We caught our last Vietnamese bus from Mui Ne to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) HURRAH!! With snacks in hand we took our final climb down the track from our hotel to the main Mui Ne street. We dumped our bags and sat and waited. In Asia you spend a lot of time waiting, and usually its for transport, we had come quite accustomed to it.
The bus eventually rolled to a halt before us. We hopped on, chucking our big backpacks underneath keeping our day packs to ourselves. We left quite early, definitely before midday and after what was meant to be a 6 hour bus ride (I’m sure it was more like 8) we arrived at the bus terminal on Phạm Ngũ Lão near the Ben Thanh Market. And boy was it busy. After the peaceful beach town of Mui Ne, Saigon exploited all our senses. Noise, smells, sights, all very overwhelming as soon as we stepped off the bus.
We were staying at Luan Vu Hotel in the main backpacker area which was a short walk from the bus station. We found our way eventually, a little confused as the hotel was down an alley but upon arriving the staff were absolutely fabulous. Unfortunately there was a little bit of a mix up with our room – they were doing repairs because the room had been leaking, but they quickly transferred us to a related hotel around the corner and gave us a huge upgrade to a family room for the entirety of our stay. So we ended up at Phan Lan hotel and they transferred all our belongings as well as us, on a motorbike even though it was just around the corner. They were so sincerely sorry and did everything they could to help accomodate us, even following up with us via email to check everything was satisfactory, it was lovely!
Once we’d checked in, we explored the area around Bùi Viện – the main backpacker street. We were keen to do a trip to the floating markets the next day so went and visited a few travel agents to get a few prices to compare. We found some cheap dinner around and had a couple of beers at some bars along the street and settled in for the night.
The next day we did take a trip to the floating village and surrounds – covering Cai Be floating market and Vinh Long city, exploring life on the Mekong. We ended up booking it with our hotel because it was a reasonable price and included a pick up and drop off instead of having to meet somewhere else early in the morning. The trip began with an arduous 3 hour drive in a bus (comfortable, thank god) to Cai Be. As we didn’t leave until around 8am, we didn’t arrive to port for our motorboat headed towards the “floating market” until about 11am, well usually there is a floating market in Cai Be, but only until about 10am….so we missed the majority of it, as everyone would who takes this tour. We did see a couple of vestiges of the morning’s market however it was largely underwhelming.
Nonetheless, it was interesting seeing how people did live on the river.
After we’d chugged through the remnants of the market on the motorboat we were instructed to get off to and we headed to a “coconut candy and crispy rice cake factory”. The coconut candy was actually quite tasty and I bought a packet of the vanilla flavour as a souvenir and to tide me over as a snack over the next couple of months – who knows when I’d crave something sweet. Eventually we were allowed to leave and we headed to a bee and honey farm that served us free tea (read free, but strongly encouraged to purchase honey). There’s something I really don’t like about tours- all the herding and waiting. Most of the group had had enough of the rambling about the businesses that had been thrust upon us since getting off the boat however there were a few still keen to hear more, thus we waited and waited, plus we were stranded on a small island with no form of communication and other option than wait it out.
We them clambered into small row boats in groups, which was probably the most enjoyable part of the tour. We slid down the small canals of Vinh Long city on the river with our driver pushing the boat along the murky brown water with his two paddles. It was beautifully serene and peaceful. It was extremely interesting too seeing people living right on the river, with their houses on stilts for when the water level rise in the wet season. After far too many hours spent on various forms of water vessel in the past couple of weeks, this really was an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so.
Eventually we pulled into the edge of the river where the small row boats would dock and we got off to head towards the lunch spot. Lunch was at a family’s house clearly linked with the tour business but it was tasty enough so no complaints. There were also some bicycles to explore the surrounding area after eating, which was a bit of fun. We ended up riding them all the way back to where we had to get back on the motorboat, it was nice to have a breeze in our hair and the rusty old gear-less gadgets just made it all the more enjoyable and laughable. Another boat ride and another 3 hours on the bus led us eventually back to HCMC. All in all it was an enjoyable tour. It showed a side of Vietnamese life I hadn’t seen before, and you could see the hardship these families had to deal with wrestling the forces of nature whenever the tides rose during the wet season. Although we had shameless advertising rammed down our faces most of the trip for various businesses, I didn’t mind in the end. It was nice to get away from the noise and pollution of the big city and definitely worth doing.
We got back to the busy capital of the South in the late afternoon. We relaxed for a while in the hotel and then hit up Bùi Viện for dinner and a few drinks once again. We decided upon a Vietnamese grill place where you could choose a couple of very cheap meat and vegetable skewers/chops to cook and they would grill them and provide you with some noodles or rice to go with them. It was absolutely delicious, and when paired with a couple of Bia Saigon’s went down delightfully. A couple of beers later at a neighbouring water hole and we were extremely content, another day well spent.
The next day we decided to visit the Cui Cui Tunnels for a half day tour and then do a bit of sightseeing around HCMC considering we’d only really checked out the backpacker area. We were on another group tour to Cui Cui Tunnels. Similarly, during our toilet stops on the way there, we were once again bombarded with a few factories where we were encouraged to buy things. This one at least sold handicrafts made by individuals with disabilities and affected by Agent Orange so it felt like a decent cause not just exploiting us for the sake of it. Nonetheless, neither my friend or I bought anything except some Pringles for a snack on the bus. All in all it was a 1.5-hour bus ride to the tunnels. For those that are unaware the Cui Cui tunnels are an underground 120-mile long network of tunnels used throughout the Vietnam war connecting the area with Ho Chi Minh City. Such tunnels were made throughout Vietnam to keep the Viet Cong army safe from American soldiers and included traps and other camouflage to avoid discovery by the enemy armies.
Its as a really interesting tour, you could even take part in bits of it, which really showed how hard life was for these soldiers. There is now a section of the tunnels that they have expanded in width and is open to the public so people can try and imagine what it was like. However, although it was slightly claustrophobic and completely dark for a split second for us, these soldiers lived for years within these tunnels and it simply incomprehensible to think how they all survived without significant water, food or air.
We returned to HCMC soon after midday and had some lunch near the hotel. So much delicious street food to try! After a bit of rest we headed to the War Remnants Museum. Unfortunately, it was our last full day in HCMC and the museum actually closed about an hour after we got there (silly us decided we’d try and trek all the way there and were utterly exhausted in heat, so this took us far longer than it should have). Our ticket actually allowed us to return the next morning because we bought it so late in the day, but we sadly ran out of time and had other errands to run instead. Regardless, the museum was great. So many images depicting the hardship endured by the whole country throughout the last century, it was truely devastating. Although you see this whichever country you go to and you see it shaped so they are seen in a positive light, there is no denying the countless images illustrating the deep-rooted effects Agent Orange had on the people of Vietnam.
After the sobering day spent engrossing ourselves in war history, we went for a nice stroll around some of the other sights in the city. We walked past the Royal Palace on our way to the Notre Dame Cathedral and Post Office and stopped by the Ben Than Market on the way home. All in all it was very efficient few days in HCMC. In the morning my friend was leaving very early to head to Singapore on the way home and I was sticking around for another day running a few errands before my long trip to Kathmandu where another crazy adventure would begin.
We both enjoyed Vietnam, although we probably tried to do a bit too much in our short 2.5 weeks, it was a lot of fun. A lot of Pho, a lot of cocktails and a lot of history.