The bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City – more well known to the locals as Saigon – was possibly one of the strangest experiences I have ever had on a bus and I’ve been on plenty of them.
Boarding the bus, we were asked to hand in our passports to a man standing at the front of the bus as we were passing over the border so would need them. None of us could understand why we couldn’t be trusted with our own passports and after Jamie had already left his in Bangkok once (no wonder we couldn’t be trusted), I was skeptical about handing them over.
Half way between the Phnom Penh and the Vietnamese border, the bus stopped off in a small village and the driver picked up a bag that had been left on a bench nearby. I started panicking a little, thinking that perhaps we were part of a drug smuggling exercise.
To add further concern, the man who held our passports stood up and told us that the bus was broken and we would have to get off and switch to another bus. This switchover involved stopping in the middle of the road and praying our bags and passports made it onto our new bus.
At one point, I checked the map as I wasn’t even sure we were going to Vietnam anymore.
Fortunately, after a few hours we arrived at the border and were quickly escorted through security by the man who had been carrying our passports. When we reached the other side and re-embarked our bus, we were held up by a couple who had an issue with one of their passports. Apparently the man’s passport was Swiss and according to the security officers he was not Swiss. I only knew about the situation because his wife continued to shout “He’s Swiss! He’s Swiss” in a plead to hurry things along.
After waiting 2 hours and the man of the couple offering to buy us all a round for holding us up, we were on our way to Saigon!
I have never seen traffic quite like that of Vietnam. There is no system, pedestrian crossings are irrelevant and if you don’t get run over by one of the many motorbikes then consider yourself lucky. But Ho Chi Minh was wonderful and filled with little quirky shops selling beautiful gifts.
We decided to visit the Ho Chi Minh tunnels the next day as we were eager to find out more about the Vietnam War. Our tour guide, Tuon, was a short but burley man who scared us a little with his abrupt manner. However, once he discovered I was Scottish, he shook my hand vigorously and requested that I sent him some Johnny Walker whiskey as “during the war I drank three cups of Johnny Walker to keep me calm!” We later found out that Tuon was an officer during the Vietnam war and he gave us a real perspective on the conditions they lived in. We did, of course, wonder if perhaps Tuon just told tourists this in order to give them a better experience and receive more tips but the shrapnel in his face that he allowed us to feel and his request that we only leave him a review and no tip proved otherwise.
Upon reaching a section of the tour showing different traps used for the Americans, Tuon pulled a sharp piece of bamboo from the ground and stuck it spike upright in front of us.
“All these other traps? A load of shit! Who has time for this shit? We didn’t have anything to make them with, this is for tourists benefit only! But these easy pieces of bamboo, when the Americans parachute in they are killed instantly! Easy!”
There was another man on our mini bus to the tunnels who introduced himself as ‘Jazz’. He began bragging about how he was the manager of the leading cell phone company in Australia before proceeding to inform us that he had spent a day at the markets visiting 10 different stalls in order to get an average price of a fake Michael Kors bag to see if he could afford to take one home for his wife – for reference the stall owners are lucky if they get £5 for these bags. To add to our impression of Jazz, when we stopped at a craft centre run by victims of agent orange he started taking photos after being told this was strictly not allowed. He also wanted to show off by lifting the barrel of a tank but was shown up when Tuon, who was at least 2 feet shorter than Jazz, continued lifting the barrel with one arm.
I love meeting new people but there are some people who don’t exactly bring joy to trips like these.
At the end of the tour, we were allowed to taste the only food that soldiers could eat during the war – potato and peanuts with a cup of tea. I thought it was delicious though I could understand why you would be fed up with it after years of having it as your only meal. The men in our group were encouraged to shot a very strong alcohol because it would bring them good luck and with that we headed back to the city.
Over our final few days, we visited the famous “Notre Dame” situated next to another popular tourist site: the post office, obviously. We also spent time in the War Remnants museum and ate a lot of fantastic food – the desserts were especially excellent!
Ho Chi Minh City was incredible but we were ready to fly to Singapore as this was my most anticipated city!