Ni Ni Ni Ni NINETEEN! Well they’re the first thoughts that come to my head when someone mentions Saigon.
We finally managed to leave Sihanoukville after spending an extra day there more than we would have liked because of the flooded roads. We managed to get back to Phnom Penh with no hastles and didnt even have to go on a boat to get over the flooded river because by this time the waters had receded. We stayed a little more centrally in Phnom Penh at the Capitol Guesthouse which was handy because the following day we were traveling with them to HCMC.
The journey to HCMC was quite good in all fairness compared to that of other journeys we have made, but to be fair I think the journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap has established our base level of bad bus trips [but like I say there is always Laos]. Getting across the Vietnamese border was a bit of a ball ache. Checking out of Cambodia was no problem – so easy in fact that our bus driver did it for us, but going through the Vietnamese side was a different story. First off we’re just dumped in a room not quite knowing whats go. We noticed that a lot of people had immigration cards but couldn’t see where they got them from. Luckily we decided to hang about to see if some turned up. Others however were kindly offered one by blue overall clad Vietnamese staff who then proceeded to fill it in for them, not a problem until they ask for the charge afterwards. However, all the time at the border you are thinking “I hope our bus waits” so I can understand the mentality of trying to get through as soon as possible. In realisty however the trip is far more organised than that and the bus company waits for you.
We then had to wait ages queuing for the ever so precious stamp to accompany a rather drab visa [no shiny holographs like on the Cambodian one]. This is the infamous “immigration shuffle” whereby everyone ever so slowly edges forward along the line but no one seems to come out the other end of it. Therefore everyone thinks they are making progress but in fact they are only getting closer to their sweaty and frustrated compatriots in the queue. After the stamps, came customs, then health qurantine, and then some sort of currency fee [which I protested against but then gave into – Tim later asserted that I was to no longer to quarrel with border guard staff over 20p: fair cop] and then finally scanning our bags.
We arrived into HCMC mid afternoon time and fortunately for us we were dropped off right in the backpacker district of town. Next step: to find accommodation. The problem was everyone seemed to want to offer us a twin room with air con, TV, and hot water for $10. However we weren’t fussed about a TV; who needs hot water in a hot country?; and aircon just gets too cold [as we had learnt in Thailand]. We were more than happy to pay for a fan and a cold shower bathroom. However we’d been told before that in Vietnam you tend to pay a little more for accommodation but you get a lot for it. On the flipside you also tend to get your food cheaper and in this respect it is more like Thailand: cheap food more expensive accom, whereas Cambodia was cheap accom but more expensive food. In the end we found a place in a little back street which gave us a top floor room [great views but not worth it for the four flights of stairs] with hot shower, fan and TV for $6 [ie $3 each].
The rest of the afternoon we ate and milled around. We went for a little explore and were pleasantly greeted by a gentleman by the name of Bernard Lang. Initially he had a chat with us while he straddled his moped and we thumbed our Lonely Planet but eventually he invited us for a couple of beers over the road and he could offer us his advice. Bernard was a 60 something Belgian born swiss private investment banker who had spent the past ten years here in Vietnam working on various projects such as HR and Financial consulting. We talked about where to visit along the coast and he chatted amiably about his travels past and present. During the course of the evening a number of his friends came to join us and we talked some more – I even learnt a little Vietnamese. Well to cut a long story short a couple of beers became 9 [large bottles] between us and we soon called it a night. Tim and I headed back to our guest house but along the way got a little lost – quite embaressing but also a little worrying as we were convinced one shut door was the front door to our guesthouse and we almost tried to go through. That could have been interesting.
Yesterday we explored HCMC. We saw the big hotels, Reunification Palace [the former home to the former President of South Vietnam and formerly known as Independence Palace], the fine art gallery [believe it or not], the Ho Chi Minh City History Museum [featuring the rise and fall of the French Colony, Independence and finally the ‘liberation’ by the North Vietnamese], and the War Remanents Museum [this was by far the most gruesome with an immense catalogue of photos charting the series of war in Vietnam as well as the effects of war, inc. two jarred still born featous [spell?] one with a malformed head and one as twins joined in part – the victims of Agent Orange used by the Americans and South Vietnamese.
HCMC itself is not a slummy city. It has a rich history of French Colonial architecture which, coupled with the extensive foliage lining the long and wide boulevards that criss cross the central Saigon area, make it an elegant and beautiful city. You can see there is a lot of money floating about. Everywhere new hotels and banks are being constructed and we were even impressed by the standard of a guest house – tiled with winding stair cases and smart paint work. The guest houses are a little odd mind you, they tend to be very small but very tall. There is a room on each floor and then it rises around 4 floors – but these sprout up all over the city in a dazzling array of colours which make for quite an interestingly geometric skyline.
Today we have booked our travel up the coast. The preliminary plan is to stop at Nha Trang [to diver and a boat trip], Hoi An [for the old town and a suit], zip through Hue, into Hanoi [the capital – say no more] and a two day excursion to Halong Bay for a boast trip around the islands. We’re on a bit of a time limit because our visa only lasts 15 days as of last Friday so we have to get a move on. Luckily the 1700km trip has only cost us US$23 – no worries. The next step after that will be to cross into Laos which looks tricky but I’m sure we’ll find out more when we get to Hanoi.