Ho Chi Minh (/’Saigon’) was the first Asian city I ever set foot in, about 20 hours after jumping on a train at my local station, and meeting Joe in the same carriage we used to take to sixth form. The excitement was real as I bustled on with my giant backpack, feeling like one of those cool travellers off on an adventure I’d always eyed-up as a kid. He’d been to Cambodia the year before so I trusted him as a perfect companion – and still pretty impressed that he put up with my non-stop giddiness, ceaseless questions, and constant demand for pics. Too hyped to feel the jet-lag, we dropped our bags off at a top-rated hostel and hit the local market for food – my first taste of homemade Pho.
My first time in Asia coincided with my first time in a hostel dorm and little did I know I was in for a textbook experience. After my sleepless night on a rattling bottom bunk Joe approached me with the comment: ‘your bed was not in a good place last night’ and I asked ‘Oh my god did you hear them?’. ‘I think everyone heard them’, he very correctly said. Note to fellow travellers: private rooms are about an extra fiver, and bathrooms are free!
We did learn from this experience, though, and avoid ‘party hostels’ for the rest of the trip. It did, however have its perks: a complimentary beer per night and a range of local tours – we opted for a low-energy river cruise to recover.
The greenery along the Mekong Delta is charming, and the array of architectural styles adds to a slow, enjoyable ride. We hopped off for a lunch break where we sat with a lovely French girl and her Mum, who bought us all drinks (I consumed my first coconut) before borrowing bikes.
On our own, we got lost for hours seeking a temple in Joe’s guidebook, and hit up some of the city’s museums. I often cite the War Remnants and one of the best museums I’ve ever visited, but I’m aware its biases, and the sheer horror it confronts you with, make it a complicated case. Some of the famous photography in there, however, is unbelievably moving, whilst many of the stories and excerpts of literature – I expect – stay with you for life.
An unexpected gem turned out to be the Fine Art Museum, which we’d sort of dawdled into without high hopes. I was particularly inspired by the abundance of work by women artists, covering topics I found relatable and all too often omitted from many canons, like; domesticity, motherhood, and female perspectives on war. A great deal of the art was in Modern styles I personally love – the principles of early abstraction and post-impressionism gave deep psychological moods to certain portraits whilst absurdity seemed a well-explored theme.
We also took a trip to ‘monkey island’, which I now feel a lil uneasy about. At the time, I’d never seen monkeys, and had been extremely eager to take our chance – I’d become famous in A-level Philosophy for using them as an example for any and every debate on ‘speciesism’. In person, they were just as fascinating as I’d hoped: freakishly cheeky and human. Our tour guide warned us all to take off our glasses and hide our food as he’d been robbed too many times, and I cherish the memory of jumping when a lil arm popped out from beneath a higher stair and snatched at someone’s ankle.
There is, however, a darker side to this, that I wish I’d better researched before we went. A lot of animal tourism in Asia is problematic and harmful. I learnt, from conservationists, two years later, that the infamous ‘monkey forest’ in Ubud, Bali is a classic case: the monkeys are culled, regularly, every few years, because they become too used to human contact and grow vicious, plus the threat of overpopulation and tourist demand for babies drives a recycling process. I don’t know if this also happens on the island I visited, and have failed to find it, online, since I learnt. I’d recommend, though, that if you’re an animal lover like myself, do a quick investigation before you go.
One mildly random thing I didn’t expect to be so amazed by was the traffic. I remember someone warning us, before we went, that in Vietnam you don’t wait for a traffic light, you step into the road and hope you make it to the other side – and this is absolutely true-to-life. I have never witnessed so many motorbikes, and moving in one huge block for as far as the eye can see. We’d sometimes be standing on the pavement when one would cut off the road and behind us, and whatever you can imagine, you name it, we saw it on a bike: 5-6 people squished on, hundreds of rolls of toilet-paper, and even road-wide stacks of live chickens. We were too scared, at the time, to join the crowd, but I can’t help but wonder what it’d be like.