This website reflects my own personal views and not that of the U.S. Government nor, more specifically, the Peace Corps.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Return to Vietnam (Pt. I: Ho Chi Minh City)

I guess I enjoy Vietnam plenty, as I just returned from there for my second time in six months. What I really enjoyed about this trip was that not only was it with different company but the things I saw, how I saw them, and what I did was completely new and exciting.  This time around, I was traveling with my girlfriend, Leah, fellow PCV and an all-around B.A (and wonderful writer: check out her perspective of traveling through Vietnam). We only explored the south as opposed to my previous (very ambitious) tour of the entire country in 14 days. We stayed in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon), Mui Ne, Nha Trang (pronounced Nyah Chahng), and Hoi An.

So, what did I notice during this adventure? The first thing that comes to mind is the geniality of the Vietnamese people, especially to tourists attempting to use some very basic language skills (i.e. "hello" and "thank you"). You might very well guess (I did) that, at some point, Vietnam would be so inundated with tourism that the people would grow tired of its visitors. However, we were both treated (most of the time) with a generally friendly demeanor. Another thing I noticed (or rather, noticed again) was the beauty of the country. Due to it's long, latitudinal shape, almost every new place you visit has a slightly different environment, geography and climate; this makes traveling through Vietnam constantly intriguing. 

Some Vietnamese:

Hello - Xin chào (Sin chao)
Goodbye - Tạm biệt (Dahm beht)
Yes - Vâng/Dạ (Vahng/Dah)
No - Không (Kong)
Thank you - Cảm ơn (Gahm euh[r]n)
Pho (noodle soup) with beef - Phở bò (Pheuh[r] boh)
Iced coffee with milk - Cà phê sữa đá (Café soo-ah dah)
Sorry/Excuse me - Xin lỗi  (Sum law-i[t])
Check, please! -  Xin thanh tiền! (Sum done dayne)
Delicious! - Ngon!

I'll go through the trip city by city:

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) -

So...OH! HEY!..Sorry about that. So, HCMC is a pret....WATCH OUT! AH!...I apologize again. I'll try and find a place where I'm not putting myself in danger of being run over by a moto or seventy. As I was saying, HCMC is a pretty busy city (understatement). The largest city in Vietnam, HCMC houses 7.4 million people, only three times the amount of motos constantly honking and zipping in and out of the many busy streets. HCMC was originally called Saigon before the end of the Vietnam (or American) War when it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the country's revered leader who was President of the country until his death in 1969. A fun fact about Ho Chi Minh is that his last wish was to have his body cremated and spread throughout the North, South, and Central Highlands; his body was embalmed, and you can see it in Hanoi for a dollar. Almost everywhere you go in Vietnam you will find pictures and/or cartoons of "Uncle Ho."

While in HCMC, we visited the War Remnants Museum, which, as I've mentioned before, made me feel the most aware I've ever been of my being American; it's hard not to have a pang of guilt while traveling from one exhibition to another. Walking through the museum is very trying on the conscience and heart. If you'd like to read more about it, check out my previous post on Ho Chi Minh City back in April. Aside from that museum, we also traveled to Cu Chi to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were extremely small tunnels navigated by the Viet Cong during the war. These tunnels were essential in the success of the North Vietnamese; they navigated hundreds of square kilometers right under American/South Vietnamese occupied territories, transporting weapons and surprising their foes. It is daunting, to say the least, to be down in those dark, damp cramping tunnels for even 40 meters before feeling significant pain through your spine. A couple of very strange things about the tour is the odd juxtaposition of the firing range with the exhibition of traps, tunnels, and the general trying way of life of the Cu Chi people. Yes, I just said "firing range", where you can fire off rocket propelled grenades and AK-47s into a mountain side. It is difficult to explain the feeling of being in that location and hearing gun fire and explosions close by. It is even stranger that tourists come there specifically to partake in the activity.
One of the Cu Chi Tunnel entrances
On a lighter note, there is some wonderful food in this city, especially the phở bo, the coffee, and the delicious sweet treats at the Ban Thanh (pronounced ban tan), such as xôi chè (prounounced soy jay), sticky rice (in a multitude of colors) filled with mung beans, broad beans, lentils, lotus nuts, coconut shreds, agar-agar jelly and saturated with sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk; I'm sure I forgot a few ingredients. This dessert fills you up, and it costs 10,000 đ  (Đong) or about $0.49. A typical, filling meal in Vietnam will run you around 40,000 đ  or about $2. The exchange rate is close to 20,800 đ (or VND) to 1USD. The food in Vietnam is such a change from the fare in Cambodia. Cambodian cuisine is interesting in that it is a combination of the dishes of its surrounding countries--Thailand, Vietnam, China--but it lacks a certain complexity which is so prevalent in the others. Vietnamese food is definitely packed with tons of flavor and plenty of varying textures. I would go back to Vietnam for a third time simply for the food.
Another note on food and the last day spent in HCMC:

Leah and I got dressed up in our new clothes and caught a couple of motos to a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show, which was lovely (hokey, but fun and lovely), after which it immediately began to downpour. Leah had a thought: maybe going out in partially soaked nice clothes to a dinner we couldn't afford might be a little stressful...
Okay, now for some more pictures (Oh hey! The first picture is of food. That's weird.) -
Fried banana rice cakes with tapioca topping
I think Leah likes it
A traditional water puppet show, which originated in the North
The trees and the parks were abundant and awesome to behold
The Vietnamese build their sidewalks around nature rather than removing nature to make way for sidewalks
Check out Return to Vietnam (Pt. II: Mui Ne and Nha Trang) (tomorrow) for more on the middle part of the trip.

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