i like the idea of going to a place once, being immersed in it, being a tourist as well as getting off the beaten track, taking a gazillion pictures and locking it away for the future (hi throwbacks).
But not Vietnam.
I didn’t just immerse myself. I submerged myself and now I can’t get out. There are only a handful of places that can make you feel just right. Let’s use our millennial and new age term to put this into perspective: A vibe.
I probably said this before but Sydney was at the top of this list. In a short four months, it felt like home and I still feel an urge and a yearning to go back. Vietnam has changed that. Even before setting foot into the country, the signs were all there.
I think a lot of people are apprehensive about travelling alone. Even with all the tech in our hands, namely google maps and maps.me, it can be daunting. And I’ll admit I’ve been in a few situations where company would’ve nice but if you give me a choice, I’d choose solo travel with my eyes shut.
The thrill is in meeting new people and hearing their stories and encounters. More often than not, you’re bound to have similarities. just like Rey who happened to be my seat partner on the bus from Cambodia to Vietnam. We both lost our passports in odd countries and missed the visa stickers and stamps from our past travels immensely. The seven hour journey was spent in endless conversations about travel and life. Aside from both of us being expats in Cambodia, we were also of similar age and had similar ideas and interests about what travel should be (or how WE like to travel) and last but not least, Trevor Noah. Period.
By the time we entered Vietnam and I got my first glimpse of the canals and old men casually fishing, my sixth sense seemed to have awoken and I immediately felt right. at. home.
In hindsight, I should’ve exchanged numbers or emails with Rey but in a way (you could call it a romanticized notion), isn’t it nice to just leave a good thing as it was and remember it? I do hope I bump into her in Phnom Penh to be honest! But she was like the sign. The sign telling me in its boldest manner that Vietnam was going to be one of my most memorable trips to date. So thank you Rey, wherever you are, for the conversation and your recommendations.
Phnom Penh is not a pedestrian friendly city and if you’re like me and like to walk or bicycle freely, it’s basically hell. I tweeted about it once only to have someone tell me “wait till you get to Vietnam”. So my first agenda on google? “Is walking in Saigon/Hanoi a good idea”. Apparently it wasn’t.
“Crossing the road in Saigon can be a nightmare. The trick is to disconnect the part of your brain that processes fear. Be Moses. Walk slowly and confidently - the sea of motor scooters will part every time”.
I took this review to heart. You remember the “I am one with the force, the force is one with me” quote from Rogue One? I made a new one: “I am Moses. Moses is me”. My first try at being Moses utterly failed and I froze in the middle of the road. Not a great look. But the second attempt was a golden moment and I even shouted it out aloud and snapped it to a friend saying “I AM MOSES”. While this mind frame helped me through the entire trip, I have to break it to you that it is not as terrible as people make it sound. After four months in Phnom Penh, the sidewalks of Saigon resembled four lanes.
I missed out on tickets to the water puppet show so my first night in Saigon was spent walking around the city, popping into L’Uisine Dong Khoi, H&M, ending up in what I would later learn was the Walking Street and winding up in Cuba La Casa Del Mojito for Flamenco Night and drinking probably the best Sangria to date. Good music, great strangers for company and a great drink couldn’t have been a better way to sign off day one. Mode of transportation? My two working feet.
I activated tourist mode for day two, crying and sobbing my way around the War Remnants Museum and feeling utterly depressive. We’re all aware of the war and we all have our stance on it, right or wrong, but there’s no comparison to hearing and reading about it in the country that was affected by it. The tales are daunting. A lot of what I read online accused the museum of being biased and one sided. I do stand with the majority in saying that the Vietnam War was America’s fault but a war doesn’t really have an innocent side to be fair and it has to be said: I am a huge supporter and admirer of Senator John McCain who served his country in the Vietnam War. I just think that history is always open to interpretations depending on personal views. No one is ever accurate.
Four generations later, the after effects of Agent Orange still persists. I think this is a harsh reminder to Americans who would like to forget what was done during the war.
This isn’t a museum for you to go and take a selfie and muck about. You really need to be prepared for the information and the photographs that you’re going to be faced with. It’s overwhelming to say the very least.
Just to repeat myself, Saigon is VERY walkable. Yet, what makes the walks even more enjoyable (in all the glory of the heat and humidity) are the gardens and parks everywhere in the city. It’s a beautiful relief. I hadn’t realise how much I was missing the scenes of greenery and foliage until I found myself walking into all the parks I crossed. I wasn’t even people watching or taking photographs. It was just about being in that surrounding.
I checked off the Saigon Post Office after meandering through one of the gardens. I had prepared myself for the crowd but I wasn’t prepared for it’s magnificence. Don’t get me wrong: I am all about post offices, letters and things and I knew how iconic it was. But really. Was French architecture really going to blow me away? Short answer, yes. I even bought stamps. And took way too many pictures and videos (more than I would like to admit). Nevertheless, none of these were going to make an impression on me the way the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum did.
With an entry fee of 10, 000 VDN, I lost myself within the quiet walls of the museum for a good two hours and to top that, it even began raining. Let’s just say that my notion of romance revolves around me being alone in old ruins. Clearly, some loves really do last a life time (oh history, you’ve got a hold on me).
The museum is divided and made up of three buildings housing everything from paintings, sculptures and ceramics. I even walked into a very propaganda-esque exhibition as well as one that seemed to be inspired by Monet’s waterlilies. The style, although not very impressionist, was still recognizable. They have a collection of both international and Vietnamese artists and I thought some of the paintings were rather moving. One in particular has stuck with me. It’s obviously a depiction of the war but it’s very raw. It’s not trying hard with the colours or elements. It’s a straightforward tale told in a painting (as you will see). The building and floor housing the ceramics is basically #Goals with it’s colour way of pastel pinks. Pantone swatches ain’t got nothing on it. I had a brief conversation with the museum security guard as I was trying to do some exploration and going into a no entry zone. Yang said he had been working in the museum for 15 years and he loves it. He even comes in sometimes in his off days. He was curious about Cambodia and the country’s progress but eventually told me that I should move to Vietnam and come visit visit the museum again. Halfway there, Yang. Halfway there.
The only way this day could’ve been more perfect was if Chelsea had won the game. It was lovely to catch up with an old friend who, as fate would have it, was an Arsenal fan. Clearly the football Gods didn’t want us to be depressive company so a draw I reckon was fair. The night however didn’t end there. We ended up at a birthday party celebration of his friend in, to quote my friend, a very Vietnamese club/pub with very loud dance music with *that* beat and helium. Let's shelve this under 'cultural education'. A heavy downpour is how the night ended as if to say ‘welcome to Vietnam’.
I spent my third day in Saigon with my friend with a promise of no touristy rounds except for one. He wanted to show me his favourite church because it was his favourite colour. I have to put my hands up here and just say that the sight of that church was quite magnificent. The Tan Dinh Church will make all your millennial pink dreams come true and while I don’t do selfies (and I didn't), this church? You better keep your selfie stick at the ready because it is stunning and you will be forgiven even in my books.
Just as it is with most of the places colonised by the French, Saigon (or Vietnam as a whole) has a continuous running theme of yellow. I guess this is what makes the other colours come alive, like the Tan Dinh Church and the interiors of the HCM Fine Arts Museum. There’s certain touch of pink and blue from time to time that just blends in so well.
We had lunch at a Vietnamese Bistro to drown our misery of being ripped off and mugged on our faces. Yeah. That happened. A taxi driver disguised himself as the sweetest man on the planet and next thing you know, we were both short of a million VDN. EACH. To be fair, it was our fault because we lost it for a split second and flashed all the money we had at him while trying to find change. To make it worse, we took another cabbie who basically charged us 300.000 VDN for a 2KM ride and then got super agitated when he realised he was found out. So food it was to the rescue from this misadventure. Food, followed by window shopping and copious amounts of iced tea in various places. Next thing you know, I was less than 10 hours away to jump onto my flight to Hanoi.
Saigon has the most vibrant and lively atmosphere, be it day or night. And it’s not the thousands of motos on the road (you feel like it's a personal attack; like they’re coming for you). I don’t want to use the word “modern” to describe the city because it isn’t like those other cities. It’s not like Bangkok or even Delhi (and Phnom Penh in comparison is severely underdeveloped in comparison). There are high risers but it’s not clouded in them and like I mentioned, the gardens and parks within the city keeps it from become a concrete jungle.
Saigon also has a very youthful population that seem to have a very contemporary mindset and I personally think that makes a huge difference and will continue to make one in the future (in terms of the economy).
I had initially planned to use Saigon as a stop-go base, giving it only one day. What a stupid move that would’ve been! When I left Saigon on the 24th (September), I felt a feeling which was an amalgamation of reminiscence and of yearning. Ending a journey, an adventure in one place and feeling like you could belong there is a sign that it was worth all the time and planning (and money). Simply put, I had a really good time.