Days 54-57 in Southeast Asia (Mar 19-22, 2016)
Da Lat to Ho Chi Minh City
On Saturday morning our bus left for Ho Chi Minh City from Da Lat at 7:30am, and took about 7.5hrs (arriving at 3pm). It was becoming painfully clear within seconds of getting off of the bus that the farther South we headed, the hotter it was getting. It already felt hot in Da Lat, but this city was even hotter, and felt like absolute chaos with cars and motorbikes. The air pollution definitely added to the muggy sticky heat and the feeling that you needed a shower within 5 minutes of stepping outside. Maddie and I decided to take a taxi from the bus station to our hostel (which was only about a 15-20 minute walk, but saved us about 20L of combined sweat, and the taxis here are really cheap (as long as you insist they use the meter) so I think it was definitely worth it.
Ho Chi Minh City!
We arrived at The Hangout Hostel for our first night in Ho Chi Minh City (181,000VND/$10.55CAD for a dorm that was pretty nice and included breakfast), and settled in quickly before heading out for a walk around our area. We walked down the main street through the public park that was full of various sports and group activities, and we watched the locals do aerobic dance classes for a bit, partly debating joining in (we probably would have if it wasn’t so hot). We didn’t walk around long before we were stopped by a couple of younger Vietnamese gentlemen who asked us if we had some time to talk.
We weren’t really sure what they meant (and naturally assumed they wanted to sell us something) but we said okay anyways. They then proceeded to tell us that they were students at the university nearby and came to the park after school most days to practise their English, and just wanted to sit with us for a little while to enjoy a conversation. I sat with one of the guys and Maddie with the other, and we proceeded to talk to each other about where we were from, what we took in school, where I have travelled, work, home etc. Dit (I think was his name) spoke incredible English considering his age, and told me that he was in school to become a tour guide, taking English courses (for which he was practising) as well as studying Korean, which is pretty impressive as someone who can barely figure out how to pronounce “hello,” “thank you” and “very good” in Vietnamese after several weeks in the country.
I have a lot of respect for people who can speak more than one language, and I think its something I’d really like to pursue once I’m home. I may sign up for online courses if I can make the time for it, or at least buy an audio tape. We proceeded to talk about our lives at home, and he told me about how he had originally gone to a private fashion school for university, but that his parents didn’t like that he was there, and pulled him out of school after a few months fearing that he would “become a lady, or gay”, so he is now in school to become a tour guide. He told me that he sometimes felt that when he was around those people, he felt like a girl and sometimes that when he was around gay people he felt like he was “thinking thoughts like that too”.
The translation was a bit broken, and I didn’t want to ask too many personal questions, but I asked him a bit more about it and about openness towards gay people in Vietnam. He said that traditionally it is not very accepted, and that his parents as well as a lot of old people are not overly accepting and it is often kept secret, though in big cities like Hanoi and Saigon it is very common and open, and generally speaking very accepted. We talked a bit about how important it is to be able to be with people you love no matter where you are, and it was a really beautiful conversation even in broken English.
I loved that I had only met Dit about 25 minutes ago, and now we were sharing a moment of pure love and acceptance towards people’s sexual preferences. It reminded me of why I love travelling so much… moments like this where you connect with someone who at a glance has nothing in common with you and comes from an entirely different world, yet you are able to share feelings of love and acceptance in a way that is completely universal. The world is full of love and beautiful people who are no different in the end than myself, and I’ve never realized that more than when I share a moment like this with a complete stranger.
Ho Chi Minh Pub Crawl
After our walk in the park and grabbing a Banh My sandwich in the street, we went back to our hostel and bought some wristbands for 20,000VND ($1.50CAD) to join the pub crawl that night. We grabbed some beers and before we knew it we were playing a giant game of jenga (with rules written on each block) with a bunch of fellow backpackers. We drank, played cards and jenga, and eventually made our way to the Hideout Bar for some glow paint before we headed out for the pub crawl.
Maddie told me to grab a brush and paint her with the glow paint (everyone else was in line for the girl who worked at the hostel who was painting everyone), but I asked and she said it was fine if I wanted to use the paint too. Within a few minutes, I had a lineup of about 10 people waiting to get glow paint patterns on their arms and chests from me, and the girl who worked at the hostel was laughing and joking that she should just go home because I had a bigger lineup than she did. Over the next hour or so I painted probably about 15 people before finally retiring, after realizing I was getting more drunk (and sloppy with painting), and after people started asking me questions about the hostel and pub crawl, thinking I ACTUALLY worked there. It was pretty funny and I went with it for a bit, but after a while I just wanted to be part of the party again, so I escaped my painting chair.
Maddie and I spent most of the night hanging out with a new friend named Jamie, who was from Montreal, Quebec (A fellow backpacker from Canada!) We chatted and swapped stories about travelling, hospital trips, and life. The pub crawl was fun, though it was a bit dampened by being told every 30 seconds (especially by the guy in charge of the crawl) to watch your purse, as bag snatching and pick pocketing are so common here. We would realize over the next few days that it was common to be told every time we left the hostel, crossed the street, or pulled out our phone (literally anywhere) to look out for our belongings…
I tend to be a very trusting person, knowing that I myself wouldn’t ever steal someone else’s things, and it was hard for me to hear warnings and stories of knives/guns being pulled, and people being dragged by scooters who didn’t let go of (of were attached to) their bags when they got grabbed… It gave the city a feeling of mistrust for me, which was a feeling I’m not used to and I can’t say I particularly enjoyed. Luckily, neither Maddie nor myself had anything stolen in the city (probably because we were so careful), but I don’t think its a place I’d ever want to be long term unfortunately.
The Lunch Lady
The next morning, Maddie and I moved over to The Hideout Hostel (Hangout’s sister hostel, that was about 180,000VND/$10 night), and looked up a few places in the city on our map apps and got ourselves ready for a sweaty day of exploring by foot. As we were heading out, Jamie (the Montreal-er from the night before) invited us to join him for lunch at The Lunch Lady. I had JUST been talking to someone else about it and how I wanted to go, so we jumped on the opportunity to go with company, and the 3 of us hopped on Jamie’s scooter. Another girl from our hostel named Raluca also overheard us and joined in, meeting us there a few minutes after we arrived (she took an Uber).
The Lunch Lady is a lady who owns a soup stand in the city where every day she serves a different type of Vietnamese soup at about 60,000VND ($3.50CAD) each for soup, water and spring rolls. She has run the stand for years in the same spot, and has become such a talked about spot in the city that world famous chefs including Anthony Bourdain and Chef Gordon Ramsay have come personally to check it out. When we got there, we were seated in the typical tiny chairs and tables of Vietnam, and quickly were served our soup (it’s super fast since they only serve one kind per day).
The spring rolls had shrimp in them, and there were shrimp cakes as well to dip in the soup, so I can’t tell you how those tasted (I’m allergic), but the pork and noodle soup was DELICIOUS. I was not disappointed, and even though we were dripping sweat the whole time sitting in the heat eating soup, we loved every second of it. After our soup, Jamie headed off as he was motorbiking North that day, so we said our goodbyes and wished him luck.
Motorbike Helmets & The Jade Emperor Pagoda
Raluca, Maddie and I then walked to the Jade Emperor Pagoda and checked it out quickly, but of course got distracted on the street on our way there by a giant stand of motorbike helmets that were on sale for around 100,000VND ($6CAD). We joked about buying them, and about 20 minutes later of course the 3 of us walked away with new helmets that cost us between 120,000 and 150,000VND each ($7-$9CAD). Mine is white with a red stripe down the middle and a red star on each side, and Maddie got the same helmet but pink with white stripes and stars. We laughed at ourselves as we walked around for the rest of the day with motorbike helmets hanging off of our bags, but in all honesty if there was ever a souvenir that summed up what Vietnam was… it would be something to do with a motorbike.
Saigon Central Post Office & Notre Dame Cathedral
After our irrational and bulky purchase and checking out the temple, the 3 of us headed over to the Saigon Central Post Office, which might sound silly but is actually a highly rated tourist attraction in the city, as it was apparently designed by the same architect as the Eifel Tower in Paris. The post office was beautiful and had some of the best souvenir shops I’ve seen in all of Vietnam, full of paper cards (pop up cut outs, as well as rolled paper), and it was hard for me to limit myself to only grabbing a few.
Outside of the building, a few high school students pulled me aside and asked me to say “Xin Chao Vietnam!” (Hello Vietnam!) On video for a school project. I happily agreed, and asked them about themselves a bit. They took selfies with me and giggled as they shyly asked me about where I was from and how I liked Vietnam. I told them that it was one of my favourite places I’ve ever been, and I wasn’t lying.
Across the road from the post office was the Notre Dame Cathedral, an equally impressive building surrounded by crazy traffic and beautiful parks. We walked around the cathedral through the traffic, I took a photo of a newlywed couple, and we enjoyed the view from the park as the sun was finally setting and we could actually bare the heat more.
Chill Bar (Skybar Overlooking HCMC)
We headed back towards the hostel not long after, and Maddie went inside while Raluca and myself decided to grab a bite to eat. Afterwards, we met back up with Maddie and her friend Jess, who lives in Ho Chi Minh city as an English Teacher. She took us to Chill Bar, a famous sky bar nearby, with a live DJ and BEAUTIFUL view.
Apparently the bartender here won an award for being the best bartender in Asia a year ago or something, though I can’t really tell you how the house mixed drinks were since I ordered a bottle of Budweiser which was the cheapest thing on the menu and cost me 160,000VND… that’s about $10CAD… almost as much as our accommodation that night.
Sky bars are notorious for having expensive drinks, since you have to buy one most of the time to stay there, but honestly if you only have one it’s not SO terrible. I just try to think of it as an admission fee for an incredible city view rather than the cost of one bottle of beer.
We went out to another bar with normal priced beers afterwards and had a couple more, but called it quits pretty early since Maddie and I had signed up for the Cu Chi Tunnel tour the following morning and didn’t particularly want to do it in this heat with a hangover.
Cu Chi Tunnel Tour!
At 8am, our guide picked us up to take us to the bus to Cu Chi. The total tour cost us each 135,000VND ($8), plus 110,000VND entry fee ($7), and included transportation, a 2 hour guided tour and a stop at the Vietnam Association Benefit For The Enabled Disability, a handmade crafts workshop and store that employs Vietnamese who have disabilities because of Agent Orange, the chemical gas used in the war which resulted in defects for those inhaling it, as well as future generations. They work with egg shell, mother of pearl inlay and stone to make beautiful handicraft boxes, murals and paintings that were as expensive as they were breathtaking, though I wasn’t surprised after we got a peek at the production process which can take weeks to make a single piece because of the hand cut intricate patters inlaid in the stone.
After visiting the shop and talking myself out of spending all of my money on heavy and breakable artwork that was not a smart backpacker buy but that I wanted SO badly… we hopped back on the bus and headed to the tunnels where our tour guide Poe gave us a quick lesson on the history of the tunnels and the war (The bus was about 1.5hrs each way, so we had plenty of time to hear about it all). Here’s my spark notes version:
In 1948, the VC (Vietnamese Communists) built over 150km of tunnels underground originally to defend themselves against the French, after President Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence. The Gorillas (as they were called), used very little artillery, and primarily had to rely on face to face fighting and remaining hidden from their enemy in order to have an advantage. They chose Cu Chi for building the tunnels because the soil was soft clay, which was strong when it dried but softer to dig, plus it was located in the jungle which was uninhabited and provided good cover. The gorillas built secret entrances to the tunnels that lead to other tunnels, underground bunkers, and villages outside of the tunnels.
In 1954, the Geneva Treaty was signed and Vietnam was free from French occupation, though it separated into Northern Vietnam (the communist capital) and the Southern democratic republic with the support of the USA. The separation of North and South Vietnam at the time resembled the separation between North and South Korea today, and it was during this time that the American War started in Vietnam, because Ho Chi Minh wanted to unite Vietnam as one country. 16,000 gorillas went to Southern Vietnam at that time and expanded the tunnels to over 250km in total by 1974. The tunnels were used to fight the Americans, and Northern Vietnam won, which is why to this day Vietnam remains a communist country.
One of the interesting things about the tunnels is that the Americans were actually aware of the tunnel system and even knew where some entrances were, but there was very little likelihood of them entering the tunnels because they were both physically and mentally restrained. Physically, the tunnels were dark and narrow, small even for the gorillas, and mentally, a lot of people wouldn’t dare to go in because it was impossible to know if the tunnel was a trap, or if there were gorillas waiting inside, or maybe even reptiles living in the tunnels. This was why the Americans took advantage of the gorillas having trouble getting oxygen into the tunnels. The Americans used Agent Orange to clear vegetation in the area, a chemical gas that cleared out the forest and caused genetic mutations in the VC living inside the tunnels. It didn’t kill them, but it was a tactic that would poison the lives of each individual as they would continue to pass on genetic mutations to future generations for years to come.
Throughout the tour, we got a peek at some of the entrances to the tunnels, and got to see just how tiny they really were (small enough to barely get into, and to have to crawl belly down to get through). We also got to see some of the VC boobie traps that were used throughout the jungle during the time, and were given the opportunity to shoot real guns at the shooting range, though it was fairly expensive and Maddie didn’t want to do it, so it would have cost me double what I hoped to pay (you have to buy at least 10 rounds, and you’re allowed to share them with someone).
Finally, we went through the tourist version of the tunnel that stretched 100m, and was probably about 3 times the width of the original tunnels. Even so, it was only tall enough to walk through with your back hunched over and knees bent, which was incredibly uncomfortable. After 100m of claustrophobia (and a couple of moments of downright panic when the people in front of me stopped moving, we reached the end of the tunnel absolutely drenched in sweat, with a new appreciation for everything we had just learned about.
After our tour, we hopped back on the bus and headed back to the city. The tour was great and I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area, especially if you’re interested in history. Even if you’re not, everything is explained in a very easy to understand way so you don’t need to know anything before getting there in order to appreciate the tour.
Solo Mission To Chinatown
Once we got back to the hostel, I hopped on a motorbike taxi to take me to Chinatown to see a couple of sites that I knew closed soon, and Maddie wasn’t interested in seeing. My first stop was Quan Am Pagoda, a small temple with a beautiful red and gold interior and conical incense spirals hanging from the ceiling in rows. Like most temples, it was great to see, but there’s not exactly a lot to do for visitors other than spend a few minutes appreciating the design, and then leave.
I walked a bit farther down the street and around the corner to Thien Hau Temple, a temple that is located behind another building that you have to walk through first to get to it. I couldn’t see it from the street, so I walked back and forth for about 30 minutes saying “I KNOW it’s here!” Until finally I decided to show a security guard outside of a building the name of the pagoda, to which he nodded, smiled, and pointed to the small doorway behind him… I walked through the building entrance and down a hall and suddenly was in the middle of a giant temple, also with Chinese writing on the walls in gold and red, and incense burning all around. It was really quiet there, and I spent a few minutes just people watching from the side of the room and appreciating where I was.
Going To The Movies
After another motorbike taxi across town to get back to the hostel area, I went to the Art Museum and wandered around for about an hour near the building trying to find the entrance before realizing that it was closed… for absolutely no reason… so I walked back to the hostel slightly disappointed. I got changed quickly and headed back out with Maddie to the movie theatre. We had walked past it the day before with Raluca, and decided that the 3 of us would come back tonight to see “How To Be Single”, the only movie playing in English with Vietnamese subtitles.
The theatre was as big and fancy as any of the ones you’d find back home. We got some snacks, grabbed our seats and enjoyed a couple hours of down time. The movie was really funny and also really cute actually, but my favourite thing about the experience was just having a couple of hours doing something so simple and casual that I would have done back home. It felt good to sit back and just laugh at a movie the same way I would in my living room, but across the world. The movie cost us 75,000VND/$4.50 each, and Raluca met us halfway through (her tour went late), and we actually saw Jess there when we got in, so the 4 of us relaxed and enjoyed the film, and chatted for a bit afterwards before saying our goodbyes and heading off.
New Friends & Scary Stories
Maddie and I went back to our room, packed up our things so we’d be ready to leave in the morning to Cambodia, and chatted with a new friend Nick from England, who was in our room and catching a flight the next morning to head home. We swapped stories, and he told us about how a couple of nights before, he had a gun pulled on him on the same street we were walking on for the pub crawl. A Vietnamese guy had yelled at him from the side, and when he waved his arm out saying “no, no” to whatever he thought he was selling, the guy pulled nick in my the arm and shoved a gun into his ribs. Nick said he could tell that he was much bigger and stronger than the guy, and quickly managed to grab the gun, in the guy’s hand still, and point it at the ground between them, having control over the position.
He said that they had a moment, looking at each other as if to say “okay… let’s just not…” and he let go of the gun, and walked away. It was terrifying to hear of something that scary happening so close to where we were, and we were a little relieved to be leaving the next morning, feeling a bit uneasy about the city now. We continued chatting with Nick until late that night and I honestly wished he was staying longer with us because he was a lot of fun and always seemed to have an awesome story in his back pocket. We said our goodbyes, went to bed, and in the morning he was gone back to England.
Leaving For Phnom Penh, Cambodia
That same morning, Maddie and I were up and ready for 8am to catch our bus that would take us to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We booked the bus through the hostel for 275,000VND ($16.50), and it would take us the whole way across the border (some buses only take you TO the border, and then you switch to another), and they’d help us fill out our forms etc. so that we would move quickly. At 10:30, we reached the border, exited Vietnam, entered Cambodia at Moc Bai (and paid $30USD plus a $5 fee through the bus, taking us a total of about 30mins to get through), and then stopped for lunch about 10 minutes later before continuing on the road. The whole trip was about 6.5hrs, and we arrived in Phnom Penh at 2:30pm.
Welcome to Phnom Penh!
Incase you were curious about the weather here right now, it’s HOT… 35-40 Celsius and basically instant sweat the second you leave a bus or building… welcome to Cambodia. Throw on about 30lbs or so of backpacks, and you’ve got yourself a solid workout. As we grabbed our belongings from the bus, we were approached by tuk tuk drivers from every direction, eager to take advantage of travellers new to Cambodia who didn’t know yet how much a tuk tuk costs. What THEY didn’t know though was that Maddie and I had a map, and knew exactly where we were headed… it was about 1.5km away, but we were prepared to walk after getting told it’d be 40,000KHR ($13) to take us.
After laughing in their face and walking away joking that we’d give them 2 dollars… another tuk tuk driver chased us down and said “ok ok 12,000KHR.” Sold. It seems to be a common theme here, overpriced tuk tuks that you have to really be aggressive when haggling with. Even 12,000KHR was a bit much for the distance, but we were ok with it since it was so damn hot.
Eighty8 Backpackers Hostel & Meeting Back Up With Andrew & Nils!
We arrived at Eighty8 Backpackers Hostel, which cost $25.10USD/4 nights ($8.22CAD/night), and had a pool and a pretty good location. We settled in and relaxed for a few hours as we waited for Andrew and Nils to arrive, who were coming from Siem Reap (they’re the guys who we travelled with for a few weeks in Thailand/Laos, and who were with me during my food poisoning fiasco. When we realized we’d be in Cambodia at the same time as us we made sure to plan some time together).
When the boys arrived, we were ecstatic. It felt like it had been forever (it had been about a month), and when you make friends on the road there’s always that chance that you very well may not ever see them again… which only makes you appreciate it more when you do. We met up with another friend of theirs, Callum from England, and his friend Marie, and the 6 of us went out for dinner to a place in the city where the chef encourages you to try different things on the menu and has a “no questions asked return policy”… if you don’t like it, send it back and order something else at no extra cost. The meal sent back will get packed up and fed to the homeless.
I ordered squid and pepper, and Maddie ordered some mango fish soup. It wasn’t SUPER adventurous, but it was all new to us, and we were not disappointed with our choices. After dinner, we all headed back to our hostel and had some beers, played some games and shared some laughs. I am so happy that the group of us is back together again, and it felt like meeting up with friends we had known our whole lives. I can’t wait for the next few days here in Phnom Penh and to get our first real taste of this hot and beautiful country.