Vietnam was the country that the majority of our group had been most excited for, and it was not likely to disappoint. We knew relatively little, but had heard so much about the enchanting land where we would spend the better part of the next two weeks – and we could not wait.
After AirAsia delivered us safely from Bangkok, but first we had to collect our visas. Thanks to Vietnam-visa.com we already had our approval letters and completed entry forms – all we needed to include was a passport photo and US $45. As you arrive at the immigration hall (before going through customs and collecting your baggage) to the left is a “Landing Visa” window where you submit your documentation along with your passport and then take a seat until your name is called. The officials will then call your name out once your visa has been processed. It pays to have a look at the faces of the people before you in the queue, because if my experience was anything to go by, they will pronounce your name almost 100% wrong – I wouldn’t actually have known that my name was called had it not been for my friends laughing at my lack of response when my name was (apparently) called and my unconscious recognition of those in the queue before me.
We had been repetitively warned to only use Mai Linh taxis (coloured green and white) as they were one of the few reputable companies around town. So after leaving the international terminal (currently/conveniently suffering a green taxi famine) we headed along to the domestic terminal – not surprisingly, we were far more successful. Our taxi dropped us at our hostel Vietnam Inn Saigon in District One – which had reasonably spacious rooms, adequate facilities, and to our delight, a rooftop bar.
Early the next morning Kelsey and I got picked up to begin a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels through the Saigon River Express. It was pretty expensive, however I would happily pay it again for the experience we had. From our hostel we got taken down to the waterfront where we climbed aboard a speedboat and began our journey down river. We boated for about an hour, enjoying the scenery (lots of trees and reeds floating in the water) as well as an on-board breakfast before eventually arriving at the tunnels. The tour was predominantly above ground, and was so incredibly interesting. I’m pleased we arrived early because it was inundated with tourists by the time we’d finished exploring. We were given the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into what used to be one of the tunnel entrances; as my claustrophobia grew, so did my respect for what the Vietnamese endured. We then travelled 40m underground through a reconstructed tunnel: the darkness combined with the stale smell and the uncomfortable half-squat/half-stooped over position we were forced to adopt meant that 40m was more than enough – and to think that these tunnels were three times larger than what they had been back in war time. It was a relief to see daylight, and after trying taro with peanut and sugar, and having the chance to shoot a real machine gun I was pleased to finally sit down with our tour group for an unexpected feast on the waterfront. There were spring rolls, morning glory, sweet and sour vegetables, marinated pork soup – and that was just the beginning. Needless to say, we were all sleepy characters on the boat trip back.
The tour company kindly dropped us at the War Remembrance Museum, but because it was lunchtime we had to wait for it to reopen. The wait was definitely worth it; it was probably one of the more memorable museums I have ever been to. Start at the top of the building and make your way down; it’s actually arranged in chronological order, but poorly signposted so most people don’t actually know where to begin, and end up just drifting. The highlight for me was the photo exhibition – the saying couldn’t be truer that a picture speaks a thousand words. To read some of the captions of the photos (for example, one photograph depicted a family in a row about to be shot, and as the photographer walked away from the scene he heard the gunshots fire – but didn’t (couldn’t) look back) was absolutely heart-wrenching, and then to go on and learn all about Agent Orange and the far-reaching damage it has caused was enough to numb all of us for the rest of the day.
With the size of our party growing (Jimmy had arrived the night before) the following morning saw us set out on a self-guided walking tour (thanks to Lonely Planet), whilst Cam attended a cooking school. We visited the Ben Thanh market – which was huge, crazy and overwhelming at times. We had some delicious food, got into some terrific arguments and collected some great bargains that we were expected to somehow squeeze into our already overflowing backpacks. Before our departure that night we popped up to the 48th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower – panoramic views of Ho Chi Minh, which were made all the more spectacular by it being night time. We made our way back to the hostel where we climbed aboard our first overnight bus. Set out like bunk beds, we had all been allocated top row beds. I was relieved to be by a window, and after knocking back a sleeping pill I slept pretty darn well. Good night Ho Chi Minh, good morning Nha Trang.