17.03.2016 - 20.03.2016 35 °C
Our last morning in Hội An consisted of eating some breakfast and getting a bit felt up by one of the Vietnamese ladies who remarked that my tummy wasn't as big as her tummy and proceeded to take a good chunk of my abdominal flab in her hand and squeeze it determinedly.
This actually gave me a warm wash of nostalgia from the days when my dearly departed grandmother (Oma) would grab me in a similar place and announce that I had "A LOT OF SPECK" (German for bacon).
It was very hot and we were thankful for our 1hr air conditioned taxi ride to Da Nang train station. As per usual (thanks to Lauren's phobia of tardiness), we were VERY early for our train and so spent 2 hours cooing over cute babies and buying overpriced, nutritionally bereft packaged snacks.
This was our longest journey to date; 18 hours from Da Nang to Vietnam's capital Hồ Chí Minh. The train was in the exact same format as the one we took from Hà Nội to Huế a week earlier. For the first few hours we shared our 4-berth cabin with an old Vietnamese lady and her big potted plant. We didn't talk with each other but we shared plenty of smiles and polite gestures.
We spent the rest of the daytime hours trying to make the time pass as quickly as possible; playing games, reading, having the occasional snooze, daydreaming out of the window etc. One of the train attendants was a very smiley young man who seemed to be quite enamoured by us. Every now and again he would come into our cabin and sit beside the lady on her bed and look at us. He didn't speak any English but he seemed to be talking about us to the lady, at one point touching one of Lauren's arm tattoos. I tried my best to memorise his name badge and told Lauren not to worry as I'd unleash the scouse if he crossed the line. I didn't need to though.
At tea time we struggled a bit to order food as the menu was all in Vietnamese, but the crappy language app I'd downloaded onto my Kindle enabled us to order rice and vegetables. As we were waiting for our food a lady came round with a stall full of cooked meat items. I bought what looked like two pork satay sticks and hoped for the best. As I should have guessed the meat was tough and full of gristle and fat and also had pubic-like hairs poking out of it. I didn't finish the sticks.
We were presented with a large carton full of steamed white rice dolloped with garlic green-beans, and that was it. No sauce, no other vegetables. We later found out that rau (the word we used for vegetables) can, if said in a certain way, just mean green beans. Ah well, it was food and we were just happy to have plenty in our bellies for the rest of the long ride.
The original lady got off and was replaced by another old lady, but this one a bit more glam with pedicured feet and plenty of rouge. With nothing much else to do, at around 19:30 the three of us assumed the sleeping position and turned the cabin light off. An hour or so later a young woman came in to fill the last bed.
We both slept quite well, only a little bothered by the fluctuating temperature and occasional jerk and bump. At 5am, some weird pop music blasted in and woke us all up - this is the 'we're almost there' alarm. Bleary eyed and with limited space we got our bags together and made our way to the doors; blocking most of the aisle with our backpacks in the process.
At 5:20 we arrived and as advised by our next host, jumped into a well-marked official taxi which charged on the meter. Our accommodation was a homestay, and it didn't have a name as a hotel or guesthouse would. We gave the full address to the taxi driver but it became clear quite quickly that he wasn't really sure where it was. We'd been told (and we could see on Google Maps) that the homestay was only 2km from the station (a 10 min journey). However after 15 mins, the driver stopped on a main road and told us this was our destination. We obviously refuted this and showed him the address again. He eventually got us to the right place after half an hour of doing one big circle. Lauren then refused to pay him the amount on the meter (approx. £5) as he'd took us on a wild goose chase. Our host had told us it should cost no more than $2. I was a little shocked (and very proud) at 'easy-going' Loz standing defiant in a dark, unfamiliar Saigon. The man angrily accepted the £3.50 we gave him and we both felt a little victory (whilst also wondering whether he would come back later and murder us).
One of the benefits of a homestay is that you're generally not subjected to rigid check-in and out times. We told our host our arrival time in advance which mean he (Mr. Than) was there to greet us and let us into our room; saving hours of waiting around and falling asleep in cafés.
Our double room was on the second floor of a four-story house (typical of Hồ Chí Minh), tucked away at the end of a quiet side street and we had a shared bathroom. The house is occupied by the host's adult daughter who lives on the top floor (who we unfortunately never met). The were lots of knick-knacks around and it did feel like we were staying in a flat-share, which was cosy and nice.
We did all that we could at that time; sleep. Upon waking we stepped out onto the streets of District 3 to get ourselves some breakfast items. We walked down a narrow residential street on our way to the mini-mart where we saw the occupants of the tall houses, old and young, sat outside their doors, with their dogs, cats and chickens, in their underwear, taking in the vitamin D. And by jove was there plenty of vitamin D! We had thought Hội An was hot, but Hồ Chí Minh felt like Mars. Lauren started to worry that she wouldn't make it through the 3 days.
Later on, we ventured to District 1 - the city centre, a 20 minute walk away. At 36 °C we almost melted into the concrete. Once again, we'd thought that Hà Nội's traffic was frenzied and precarious for pedestrians, but that was before we'd experienced Hồ Chí Minh. It wasn't so much the size and complexity of the roads, although they were massive, but the quantity and unashamed conduct of the motorcyclists. It's difficult enough to navigate the streets of the capital as a pedestrian as there isn't a consistent pavement and even when there is, it's blocked by parked bikes or stalls. So a lot of the time you're walking in the road. When you do manage to get on a bit of ostensibly safe paving, you'll suddenly feel a motorbike zoom past your body - on your left and on your right. Lauren and I quickly realised that motorcyclists, in an attempt to beat the heavy traffic, will use pavements as an overtaking lane. This meant that on our first day we were constantly turning around to see if we were about to be run down. By our last day however, fighting obnoxious with obnoxious, we actively spread ourselves out across the pavement, forcing the bikers to re-enter the road. You really can't take us anywhere.
In town we wandered briefly around Bến Thành market, getting accosted most of the way by the traders. Then we booked our bus tickets to Phnom Penh and ate at a little vegetarian restaurant we'd stumbled across on the way. It was St. Patrick's day but we just didn't have it in us to find an Irish bar and face the crowds. Instead, we treated ourselves to a Baskin Robbins ice cream - when we should have actually had a Fanny's homemade Vietnamese ice cream but hindsight is a great thing.
That evening, my belly decided to act up again - at least I didn't digest the ice cream calories...
On our second day we walked back to Bến Thành market where we met our tour guide Vivianne (a young Vietnamese university student) from Saigon Free Walking Tours. We were joined on our city tour by a fellow Brit (from Kent) called Lisa who had only just arrived in Vietnam. We walked and chatted and learned a little about the history of Hồ Chí Minh. One thing we were struck by was the mass of beautiful very tall trees right in the midst of the urban centre (unfortunately my knowledge of trees isn't very good).
In the tour we explored the War Remnants Museum (previously known as Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes), Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, the Central Post Office (built by Gustave Eiffel) and the City Hall.
We enjoyed the tour but, dehydrated, hungry and overheated after waking for hours in the sun, we were keen to get back 'home'. The 30 minute walk back to District 3 at rush hour almost killed us. We stopped at Saigon Vegan for much-needed sustenance then once back, jumped straight in the shower to douse ourselves in ice cold water.
For our last day in Vietnam's capital we met up with our new friends Hattie and Michael who we met on our India tour. We chose Bookworm café as our meeting point; a scruffy little backpacker place with lots of books for borrowing and exchanging. On my way back from the toilet (that had no sink or way of hand-washing at all) I peeked in the adjacent kitchen and tried to ignore the hundreds of hygiene violations. Lauren had a disappointing fake sausage and cheese toastie and Hattie and Michael had a flavourless phở soup. The chilled/rustic vibe of the place was a redeeming feature though.
We walked to Bến Thành market and swept through the alleys of stalls, trying to browse without getting jumped on by sellers. Lauren even managed to buy some fake Ray Ban sunglasses to replace her 99p Shop ones. We then headed over to the nearby street food market which was a biggish warehouse-style location with many different food stalls; mostly Asian but some Westernised options too. It was pretty trendy and gentrified with street art on the walls, posters and indie music.
As none of us had seen it yet we all ventured over to Independence/Reunification Palace but had to walk around the whole circumference of its walls for 30 minutes to get to the right entrance. The Palace has quite an interesting history; it had started life as a palace but had also acted as government building (which aesthetically it looks more like). Inside wasn't particularly opulent as many European palaces tend to be, but the huge basement bunker was fascinating. A warren of concrete passages with lots of amazing looking old telecommunications technology.
For lunch we went back to the street food market where Hattie and Michael chose rib sandwiches, Lauren chose a Thai potato curry and I selected a Japanese Yaki Soba. We sat on the 'rustic' benches with all the other tourists, ex-pats and young Vietnamese and gobbled everything up while people-watching. The usual post-food lull hit us pretty quickly and that, coupled with the stifling heat and hours of walking around meant we were all pooped. We said our goodbyes and commenced our bastarding half hour walk back to our homestay; at rush hour, in 70% humidity.
That was it for Hồ Chí Minh city and I really liked it but I think Lauren is a little tired of cities now. I also think the heat is getting a bit debilitating for us English folks. So with that in mind, our next stop is big city Phnom Penh that's 3 degrees hotter than Vietnam. Genius!