I was anxious about heading back to a big city. Even more so when we decided to sign up for a Ho Chi Minh motorbike tour. With a population of 8.4 million, twice that of New Zealand, I suspected Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam would be overwhelming. However, the longer we stayed in Ho Chi Minh, enjoying the mix of modern life meets Vietnam culture, the more I loved it.
Our first full day in the city was Ben’s birthday. It was also our last day with Sarah before she had to run a conference for her work. Defying all our logic, we booked an off-the-beaten-path motorbike tour around the city with Saigon On Motorbike. The mayhem of traffic in Ho Chi Minh was much busier than anywhere we had been and there were actually millions of motorbikes on the road. Early that morning four bright-eyed kids, University students earning money for the studies, picked us up in fluorescent green T-shirts and we each jumped on the back of their scooters.
I was with Long, the main tour guide of our group. We started at a statue of a monk who burned himself during the war in the 60’s to protest the oppression of the Buddhists. We then went to the oldest apartment in the city, which was only built in the 70’s, the same era as our last apartment in Vancouver. The apartments were very small and the residents were drying out pork skin outside their rooms and had chickens in cages on the roof.
Most residents eat street food for dinner, as they can’t afford appliances and energy to cook at home. This is considered a luxury for many. The motorbikes took us to a flower market, a motorbike parts market, and past the slums against the river, where their homes often collapsed and fell into the river. We went to an apartment block of three tall towers that were uninhabited due to people believing they held bad luck, despite many people living in squalid conditions. We drank Vietnamese coffee with the locals, sipped coconuts brought up the Mekong by boat and ate pho bo (beef noodle soup) from a street food vendor. The motorbike tour was amazing and gave us a true view of what life was like in Ho Chi Minh. Plus the guides were incredibly knowledgeable and had a good sense of humor.
For dinner, in contrast to the poverty we had witnessed, we went to a rooftop bar and ordered a bottle of French champagne and ate western food. We followed this with the “party street” filled with a mix of locals and foreigners and bars that blared music onto the side walk. It was a day like no other, the day Ben turned 31.
The next day we took a group tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels with Shaun. These are the tunnels where at one point 16,000 North Vietnamese lived underground. We explored the grounds, their clothing, their cooking methods, and their booby traps. I shot an AK47 and Ben shot an M60 (the “gun of Rambo”) at the shooting range. We each had 10 bullets. Ben’s gun being a belt-fed fully automatic fired the rounds in no more than one second. I shot mine one-at-a-time, slowly, trying to ease the pain on my shoulder from the recoil.
The final part was the tunnels. Each section was 20m long, which then had an escape if you didn’t like it. The total you could go through the tunnels was 200m. I walked down into the tunnels, sure that I had survived trials more harrowing than crawling through some tourist tunnels. However, after the first turn I saw the darkness and the ladder you had to crawl down that went deep underground and was unable to make it any further. I backed out, unable to crawl into the depths of the earth with a string of tourists either side of me. I wasn’t the first to back out and I joined half my group that opted not to go down. Ben made it to the first escape ladder and opted out too. He was much too tall for the tiny tunnels. Funnily enough, these tunnels were actually enlarged to cater for the bigger size of the average tourist. However, the tunnels were no more than 80cm tall and shoulder width wide.
On our final day we went on a group tour to the Mekong Delta, with seven young English/Indians and one Chinese woman who spoke no English. The English/Indians on our tour were made up of six women who never stopped talking/singing/yelling and one submissive male. The women had little respect for anyone else, turning up 45 minutes late to the tour and proceeding to ensure that everything was about them and their incessant selfie-insta-snapchat-grams. It was an action-packed day with every mode of transport possible. We arrived by bus, took a motorboat, switched to a row boat paddled by an ancient woman, then took a mini-horse and carriage around a small town, then a bicycle, then two more boats. We explored three different islands and saw how the locals used the river to survive, growing and selling fruit and building nets to catch fish. We saw them make coconut candy and tasted rice and snake wine. The latter is wine made with snakes. Ben thought it was delicious. Women are not allowed to drink it. A little snake-wine-sexism seemed acceptable in this case.
For our bicycle ride we had rickety old bikes, with limited brakes, no helmets, and seats that could not be adjusted. Both Ben and I looked like we were riding tiny clown bikes. However, the English/Indians were all very short and could barely touch the pedals. The guide did not ask if everyone was able to ride a bike and he quickly set off in front with barely a look behind. It was a recipe for disaster. We had barely left the start point when we neared a corner and our first narrow bridge. The woman in front of me failed to take the corner very well and rode off the side of the bridge, straight into the disgusting muddy brown stream. Once we determined she was not injured, just very muddy, I felt a little smile on my face courtesy of this karmic event. She headed back to the restaurant nearby to clean herself off and mourn her destroyed iPhone, while the rest of us carried on biking.
The food in Ho Chi Minh was delicious. No matter where we went we were delighted with the fresh, flavorful food we encountered. We tried rice cooked in lotus leaves, caramelized chicken, pork ribs, beef skewers, fresh spring rolls, and, of course, noodles. We went to the “best Vietnamese sandwich” place and ate the meat-loaded baguette with mayo and paté. It was very tasty, but my stomach strongly disagreed on account of the shop not skimping on the paté. We also drank copious amounts of Bia Saigon and Tiger beer, trying single-handedly to keep the local breweries in the black. Even learning that the beer was made from the murky Mekong River water was not enough for us to stray from the refreshing beverage. However, we didn’t have much of an option, as everything, including the bottled water, was made from the same river.
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