seemed understandably wary of the 30+ hour journey ahead of them, as they intended to continue all the way to Hanoi after we got off. I drifted off to sleep a few hours later.
And that was our Ho Chi Minh City experience! Andrea will pick things up from here with our (mis)adventures in Hoi An and Hanoi.