CURRENT LOCATION: Dalat, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City is insane. Motorbikes. Everywhere. Millions of them. The traffic laws seem to be, in order of importance:
1) Whenever you are approaching someone going slower than you beep your horn a lot.
2) Doesn't really matter which side of the road you drive on, but if you're on the wrong side, just go a bit slower... Or use the sidewalk. In the event that you do use the sidewalk, rule 1 applies for pedestrians too.
3) Red lights mean stop, but if you can't be bothered stopping or are in a big hurry then don't worry about it - see rule 1 for successful red light running.
4) When approaching a roundabout, close your eyes and toot... Good luck.
You get it.
Let's just say, I'm eternally grateful that I did not have to drive in this city, as my blood pressure would have been through the roof.
On our first day we decided to suck it up after our not-so-nice introduction to the city (see our previous blog post) and hit the town in search of some culture. We walked to the Reunification Palace as our first stop. This palace was built after the original Royal Palace was bombed during the war. It was full Asian motifs (Japanese, Chinese, and European influences) and 1960s interior decorating. It was pretty cool to see some of the rooms where the most important figures during the Vietnam-American War (this is the most PC term I think...) did their bidding. In addition, we sat and watched the most amazing piece of black and white film/propaganda explaining the various historical happenings in the lead up to, during and after the invasion of the imperialist Americans. This included a brief mention of Vietnam's independence from the imperialist French prior to the war. It was difficult to understand and also, the nature of all "documentary" films produced about Vietnam-American war is such that there is never unbiased, objective reporting. There is always a vested interest or motive. So while I did get some insight into the order of events there was a lot of seemingly unnecessary rhetoric and slander thrown in there.
After this we decided to go to the War Remnants Museum as it was very close by. The building itself was much bigger than I expected. The courtyard was filled with Vietnamese and US war machines, including tanks, fighter jets, jeeps and weapons that have been recovered and restored. The museum experience was extremely interesting. First off, there were hundreds of tourists also visiting the museum, which was to be expected. There were three floors, and the suggested itinerary was to walk all the way to the top and follow the rooms in order 1-7, working your way down all three floors. This made for a very slow moving process. The curator of the museum had a unique approach, which was basically to cram as many different photos, displays, artefacts, plaques and information boards in each room as possible. This compounded the traffic jam, as each guest read and examined the countless exhibits. Finally, the nature of Vietnam, being a socialist republic (we're still coming to grips with that really means...hopefully we will shed some light on this in a future post) means that the government has a very big influence on what and how public exhibits can be presented to the general public. This made for an exclusively anti-USA /anti-Southern Vietnamese experience. Now, it's probably important for me to just go ahead and say now that most of what the USA forces did in Vietnam was horrendous. In fact, most of it, including the fact that they were involved in the first place, was awful. However, if I had known absolutely nothing about the war, I would have come away from this museum thinking that the USA invaded Vietnam in an attempt to murder Vietnamese people and take over the country. There was literally no mention of the fact that the country had in fact been split BEFORE the US became involved and that there was fighting and tension between the North and South to begin with. This museum could have been called the "Look how awful the Americans were when they invaded our perfect country and guess what, we drove out those imperialists and won" museum. That probably was too long so they stuck with War Remnants Museum. Overall, this was a pretty negative experience. To summarise, the main exhibits included: an homage to the photographers who documented the war and the crimes committed by the U.S., an armoury of all the horrible weapons used by the U.S., an entire room dedicated the how the U.S. used agent orange defoliant on the forests and jungles**, and the bottom floor was dedicated to the modern Vietnamese army and what is happening between the USA and Vietnam now.
**This was a really, really, really shitty thing for the US to do - and I DO think it is extremely important that people are shown the horrible effects of this on both ecosystem and the people who reside in affected areas. I found it deeply upsetting and difficult to see so many individuals and families who have suffered as a result of this thoughtless act. Also, from a biological point of view, the virtually irreversible damage that was done to many of Vietnam's diverse habitats was horrific.
Anyways, Sam and I were exhausted after about an hour in this museum and decided to call it a day. We stopped off for dinner and I tried the tradition Vietnamese pancake Banh Xeo. It was a bit strange when the waitress brought me a huge plate of fresh herbs and this massive pancake approximately 60cm wide, filled with all sorts of goodies (shrimps, mystery meat, rice, veges, sprouts etc...). I asked her to please show me how I was supposed to eat it - if you're interested, you used the big herb leaves to wrap up a bit of pancake, kinda like a burrito, then dip it in a mystery tasty sauce. It was a unique experience, even though they were probably laughing at me in the other room.
The next day we allocated as an admin day with the knowledge that we were going to attempt to find some pick up Ultimate Frisbee at 8.30pm. So we sorted bus tickets and accommodation for our next stop, Da Lat. At about 7pm, we started the long walk into District 1 (about 4.5km) to find Tao Dan park. We stopped off for some Vietnamese Italian food, which was surprising good (but we were starving so it was hard to know for sure) on the way into the city. We arrived at what we were sure was the right place, but it was full of silly soccer players. Eventually we spotted the comforting sight of a white plastic disc floating through the air and we approached. In true ultimate frisbee community spirit, they were more than happy for us to join in their training session and then play pick-up games with them til late into the night. It was really great to get some exercise, even if the heat and humidity brought me close to passing out. The people were all really friendly and outgoing, which was nice to see as this was our first ultimate frisbee encounter in SE Asia and we weren't sure what to expect (well, deep down we knew they'd be cool!). Tired and super sore, we flagged a cab to take us home as it was way past bedtime and we had an early start the next day. This taxi experience was much better than our first, getting us home in no time and costing 30,000VND or $1.50 US... Nice!
On our final day in HCMC we decide to flag the Cu Chi tunnels as we read that these were tacky, tasteless, crowded and most tours involved 4+ hours of bus riding and 45 minutes at the tunnels. Instead, we found Sophie's Art Tours. This tour was incredible. Sophie was busy with "something more important than today's tour" (Sam reckons Sophie is pregnant....woooo #gossip #startingrumours) so we were to spend our morning with her partner Stuart. He was so fantastic! He's an English guy who has been living in HCMC for 6 years and works with his partner Sophie who developed the tour. The premise of the tour is to gain insight into the history of Saigon (now HCMC) and Vietnam through the works, lives and stories of the artists who lived here. He was super knowledgeable and an extremely engaging speaker. We both came away from the tour having learnt so much about the history of Vietnam, and the how the art scene has evolved as a result of events that have shaped the country. This also gave us a better understanding of why the The War Remnants Museum was the way it was. We learnt about the governmental control and regulations that they place on public galleries and exhibits. I cannot praise Sophie's Art Tour enough. It was an awesome way to finish our time in HCMC.
While in HCMC we decide to skip out on the beach towns of Nha Trang and Mui Ne, which were our planned next stops, and go to the rural mountain city of Dalat. We bought tickets on our first, and probably not last, sleeper bus (even though we were leaving at 8am). This was yet another unique experience. These buses have seats that fully recline so you are virtually horizontal and can sleep.... Hence the name. However, we must have booked too late and got shoved at the back of the bus, where the roof was a good 10cm shorter. This meant, unlike everyone else on the bus, we could not choose to sit upright or lie down. We were lying down. For the next 8 hours. After the initial claustrophobia disappeared, it was actually rather comfortable. We just listened to podcasts and slept. It was so easy to fall asleep...despite our bus driver being a total maniac. But because we were sardined into the back of the bus we could barely see anything, coupled with our earphones you could almost completely ignore the fact that he was overtaking multiple overfilled trucks on the wrong side of the road and tooting his horn every 5 seconds! Brilliant!
Dalat is amazing and cool, literally, with only a high of 25°C today! We even put on long sleeves last night! YESSSS! Our accommodation here is fantastic. But I think I need to wrap this up and I'll leave that for the next post.
Lots of love,
Z & S
(Original post date: 22nd March 2015)