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Ho Chi Minh City: The City Formerly Known As Saigon

7.30am, and Bec and I were waiting outside our guesthouse in Can Tho for the scheduled pick-up to take us to the bus – we were off to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it’s now known, but no-one seems to call it that.

7.45am, and our pick-up hadn’t arrived, our bus was leaving shortly, and the last thing we wanted was another day in Can Tho, given that we’d seen the floating markets – about the only thing worth seeing round these parts. We flagged down a couple of passing motos, and hitched a ride to the bus station for a dollar or two.

An hour or so later and we were sitting up the back of a minivan on our way to Saigon, with a canoodling young couple next to us threatening to bring the plain bread rolls we’d eaten for breakfast back up into our throats. We managed to keep the food down, unlike the lady sitting directly in front of us, who after an hour of driving emptied the contents of her stomach into a small plastic bag, accompanied by some wretched sound effects, then simply tied a knot with the bag handles and placed it carefully on the floor near her feet.

The smell wafted through the van, mixing with the repulsive sugary Vietnamese pop music blaring from the minivan’s speakers; our nose and our ears were being attacked – Vietnam would just not let up on us.

But mercifaully, the bus stopped shortly after the vomit hit the floor, enabling the lady to remove the bag from the bus. We have discovered in SEAsia that on even the shortest of bus rides, a half-hour stop is mandatory – these people have the smallest bladders you can imagine. We’d been driving for little more than an hour, and the stop stretched from 20 minutes, to half an hour, to 45 minutes. All the while, Bec and I stood, waiting, while locals stared at us.

We’ve also learned in the past 2 months that people in this region of the world have absolutely no qualms about staring. Like Dick Cheney and his gun-totin’ ways, they don’t try to hide it, they simply open their eyes wide, fix them on you, and keep them there – turning their heads to follow you as you walk past. Oh yes, you can try to return the gaze, but that just seems to egg them on, inspiring them to out-stare you. I’ve sort of learnt to deal with it – the red hair and beard certainly attracts its share of attention, but I think Bec still has problems with it. “What?!?” she will cry to herslef in exasperation,”What are they staring at?!”

After 45 minutes waiting for the bus-driver to finish whatever-the-hell it was he was doing, we’d had enough. And just when we were ready to give up on Vietnam, it went and pulled the puppy-dog eyes on us. A lady sitting nearby with, at a guess, her elderly mother and young child, approached us silently, smiled, and handed us two small lollies. We looked up at her, saying with our faces what words could not – thank you, but you don’t have to….. she smiled again, and quietly walked back to her seat.

The driver reappeared, and, with smiles back on our faces, we got back on the bus. The other passengers piled in behind us, the door closed, and we got back on the road. The vomit smell was still hanging about. Persistent, I thought. But no, the vomit bag was still there, resting gently against the side of the bus, next to the lady’s feet.

Fuckin’ Vietnam.

Saigon was nuts. Like Phnom Penh before it, the streets were impossibly crowded with motorbikes. Our taxi driver leaned on the horn incessantly as we made our way to a guesthouse just out of the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao. Once there, we were greeted by a refreshingly friendly family, whose smiling faces convinced us to take a windowless room. I think it was the tv with cable that convinced us – we needed something mindless to do, tv was the answer. But first, we needed to get some real food.

We grabbed our things, I pulled the door shut behind us, and then paused. Stopped. Frozen. I could hear something. Something beautifully familiar. It was coming from the room next-door, I was sure of it, but it was so faint that I had to strain to hear it. Bec stopped up ahead, at the top of the stairs, “Are you coming?”

I put my finger up in front of my face, saying nothing, and listened.

“Chappelli. I can hear Chapelli. The cricket.”

Now, this sentence will make as much sense to non-Aussies as George W Bush does to Europeans, so I guess I must explain. Chapelli is the nickname for Ian Chappel, former Australian cricket captain, and now cricket commentator. And what I could hear was his voice dexribing the action in the second of the best-of-three finals series between Australia and Sri Lanka, being played in Sydney and beamed live around the world.

Cricket – it was the answer to our Vietnamese headache.

We began walking the streets of Saigon randomly, looking for anywhere that had a tv showing some sport. After 20 minutes we found an empty bar, and convinced them to change the channel they had showing on the telly on the premise that, “You find the cricket, and we’ll buy some beers.”

And when they did find the cricket, and we were sat at the bar watching the Aussies belt the crap out of the Sri Lankans, man, did we have a smile on our faces then! And things only got better when an old ex-pat Scotsman joined us at the bar. We got chatting about construction – he was in the piling industry, I’m a structural engineer (well, at least that’s how I earn my money) – and soon he was shouting us beers and wine. Later that evening, well after the cricket had finished, we stumbled out of the bar having handed over nought but our email addresses.

And since then, Vietnam has treated us much more kindly.

It was only the next day, as we walked towards the War Remnants Museum, that we bumped into Liz – my long-lost Irish cousin who had organised the Hogan family reunion we’d attended back in July. We knew she’d been in Vietnam – she was spending 3 months (beginning in November, ending at the end of January) volunteering at an orphanage. But we had no idea where in Vietnam, or when she’d be leaving. In a city of over 5 million people, we bumped into her on a busy street as we all tried not to get run over as we crossed the road – it was her very last day in Vietnam before flying back to Ireland. We ditched our museum plans and spent the rest of the day with her, before bumping into her again the next morning before she flew out.

Aussie sport and distant family. Our saviours in Vietnam.

We did make it to the War Remnants Museum, which featured an enthralling exhibition devoted to the photo-journalists who lost their lives in the Indo-China wars. But that was about the extent of our touristy ventures in the city.

I think the place is best summed up by an encounter we had on our last night whilst eating dinner in a restaurant in Pham Ngu Lao. As we ate, a young local gentlemen, no, that’s a bit generous, a young local guy, yeah, that’s more appropriate, a young local guy entered the store carrying a huge pile of books – pirated copies of books by popular authors; Dan Brown, Paulo Coelho, Jack Kerouac, Ben Elton, Bill Bryson. They are a constant site on the streets in the backpacker district, these book sellers.

But on this occasion, the guy approached our table (which was well inside the restaurant and away from the street, might I add), and offered, “Weed.”

We waved him away, and he moved to the next table with the same offer.

And here I was thinking you were meant to read books.

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One Response to “Ho Chi Minh City: The City Formerly Known As Saigon”

  1. Cian Higgins Says:

    Hey Guys, Glad to see that you are still travelling ok, mam is glad to be back home and was glad she met you in HCM, anyway take it easy and enjoy the journey.

    Cian Higgins

  2. admin Says:

    Cheers Cian. It was brilliant running into your mum – a bit of a saviour for us during those first few days in Vietnam.

    We’re planning on getting back to Ireland for another long weekend later in the year, will hopefully see you guys then.

  3. Posted from Australia Australia

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