Well, it took a long time but I finally made it! After 26+ hours of flying and sitting in airports, I made it to Ho Chi Minh City, and was so very glad I arranged to stay in a hotel, rather than driving straight to Can Tho (thank you mom!)
The travel day itself was not particularly exciting. Beyond a few weather-related concerns flying from St. Louis to Chicago, everything went pretty smoothly. On the flight to Seoul, I sat next to a very friendly woman who was flying back to Korea to take care of her mother, who had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Not the most uplifting of companions for a 14-hour flight, but she was very nice, if a bit more talkative than I. I much preferred her to my other neighbor (yep, I got the middle seat for 14 hours) who spent the first few hours of the flight with his reading light on, even though he spent very little time in his seat. The light was pretty bright, making it hard to sleep. Luckily I was wearing a scarf, which I used as a make-shift blindfold. It was reasonably effective, but regardless I didn’t end up sleeping as much as I would have liked.
Seoul to Ho Chi Minh City was a much shorter flight – a mere 4.5 hours. I had a decent layover and used my time to hit up a Starbucks and do a bit of shopping at the duty free stores. I bought a few types of sunscreen, because Korea is known for not fooling around when it comes to sun, and I had heard that this is an item that’s hard to find here in Vietnam. I was very tempted by the pile of cute cosmetics, lotions shaped like peaches and macaron lip gloss, but they were sold in packs of five, and there’s no reason I need five large peach-shaped lotions. Oh well, maybe next time!
The flight to HCMC was almost empty, and I ended up having a whole row to myself. This would have been great, except I was trying not to sleep, and there was a screaming, kicking child in the row behind me. The father’s response to his kid’s screaming seemed to be yelling back at it, which was not particularly effective. I was immensely glad that I had brought (and charged) my noise canceling headphones. Seriously, there’s nothing better for a long flight, and the Bose earbuds get my enthusiastic stamp of approval.
Moving on, I made it safely to HCMC, hopped on a seriously overpriced taxi (500,000 dong! That’s a $25 cab for an 8 minute ride. I think I was had, but didn’t have the energy to argue) and made it to my hotel. I was reacquainted with the Vietnamese-style bathroom (a small room with a tile floor, toilet and shower head – no shower stall), had a much appreciated shower, and fell asleep.
The next day I had until 2pm to explore the city. It took me a long time to get moving, and even though I woke up around 6, I didn’t leave the hotel until more like 9:15. In that time I went searching nearby for an ATM, and along the way had to re-teach myself to cross the street. You’d think this was simple, but the streets in Vietnam are VERY different than the US. Nobody stops for pedestrians, in fact, people rarely stop at all. Instead pedestrians just pick a quiet-ish time to walk, and cross without stopping, motorbikes weaving around them. It’s best to just stare at your destination, and whatever you do, DO NOT STOP OR PAUSE IN THE STREET. Waiting for a motorbike is not something you do, they will swerve around you, and if you stop it confuses everyone. This is simple, but counterintuitive if you’re coming from the US. Obviously I made it through alright, but it’ll be a while before it feels normal.
After my ATM adventures and breakfast were taken care of, I took a taxi into the city and made my way to Notre Dame Basilica. Yes, HCMC has its own Notre Dame, and it’s in a very posh part of town. I snapped a few photos of the church and realized that my stomach was not doing so hot. I made my way over to a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, where I knew clean bathrooms and English menus could be found. I sat down with a peppermint tea and did a bit of people watching before working up the energy to head back out.
I wandered around for a while before finding the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. The price was right ($1 admission) but the museum was not particularly well done. I had planned on visiting the War History Museum a few blocks away, but my energy was low and I didn’t think I was up for such an experience. I found another chain coffee shop and sat for a while. I was still tired and a little sick, and it was getting me down. I started feeling overwhelmed by what I had embarked on. Suddenly a whole year felt like forever and I was so far from home. I decided to head back to my hotel early rather than wandering around in the heat.
On my way back to the church (a place I determined would be full of taxis) I walked through a park where someone had set up a sound system and a band was playing. I decided to check it out, and found that a huge group of high school or university students were all gathered to watch people play guitar and sing. As I watched, one singer left and a member of the crowd took his place to sing another song. The musicians were pretty good, and the kids were all amazingly stylish. I sat down to enjoy the show, and found myself feeling immediately better. Surrounded by people, I no longer felt so alone and far from home. As the musicians played I found myself entranced. I must have watched them play for at least an hour.
After a while I realized that it was almost 1, and I needed to eat. I bought some green mango and chili salt from a woman who was walking through the park, and in so doing ended up talking to two girls sitting next to me. They said that the band was playing because it was Sunday, and that it happened often. I asked if it was open mic because they seemed to switch musicians after each song, but they told me it was all one band. In any case, I had a great time and reluctantly returned to the hotel with lifted spirits.
I will tell the story of my arrival in Can Tho another day. I’m still pretty tired overall, and settling in is a slow process. Until next time!
Here’s the video I took of the musicians. Sorry the audio quality is so bad – there was a ton of background noise and I couldn’t get much closer.