We had always planned on going home via Singapore, we wanted to stop this way to see my brother and his family and soak in a bit of ‘summer’ before getting back to New Zealand. Vietnam was just an added bonus along the way and, much like many of our travel plans, a last minute addition. A good last minute decision, but last minute non-the-less.
With flights booked and accommodation falling into place we trundled off to the airport ready for our next adventure. Lucky for us, we had allowed far too much ‘traffic’ travel time and arrived at the airport a good two hours early for our flight. Upon check-in we were ushered to a ‘Document Check’ counter, without too much thought we handed over our passports and boarding passes and smiled at an official who replied with a very puzzled look. The man then asked us, in a very confused tone, where our visa was and assumed from our very puzzled look that we didn’t actually have one. He then explained to us that he was checking entry visas to Vietnam, not boarding passes, and sent us off to find a visa. Panic!
In my haste to book flights and accommodation and research things to see, do and eat I hadn’t even thought about visas. A quick Google search confirmed that, yes, we do in fact need entry visas, and the express visa can take up to three hours to come through. Fantastic, our flight is in two hours and the visa can take three. Form filled. Money paid. Photos taken. Now, all we could do was wait. To say the next two hours was stressful is a slight understatement. Lots of email refreshing, curse words, pacing and clock watching. Then, with five mins to spare the email came through. Our visa was approved. Run! We made it to the departure lounge right on boarding time and to our surprise, we were the first people in there! Typical!
Ho Chi Minh was sensory overload. The heat, the smells, the chaos. It was full on, in your face all the time. We spent four days exploring the city and, once I had recovered from the shell shock of it all, was great. I have to admit that much of our time in the city was spent eating and drinking, as we used coffee shops, restaurants, and bars as a way to escape the heat, but I think there are worse ways to spend your time. It also, meant we got to take in landmarks like the Siagon Siagon bar in the Caravelle Hotel and Rex Hotel for cocktail hour, which was always a pleasure. However, this tactic is exactly how we accidentally ended up on a history tour of the Heineken brewery 60 odd stories in the air. As it worked out, the tickets for the tour were cheaper than the observation deck of the Bitexo Tower AND we got four beers, a water, and snacks free. WIN! … we just had to fain interest in the tour, play some crazy games and sit through a VR encounter with a hop … Much to our surprise, it was actually rather hilarious and the time in air conditioning was glorious. After an awkward ‘mystery meat’ incident at a very local food spot, we signed onto a street food walking tour, which was fantastic and took us to local treasures that we never would have found by ourselves … By the end of the night, I was trying to feed my portions to Damian as I could not fit anything else in! But it was well worth the experience and the food was delicious.
When we were not eating or drinking our way around the city, we braved the Ben Thanh Markets and managed to get a couple of bargains as well as getting sufficiently ripped off. We embarked on a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels and squeezed ourselves through segments of them. While it was hugely touristy, to the point where our group would skip sections of the tour to stay ahead of other groups, it was worth going to look at and appreciate the tenacity and ingenuity of the Vietnamese people during this time. We also spent a morning at the War Remnants Museum and Independence Palace, which were both interesting. It was also, really fascinating experiencing these places so soon after stumbling upon a Vietnam War exhibition in New York City. To say the two versions of events differ in opinion is very understated. I always assumed there would be a difference of perspective, however, these were like chalk and cheese, and really only agreed on the fact that the war did, indeed, happen in Vietnam. It’s interesting, how one event can have multiple interpretations depending on who is telling the story. That being said we were both really surprised at how little is mentioned about the war in the city, considering it played such a prominent role. Perhaps it is too much like recent history for people to be open about, or perhaps they just want to move on and forget, but for us, it was a shame.
Part of our plan in Vietnam was to treat ourselves to a few nights in luxury accommodation, so we packed ourselves up and headed north to Hoi An. Upon arrival we both decided that we spent way too long in the city and should have gone up north sooner, it was beautiful (thanks Rob and Janelle for the recommendation!). Our accommodation was spectacular, with an even more spectacular pool. For what we wanted, at that point in our trip it was perfect. We could spend the mornings wandering around the old town and our afternoons by the pool with cocktails and then our evenings at the night markets. Sounds brilliant right?
Well, it was on the first day, and then I got the dreaded Vietnam belly … I can still see the drink that gave it to me … 24 hours later I finally felt like I could leave the vicinity of our bathroom and then by our last night there was fighting fit again. All that luxury and relaxation down the drain.
As silver linings would have it though, it wasn’t all terrible, one of our friends from New Zealand just happened to be in town at the same time! So we spent our last night eating and enjoying the night markets with her, which really was great timing. Old town during the day with all the old shops, hanging lanterns and traditional boats is rather amazing but old town at night when everything is lit up and sparkling is just stunning! So I am really grateful that I was well enough to enjoy a night out and even more grateful that I didn’t miss out on catching up with a good friend as well.
Our trip to Vietnam, by all means, wasn’t perfect. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have spent so long in Ho Chi Minh and we really should have booked accommodation with a pool while we were there. In Hoi An, I should not have ordered the drink with ice cream! But that is traveling, isn’t it? There is always going to be something you could have done differently. In the end, I am so glad we went and I would love to go back to experience more. It really is a beautiful and unique place, from the jungles to the rivers, to the mountains and all the people in between. Once you go and see it, you can understand why they fought so hard to keep hold of it and preserve all that is beautiful about the place.