Vietnam’s largest city, the mighty Ho Chi Minh City…Although many still refer to it as Saigon. We’re still not really sure what to call it-Saigon was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina and then the independent republic of South Vietnam 1955–75. On 2 July 1976, Saigon merged with Gia Định Province and was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after Hồ Chí Minh. Today it is Vietnam’s most populated area, with in excess of 9,000,000 inhabitants (with roughly 4,000,000 motorbikes!)
On departure from the train station you are immediately hurled into this heaving, bustling, thriving metropolis. Motorbikes everywhere, beeping and jostling for position, surrounded by the bright lights of a progressive and modern city. Certainly it had been a while since we were in the thick of it like this, it would definitely take some time to get up to speed with things and adjust to being back in a major city.
Our plan was to stay a few days in the city, and then travel south to Rach Gia to spend Vietnamese New Year (Tết ) with the family of our friend, Tu, whom we had met back in Vientiane.
Tết is the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture-it is treated as Christmas, New Year and everyone’s birthday-all rolled into one. It is generally celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, taking place from the first day of the first month of the Vietnamese calendar until at least the third day.
In preparation for the celebrations Vietnamese families cook special holiday foods such as bánh chưng, bánh dày, dried young bamboo soup, giò and sticky rice; and everyone embarks on a ritualistic deep clean of their houses and businesses. Traditionally it is the time of year when everyone worships, celebrates and honours their ancestors, everyone wishes New Year’s greetings, and lucky money in red envelopes is given to children and elderly people.
As we made our way through the city, the excitement about the upcoming festivities was palpable. Huge flower displays had taken over parks and streets throughout the city, and the mass cleaning had begun-with some shops even emptying out their wares onto the street, to allow them to scrub and clean their premises.
Having gotten settled and rested, our first day proper into the city and we headed out to meet up with one of my friends cousins who lives in Saigon. Again it was great to meet up with someone who you had some level of familiarity with, and really interesting to get an insiders perspective, gaining a modicum of understanding what it is like to adjust to living in a city such as this. Oh, and obviously the advantage of getting taken to a great lunch spot, local knowledge and all that!
Left to our own devices, we hit the tourist trail and set off to find the museums, palaces and galleries that have become the standard procedure on city exploration. Given Vietnam’s recent history, it’s no surprise that the War Remnants Museum is particularly of note, painting a vivid an horrifying account of the atrocities of war, as well as the painful legacies that still impact the Vietnamese peoples today.
From the War Remnants Museum we made our way to the iconic Independence Palace, otherwise know as the Reunification Palace, the site of the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.
Having been away from the intensity of a major city for a couple of months, you forget how draining it is to spend time walking around sightseeing. The heat is unforgiving, the franticness just doesn’t subside, unfamiliar sounds and smells bombard you from all directions. You soon become aware of the fact that you aren’t really taking everything in, as I found myself coasting through the modern art gallery-somewhat in a daze and just being thankful that I had found some respite from the traffic outside. It’s at times like this that travelling is difficult, and you start to become self aware of your desire to have some purpose, an objective, something other than consuming tourism.
Our saving grace was our planned exit strategy, to go and spend time with Tu and his family in the province of Rach Gia, away from the bright lights and sounds of the city. Unbeknown to us, travel becomes somewhat difficult around Tết as it’s an occasion for pilgrims and family reunions. All Vietnamese visit their relatives and temples, erasing the troubles of the past year and looking forward to a better year ahead. Given this mass movement of people, public transportation become incredibly busy, as we were about to find out.
We arrived at the bus company office, and things weren’t looking good. Jam packed with people trying to get home, we eventually got to the counter to be told that the next available ticket wasn’t for another four days….nightmare! Feeling pretty dejected, the staff told us to wait for a while and they would check out some other options, and as luck would have it they managed to find us two tickets for that day-things were looking up once again! Feeling pretty happy with our fortune, we made our way to the bus station ready for our journey down south, alas things weren’t going to be as simple as we had thought.
On arrival at the station we found ourselves dropped into the middle of, what I would term, unintelligible chaos. There were hundreds of people waiting at the station for various buses, and it was hot….Really hot!
Still, we only had an hour to wait and then we would be on our way in air conditioned comfort-oh how wrong we were. 5 hours later and we are still in the bus station, melting, and surrounded by fellow disgruntled travellers. The bus that was scheduled for 11AM had just left, it was 5PM. Our bus was already 4 hours late and it was looking like at least another 2-3 hours before it would arrive, if at all. With heavy hearts we decided to retreat, return to the city and inform our friend that we would not be able to make it-we were gutted.
Settling back in the guesthouse and trying to work out what to do, our grey cloud presented it’s very own silver lining with the news of the impending arrival of some people that we had met in Cambodia at the start of our trip. Ricky and Bryan were part of the SCUBA diving crew on Koh Rong Samloem, and they were an absolute hoot! They were going to be spending Tết in Saigon as well, and so once again we had some familiar faces to look forward to seeing, and to celebrate the New Year with.
Still, a few days to kill before their arrival, and so our quest to relax in the city began. First up, we managed to find the public swimming pool-an old school art deco outdoor pool at that! You can imagine that it used to be absolutely glorious in its heyday, although now it’s somewhat fallen into disrepair. Still-it was a welcome break from the heat, and some much needed physical exertion. The pool brought with it the discovery of a local gym, and as mentioned previously our craving of exercise was something that needed stemming-with time to kill and access to a fully equipped gym, we were positive about making the most of our time stuck in the city.
All of this in the midst of the build up to Tết, which was now at fever pitch, the city had been transformed with huge flower displays taking over the streets and New Years markets populating some of the parks. Time to browse the wonder of Bonsai, flower arrangement, and the various ‘ode to goat’, for the New year coming!
In Great British fashion, we all went out, got rather merry, and enjoyed the most spectacular fireworks to ring in the New Year. It’s difficult to describe what it was like to be on the streets of Saigon counting down to their New Year-the atmosphere was electric, and the streets were absolutely jam packed with bikes, cars and pedestrians all beeping their horns, people cheering and clapping….And us-wishing anyone who would listen ‘Chuc Mong Nam Moy’ (Happy New Year!)
Nursing hangovers, the next day we set about our mission to get our of the city; not to be perturbed by our earlier failed efforts-we were once again attempting to get to Rach Gia.