That's the headline I would have used if I was smart and had written a blog post before leaving for Vietnam! But I couldn't let a good pun go to waste.
Technically I will be back in Saigon the day after tomorrow, anyway, so maybe on some level it works ... OK, no it doesn't. Moving on.
I arrived in Vietnam on Tuesday and had a very smooth arrival here, thanks to having done some research about the right bus company to take (Giant Ibis for the win!). The process couldn't have been easier: I bought the ticket online, Giant Ibis came and picked me up at my hotel in Phnom Penh, we left almost exactly on time, and arrived at the Vietnam border around noon. Our passports had been collected prior to letting us out at a café just across the Cambodian border and they were processed while we ate lunch. Easy! Then we just hopped back on the bus, drove about 20 feet, got off with our luggage and made our way through passport control in about 2 seconds.
The only two hiccups (well, three hiccups) in my day were that first, I had started to not feel well the night before, probably because I bravely ate random I-have-no-idea-what-it-is food I bought from a lady cooking stuff outside in Phnom Penh. Nothing serious, just stomach being weird. Secondly, upon waking on Tuesday morning, I did something weird where I bent down to put something in my suitcase and pulled a muscle (or did who knows what), putting me in a great deal of pain. Again, nothing serious, just more one of those "omg what is wrong with me, I just injured myself bending over!" moments. The third hiccup was that I most definitely got ripped off by my taxi from the bus drop-off to the hotel and overpaid by about $8 (the total fare was over $10 and it should have cost closer to $2). Anyhoo.
So after whimpering around my hotel room for an hour, I decided to venture out into the insanity to see the immediate neighborhood -- chaos! Amazing, vibrant, beautiful chaos, but chaos nonetheless. Motos everywhere! People everywhere! Cars everywhere! People selling stuff everywhere! I successfully crossed the street a few times then slunk back to my hotel room to recoup. (For the unitiated, crossing the street here is something of an art form as you have to bravely step in front of speeding motos and weave your way through the onslaught of vehicles unless you are magically at an intersection that actually has red lights. And while I was glad to see Ho Chi Minh City has sidewalks -- a major sign of civilization after Phnom Penh -- don't discount drivers using the sidewalks to circumvent the heavy moto traffic. I was walking along thinking, "This is great! Sidewalks!" only to have a moto graze my arm as he passed by quickly next to me.)
My friend Cindy had put me in touch with a friend of hers who's been living here on and off for years, so I went to meet him at a restaurant nearby for a quick bite to eat (my stomach ailment and back pain was kind of interferring). But, although travelling solo is fun in a lot of ways (being the Master of Your Own Destiny, for one thing), the hardest thing for me is eating alone. I don't mind eating lunch alone or breakfast alone, but I do enjoy sitting down to dinner in the company of other human beings and not being starred at like I'm a weird pathetic weirdo, or given a look of pity for being a thirtysomething spinster forced to feed herself with no one to talk to.
The next day, I slept in, then headed off to (unsuccessfully) find a banh mi sandwich (I ended up wandering around for an hour and finally got a bowl of soup) and then to the War Remnants Museum. I'm not going to get into tons of details here as it was super depressing. Obviously, it's a one-sided view of the War in Vietnam, but there's a lot of food for thought about the number of civilizians and military personnel who were killed, on both sides, plus the devastating consequences of the use of Agent Orange, among other things. One thing that definitely stands out between learning about the recent history of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos is how much the U.S. has meddled and also the seeming disregard the U.S. has had for the impact on civilian life in these places (in reading about the events leading up to the Khmer Rouge's takeover of Cambodia, you learn that the U.S. heavily bombed Cambodia during some of its campaign in Vietnam -- I can't remember why -- resulting in literally thousands and thousands of civilian deaths and driving large numbers of the Cambodian population to fight with the Khmer Rouge as a result... this is just one example). I know things are usually more complicated than meets the eye, but having the numbers be driven home about the loss of life that's happened as a result of U.S. foreign policy is pretty sad -- especially when the everyday people you are meeting in these countries are literally some of the nicest, kindest, most gracious people I've ever encountered.
After the War Remants Museum, I checked out Reunification Palace, the former Presidential Palace of South Vietnam, which was left basically exactly as it was when South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam in 1975. All the original furnishings, all the original rooms -- and it's all appointed in amazing 1960s décor, which I just loved seeing, like a time capsule from the era just perfectly capturing what was en vogue and most fashionable of the times.
From there, I walked back in the heat to my hotel, slowly taking in the life here in The City Formerly Known As Saigon. This place is hip! It's cool! It's filled with old Vietnamese establishments and trendy chains (hello, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf), tiny little shops stacked to the ceiling selling everything imaginable (I passed one selling literally two hundred different kinds of tennis rackets), interesting boutiques, upscale restaurants, big name fashion brands, little old ladies hand making waffles on the street. It feels like a melting pot of new and old ways of life, all coming together in a busy, bustling, colorful way.
If it sounds like I love it here, that's because I do. So far, it's the first place I've been on the trip where I could actually see myself living. I guess I'd have to learn to ride a motorbike, but that wouldn't be so bad.
Anyway, last night I met up with other friends-of-a-friend for dinner. I said I wanted to go have street food, so we headed off to District 4 and feasted on a ton of seafood, including clams, mussels, oysters and octopus. (They tried to talk me into eating that Vietnamese delicy of a baby duck still in the shell ... I am a pretty adventurous eater but baby duck in a shell? I can't go for that, no can do.
We decided to have a drink and cabbed it to a place called Broma, a tiny rooftop bar surrounded by giant highrises. It's up an unmarked stairway behind a cafe -- you just push the unmarked door open and go up another flight of stairs and find yourself in the tiniest of little bars, where another set of stairs takes you to the rooftop patio. After a drink there, one of the guys said his friend had just opened a restaurant, so we headed back closer to my hotel on foot and went to the restaurant where we had a bit of wine and I soaked in the ambiance (French-run Vietnamese cuisine place with charming décor featuring travel posters from the '20s and '30s for Indochine).
Today I admittedly was quite lazy, savoring the joys of a private hotel room as tomorrow I head on a group trip to the Mekong Delta and will do a homestay, and from there, I need to be mindful of my budget and "do some time" in hostel dorms. I've been balancing cheap with not-totally-cheap, and while the more expensive places are necessary for my sanity, I have to focus on not blowing all my money in one month of travel! I did manage to find a banh mi today, and wandered around for a few hours, finding my way to the French Colonial-era Post Office and Opera building, getting lost, then finding the Mariamman Hindu Temple (a happy accident), and eventually getting an hour long Thai-Vietnamese massage for a whopping $17.
So that is the news for now, I know this is not my most interesting post but I thought I'd give a quick update while I have some peace and quiet ... I'll be in a hostel back here in Ho Chi Minh on Saturday night, then hostelling it up in Hoi An for a few. Until then, chúc ngủ ngon!