Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City

Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City, previously named Saigon, former capital, and the country’s most populated metropolitan area. The first day was spent learning about the city’s rich and turbulent history, while the second took us to the lush tropical forests along the Mekong River. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Vietnam and our time there was eye-opening and enlightning. Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh reminded me of how I felt about Shanghai vs Beijing. One, felt more culturally vibrant and young, while the other more proper and bureaucratic.

Day 1

The day began with a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, just outside of Ho Chi Minh City. These tunnels played a vital part during the Vietnam war for guerrilla fighters against US soldiers. The tunnel network was built with multiple levels and at times went deep into the Earth. Viet Cong soldiers lived in the tunnels during the day and at times would be forced to stay underground for days during heavy bombing above. Today, part of the Cu Chi tunnel network has been preserved and turned into a war memorial park. Walking through the forest, our guide showed us perfectly camouflaged entrances, where tourists were invited to enter and explore the tunnels themselves. I would not recommend going in for anyone even slightly claustrophobic. The tunnels were dark and cramped. We only went through a short distance (5-10 meters), that was well-maintained and it was a daunting experience. In the forest, we also saw craters left by bombing and the many traps Viet Cong soldiers would set up using salvaged scraps and metal.

Lunch was at a Vietnamese restaurant and included spring rolls, a couple of meat dishes, fried rice and a braised tofu. Our guide brought us to the restaurant, which clearly catered to tourists with English menu and Western utensils. Seasoning leaned towards sweet sauces and there was no spice. Portions were filling and I did enjoy the flavours, but I would have also been happy with more local fare. In fact, on our way out, we noticed street stalls serving up bowls of pho and I almost convinced The Hubby to have “second lunch”. Almost, but not quite.

We spent the afternoon visiting the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, Notre Dame and Post Office. To be honest, I found the perspective provided by the War Remnants Museum interesting but biased. Many of the exhibits emphasized the brutality of the Vietnam war, which was a harsh reality to stomach. Growing up in North America, with an Chinese cultural background, I left feeling conflicted but with a desire to learn more. Notre Dame and the Post Office were lovely examples of French architecture that remains today.

From our hotel, The Hubby and I found our way to the Ben Thanh Market to enjoy a dinner of fire grilled shrimp and cold beer. The outdoor market was half shopping, half food and exactly the kind of street food I love. Menus were available in English and servers peeled the shrimp for you. Tables were filled with locals and tourists alike enjoying a wide assortment of stir fries and grilled seafood. On our way home, we grabbed a bag of mangosteen, the biggest and ripest we had during our trip. Our hotel actually specified that mangosteen were not permitted in rooms, so we ate a couple at the market and the rest during our walk back.

Day 2

Day 2 was more tropical as we headed to the Mekong delta for a boat tour along the river and into the jungles. We visited rural villages and sipped tea with fresh honey. We rose a hand-rowed sampan from one islet to another to sample fresh tropical fruits like pineapple, jackfruit and dragonfruit. I admit with the fruit, I was worried about cleanliness but couldn’t politely decline. I was ok, The Hubby had some stomach pains that night.

On our way to lunch via boat, it poured. Wind combined with our velocity and lack of cover meant I was soaked through by the time we arrived at the restaurant. The warm weather allowed us to partially dry as we ate. The main entree of our meal was a whole grilled fish, made into rice paper wraps at the table. Rounding out the meal were crispy, thin, pita chips and banh xeo.

After lunch, we visited a village that made coconut candy by hand and the thunderstorms continued. The day ended early and The Hubby and I returned to Ben Thanh night market to pick up souvenirs and enjoy one more meal of fresh grilled seafood.

Overall, I enjoyed Day 1’s activities more, but I’m a city girl and the rain on day 2 dampened the experience of walking through tropical forests.

Vietnam was a beautiful country that’s still a burgeoning tourist destination for North Americans. Most of the tourists we met were from Australia or Europe. I really enjoyed the food in Hanoi, the stunning cruise through Halong Bay was unforgettable and the history of Ho Chi Minh humbling.

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