Having been dropped in the centre of Hoi An by our minibus, we joined the large group of travellers also waiting for the overnight sleeper bus to arrive. In addition to a few other travelling couples, a group of English guys were also joining us for the bus trip. I guessed 2nd year uni students, possibly Hockey team, as we watched them waddle drunkly back and forth in the street.
Our hopes of getting a seat at the front of the bus disappeared in a flash when the bus pulled up, prompting a stampede for the door. It turns out, people are pretty motivated to secure a good seat when the journey is going to last 25 hours, however all hopes were then restored as the conductor brought the stampede to a halt, checked his clipboard and then called out our names to come to the front. We had asked to reserve seats but never expected it to make any difference, this is S.E Asia after all. The hockey boys were not impressed by our “speedy boarding” display and then seemed genuinely upset when they finally got on the bus. The air was thick with regret as these poor lads, having downed a shed load of booze, realised that our 25 hour sleeper bus lacked the usual on board restroom. Oh dear 😂
📷 – Extra Cosy
The journey itself was actually made up of 2 fairly uneventful journeys. The first, an overnight coach down south to Trang, where we had a few hours wait before changing to another coach that would take us to Ho Chi Minh. I mainly remember being 47% comfortable at any one time, waking up at way too many rest stops, the Hockey boys getting told off for always forgetting to take off their shoes and waking up just in time to catch the sun rise near Hoa Vinh.
We got into Ho Chi Minh just as night fell and walked the 100m from the coach drop off point, to Luci Hostel. Situated just off the main strip, our hostel was on one side of the main public park and had every restaurant, cafe and bar imaginable, within walking distance. The hostel was another modern, newly fitted building with young and friendly staff. A mix up with our room meant that we spent our first night in a 12 bed dorm instead of a 6 bed but the news of free beer every night between 6-8pm made everything okay. 😊
We awoke the next day, relaxed and refreshed, swapped our room to the 6 bed before going for an explore around the city. Obviously our first stop off was at the large street food market in the city centre. We happily ate lunch, watching the rain pour outside while contemplating the severity and potential consequences, our escalating Banh Mi addiction might bring.
📷 – so much yes
Next door to the food market is a much larger general market selling everything from gadgets to garments, toiletries to tuna. Like most markets in south east Asia, this one came with the usual challenge of trying to find anything at all worth looking at. It was close but not even the knock off gold could win us over.
All shopped out and in need of some culture, we walked to the Independence Palace, in the centre of the city.
Former residence of the South Vietnamese president, the palace now stands as a commemorative shrine to the fall of Saigon. Two soviet tanks sit within the grounds, pointing towards the palace, a memorial to the first North Vietnamese tanks that stormed the palace in 1975.
The palace itself is incredibly grand with its expansive grounds and multiple floors of decadent rooms and halls. We toured each floor, learning a little about the role of the palace under South Vietnamese rule and a lot about the extent of how biased the history of the war exists in Vietnam today. We have only experienced a few hints of Vietnams proud communist ideology but in Ho Chi Minh, it seems only one version of history exists, good conquered evil, don’t ask any questions! Politics aside, we still felt incredibly humbled to be on a site with such a rich, albeit troubled history. On the rooftop an old military helicopter sits on the site that two north Vietnamese bombs were dropped from a South Vietnamese fighter jet. After infiltrating the South Vietnamese army, a North Vietnamese agent was able to steal a fighter and drop the two bombs on the palace. The numerous plaques around the building, together with markings on the roof, informed us that this guy was a national hero, even if only half the nation thought so at the time.
That night we had some very nice dim sum before heading back to the hostel. Knowing that we’d be visiting the war remnants museum the next day, we watched a documentary on the last days of Vietnam, documenting the chaos that ensued during the mass evacuation of US and South Vietnamese citizens during the fall of Saigon. If you have a Netflix account, we’d seriously recommend having a look.
On our second day, we treated ourselves to some Banh Mi (for a change) and fruit shakes before making our way towards the cities banking district. Here we found the very well hidden, Villa Royale Antique Tea rooms and had tea and scones in the fanciest room we’ve been in for months. Not exactly top of the backpacker list, this was a special treat and partly because Charlie & Becca did something something similar a few weeks ago, sent us photos and as a result, Ella hasn’t been able to stop talking about scones. I’ve never really been a fan of scones, or tea for that matter but this was a really nice place, they tasted pretty damn good and there’s nothing wrong with adding “enjoyed high tea in Vietnam” to the list of unusual life accomplishments.
Having left high society, we headed back across town towards the war remnants museum. On the way, we stopped by the US Consulate compound, the site of the old US embassy. Although the place looks very different now, we still had a strange sense of awe, as if standing in history. The only memorial on site is to commemorate the Viet Cong Sapper team that attacked the embassy in 1968 during the Tet offensive. They also have a guard stationed nearby to stop people taking photos. 🙁
📷 – guard coming to tell off photo takers
We lingered a little longer than expected at the embassy and when I say lingered, I mean hid under the front door covering as the heavens opened and drenched the city for 45 minutes.
📷 – 😓
Finished with our unplanned shower, we made our way to the war remnants museum. The outer grounds of the museum are filled with all the US military hardware you can imagine. Tanks, helicopters, jets, boats and bombers. Although I was massively geeking out at all the bug guns, we couldn’t help but think it was strange that their wasn’t any military equipment that belonged to the North Vietnamese army. The reviews on Tripadvisor gave us a bit of a heads up in advance and so we went along, knowing that things would be a little one sided. (Slight understatement)
The museum is in fact a large propaganda warehouse, built to tell the horrifying story of how the evil US tried to invade Vietnam, committed these unforgivable atrocities until they were eventually defeated by the liberating Northern Vietnamese army. There is very little mention of the years of war between the north and south Vietnamese forces, instead this version of history states, the Vietnamese people were liberated from US oppression and the country was able to put aside its differences and come together, united. No mention of the mass killing of South Vietnamese citizens under the new communist regime. No mention of the massacre at Hue in which thousands of Vietnamese civilians were murdered and in some cases, buried alive. No mention of how the northern armies repeatedly broke ceasefire agreements and continued their invasion of the south. Certainly the US are viewed as an invading power, instead of an allie of Southern Vietnam and certainly no mention of the Soviet Unions role in supporting the North.
Each floor inside is dedicated to telling the story of the Vietnamese lives lost due to American bombing, their use of chemical weapons and sheer extent of American aggression. Don’t get me wrong, the entire thing is horrible and the enormous waste of human life on all sides is simply unforgivable. Trying to imagine how the mind can justify such events is difficult to process. Hearing this one sided version of history, we couldn’t help but feel as if the whole place was a petty way to enforce an ideology and hugely disrespectful to the thousands of Vietnamese men and women that lost their lives.
Despite the bias, We came away thinking about the huge impact war has had here and the Southern Vietnamese citizens that lost their country, had to flee or were put into reeducation camps and for the most part didn’t survive. We felt extremely humbled by the drastic scale of suffering this beautiful country has endured and started to understand why at times, western tourists are not as welcomed as they may be in other countries.
The following day we attempted to have lunch at the seemingly never open, Saigon Bagel but settled for fresh pastries at Tour Le Jours instead. 🤗 after sorting out coach tickets to Phnom Penh, we celebrated our last night in Vietnam at a fancy Sushi restaurant in the centre of the city. As backpackers, we probably stood out a little compared to the other customers but the food was far to tasty for us to notice. After a all the sushi goodness we could handle, washed down with warm Sake, we headed back for a good nights rest before tomorrow’s operation border crossing to Cambodia.
I’ll admit, we were a little worried about posting our honest impression after reading that a few other travellers had been detained for doing so. Now we’ve left, we feel a little happier to do so but want to stress that despite the politics, Vietnam has been one of our favourite countries so far and we both look forward to going back someday.