Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh stinks. But I kinda love it. It’s loud and smelly and busy and everybody seems to be playing a perpetual game of ‘chicken’ on the thousands of mopeds screaming around the dusty roads.
Our hostel is down a tiny alleyway full of shops, restaurants and houses, we have no windows and it’s hot – like sticky sweaty red faced hot. On our first night we sat out on the street eating huge bowls of Pho, listening to the vendors haggle and chat (everybody sounds annoyed in Vietnamese) and then the heavens opened and by the time we’d run home in the warm, heavy rain we were drenched, filthy and exhausted and I decided that I really, really like this city.
Even the taxi driver, Lim, who drove us from the airport insisted on confiding in Kati and me (or ‘Jatie and Susie’ as he preferred to call us) how well his two daughters are thriving here, how much he loves his job and how much ‘cool international currency’ he gets to see (he may have been fishing for a tip). We gave him three of our shiny new dollars after he drove with us for fifteen minutes up and down the same street to help us find our hostel, and then we said our goodbyes and stepped out into the crazy, breathtaking humidity. Lim took one look at us and then returned to shepherd us carefully across the road, teaching us our first and most valuable lesson about Vietnam- don’t wait to cross the road, just cross. Scream, swear, cry if you must, but the only way you will ever get to the other side is to put your head down, walk in a straight line and whatever you do don’t stop. I’ve given up looking left and right and now just keep my eyes firmly fixed on the other side. Watching the mopeds speed towards/ behind or in front of you is just off putting.
After that, I think we both felt pretty happy to dive straight into the city, and felt pretty comfortable right from the get go. We’re staying on Dn. Pham Ngu Lao, a famous street full of entertainment and accommodation for backpackers, so the atmosphere around here is very chilled out
After sleeping off the jet lag and flight weariness, we didn’t get out into the city until mid morning the next day, just in time for the burning sun to really hit its stride. At midday, most of the locals are cooking or eating out on the street in front of their shops and homes, or else relaxing in the shade, many somehow finding a comfortable position across the seat and handle bars of their motorbikes and settling in for a nap.
While we marched forth (mad dogs and Englishmen?), loosely following a route suggested by our guidebook, we were approached by a tuk tuk driver who asked us where we were going. We were already right opposite the market where we were heading so politely declined his services, but he gravely informed us that the market was closed and offered to drive us somewhere else. We decided to find out for ourselves and were far from surprised to discover that it was open and thronging with stalls (all of them, apparently, wanting to sell things to us right now). It was pretty overwhelming so we didn’t stay long, only to run in to the same tuk tuk driver on our way out. ‘Hello again!’ he called, completely unabashed, ‘where are you going now?’ We gestured non comitally in the direction of a busy street opposite the market. ‘Oh, the antiques market?’ and then with a grave sincerity, ‘it’s closed’.
It wasn’t, and Kati and I spent ages looking through the curiosities- plates, old photographs, ‘souvenirs’ from the war, old compasses, lighters, all kinds of things. Most people we met seemed friendly, reserved, curious but not so far as to make us uncomfortable, and super helpful as long as we asked our questions with a smile and were suitably embarrassed of our lack of language skills!
We bought plasters for our blisters and sat in the shade of the pharmacy steps for a while, stopped to bathe our feet in fountains (I wanted to go all in but decided against it) and bought fans from a street vendor (who, to her great delight, managed to scare me with a toy rat and then proceeded to laugh about it- with much encouragement from Kati- as if it was the funniest thing that’s ever happened. I was not impressed 😉 )
We walked all over the city until after dark and were so excited by how vibrant and colourful and interesting everything is. We got back sweaty and dirty and exhausted, but I loved Ho Chi Minh (and as soon as we got back to our hostel room I got to witness Kati mercilessly smashing a bug with a bottle of sun cream and that was pretty fun 😉 )
Next stop: Phnom Penh!