I found myself packed and ready to kick off again – ready, set, jet!
- Spending more than 6 months in the same location seems impossible. The biggest risk is not taking any risk.
- A simple twist of fate made me move to Vietnam end of 2013.
- Vietnam is a former French colony which translates in excellent food, wide lanes, and colonial buildings.
Yeah it’s chaos, it’s clocks, it’s watermelons, it’s everything.
Welcome to Vietnam’s capital, Ho Chi Minh City where close to 10 million people crowd the streets on motorcycles and wear these typical conical hats.
Cars are (luckily) relatively rare and many are taxis. Except for a few buses, public transport has yet to be developed. This means you either move around by motorcycle or taxi. As for the latter, avoid scams by only hailing Vinasun or Mai Linh taxis. The trip from Tân Sơn Nhất Airport to the CBD should not set you back more than 200,000 VND or 7.5 EUR. From the airport, one can also take bus number 153 to Ben Thanh Market for as little as 5,000 VND or 0.20 EUR.
Vietnam is different from other Southeast Asian countries: most travelers will need an invitation letter before entering Vietnam. The letter can be used in turn to buy the visa on arrival (VOA) at the airport. Upon arrival, travelers pay at a booth and wait for the immigration police to stamp their passport. This can take hours. Literally. Paying a small bribe helps, but does not fix the problem longer-term. The right approach is to stand next to the booth and aggressively point to your passport (among the large stack) and say “My turn, my turn! Yes, yes, take that one!” It’s also wise to travel with some passport photos as you often require one in Asia. If you don’t have a picture, then an immigration officer will emerge from the booth and take a picture with a prehistoric camera. He will ask you 5 USD and obviously will never print or use the photo.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and commonly abbreviated as HCMC, is located at the sea but no (clean) beaches are nearby. The beaches of Mui Ne are 4-5 hours away, but are unfortunately getting swamped with Russians who appreciate the cheap direct flights from Moscow and the lack of visa for former communist states (and the cheap drinks).
Even though the constant stream of motorcycles never stops, the city is surprisingly walkable and features several parks where locals play badminton and are kicking shuttlecock, a modified badminton shuttle kicked with the foot. The sport is called đá cầu (in China Jianzi) and is the national sport in Vietnam. Best places to play are Tao Dan Park and around Notre Dame Cathedral.
HCMC, is divided in districts, each subdivided in wards. It heavily reminds of Peter Jackson’s movie District 9. District 1 features most sightseeing spots and several high-end hotels and shops. However, the rest of Vietnam is still a poor country with a GDP per capita of less than 2,000 USD. People speak (very) limited English and, although generally safe, pick pocketing and bag snatching often occurs. Better not flash your latest gadget here.
No building stands out more as the Bitexco Financial Tower, 68 floors high. I managed to take the elevator until floor 44, only to realize there was no way back. Apparently there is little demand for the excessively priced office space and consequently most of the floors are empty. Hence, the building owner had not bothered finishing the elevator system and I had to take the fire exit stairs down. Anyhow, floor 44 offers spectacular views over HCMC.
Another must see is the War Remnants Museum where the almost 20-year long Vietnam War or Second Indochina War is carefully documented. The First Indochina War was fought between the Vietnamese and the French colonists, but the Second Indochina War was a true David-versus-Goliath war against the US. The war was fought in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, between 1955 to 1975. The US fought Vietnam’s Viet Cong during a long guerrilla war leading to millions of deaths and leaving numerous mine fields still killing people today. One can relive the war by visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of 250 km of tunnels and chamber, only 40 km from HCMC.
After WWII, the US feared a communist expansion in Southeast Asia directed by the Soviet Union. The so-called domino theory stipulated that if Vietnam would fall to communism, its surrounding countries such as Laos and Cambodia would fall as well. Hence the US invaded Vietnam. What followed was a long and deadly conflict which left Vietnam in ruins, even many decades after the war. With the help of Dow Chemical Company and Monsanto, the US used defoliants and herbicides in Vietnam to destroy vegetation and crops, depriving the Viet Cong of food and cover. The used chemical became infamous as Agent Orange and its dioxin still causes severe health problems today. The US eventually retreated its troops in 1975, a humiliating end to their Vietnam War. In the same year, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia of which about 25% of its 8 million population was killed during a genocide under the auspices of Pol Pot, dubbed the Hitler of Cambodia. The Vietnamese would eventually defeat the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War.
Communism is still well alive in Vietnam, but capitalism is quietly sneaking in. Vietnamese love their local coffee, but the first Starbucks was opened in February 2013. The first McDonald’s opened in February 2014 and hundreds of people lined up to get their first Big Mac and french fries. Yet another US invasion?