The journey from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is doable by bus, but is 6+ hours depending on delays at the border. We are required to have pre-approved visas before boarding the bus, and for the first time I had to hand over my passport to the driver. I guess they like a bit of collateral so they know you’re not trying to be shady.
After hours on the bus we stop to “exit” Cambodia. The entire group unloads and waits in line for a border guard to essentially check us out of the country. Following our check-out, we wait in a sort of no-man’s land—a zone between the two countries with not much more than a parking lot and a small restaurant. Looking over my shoulder during lunch, I notice a young white guy about the same age as Luke and me. He makes eye contact a few times and eventually approaches our table. A bit nervously, he explains his name is Jake and he’s traveling with a girl named Becca. They are from the US and unfortunately don’t have any more cash until they get to our destination in Vietnam and can use the ATM. Luke and I look at each other a bit puzzled, wondering what the catch will be, but somehow conclude that this guy is probably genuine and offer him the money. It turns out that the two of them are also from Seattle! What are the chances? Enlightened by our new friendship, we get back on the bus to cross the into the Vietnam border.
The bus stops and again everyone shuffles out. This time we’re standing in a 10ft x 10ft room packed with people. On one end, I can see a few guards with stacks of passports slowly sifting through and stamping visas. Our driver emerges from the crowd with his own stack of our passports in hand. He starts calling out names one by one and for a moment I freak out thinking that it wouldn’t take much for a stranger to grab one and take off. Luke and I anxiously watch like hawks until we see ours, grab them, and make our way out the door. To say this process is different than in America is an understatement, but after all, we’re not in America—we have officially made it to Vietnam.
Arriving in the city, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of scooters! I thought there were a lot in Cambodia but this place takes the cake. The noise level is also much higher here, bringing the buzz and energy of the city straight to all of my senses. Spending a little longer with our new friends, we give them our contact info and make plans to catch up in the following days. Luke and I grab a taxi and make our way to our host, Nathan’s, place. Nate is a friend of ours from back home who moved to Ho Chi Minh two years ago. He promised he would take us to the best spots and for sure give us a taste of the culinary goodness of this place, but for now, it’s late and there will be plenty of time for that to begin in the morning.
Morning comes easy for me again as the time change has me up and ready by 6am — I could get used to this! Nate gave us full reign of his place while he’s at work, so I’m starting things off right with eggs, toast, and a bit of instant coffee. This apartment is in a high-rise building and the view of the city scape makes me feel like I could still be dreaming. Out of the giant living room window I can see all types of structures from modern sky scrapers to smaller town houses that look like they would fit well in San Francisco.
Getting around the city isn’t so bad in a taxi. Our friends, Jake and Becca, from the bus ride are joining us for the day. First stop on the list is Saigon Notre-Dam Basilica. Although it’s closed today, it looks great from the outside. The French architecture, or what’s left of it following the war, stands out quite a bit and provides nice pops of dimension throughout the city. Just across the street is the Saigon Central Post Office, another French building. The interior is a dome shape and decorated in strong accent colors. I figure this is a good spot to mail out a handful of post cards I’ve written over the past week.
Our day continues on to the Independence Palace — entry is only $1.50 so there isn’t much risk. Practically every room inside has been reconstructed and set for onlookers who want to know what it would have been like to stroll through such a high government facility when it was active. After reading many signs that give snippets of the building’s history here’s what I can tell you for sure: the current building is a rebuild of the original French construction, which was bombed by two covert pilots during the Vietnam War. The rest of its history is a bit blurry.
With many conference and meeting rooms, this place sure seems like a presidential building. It even has a movie theater and indoor shooting range. In the basement, or “bomb shelter,” we find room after room of old radios from the Vietnam War. It’s hard to tell just how much action took place in this building, but gazing upon all of the old equipment is enough to keep me interested. Another intriguing fact about this building: on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese Army tank plowed through the main gate, inevitably ending the Vietnam War, or American War, as they call it here.
Jake and Becca were daring enough to rent a scooter and ride amongst the chaos, so Luke and I led the way in our Taxi. We’re heading to the Bitexco Financial Tower which is the tallest building in the city’s skyline, equipped with a helicopter landing pad and observation deck 49 stories above ground.
The observation deck is wide open and each wall is made of windows. Slowly roaming around the platform, I stop frequently to lean against the guard walls and peer down at the city from every perspective I can get. Below, traffic is bustling and boats are gliding down the river. From up here, it all looks like miniatures on a game board; pieces strategically moving in an unpredictable way. The sun starts to set in the haze far beyond any clear visibility. Even after the ball of fire dips well below the horizon, the traffic continues to buzz and it’s hard to image this city ever standing still.
Our host, Nathan, has to work again, but he’s kind enough to find Luke, Becca, Jake, and me a driver for the day to take us out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. They were a successful tactic and gave the North Vietnamese a strong fighting position in the area. Obviously, this was very frustrating for the U.S., so soldiers began heavily bombing the entire jungle area, which took quite a while to create any significant damage.
The guide is telling stories of war in broken English and showing us an array of booby traps made from gnarly pieces of scrap metal that most likely came from bomb shells. Walking from the little tent where these traps are displayed, we find ourselves on a pile of leaves that, when brushed away, expose a tiny hole in the ground, approximately 1ft. by 2ft. This is one entrance to a complicated system of tunnels running right beneath our feet. One by one, we take turns slowly sliding down into the tunnel. Luke took things a bit too far and gave us all a scare by actually crawling through a large portion of the tunnel that hasn’t been maintained. Most of the areas like this are now infested with bats, spiders, rats and large snakes.
The tour moves into several “campsite” type areas with mannequins dressed as Viet Cong soldiers. The true stretch of our composure came in the form of a 100ft section of rebuilt tunnel—it had been widened to fit Americans. Starting off, things don’t seem too bad, I’m hunched over and slowly making my way through. The guide scurries off ahead and suddenly I find myself alone in the front of the pack. It’s pitch black and I’m tempted to grab my iPhone to use as a flashlight. Just attempting to take hold of it, however, proves futile as I physically don’t have enough room on either side of me to get my hand in my pocket. The guide is now far ahead of us and yelling, “Let’s go, go, go, go.” I scramble as hard as I can, back pressed up against the top of the tunnel scraping on the dirt. My legs have now been half bent for what seems like an eternity and call me weak but I’m sweating profusely. I can even admit that I’m scared, really I don’t know if I’ve ever done anything quite like this and its certainly outside of my comfort zone! Finally, after what seems like way longer than 100 ft, I see the light at the end of the tunnel and emerge out of a hole. The rest of the crew follows behind — all a bit shaken up and confused at what we just did. To make up for the traumatic venture, the tour ends with a snack of steamed tapioca—which is almost like a firm sweet potato—and tea. This is a meal that most soldiers would have eaten every day for roughly three months at a time. The trip to the tunnels is an enlightening and eye opening one. It’s so interesting to hear the perspective from the another side and realize in close view how traumatizing of an event the war was. My eyes have begun to be opened to the alternative narrative of the experience and I’m starting to learn the true gravity of war.
If the Cu Chi tunnels were an introduction to changing perspectives, then the War Remnants Museum is the body and conclusion. Entering the gated area, the front courtyard is adorned with U.S. military vehicles like tanks and airplanes. We stride past them and into the exhibition hall where the immersion quickly becomes more intense and dramatic. Each floor has several rooms with photos and stories emphasizing the horrors of the war. Reading descriptions feels a little confusing because its painting a very different picture than the one I grew up with. The museum is run by the government and certainly showcases many pieces of anti-American propaganda, but regardless is an interesting and heavy viewpoint to take in. Even though it would take quite a bit of research to comprehend the full scope of what took place, I’m leaving this museum shaken up and full of questions, but I think that’s a good place to be.
Our daily routine for meals has been making some quick breakfast at home, usually eating something like rice for lunch and going all out for dinners. Nathan, being more of a local, took us to his favorite spots and we’re giving him complete control on ordering as long as he keeps the seventy-five cent beers flowing at a decent pace. We eat papaya salad, fish, chicken, pork, frog legs, and of course, pho. Each dish bursts with flavor and freshness that I hadn’t even come close to experiencing in the U.S.’s Vietnamese cuisine.Over and over, the food is blowing us away and is different enough to push us out of our comfort zone a bit. Perhaps the local food was a little too far out of bounds because we found ourselves craving late night McDonalds and embracing it with no self control. A bit of “comfort food” is okay I guess, as long as it keeps us going on our foreign adventures.
Informational, learning, loud, coffee, pho, scooters, are all words I would use to describe Ho Chi Minh City, but a description on paper doesn’t do justice to the feeling and energy this place gives. As our time comes to a close and I start to dread the long bus ride and border crossing ahead of us, I can say that I really enjoyed this place. The museums, food and history make Ho Chi Minh such a unique place. I’m feeling so fortunate for the new friends we made here, old friend we got to spend time with, and hoping that this sort of experience repeats itself throughout the rest of our time in Southeast Asia. Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia.