It is hard to imagine that this place would be thriving more if South Vietnam and America had won the ill-fated war in Vietnam. What we saw in our time in Ho Chi Minh City – which they still call Saigon – was a thriving, vibrant, very cool city.
We arrived after an easy flight from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A car from our hostel – The New Saigon Hostel – picked us up and took us straight to the center of this pulsating city. Our tiny street was a constant blur of cars, motor bikes and people. All along our street, at all times of the day and night, there was a steady stream of travelers and locals, old and young, jamming the sidewalks, clubs and restaurants.
Our first night in town we wandered up the street and we were a bit over whelmed by the crush of noise and lights (and ladies looking for company). We settled for a little Mexican place right across the street from us. I know, I know… really? Mexican food in Saigon? In our defense I would like to point out – a little comfort food on a travel day is a good thing, it has been way over 100 days since we have seen chips and salsa, it had an IPA on tap that looked promising and it was full of people sitting in the outdoor patio. It rocked. And the beer was good too – first decent beer with any real flavor to it since Australia. I had two.
One of the key missions to our time in HCMC / Saigon was to visit the Vietnam War Museum (also called the War Remanent Museum – which is better than the name from the 1980s which had been something like ‘The Museum of French and American War Crimes and Atrocities Committed by Their Puppets”). We had heard a lot of mixed reviews, as you can imagine with such an emotional topic and taking into account that the exhibits are decidedly (by all accounts) very one-sided. All history students know that the winners always get to write the history. We had prepped the kids that it might be hard to see some of it but it was important to understand the war to better understand Vietnam and its relationship with America.
It certainly is a one-sided graphic telling of unspeakable acts done to civilians during war by American forces. I was surprised by the large and amazing collection of war journalist photos and tributes. I think that the Vietnamese government takes the position that it was the photos and stories of war that helped their cause and shaped public opinion about the war and, as they see it, their battle for independence. For them, it started in the 1950’s trying to get rid of the French and then of course the American involvement, all the way through Nixon and 1975. It is hard not to look at HCMC today ,and really the country as a whole, and not think that we were on the wrong side of history. I also can’t imagine the struggle of young American men fighting in the weather and the jungle here. John and Kate were particularly impacted by the Agent Orange exhibits and the stories of related birth defects and on-going impact on families. It was great that our hostel had a three hour “happy hour”, where Judi and I could grab a Saigon Beer from the refrigerator and just sit on the front step together discussing what we saw and processing the costs of war.
Walking back from the Museum we had the good fortune to meet an American family who is living in Japan currently and have kids the same ages as Kate and John. As fate would have it, the guys from both families all made it across the street in one wave and the women folk all waited for the next opening (crossing the street here is really an art of survival). We agreed to meet up the next day at their hotel, the famous Intercontinental – where journalists, army officers and spies regularly held court during the war years. It is a beautiful place and the bars radiate history. But the kids headed straight for the pool – which was awesome too. There was a spectacular view from the pool and the kids loved spending time and getting to grab dinner with their wonderful new friends, Seth and Lindsey. We plan to see them in Tokyo!
We also decided to do a tour of the Mekong Delta. It is steeped in history and is the bread (rice) basket of Vietnam. The day was pretty touristy but we knew that as we boarded the big bus. John promptly fell asleep on the drive from HCMC to the Delta area. We saw the obligatory big Buddha (a happy, chubby guy that is popular in Vietnam statutes). But the highlight for all of us was the canoe ride through the jungle before lunch; but Judi holding a giant python was a close second.
John’s thoughts on Mekong Delta trip
It was fun. We stopped for tea. I liked it because it was sweet and honey flavored. I stuck my finger in a honey comb with a bunch of bees in it. I didn’t get stung. The honey tasted really fresh and good. There was a place that made coconut candy. I really liked the candy. The coconut candy was my favorite part of the trip because my parents bought a package of chocolate and coconut flavored candy and I loved watching how it was made. I thought it was cool because they hand-made everything. The day went fast. The lunch was really good. I liked the spring rolls and the rice. The flavor was good. My mom held a python. I thought it was really funny because I thought it was going around her neck. I liked going on the long canoe trip. It felt like we were in the wild. There was nothing around us. On the bus, we heard a big sound like the tire popped on our way back. We didn’t know what it was. We pulled over and the bus driver got out to check the tires. He came back in and said there was nothing wrong with our bus. We saw a bunch of other busses and trucks looking at their tires to see what happened.
Kate’s thoughts on Mekong Delta trip
I really liked the canoe ride, even though I kept taking pictures and tipping the boat. After we went to a factory that made coconut candy, we got to see how it was made, just with three machines. The candy was very good, we bought two kinds, coconut with chocolate and just coconut, but they pretty much tasted the same. When we were there, we saw another American family. The family had really annoying kids who didn’t listen. They kept trying to use a machine even when the workers told them not to. Their parents wouldn’t do anything. They were greedy when they got samples of the candy. It was really frustrating to me.
When we went to get lunch, it was really interesting that there were animals on exhibit. There were alligators in a pen but they were creepy. At lunch they served a fish, whole, standing up in a display. It had fins, scales and eyes…completely whole. But, it still tasted good. The singers that sang Vietnamese songs, their voices were very scratchy, and the women were wearing traditional clothes that were hot pink. The fruit that they served us was not very good, we had some in Australia and Thailand. I thought that the spicy salt was spicy sugar…it was really salty on not very sweet fruit.
As we wound down our time in HCMC, April 6th came along. That means that exactly 13 years ago we were holding our baby girl for the first time. Our barely five pounder has grown into an amazingly adventurous, kind and smart young lady. Birthdays on the road – when you are away from friends and family and you can’t really have any more stuff because our bags are already full – we feared might be a bit of a disappointment. So while we enjoyed our Delta adventure on her birthday, we wanted to make sure that dinner would be her choice. As part of her birthday wishes, we wandered around the corner to find bubble tea for her and Judi sat on the front porch of the hostel.
There, Judi struck up a conversation with a wonderful woman, Hang Lee, the owner of the New Saigon Hostel. She and Judi talked about their shared struggles to start a family. With the help of mysterious Chinese medicines, Hang was able to have a son and is soon due to have a daughter. When Judi explained she was waiting for us to return in order to take Kate out for her 13th birthday dinner, Hang asked if Judi could wait ten minutes. Of course she would wait; and then off flew the guy who works at the hostel on his motorbike. In no time he is back with four boxes for us; no payment accepted, just the shared bond of two mothers helping one another, even if they had just met moments before. It is this sort of thing that makes travel a blessing and makes you realize how similar we all are. I hope leaders all over the world can remember this simple fact before anyone is ever sent into war again.