Exploring Southern Vietnam : Ho Chi Minh City & Mui Ne
03.01.2012 - 03.07.2012 100 °F
We are now just about one week into backpacking and already feeling like seasoned travelers. While I had my doubts that I could go from being one of the worst, high-maintenance packers the world over, I am genuinely surprised with how well I am adjusting to the life of a backpacker. Joe, of course, had no problem! I can't believe we fit 91 days of living into such a little space and I continue to get better at packing everyday!
Our first destination is Vietnam. Despite Vietnam's harsh, divided, and difficult history, it is a country blessed with beauty. Everywhere you turn your eyes are blessed with new, beautiful colors intertwined in always changing landscapes. From the rolling mountains, to the vast expanses of incredible rice paddies, and of course along the 2,140 miles of gorgeous coastline, Vietnam is a true gem. Beyond the beauty the land has to offer, the people are remarkably kind and friendly. This population of people that have weathered multiple wars, colonialism, and communism, seem to have kept their head high and are remarkably happy. Their optimism and vivacity can be felt almost immediately as you walk down the street and watch the people interact with each other over meals or in passing conversations as they try to sell you a tour, a motorbike ride, cigarettes, or any other number of things. It's also easy to see that Vietnamese people are hardworking people. Everywhere you go, seven days a week, you can see hardworking individuals performing backbreaking labor in blistering heat during all hours of the day. Beyond that, you can't take ten steps without at least 2 people trying to sell you anything they can. Work is a central pillar to Vietnamese life so it is no wonder that unemployment is virtually nonexistent here.
Ho Chi Minh City
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, at about 12:15 AM. After about 20 hours of traveling, we walked out of the airport to be smacked in the face with 110* weather, humidity, and at least 100 taxi drivers yelling to get our fare. Having heard so many warnings about scams in HCMC we were immediately overwhelmed and weary. We booked our first two nights hotel before arriving so we finally picked a taxi driver with a friendly smile and a taxi license to take us to our hotel which was in District 1. Our taxi driver turned out to be very nice and had good English so he was able to teach us a little about the area and some helpful hints about traveling in Vietnam. We finally got settled into our room by 2 AM and were ready to crash!
We woke up the next day, ready to explore!! Everything we read about HCMC emphasized that it is a city on the move. That may be the understatement of the century! From the millions of motorbikes that traversed the streets, weaving between already chaotic traffic, to the loud street vendors and just overall over-stimulation of all senses, HCMC is definitely a force to be reckoned with. Before we could rub the exhaustion from our eyes, we both looked at each other and almost simultaneously said "What did we get ourselves into?!?!" If you don't believe us, here is a small look into just a moment standing on a random street corner...
Regardless, we knew we wanted to get the most out of the day so first we took a walk around to get a feel for the area. This led us to Reunification Palace. This building was built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam's Presidential Palace. It remained the Presidential Palace for 9 years until April 30, 1975 when communist tanks stormed Saigon and crashed through the gates of this building, ending the war. The building was left just as it was on that day so it is as if you traveled through time as you walk through the halls of this huge building.
Afterwards, we went around the corner to the War Remnants Museum. Honestly, as an American, this shocking museum presented a very uncomfortable experience. The War Remnants Museum documents the evils, atrocities, and brutality of war, but, more specifically the American's evils, atrocities, and brutality in the Vietnam War. The exhibits included pictures in almost every country of protests against American involvement in the war, merciless pictures of American torture and the effects of torture during the war, and most heartbreaking, the effects of the use of defoliants such as agent orange and napalm, which are still being felt by Vietnamese people today. It was a graphic and heart-wrenching experience. I couldn't help but question how, only 37 years later, Vietnamese people were so overwhelmingly friendly to me as I walked down the street. While I whole-heartedly respected and felt sorrowful for this unfortunately history, I wished the museum wasn't as biased as it was. Concurrently, I have been reading a US soldier's memoirs on his time spent in Vietnam so I'm thankful that it helped me to create a more balanced and thorough understanding of all of these atrocities.
In the wake of the museum, we needed a bit of a pick-me-up. We headed to a coffee shop to do some research on a more relaxed and low-key location to celebrate Joe's birthday. After some deliberation, we decided the next day we'd take a train to Mui Ne but that didn't stop us from spending the rest of the day walking around, taking in the chaos of the city for hours. We spent a bit of time meandering through the famous Ben Thanh Market where we ate dinner and walked around looking at silk stands, souvenirs, and funny t-shirts. After yet another exhausting day, we headed to bed dreaming of the paradise that awaited us.
At 5:30 the next morning, we experienced our first Vietnamese sunrise on our way to Saigon Station. Sitting outside, excitedly waiting for our train, I looked up at this old, weathered building and couldn't help but reflect on the war that so recently rattled this country, what these walls must have seen, and how different the people who occupied these seats where then.
After a four and a half hour train ride on an old, smelly, and dirty train, we disembarked at a very small, overgrown train station in Phan Thiet. Once again, we were greeted by droves of taxi, cyclo, and motorbike drivers, all ready to fight for our fare. This aspect of travel is going to take some getting used to. We need to learn to take a step back, say "No!", and get a grounding for where we are and what our options are, so we can better negotiate the best price and stay on budget! But on Day 3, we were not that good! We took a taxi ride to our hotel from a driver that once again spoke enough English. (We have been very surprised by how much English is spoken by everyone here!) Our driver nicely delivered us, questionably safely, to our destination and we were happy to see paradise at our feet.
Mui Ne is a pretty secluded, quiet, and calm area. Just the opposite of HCMC and exactly what we needed to unwind after a year and a half in Korea! Mui Ne is in the top rankings of Vietnam's best beaches and people come from all over the world to kite surf here. It really is beautiful. The city is also largely dominated by the fishing industry and the production of fish sauce which is wonderful for me and my love for fishing boats. There was no shortage of colorful fishing boats in addition to these very unique round, tub-like boats that the men used when pulling up the fishing nets.
We decided to stay at the Hai Yen Resort. Our room was small, quaint, and clean with an ocean view ~ everything we could ask and more for $15/day. Our hotel had a nice, cheap restaurant with good food and a really nice pool. We spent our days taking in the sun and swimming in the pool. We both watched each other slowly unwind and the horrid black circles, that had formed under my eyes in Korea, are slowly starting to dissipate. :o)
Happy Vietnamese Birthday, Joe!!
Joe's birthday was quiet and calm, like every other holiday we've experienced abroad. His most stressful times of the day were deciding when he should hop in the pool, when to turn over on his chair, and when to eat. That's everything our favorite beach bum could ask for!! At night, we headed to get some fresh seafood BBQ'ed for us right on the water. While frogs, snakes, and crocodile were on the menu, we decided we'd be a bit more conservative in our selections and went for delicious scallops and prawn.
On our last day in Mui Ne we decided to rent a motorbike of our own. Joe and I hopped on and were ready to explore for ourselves. It was really amazing to see the different landscapes that rolled right into one another. You would go from fishing village to rice paddy to sand dunes to ocean to mountain to lake and back to rice paddy again. It was really beautiful and interesting to explore outside of the city centers. While I already knew the economic disparity between classes was vast here, it was an interesting observation nonetheless as we got to go quite a bit away from the city and see how the local, peasant class lived. It reminded me a lot of the people I met and worked with in the Dominican Republic and I know we'll have many more experiences like this in the coming months but it's always a good time to reflect on how blessed we are and to take a moment to be thankful.
After leaving Mui Ne, we boarded a 5 hour bus to Nha Trang a bit further North but more on that next time...
Love & Miss You,
Nichole & Joe