This is part something of something of my Upside Down Heart Tour. I’ve lost count. We visited Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An and Nha Trang before finding our way to Ho Chi Minh City. After HCMC we moved on to Cambodia and Thailand so be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out. If you’re new here, you really should check out some of the other posts from this series… its quite the read…
“If you didn’t like Hanoi
then you’ll hate Ho Chi Minh City,” said the 70 year old, pale, English retiree from the neighbouring sun lounger as we relaxed by our rooftop pool in Nha Trang. “the traffic was unbelievable… You can’t even cross the street in one piece”.
Oh shit. The photos of HCMC look far more Bangkok than Hanoi but here was somebody who had lived and breathed Saigon, Sapa, Hoi An, Hanoi and now Nha Trang in the past fortnight. This old fellow and his wife had toured the entirety of Vietnam (mostly by making use of the nifty network of sleeper trains!) and you had to give it to the old boy, he was taking it all in his stride. But what he said had struck a little bit of fear into us both…
We had been on a bit of a rollercoaster journey during our time in Vietnam. We arrived in Hanoi
in high hopes but found the capital city to be, quite frankly, a dump(*
). The old quarter where we stayed was manically busy, food hygiene was often third world and sanitation was the last thing on the agenda at most places we visited. This trip improved massively during our visit to Halong Bay
, a true wonder of the world and an unforgettable experience spending a night at sea. Hoi An
was also brilliant with it’s bustling markets, ancient buildings and mixture of city and beach life. Our time in Nha Trang
fell somewhere in the middle of these two experiences but at least it wasn’t Hanoi. I’d settle for anywhere but Hanoi. And here we were, on our way to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest, busiest city with the old man’s words still ringing loud in our ears. . . (*retrospectively, I wouldn’t change a thing regarding our time in Hanoi. The initial culture shock was jarring, but we learned so much about Vietnamese culture, the people and their way of life. Hanoi is a brilliant starting platform in Vietnam and provides a real, uncut, insightful introduction to life under communist rule. If you arrive and find its not for you, don’t worry about it, embrace it!
Not On Our Way To HCMC
As you may (nay… should
) have read in my last blog post, we were stuck in Nha Trang
with a lengthy 5 hours delay to our £35 Jetstar flight. Quite impressive really considering the flight time between the two cities is a mere 50 minutes. However, there were no complaints as we were ‘stuck’ in a bar right on the beach… not the worst of places to be delayed I’m sure you’d agree. . . All was well until we tried to contact our hotel to let them know of our late arrival. You see, we had arranged airport transfer a month prior to our arrival with absolutely no problems at all. However, when our plane was rearranged a few weeks later the hotel never responded to any of our numerous emails. Oh well, we thought, at least we tried. However now that we were running significantly later than expected we thought we’d email to confirm our late transfer rather than be stranded in the dark… We Google’d the hotel to find the ‘Google card’ displaying a map of Hotel Elios, the address and some big, bold, red text stating HOTEL NOW CLOSED.
Fuck. We rushed to email them, but their website was down. We hurried to the review websites only to find they too had even quiet for several weeks. We scurried to booking.com only to find that the hotel was ‘fully booked’. Yeah right. Bollocks.
Much like our more recent time in Rome
, we frantically began a search for last minute ‘just in case’, backup accommodation. Much unlike Rome however, HCMC rooms average as little as £20pn. It needed to be near our original hotel (as we’d booked an excursion for the following morning!) as well as being both clean and modern. There were several choices that we bookmarked with fingers crossed it’d all be OK on the night. . .
Boom. We touch down on Saigon soil at 1am; much later than our 19:45 plan (screw you Jetstar). And we rejoice at the sight of our surname being held up by a taxi driver at the airports arrivals. It may be 1am but the airport is hectic with all 6 lanes of traffic jostling for lay-by space. Our fixed-price driver performs a cheeky manoeuvre and leaves the tourists in his trail, likely down to the fact he was being paid for his service and not his time. As we cruise through the airport district we can, again, see the contrasts between commie Northern Vietnam and the South’s more capitalist influences. And we like it. Car dealerships are everywhere, buildings are flashy and vibrant plus there’s ancient charm and eastern vibes hidden everywhere only to be highlighted by the golden glow of the sultry street lights.
As we approach our £30pm Elios Hotel we pass by our local park and several high rise, modern office blocks. One has a big strobe light, laser beams that illuminate the whole city and we can hear thumping music coming from its rooftop. There are people out on the street enjoying themselves. Bars. Food. This is not Hanoi. This is definitely more Bangkok. Tonight though, this will have to wait. We’re knackered and tomorrow we’re booked onto an early-morning private tour of the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels.
Saigon v Ho Chi Minh City
A short sleep and a quick freshen up later and we find ourselves sitting out on our splendid rooftop restaurant at 7am, eating a continental breakfast and drinking in the sights of Saigon. Before we continue let me explain the Saigon/HCMC name game. The two names are one and the same. This is one city with two names. One old (Saigon) and one new (HCMC). The city was renamed HCMC in 1976, after the great leader Ho Chi Minh, following the reunification of Vietnam that came shortly after their victory in the American War (we would know it as the US/Vietnam War).
Remember me saying about the North being communist and the South being capitalist? Well, Ho Chi Minh was the revolutionary communist leader who was Prime Minister of North Vietnam during the American War (in office 1945-69). He was a key figure in the foundation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 as well as the People’s Army and Viet Cong. It was essentially Ho Chi Minh and his armies vs South Vietnam & America. Saigon was then the capital of Southern Vietnam so when Ho Chi Minh defeated the American capitalist regime is was some bright-spark’s controversial idea to rename Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the victory and their great leader. It’s a bit of a kick in the teeth to the people in the south -and they know it. Speak to any Southern Vietnamese person who was pro-USA or pro-independence and they’ll still call it Saigon in private, but publicly and officially it is now HCMC. It is illegal to speak ill of Ho Chi Minh and his memory is confusingly loved and revered by all.
We found all this out via our amazing private tour guide whose services we found via TripAdvisor. We had hired a driver and tour guide to take us around Cu Chi tunnels but we got so much more from this experience than we had bargained for. Real life stories, politics, opinion and the nitty gritty of life in Vietnam; our guide Tam (not his real name) was an honest, open book and spoke in great depths about his concerns on the countries regressive ways, it’s communist flaws and it’s hidden police.
Quite unnerving but at the same time refreshingly honest. Clearly a lover of southern Vietnam and sceptical of the North, Tam was worthy of his very own award winning documentary and speaking to him was a real eye-opener. He also made us aware of the countries occasional media and Internet blackouts which are often used to prevent hysteria or mass organisation of protests. It turns out that President Obama was in HCMC the previous day (he was also in Hanoi soon after we left) and so the Internet had been switched off. President Obama is the reason we thought our hotel had closed down. President Obama is the reason we had 4-5 hours of panic and worry about our accommodation. Don’t worry, I’ve written to the White House for compensation. Has a USA president ever put a dampener on your holiday!? Can you Trump that?* (*boom boom – I wrote this blog a long time ago, when Trump jokes were still funny…).
All that mattered for now is that we were safe, we had a home and we had a good night’s sleep. We’re on our way to the Cu Chi tunnnels and we cannot wait to explore what HCMC has to offer. I’m glad to say that the old man at the beginning of this story was wrong. I’ll never trust another old man again.We were already enjoying Ho Chi Minh City. In fact, I would say that it was in HCMC that I decided I was in love with this crazy, messed up, beautiful country….
HCMC: Where We Fell In Love With Vietnam (2/2) ~ Coming Soon!!
Have you visited Vietnam? How did you find the comparison between Hanoi and HCMC? Which was your favourite? Has anybody ever put you off visiting a place, only for you to actually fall in love with it? Will you ever trust an old man again??? …I know I wont….