Two weeks ago a few of my friends decided to spend the weekend in Hồ Chí Minh City, which is about 3 hours away from Cần Thơ. I really wanted to go, but my schedule didn’t quite line up for the weekend trip. In the end I decided that I would go up for one night – leave Sunday morning and return on Monday. It was a quick visit, but I’m glad I went.
So first, let me clear a few things up. Yes, Saigon (Sài Gòn) and Hồ Chí Minh City are the same place. Saigon was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City after reunification, but you’ll hear people use the two names interchangeably here. Also, you see signs that say “Sài Gòn” all over. I’ll probably use both names in this post too, as well as the abbreviation (HCMC).
Anyway, I set out Sunday morning via bus. This was the first time taking a bus by myself, and I’m happy to say it all went very smoothly. Buses leave from Cần Thơ to Saigon every half hour, so it’s pretty easy to catch. I also recently learned how to say “I’m going to….” and was very excited to use my (extremely meager and definitely butchered) Vietnamese. In the end the ticket cost $6 and took around three hours. Also, unlike the bus I took to Tra Vinh, this was a Phuong Trang bus, which is significantly more comfortable (and more expensive, but that’s ok).
The bus journey from CT to HCMC goes something like this: catch a bus at one of two stations in CT (one is a 5 minute walk from my house). The bus makes one or two stops on the way to HCMC, which is great for those of us with small bladders and large water bottles. The station in Saigon is a little far from the center of the city, but luckily there’s a free transfer shuttle that will take you to another station, a bit closer to District 1 (the tourist/backpacker area at the center of HCMC). After that, you can take a taxi or xe om (motorbike taxi) wherever you need to go. It’s all pretty simple, which was great.
Anyway, once I actually arrived in the city I dropped my stuff at the hotel and met up with my friends in a nearby coffee shop. We decided to walk around and find some food, then go to the War Remnants Museum.
So, for anyone visiting Saigon, it’s not the best walking city. Streets are crowded, and things tend to be a bit spread out. The city is HUGE, but if you don’t plan on leaving district one, then walking and the occasional taxi should see you through. We wandered for maybe thirty minutes before finding a place that wasn’t crazy expensive (well, by Vietnamese standards any meal over $2 is pretty pricey) and too touristy. With full stomachs we continued our walk to the museum.
If you ever find yourself in Saigon, I strongly recommend visiting the museum, regardless of how much you know about the war in Vietnam. Personally, I remember learning a little bit about it in history class, and I know I’ve read The Things They Carried. That’s about the extent of my knowledge, which is pretty embarrassing considering that I not only decided to live in Vietnam, but had visited the country before. Back in July I decided to try learning more about the war and read The Sorrow of War – a novel by a Vietnamese author, Bao Ninh. It was gruesome, but it told me more about the realities of combat than the politics and history of Vietnam. So, visiting the museum was a bit eye-opening for me. It made me realize that I knew very little, and that my knowledge was extremely one-sided. The museum offers rooms that show protest photos and letters, pictures of soldiers, American weapons and transport, and endless photos of the lasting effects of Agent Orange. It was hard to get through, and I walked away feeling horribly guilty, and also amazed at the fact that I’ve felt no animosity from any Vietnamese person.
After taking a taxi home we were all feeling tired and probably a little contemplative. We watched a movie in the hotel room and after a while I wandered out to find a store I remembered reading about. I bought some postcards (which will be arriving soon! Or, as soon as I remember to post them…) and met up with Peter and some of his friends for dinner. Across the street from our hotel there was a food festival, so we wandered around and sampled a few stalls. It was really crowded, and a bit overwhelming, so after a while we left the park and got a drink at a sidewalk bar/café. The night ended with a spontaneous massage, and the next day we returned to Can Tho.
It’s taken me a lot longer to write this than I had anticipated, and so now I’ll be returning to Saigon tomorrow to meet up with friends from college and celebrate Christmas Eve. I’m excited to see more of the city, as well as some old friends, and hopefully this time I’ll gather my thoughts and write about it a little faster.