It’s been a long time between posts as Tom and I have just completed our CELTA (the qualification we need to teach English here). If you’re familiar with the course then you’ll know it’s incredibly intensive and life consuming. However, it was a great challenge and we learnt loads plus we got to meet some awesome people. More on that soon but for now, here’s a post that I’d half written before we started our CELTA. This is all about our first impressions of Ho Chi Minh city when we arrived here with the tour group from Hoi An.
Outside the air conditioned airport, the heat of Ho Chi Minh hit us hard. I’m still trying to get used to it as the temperature is usually at least 30 degrees (Celsius) which is the hottest it ever really gets back home. It really was exciting to finally be in the place we’re going to be calling home for the next while though.
We were knackered after the 3.30am wakeup call so the morning consisted of finding food and napping. Our takeaway hotel breakfast from Hoi An was a shocker (some processed white bread, strange jam that leaked everywhere and a slice of plastic cheese) so it was lucky we stumbled across an amazing French bakery close to our hotel before the hanger* set in. This place made delicious ham and cheese baguettes which we devoured far too quickly. We amazingly still had room to split a quiche and it was some of the most delicious pastry I’ve ever eaten. The French colonial rule leftovers sure are tasty here.
Later that afternoon we found a cool and relaxing way to see the city – travelling by Cyclo. These contraptions have become a bit of an icon for Saigon as they used to be used like taxis. Now they’re more of a tourist thing and only in District 1 (the main CBD). Our drivers were basically homeless men who often sleep on their Cyclo at night. I really wish I’d tipped mine more as I found out after we’d left that he’d been pushing me around town using only one leg. I did wonder why he was so keen to grab me onto his vehicle, turns out he thought I’d be one of the lighter ones in the group (unfortunately for him he wasn’t aware of the giant brunch I’d just eaten).
It pays to note that there are some dodgy Cyclo drivers here too so make sure you choose carefully if you’re ever in the market for a ride. Our tour guide told us that some of them work in cahoots with the motorbike bag pinchers. Say you had a big camera with you, the Cyclo driver might call his mate and tell him where to pinch it off you.
Later we went for dinner at a place called Pho 2000. It’s famous in HCMC as the place where Bill and Chelsea Clinton popped in for a meal when Clinton was President. It must have been a great day surprise for the staff as the place is quite unassuming. There are the same aluminium tables and stools as any other Pho joint and the treatment there is not much different from that which you get on the street. We managed to score the table where the Clintons sat- by that I mean that there’s a plaque and the table is the only one in the restaurant with a table cloth. Bill had the chicken Pho if you’re wondering. It was very touristy but a bit of fun.
I was starving and ordered the large bowl of Pho. A tip for anyone who does this, when the Vietnamese say ‘large’, they reeeeally mean it. I was soon after delivered a trough of Pho. Luckily it tasted amazing and somehow I ate the whole thing. One other person in the group ordered the same size and I’m pretty sure he only finished because he didn’t want to be out eaten by a girl (I might add he was a fully grown English farmer). We both deserve medals I say.
The place is quite amazing but you definitely need a tour guide to explain the history. It is terrifying how small the tunnels are (and most have been enlarged so tourists who eat troughs of Pho can fit in them). We were given a few options for how far we could crawl along and both Tom and I chose to opt out after 20m. Even though Tom is a fan of enclosed spaces (crazy I know), even he felt claustrophobic. Incredible that people lived most of their lives down in these things while above ground their homes were being destroyed.
That afternoon we went to the War Remnants Museum back in the city. I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you’re feeling particularly emotional. I wasn’t and it still took all of my strength not to burst out crying at each exhibition. It is heavy. The devastating aftermath of Agent Orange that is still affecting thousands of people today is fully laid out here and it is the one thing that will stay with me forever from that experience. After leaving the museum it’s hard not to feel a little empty inside that fellow human beings could actually do such things to each other. There is opportunity to donate to the Agent Orange fund there so if you go for one reason, maybe make it that.
After a pretty intense day we ended up blowing off steam at the Sheraton – as you do! This is one thing I really recommend doing when you first get to Saigon. Go up to the rooftop bar around 5.30pm – it’s open to the public but it pays to dress up somewhat. The view is incredible as you can see pretty much the whole city and the sunset is truly something to behold. Rather than actually setting into the horizon, it turns into a bright amber sphere that quickly evaporates into the haze over the city. Also, the happy hour there is great – two for one (very well made) cocktails.
That Sheraton experience set the tone for the night and we ended up having a bit of a bender in the city. It was our last night together as a tour so we all had dinner together, exchanged email addresses and drank a lot of beer (just for a change).
The following day we had time to burn so decided to take the option of joining the next tour group on a day tour of the Mekong Delta. I would recommend something like this as it’s a beautiful part of the country. We were driven around in little boats all day and got to see some amazing islands and local produce. First up was a tropical fruit tasting accompanied by traditional music.
We also went to see coconut candy being made which was awesome as we found out how the Vietnamese use every single part of a coconut- nothing goes to waste. Drink the water, use the ‘meat’ for candy or coconut for cooking and finally make the shell into a bowl or carving. Also we got to taste the candy fresh and it is gorgeous (although if you don’t like coconut Mackintosh toffees you’ll hate it).
The tour was topped off by another epic banquet meal (I think this is why I am now able to out eat farmers). For the equivalent of US $5, we were treated to plate after plate of incredible dishes. Tasty spring rolls, fresh summer rolls, a whole fried fish, chicken, prawns and a strange rice dessert that looked like a giant egg. The whole experience at the Mekong was incredibly touristy and you come across several groups doing the exact same things. It doesn’t matter though because it gives you a chance to witness the hardworking nature of the Vietnamese and to support local businesses which is always great.
When we arrived back in the city it was time for us to check out of the hotel and into our guesthouse. It was a bit sad and unnerving saying goodbye to everyone on the tour and being left by ourselves in this big ole city. More on how our first month here has gone in the next post.
*Not a typo. I tend to get hangry (hungry – angry) when I’m deprived of food for too long. Poor Tom.
PS: Sorry for the lack of photos in Saigon. We figured we’re going to be here for a while and got lazy- sometimes it’s nice to just experience things as they are as opposed to looking at everything through a lens!