We could have taken a series of night busses to get from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, but my friend Debs and I decided to go by train. It would take 33 hours!
Two months previously Gosia and I had entered Vietnam overland at the middle point from Laos and we had headed south in order to find some warm weather. We spent time in Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh city but I still wanted to visit Hanoi in the north. (As you can see there are a lot of letter ‘H’s’ in the Vietnamese language!). We could have flown.
The observant among you will be noticing that Gosia seems to have been replaced by Debs. That happened in Cambodia. After meeting Debs in Siem Reap and spending time clambering around the temples I had to say an emotional goodbye to Gosia who has the rest of her life to get on with – and then on with welcoming my friend Debs who had come over from Spain.
one of the many rivers that we crossed
Hi Chi Minh to Hanoi
On the train we had reserved the top bunks in a 4-berth cabin which we were sharing with the sweetest young Vietnamese couple. The lady was nearly nine months pregnant and oh so shy. Her husband spoke very softly too and the pair of them slept for most of the journey while Debs and I kept our eye on the lady with the coffee trolley and the hot water urn in case we had to help with a birth.
2nd class recliners
I thoroughly recommend taking the train in Vietnam if you have the time as it’s quite an adventure in itself. We were in the better class of carriage – with soft bunks, although goodness knows how any of the smaller Asian people manage to climb up into the top bunks. It was a bit of a scramble for me and Debs and we are both quite tall.
our sweet travel companions
There was a middle class section on the train with reclining seats and the cheap seats with hard, wooden slatted benches. Because our companions slept a lot and we couldn’t really see the scenery from our top bunks, Debs and I spent a lot of time in the middle class carriage where there were plenty of spare seats.
somewhere from Hi Chi MInh to Hanoi
In our middle class carriage we were invited to share food with the other passengers and we were included in whatever they were saying and doing, not that we understood much at all, but it was a lovely community spirit. Passengers boarded the train and left throughout the journey so there was plenty of interesting people-watching to do.
3rd class – it later became packed to overflowing
We walked through the lower class carriages where we found people trying to make themselves comfortable on the floor underneath the benches. They were lying on sheets of cardboard and most had wrapped themselves up in fleecy blankets. A food trolley was pushed along the train at regular intervals by two of the grumpiest men ever. Despite their sour faces they did a roaring trade in instant noodles, some grey looking Vietnamese soup and crisps and crackers, although everybody seemed to have brought along their own picnics too.
dawn breaks somewhere between Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi
In contrast, the lady who was in charge of the urn of boiling water for teas and coffees was wonderfully happy and was soon pouring us her super strong coffee shots unasked and watching us until we downed them. That was great until it was time to sleep when it took an awfully long time for the rhythmic clicking, clacking and rocking of the carriage to finally trump our overdose of caffeine.
some of our passengers
We passed through some spectacular countryside where rural life carried on unchanged for centuries. Workers in conical hats waded knee deep in paddy fields and buffalo stared at us as we clattered by. Despite the length of the journey from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi and warnings about the rail system we arrived in Hanoi just 3 minutes behind schedule having travelled almost the entire length of Vietnam.
somewhere in Vietnam
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam and huge; yet unlike Ho Chi Minh City it really has a nice cosy feel to it. Or at least, it does in the old town where we stayed. Narrow little streets throng with daily life, obviously there are billions of motorbikes and street food stalls, but unlike Ho Chi Minh, the traffic seems to move a little less frantically and you can actually walk on many of the pavements.
you can walk on the pavements!
By now, we had finally perfected our Vietnamese road crossing skills.
This is an art in itself as rivers of motorbikes flow along. You need to trust to luck and simply step out into the road. Head up and look directly at the riders, put one hand in the air if it is particularly busy and under no circumstances, stop, hesitate or change your pace.
just step out and cross your fingers
They WILL go around you avoiding each other in the process but the minute you hesitate all can be lost as they in turn hesitate and chaos will ensue.
For those of you who are interested in facts and figures how about these?
- 90 million people in Vietnam
- 8 million people in Hanoi
- 4-5 million motorbikes in Hanoi (39 million in Vietnam)
- Nearly everybody who rides a bike in Vietnam wears a face mask (to protect against the traffic fumes and the rays of the sun)
And while we are considering facts and figures…
- 9% of Vietnamese people are Buddhist – most don’t have a religion but they do believe in Buddhism
- There are 54 different ethnic groups
- Vietnam enforces a 2 child policy. Parents have to pay a fee or a fine for extra children but this depends on the ethnic group
- Over 90% of the population over the age of 15 are literate
After a couple of months in Vietnam it felt great to watch newbies hover on the kerbside for ages wondering how on earth they are going to get to the other side! And then to step out and sail past them (with fingers crossed, buttocks clenched and whispering a mantra for survival.
how about this for a front garden?
The weather was quite cool when we were in Hanoi and the skies grey. I got sick again and in the end I spent far too long in my hostel with bronchitis but the one thing that struck me was how varied the countryside and the people, the food and the customs and clothes are in Vietnam.
watch your step
Vietnam is a country of contradictions and contrast; possibly more so than many other countries that I have visited – and here in Ho Chi Minh City the differences really stand out.
In the beginning I took some time to warm to Vietnam, but as soon as I acknowledged this juxtopostion (the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect) I settled down and I viewed the country and its people differently and I began to appreciate it. And to like it.
Take Ho Chi Minh City for example.
Many people think that Ho Chi Minh City is the capital of Vietnam. It isn’t – Hanoi is the capital city but it is understandable how HCM can lead you into forming this opinion.
a typical street scene in Ho Chi Minh City
To add to the confusion (or it confused me anyway) Ho Chi Minh City was formally know as Saigon but was renamed in order to honor Ho Chi Minh who led the country and defeated the Americans in the war. The name Saigon is still widely and fondly used in all circles – and at the risk of offending some people, you do have to admit that it sounds somewhat more romantic than Ho Chi Minh City.
With 8.2 million people Saigon is more populated that Hanoi. The roads are CHAOTIC. In fact the roads are so chaotic that the scooters have rat-runs along the pavements in order to beat the blockages at the junctions-. You have to keep your wits about you as sidewalks are used as bike-parks, shop fronts, street food eating areas and roadways.
This is the pavement not the road
It is steamy and sultry and hot in Saigon. People live side by side all crammed on top of each other with chaos and noise in a tropical sticky atmosphere. The pollution is horrible and the noise is dreadful but there are many reasons to visit this city.
The attractions of Ho Chi Minh City
First and foremost the best things has to be people watching and the coffee culture. Vietnam has the best coffee in the world and here in Saigon you can find coffee everywhere. It is served in the best coffee shops or for the best atmosphere sit on a tiny child-sized plastic chair on the pavement. Wait for the caramel, thick liquid to drip through your battered tin filter cup and ponder on the little known fact that Vietnam is the biggest exporter of coffee in the world.
The water puppet theatre
This was a real cultural gem. We had already seen shadow puppets in Laos and now we went to the theatre in Ho Chi Minh City. Musicians and singers lined the edge of the stage which is dominated by a shallow tank of water. Like the shadow puppets show in Laos I didn’t really have a clue about what was happening but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole event as the skilled puppeteers manoeuvred their puppets in the water, splashed us in the front row and dragons, dolphins and farmers acted out a story in front of our eyes.
the water puppets
The War Remnants Museum.
This museum was hard to deal with but I believe is a very important part of any visit to Vietnam. It tells the story of the Vietnam/American war with a lot of photographs and a lot of personal accounts.
Apparently the story used to be very weighted in the favour of the Vietnamese (but why not – it is their story to tell) but I understand that it is presented in a slightly more balanced way now.
But no matter because war is horrific no matter what side you are on and atrocities are always committed by both sides and it is important to see the pictures and hear the first hand accounts.
I was walking down to the river one evening with some friends and we came across a tiny little shop jam-packed with very odd things in jars. We got chatting to the owner and it turned out that some of the jars contained snake wine – used to treat a variety of ailments in the Chinese traditional way. Egged on by each other we drank a glass of the wine. Trying not to think about the snakes coiled up and festering in the jars I drank mine, only to discover that we had been given some ancient recipe similar to Viagra.
testing the snake wine
Cu Chi Tunnels
These tunnels are a minivan trip away from Saigon but are well worth the trip. Yes, they are touristic, yes they are busy but they also give you an excellent insight into certain elements of the war and I truly appreciated the hardships that the occupants of the tiny tunnels had to endure. You can marvel at the ingenious ways that the people disguised their tunnels and even more so, how claustrophobic the tunnels must have been.
these tunnels are tiny
Central Post Office
This vast hall is worth a peep inside just for a fantastic photo shot of the rather special ceiling. It often feels that there are more tourists than customers inside but you realise why once you are there with this glimpse back at this building with its origins in the French occupation.
the opulent post office ceiling
There are green spaces everywhere and people use them. You will see pairs of children playing a game where they kick a large badminton shuttlecock to each other and circles of teenagers playing keepsie-upsie with a rattan ball. There are of course men and women of all ages practising tai chi, we saw a salsa dance club and men playing Chinese chess under the trees. In a city where the pollution levels are so high, the parks are a welcome relief if only visually.
taking time out from the chaos
Walk along the riverbank
We wandered along the riverbank several times. At night the grassy banks were packed with courting couples sitting and cosily sharing picnics on their blankets. During the day Gosia and I got terribly lost when we crossed one of the bridges and turned right instead of left. As usual, we got lost in a down-at-heel, dodgy area where I guess few tourists wander. The people were rough around the edges, living in wooden and tin shacks and growing vegetables in the earth underneath the motorway but we were not robbed or beaten and they couldn’t have been nicer as they laughed at us and pointed us the way out of their area and back to the mainstream city.
Ben Thanh Market
This market is enormous. Under cover, it is a rabbit warren of stalls piled high with everything that you could ever need. At night, the streets that surround it attract more vendors firing up their burners and heating oil to sizzling point in their woks whole flies are attracted to their bright lamps in their millions.
The narrow lanes of District 1
Behind the chaos in District 1 which is one of the most popular areas for tourists, there is a labyrinth of narrow lanes where it seems that time stands still. Immediately after plunging into one of the alleyways the noise from the traffic is muffled. As you walk past tiny little homestays and bars you can’t help but peek inside homes where grandad is sleeps on a mat on the tiled floor and girls huddle over their homework surrounded by boxes from the family businesses.
the lanes of Saigon
Where did I stay?
As usual, we stayed in a backpackers hostel. Gosia and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City without any accommodation and then had to walk for a couple of hours in the heat with our packs trying to find somewhere that wasn’t full (but was within our budget).
We finally came across the Hang Out hostel which had only been opened for a short while and was just perfect for us. It included a complimentary breakfast and free beers every evening and was a major hub for people gathering to buy and sell their motorbikes (next time I also want to ride the length of Vietnam under my own steam).
I stayed at this hostel each time that I visited Saigon and I would do so again. It was perfectly positioned with the myriad of interesting little lanes behind them and the vegetable market that set up on the pavement outside early every morning.
I want to go in THAT hostel
I hope that this article gives you an idea of some of the things to see and to in Ho Chi Minh City. Sadly I never got further south to the Mekong Delta and I never got up into one of the sky bars but I had a great time.
If you fancy travelling with me in in Malaysia and you want to join in the fun, check out my travel buddy information here. But remember, as this is a 1 to 1 experience it is strictly first come, first served so if you are at all interested, drop me a line and find out more.
And to round off this article I shall leave you with a few more pictures of the chaos that is Saigon.
quiet down an alleyway
water puppet actors take a bow
a fighting cock takes no notice of the traffic behind him
selling something tasty
the veg market
street traders outside my hostel
nobody bats an eyelid
snake wine anybody?