We left for Saigon (which is actually now called Ho Chi Minh City but nobody calls it that except for government officials) early in the morning but after taking a ferry and a bus we didn’t arrive until 6pm. As usual we didn’t have a hotel booked so the first thing we needed to do was find a place to sleep. We needed to get to the “backpacker” area from the bus station and opted to take a taxi versus a local bus because Lonely Planet had literally made us paranoid about all the people who would be trying to rob/scam us. It was already dark and we didn’t want to experience anything negative on our first night. The taxi took us to a guest house we found in lonely planet and we were able to get a room. We went out that evening to take in the city. We were very cautious since we had read a lot of negative things in Lonely Planet. I was constantly on alert and I suspected everyone of trying to steal our bag.
The city is very busy. There are 8 million people who live here and 5 million scooters. Traffic is crazy and crossing the street is an art. We learned there will never be a break in traffic and to cross you just need to start walking. But do not stop at any point or you will be hit. Just keep walking at a normal pace and the scooters will go around you. Since Christmas was approaching the city was decorated in Christmas lights. Stores and malls were decorated with Santa Clause and Christmas trees, and people were going crazy over this. There were literally hundreds of people taking pictures with the various displays. We were in one particular section of the city where there were a lot of people and a lot of Christmas lights, and it just became very congested with people. I was trying not to lose Andrew in the crowd and was walking behind him when I saw a lady reach her hand into his left front pocket. I went to slap her hand away to prevent her from stealing his wallet but Andrew was on alert as well, felt her trying to take it and grabbed his pocket. Right away she retreated and was lost in the crowd. We were shocked! Not only because someone just tried to pick his pocket but because it was such a blatant attempt and it happened on our first night in the city! We were shaken. Not scared or worried but we did realize just how easy it would be to have his wallet stolen. I wasn’t a target because I literally don’t carry anything with me. Andrew had all the money and all our documents. We went straight back to the hotel and adjusted our strategy. We left any important documents and credit cards well hidden in our room and only carried some cash with us. This would prevent someone completely wiping out all our resources. I would also carry some money in my pockets. The idea was if someone picked Andrew’s pocket at least I would still have money and vice versa.
The following day we booked a tour of the city. With our new plan we felt fairly secure but still quite alert. The tour did not live up to our expectations. The first stop was the war museum which in extremely gross detail outlined the American/Vietnam war. Some of the pictures were extremely disturbing. One was of an American soldier carrying ¼ of someone’s body. All you could see was the torso and a hanging arm. After that we were taken to the Chinese market where we spent 45 minutes walking around by ourselves. Then lunch at a pre-arranged restaurant where Andrew didn’t get served his lunch until everyone was already sitting on the bus and they all had to wait for us. Then we went to see the Reunification Palace which was probably the biggest disappointment of all and was nothing but communistic architecture. The disappointment was the lack of trying to actually put any context behind the palace. It was just full of old rooms with nothing really interesting to see. After that we went to see their Notre Dame and post office. These two sites were on the itinerary because they were the oldest buildings in the city and were built by the French. When I say the tour did not live up to our expectations, we have a couple reasons. 1) This was supposed to be a guided tour. Meaning our guide should show us around the site. What actually happened was our tour guide would give us a brief history on the bus or right in front of the sight and then set us loose by ourselves and then meet back up with us in an hour or so. 2) A lot of the sights were not sights at all. A museum? A Chinese market? Really? It’s not like the guide explained any kind of cultural significance or historic value behind these sights. It felt like they were there to fill the day. The Notre Dame and post office had great architecture but nothing with a wow factor.
Following the disappointment of day two you think we would have learned our lesson and not book anymore tours. Unfortunately that’s not the case. We booked a tour to see the Cu Chi tunnels for day #2. The tour guide was much better and actually took the time to describe most of what we saw, but the movie we were made to watch left a lot to be desired. It was literally made sometime in the 1970’s and had not been updated since. In addition, we had to watch it on a 30” in a room the length of 30 feet or so. It was total propaganda aimed at the Americans with the narrator explaining how heroes were given medals of honour based on how many Americans they killed, or how many they attempted to kill etc. So if a soldier killed 3 Americans, he received a medal, and if he attempted to kill more, he received another medal, and so on. Part of the tour was to visit a shooting range which I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone, Andrew was super excited for. This time he got to shoot an AK47 (because according to our tour guide that is the best gun and the guns the Americans had were shit). I was once again the picture taker. I was annoyed however because as opposed to the first shooting range we visited, there were not a lot of precautions taken. The guns here were bolted down so there was no danger of someone turning the gun and shooting a person by mistake, but the guns are extremely loud and no one cares if you have ear protection or not. For the first 5 or 10 minutes while waiting I had to stand with my fingers plugging my ears and my ears were still ringing. I finally got a pair of ear muffs when someone was leaving. The other annoyance was the # of people there. There were a lot of people and it was tight. There was zero organization. Finally it was Andrew’s turn and he was quite excited, but as before the 10 shots were over very quickly.
The highlight of the visit is to actually tour the tunnels the Vietnamese had dug underground during the war. Needless to say the Vietnamese are small people and could fit into much smaller spaces than most of us. I didn’t realize how small the tunnels would be. We entered the tunnel and right away I had to crouch and bend at the waist to fit. The tunnel we were touring goes on for 120 meters. After 15 meters I was tired, in pain from the crouching, very sweaty, and becoming very claustrophobic. It was completely creeping me out that I was underground in a very tight space, and the soldier which was supposed to be leading us took off at the front and was nowhere to be seen. In addition, these tunnels were only lit very sparsely. The good news was the tunnels had been provided with emergency exits every 15 meters specifically for the tourists. At the first exit another soldier was crouching with a flashlight rushing me along. I stopped beside him and saw there was a set of stairs behind him leading to the outside. I told him I wanted to get out. He made it seem like he didn’t understand me (you want to get out?) and I repeated myself and told him I needed to get out. He moved out of the way and let me out. Andrew followed behind me.
At that point the tour was over and we headed back into the city. The next day we were leaving Saigon and heading up the coast for Mui Ne. We would be spending Christmas there.