I had been looking forward to going to Vietnam for a very long time. When I travelled through South East Asia in 2015 it was the next stop on my list but unfortunately I was too poor to extend my travels (as traveling as a 19 year old goes). We were there for 5 days and once the ship was docked, everyone went off on their adventures.
HO CHI MINH CITY
One of the first things I noticed was that the Vietnamese LOVE their coffee! There had to be about 8 coffee shops on every block and the coffee sure is strong. Traditional Vietnamese coffee is quite thick or there is drip coffee, then you some condensed milk is added for a little sweetness. I don’t think I have ever been so caffeinated before, I thought I was wired after one cup.
A couple friends and I spent some time in the backpacker’s district which is full of restaurants and bars, all quiet during the day but lively and full of people as soon as the sun starts to go down. Street entertainers and food carts line the streets making it a fun environment to spend the evening.
The traffic in Vietnam is crazy and can best be described as a swarm of cars and motorbikes that don’t stop for anything but go around any obstacle in their path. As a bit of advice before getting into port some of the students from Vietnam told us “the only way to cross the street is to say a prayer and walk straight until you make it to the other side,” and this truly is the best way to do it. You can’t run, change pace or stop but just have to hope that the cars will all move around you. There were so many times where I would cross the street and then laugh once I made it to the curb on the other side because I was surprised to still be alive.
The first day, some friends and I booked a tour of the tunnels. We took a two and half hour bus ride out of the city to where the museum was. There wasn’t much else around the area besides rice patties and some farms. The tunnels were used during the “Vietnamese War” (I am using quotations around this because the USA calls it the Vietnam War, while the Vietnamese call it the American War) for the Vietnamese people to escape, travel between countries, and on occasion live for short periods of time. We walked through the forest until we came upon a small space covered with leaves. He asked us to all gather round, and then he brushed some leaves away to reveal a secret door to the tunnels. I would never have seen the opening if our guide hadn’t pointed it out. When he opened the door he jumped into the very small, wooden frame in the ground, covered the door with leaves, and then lowered it over his head. Once again, we couldn’t see the secret door. We took turns looking inside the tunnel, and it was amazing how small the hole was; it couldn’t have been wider than my shoulders. Later in the tour we went through a tunnel that they had widened for tourists to go through; even hunched over, my shoulders and back were rubbing against the sides. I cannot imagine having to go through such a confined space like that to survive, and yet it was what saved many lives during a time of extraordinary violence. I learned a lot about what soldiers and civilians had to do to survive, and some of the tricks that Vietnamese soldiers used to protect themselves or mislead American soldiers.
There are a lot of museums around Ho Chi Minh city. We went to the history museum which was filled with different artifacts about the history of humans in Indochina. We learned how the trade affected those living in and around Vietnam starting in the mid-1800’s. We watched a water puppet show (our reason for going to the museum) which is a tradition in Vietnam as well as several other Asian cultures. The stage is set in a pond with a bamboo curtain across it. The puppets are attached to sticks while the puppeteers remain behind the curtain. The puppets used to be a way to entertain royalty but have since been used to spread tradition, stories, and tales. My music professor recommended it and if you are ever in Asia I would suggest it too. It was a very exciting and entertaining show that told the story of daily life in Vietnam.
This is the first generation in Vietnam to be without war in over 500 years which is hard to believe but you can see evidence of this nearly everywhere you go. I toured the Independence Palace where the president lived in when the tanks knocked down the front doors, and visited the War Remnants Museum. The Remnants Museum was 4 stories tall and displayed pictures of the horrors that occurred during the Vietnam War as well as artifacts. I was happy that I went but it was unbelievable to see pictures of things that (at the time) were a part of every day life for those living through the war. I was most taken aback by a room dedicated to all the people affected by the chemical bombs that the American’s dropped. At the time, chemical warfare was illegal, however the American’s were using chemicals such as Agent Orange. Millions of people were effected by the herbicidal chemical, and walking through the streets of Vietnam, you can see the lasting effects today. It was a very saddening tour, and I cannot imagine what the Vietnamese people went through.
AS THE CITY WAKES
A friend and I registered in a Semester at Sea program called “As the City Wakes” where we started off the day by doing Tai Chi in the park with the community elders. There are many green spaces and work out parks throughout the city that are filled with people every morning either participating in a group workout activity or getting active themselves. 6 elders led our class and they taught us how to breath and move energy throughout our body during a morning workout. It was a great way to start the morning, wake up, and get moving. After the class we enjoyed a walk through the largest park in Ho Chi Minh city and got to see what morning life looks like for many locals.
After, we had Pho for breakfast and walked through a local community to see more of Vietnamese daily life. Grocery shopping is done at markets where stalls are set up on the ground to display the variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, and sea food. People purchase groceries for their meals daily so everything is fresh. We walked for so long that even our tour guide got lost and had to ask for directions. I really enjoyed getting to see how most people in the city live.
Deltas are large rivers that carry water and sediment to the ocean, and are home to a wide variety of life. The Mekong Delta in Vietnam is home to millions of people. We saw floating villages and markets; there are also many shops around the outskirts of the river. Unfortunately, due to the expansion of roadways and travel becoming easier throughout Vietnam, the floating villages and markets along the Delta are expected to die out. We had the chance to visit one of the shops where they make products such as rice-pop, coconut toffee, snake alcohol, rice paper, other snacks, paintings, cards, fans, chop sticks, and all sorts of knick-knacks.
We stayed in a beautiful eco lodge along the river where we had lots of time to relax. Our group also participated in a cooking class where we learned to make spring rolls, won tons, and sweet-and-sour chicken. In the morning we went on a bike ride through the surrounding villages and stopped at a few shops along the way to see how they make other products. It was such a beautiful environment.
I hope to spend a few weeks in the future backpacking through Vietnam. It is such a large country that I know there is so much more to see. I look forward to going back.
Thanks for following my adventures,