I would be hard pressed to think of anything particular that is worth seeing in HCMC – I could give you a long list of things to experience. A modern and younger side of the traditional Vietnamese culture would top the list and seek close competition from food. It is a typical big city with commercial streets, malls, rooftop bars, street food and bustling traffic. The vibe is much younger than some of the other cities we had been to and people seemed busier and moving faster. Food was still good, but you had to look a little more for those hole in the wall wonders and the prices were significantly higher than rest of Vietnam. The downtown was dotted with spas but the experience was more mechanical and less local than HoiAn. The local beer called Saigon, after the local name of the city is delicious, just like the Hanoi beer sold in Hanoi – imaginative!
We checked into our hotel, right in the middle of downtown and this was one of the places where being city centre wasn’t as much a benefit since most of the fun stuff was outside the city. We could still walk to the city centre and enjoy some Christmas festivities. The famous Ben Thanh market was a 5 minute walk from the hotel and while it offered some really cheap clothes and paintings, most of them were not very good. Not the same can be said about the Ben Thanh street food market just next door which offered some outstanding local food options.
While we spend some time looking around the city, walking the commercial Nguyen Hue street and finding some souvenirs most of the visual highlights of the trip were actually outside the city, except one. The first night in the city we stepped out to just stroll and get a flavor of the city. It was a day before Christmas eve and the streets had a festive vibe with lights and decorations. We came across this huge street stage with a fancy concert going on. The amazing part was not the stage but the area where the very large audience stood. In a little while fountains erupted from the ground and after the initial surprise running away, the crowd just started playing along. Kids ran inside and got drenched while the adults danced in the rain. A big thumbs up to vibrance of culture.
The next morning we took on first of the journeys around HCMC to the very famous Mekong River delta in the southern area of Vietnam. It was a full day extravaganza which also covered Vinh Trang Pagoda and focused on experiencing the less touristy side of the delta – Ben Tre. The first stop was the spectacular pagoda and the massive statues of Buddha sleeping and sitting that were in the vicinity. It is quite a stunning Pagoda with a beautiful facade and then a fantastic courtyard with exquisite work in stone.
A little further we transferred to a boat that would take us for a spectacular ride on the massive Mekong river and then to the delta. On the boat we were served some delicious fresh pineapple and coconut water straight out of the shell. The river itself is just mesmerizing just due to its sheer size, in spite of the water being more brown than blue. The boat ride ended in a small island with a small break for tea and visit to a local honeybee farm, an alligator farm and a shop. Besides the honey which was quite good, the shop also sold some snake wine that comes in a bottle that also has a snake in it and is considered good for vitality. The man selling these scary looking bottles said that it was so bitter that he recommended mixing it with whiskey to drink! I absolutely did not buy a bottle and sneak it back into India – that would be illegal.
The mode of transport now changed to a horse pulled tonga that took us deeper into the city for a delicious lunch of fish and other local food and a restaurant just by a small canal. This was the canal that was a highlight of the trip as we took a small row boat into the backwaters with just a small lane for the boat surrounded by vegetation on both sides – it was a surreal trip. The navigation was slow and there were so many boats that at points it made for a traffic jam. Later, when in a wider canal there was a larger powered boat and that got us back to the even larger boat we had started with. This was the beginning of the end of the trip as we headed back. This was a long trip nearly 12 hours, but probably very much worth it.
Vietnam history, while very rich with its Khmer roots, tends to focus a lot of on its famous war with the US. The David and Goliath battle lasted 19 years and is today seen more as a US vs. Vietnam battle while in reality it was more a pseudo war between US and the USSR with the Vietnamese as innocent pawns. A blood battle rarely has a true winner but here the Vietnamese did have a moral victory even though their losses are beyond imagination. One of the most mind boggling weapons for the Vietnamese guerrilla warriors were the Cu Chi tunnels. They are now a tourist draw and are easily worth the 90 minute drive from HCMC. If you are American though, the commentary there might make you cringe as it is distinctly anti-American and portrays them very much like Europe talks of Nazis.
The tunnel structure itself was hundreds of miles long and allowed the warriors to travel large distances. The structures allowed for some of them to stay underground for extended periods of time. They had larger chambers for people to stay, cook and survive. There were also lot of features to enable them to prevent detection like chimneys that were a distance away from the actual mouth of tunnel, hidden traps to kill any intruders and also crests and troughs in the floor to prevent the enemies from flooding them.
The tunnel complex makes for some fairly interactive exhibits. You can actually walk through a tunnel – its dark, low and highly claustrophobic. It is quite a task to do 30 feet inside and gives you a feel of what it would be to do a few miles. There are demonstrations of traps that were designed to kill any intruders and also some fairly cool camouflage hiding spaces where you can go hide as well. They showcase a very simple yet impactful invention, the double sided shoes where looking at the footmarks you can’t figure out the direction of travel. There is also an opportunity to go to a shooting range and try shoot an AK47, for a price. A half day very well spent in one of the most unique surroundings on Earth.
Must of the rest of our time in HCMC was spent eating, walking around the city and just taking a last breath of the amazing culture of this fabulous country!