We arrived in bustling Saigon just after a spectacular sunset and wandered around through the wet, busy streets until we found our hotel down a dark alley. Upon check in I was electrocuted by the bathroom light and the room reeked of cigarettes. Kindly asking to be moved to a different room, we were brought to one which had not been cleaned in what seemed like a very long time (I won’t mention what was on the sheets but we asked for new bedding immediately!). I felt, for the first time in eight months of travel, that we had stepped into a scene from the Leonardo DiCaprio movie ‘The Beach’ (and not in a good way).
Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as it is still referred to) is the largest city in Vietnam with ten million inhabitants. It is vastly spread out and separated into 19 districts. We stayed in District 1, right in the center of all the action and the backpacker area. The city still retains much of its French Colonial architectural influence including the beautiful Notre Dam church (constructed entirely of materials from France) and the old post office, where I starred in more selfies with teenage girls.
We spent much of our time in Saigon walking along the busy streets just taking in the sites and sounds of the big city, including the famous student hangout Turtle Lake, which was more of a pond with no students in sight.
On our first day we made a stop at the War Remnants Museum, and for a very reasonable $1 entrance fee, spent an hour exploring the exhibits which mostly covered the Vietnam War (or as they refer to it, the ‘American Aggression War on Vietnam’). While the exhibits were very biased and full of anti-American propaganda, it was still an interesting museum that created more questions than answers (which every good museum should do!).
A trip to Saigon would not be complete without a visit to the indoor Ben Than market; we visited on multiple occasions to enjoy a thick cup of Vietnamese ice coffee and meander through the stalls selling fermented fish, handmade clothing, makeup, souvenirs, coffee and teas.
Saigon was an interesting city. Like much of Vietnam, we never quite felt safe or at ease. The food and accomodation were greatly overpriced, and there was not a lot to actually do. There were gangsters on most corners and it was easy to see how common it is to be robbed just walking down the street. But the people were mostly lovely and there is something magical about the buzz of any big city: young people with opportunities, a sense of community, education, so much action and 24 hour noise.
The Mekong River flows from China and Tibet through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and empties into the South China Sea. We traveled four hours to the Mekong Delta as part of an overnight tour, with a brief stop to see a pagoda complex. We arrived in My Tho around noon and jumped on a boat to cross the river and explore the four main islands.
Like in much of South East Asia, coconut farming is a huge money source for the Vietnamese. The first island offered us (and what felt like 50 other tour groups) a view into the manufacturing of coconut candy. Despite the open air factory being crammed with tourists, it was interesting to see how they prepared and packed the candies with bare minimum machinery and no modern help.
Our next stop was a honey farm that sold fresh honey, royal jelly, pollen and various health drinks. We snacked on banana chips and drank honey tea in a covered garden, and took a quick boat ride to the next island for some local music and fruit.
The tour itself was quite boring, but for the huge price of $25 each including accommodation, we enjoyed the slow pace of the day. The only negative was a horse drawn carriage ride (we have tried VERY hard to avoid anything remotely harmful to animals on this trip), but it led us to a boat ride down the canals used by the locals. A slightly crazy woman guided us along the small streams in a river boat, talking and laughing to herself along the way. It was a serene and silent journey (except for the ranting of our lovely guide).
Lunch came just in time as the sky opened up and the monsoon rains pounded down on the tourist restaurant where all of the tour groups had been placed. We shared a table with two young girls from Bavaria and a middle aged Israeli couple, and I helped one of the German girls devour a coconut grub that her friend had dared her to eat.
We jumped back on the bus after our boat day was completed and drove to the city of Can Tho, a huge hub in southern Vietnam and the largest city on the Vietnamese Mekong. Approaching 4pm, the rain clouds gathered overhead and hundreds of motorbikes began to fill the narrow streets. We were stuck just outside of the industrial park, a compound of factories that look remarkably like prisons filled with young Vietnamese people sewing our underwear and H&M t-shirts. We had passed areas like this before, but the swarm of people leaving their low paying jobs all at once was overwhelming. The streets were packed with thousands of motorbikes, and the rain came down hard.
As things go in Vietnam, we were promised one thing and delivered another: a bright, shiny new hotel in downtown Can Tho near the night market which turned out to be 4km from anything, located in an industrial area near the highway. We decided to join the rest of the group at a one star hotel downtown, and spent nearly an hour walking back and forth in torrential rain searching for the elusive night market. In our search, we stumbled across a restaurant that smelled like the best bbq in the world. With not a word of English spoken, we sat down and stripped off our dripping ponchos and were greeted with a taster plate of rice cake, chicken wing, pickled vegetables and an entire quail. We happily devoured our plate and continued on in our search for the market.
The rain was only getting stronger and when we stopped to ask for directions, we were greeted with smiles but no English. One girl jumped off her motorbike to try to help us, and when she saw us walking in the opposite direction half an hour later looking defeated, she pulled out her phone to translate for us. We ended up having an amazing bowl of vegan soup (foraged mushrooms, homemade tofu, mekong weed, rice noodles and bean paste) at her food stall as the rain poured down and, through an online translator, we had a whole conversation. I feel lucky to be traveling in a world where communication is so easy; my first time in Thailand at eighteen meant visiting internet cafes every few days and stumbling along. An entire world is open to people now that is so exciting; we are all the same at the end of the day and technology helps us realize that.
We never did find the night market; our new friend informed us it was much too far away, so we went back to the hotel to get a few hours of sleep before our 5:45am wakeup call.
A quick breakfast and off we went to the highlight of the tour: the Can Tho floating market. The largest floating market on the Mekong, it is an accumulation of boats from all over the country that have come together at a crossroads in the river to sell their goods. Families live and work on the boats until everything they brought with them has been sold. As a wholesale market, each boat has a large pole attached to the front which shows off the goods they have for sale. There were boats with pumpkins and pineapples and yams, watermelons and lychee strategically hanging from the poles making it easy to choose which boat to buy from.
A fifteen minute ride down a side canal brought us past homes perched over the river to a small island with a catfish pond and bamboo bridge (we were far too heavy to attempt to cross). A leisurely walk through an orchard brought us past cocoa, papaya, durian and dragonfruit trees.
The last stop on our trip to the Mekong Delta was a rice noodle factory where we learned the complete process of how the rice paper sheets and noodles are made, and we were able to try a delicious fried rice noodle dish. One man had spent 42 years working at the factory on the small island.
Our organized lunch stop in Can Tho was a dirty, overpriced restaurant that just happened to be near the market, so we left to explore the area ourselves. We found a wonderful little place to eat and enjoyed an ice cold coconut, spring rolls and noodles (with some fried bananas to take on the bus).
Our journey was finished, and it was almost time to leave Vietnam. We drove back to Saigon (to a much nicer, cleaner hostel) and braved torrential downpour to visit the tiny night market, making a stop at Baskin Robbins for an overpriced ice cream (a famous brand in Canada that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, I have dreamed of their chocolate peanut butter ice cream for twenty years and found it in Vietnam, of all places).
Vietnam was a wonderful adventure. We visited twelve cities and traveled from the complete North to the complete South in four weeks. Each city was unique and beautiful; there is not a single place we didn’t enjoy at least a little bit.
Off to the beaches of Cambodia!
-Chelsea and Ben
We have taken 6 ferries, 1 cruise ship, 3 boat rides, 12 airplanes, 32 busses, 6 trains, uncountable subways, tuk tuks, songtheows, motorbikes, city busses and car rides. We have travelled approximately 42,970 km in 243 days and have been to 13 countries (including stopovers). We have stayed in 35 hotels, hostels and guesthouses (plus a lot of couchsurfing).