More than a few people on the road have told us that they didn’t particularly like their time in Vietnam. Yet none of them seemed to provide any compelling reasons why, outside of the usual “Someone was rude to me” or “Someone tried to rip me off” usually under the generalisation of “The Vietnamese aren’t friendly”. Without any expectation or presumption, we crossed the border and decided to find out for ourselves.
From our family run $12 per night HCMC guesthouse, to the amusing staff in the convenience store, or the students who approached us on the street to practice their English, our first thought was “What the hell are people complaining about?”. The Vietnamese we were interacting with were friendly, honest, polite and seemed to have a great sense of humour. Even the “pushy street vendors” we’d heard so much about were actually less forceful than in other places we’ve been. They left you alone after a simple “No, thanks” in either English or Vietnamese “Không, cảm ơn”.
Saigon itself is clean, modern and buzzing with activity everywhere you look. Compared with Phnom Penh it is a dream. Of course the greatest thing for me is that it is obviously full of ridiculously tasty Vietnamese food. With the help of FourSquare (and my theory that the place with the most tips in the local language = the best), I realised we just happened to be only a block away from both the best Phở and Bánh Mì Sài Gòn in the city. Both were incredibly good, but the liberal use of coriander, raw onion and fresh chilli put them well outside of Laura’s taste. As much as she hates the stuff, I’m continually raving at her about not knowing what she’s missing.
A highlight of the city included the mandatory visit to the War Remnants Museum, which could easily be renamed “Hey America, look at all the horrific shit you did to us, you utter bastards! Don’t forget Agent Orange’s legacy, which can be seen in all these horribly disfigured babies still being born today. You suck. We really don’t like you at all.” And to be completely honest, that is putting it lightly. It’s a pretty heavy exhibit. We also went out to the Cu Chi tunnels, a 120km network which was built after WW2 to fight the French during the first Indochina War. They were then infamously re-used by the Viet Cong during the Tết Offensive which forced the Americans to withdraw from their anti-commie crusade. Of course this provided another prime opportunity for some anti-US propaganda, this time in film format. “Like a bunch of crazy devils” we were told about how the Americans shot women, children, river chickens and the ground. Of a Cu Chi fighter not sixteen years old who won awards for “killing many Americans”, such a sweet little girl she was! The reconstructed-for-fat-western-tourists tunnel segments were fairly unremarkable, but the video itself and my opportunity to let rip with an M60 machine gun on full-auto made the trip well worthwhile.
If Laura isn’t sick of my obsession with war museums/memorials/monuments, by the time we leave Vietnam she certainly will be. Saigon also has a great little military surplus market which is nicely hidden away inside a hardware/construction market right near the backpacker area. Whilst almost everything here is a replica it was worth a quick browse.
Above all, my favourite thing in Saigon was the night we spent drinking beers on the footpath with some Vietnamese students and fellow travelers. Yet again, some of the friendliest locals of anywhere we have been, and so keen to teach us about their culture/laugh at our butchering of their language. One of the lads is soon off to Finland to study. I couldn’t help but laugh at how he is going to cope with that winter! The street we stayed on simply became a huge outdoor bar every night, with storekeepers covering the footpath with flattened cardboard boxes and selling beer at 30 pence a bottle. With every piece of space filled you were practically sitting on each other, a truly brilliant way to meet new people. Just don’t get up to take a piss, or you’ll come back to find the owner has somehow seated three more people in your place. Every inch of space makes money in this weirdly capitalistic communist country.
We’ve only been here a short time, but we absolutely love it (How can you not? The currency is called Dong which turns every transaction into a dick joke!). We’ve seen other tourists hating it. But after seeing how rude or culturally insensitive many of them were, I’m not surprised they are having a totally different experience to us.