500 motorbikes waiting at a set of lights, round-a-bouts with bikes and cars weaving around each other in a chaotic dance, touts that never accept ‘no’ .. welcome to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. After a few weeks in quiet Laos, it feels like we’ve travelled to another world rather than just the next country.
Our adventures started at the airport in Ho Chi Minh where the taxi drivers were trying to charge us 500,000 dong to drive the 30 min to our hotel and the Airport Taxi coupon system wanted 250,000 dong. We knew that the fare was supposed to be around 120,000 (by meter its actually around 50-75000) so we kept walking till we found a driver that agreed to use the meter. Two hundred meters down the road he suddenly started asking for 250,000 and we told him no; he could use the meter or accept 100,000 dong.
The poor driver kept insisting on 250000 so we asked he to turn around. He stopped talking and kept driving with us wondering what was going on. We arrived at our hotel and after a 10minutes of the driver screaming at us for 250000, trying to grab our bags and take us back to the airport, while we argued that he said he would use the meter so we weren’t paying any more than 100,000, we were staring to think perhaps our information that it should only be 120,000 was completely wrong. He was so genuinely upset that it didn’t feel like he was trying to scam us, and we tried to sort the situation out without anyone loosing face, but everything we said just escalated the situation.
Eventually we “think” we worked out that he was trying to tell us that he was upset because taking a coupon fare would have earned him 250000 dong and he had to pay airport parking taxes that are offset by the higher fares. At least we think that’s what happened. But he also plainly agreed to meter. There was no miscommunication there. His english was good enough to have that agreed at the start and we’d done a huge charades game pointing to the meter clearly showing what we wanted before hopping in the taxi. When he first started saying 250000 dong we’d said no and pointed to the meter again, giving him the option of turning around before even leaving the airport but he’d continued driving I guess hoping to get the full fare. To solve the problem we ended up giving him 200,000 dong (being pig headed about the whole ‘we asked you to use the meter’ situation and the fact that the meter read 42000 dong) and he stormed off with smoke coming out his ears.
We got to our hotel and told them what happened. They were like “Oh you should have used our taxi driver. We would have charged you 120 000 dong. Always arrange it through your hotel”. Next time we will. It was a horrible way to start out our time in Vietnam, partly because of the scam but mostly because in the negotiations I’m sure we made at least 30 cultural mistakes and we felt really rude.
Hanging out in Saigon
We had four nights in HCMC prior to the arrival of my mother and her partner. We spent those four nights at the Cat Huy Hotel. The rooms are new and a fantastic size, with enough space for the kids to play and a small sectioned off area for Colin to work in. We highly recommend the place to other families, just make sure you ask for a room on one of the lower levels as there’s no lift. We’re all a bit fitter after walking to the 6 floor every day!
Every morning we woke to a fresh food market in the alley way outside the hotel. The kids really enjoyed looking at the meat stalls and trying to figure out what part of the animal each cut of meat was from. Pigs ears were their favourite.
Colin and I have really started to hit a wall with travel for the moment. We’d still rather be here than home working 9-5, but four months without day care or regular baby sitting or even neighbourhood friends for the kids to play with is harder than we were expecting. We’re tired and cranky.
In an attempt to turn things around and have a fun day, we decided to take the kids to Dam Sen Waterpark. Unfortunately we went on a Sunday during school holidays. Imagine being in a London Tube station at peak hour… then picture all those people standing in a wading pool. If you tried to stretch both your arms out and turn in a circle you would hit 5 other people.
And when your the only white people in a sea of 5000 Vietnamese well you might as well forget about personal space and accept that your a zoo exhibit. We finally understand how Hayley has felt for the last four months being touched, prodded, grabbed and gawked at 24/7.
Unfortuantely we didn’t realise until after we paid that the children were too short to go on any of the slides. The kids still had a ball in the children’s swimming pool, one of the best children’s pools we’ve ever seen. We also enjoyed laying on tyres in the lazy river, even if we had to fight our way through crazy ladies who wanted to grab Hayley.
After 4 days we moved to Tan My Dinh Hotel to meet up with my mother and her partner to start our 11 day tour of Vietnam through Private Asia Tours. We’re not sure who is happier to see Nanna arrive, the kids or Colin and I.
Museums in Saigon
Yesterday we had a full day city tour of Ho Chi Minh. We started the day with a visit to the Reunification Palace. Not the most fascinating destination for kids although they did really enjoy the tanks and fighter jet outside.
The highlight of our time in Saigon was visiting the War Remnants Museum, which portrays the Vietnam war from the Vietnamese’s perspective.
We were lost for words at what we saw. The museum mostly portrays the atrocities that the US and allied forces committed during the war. The museum is a little one sided but it was very eye opening to see the war from a different perspective to what we normally hear at home or see in Hollywood movies. To say the photos and exhibits are both horrifying and moving is an understatement. It was worth visiting Ho Chi Minh just to come here.
Noah and Hayley enjoyed the gardens filled with tanks, planes and helicopters, visiting the prison cells and seeing the guillotine. They’re a little young to understand most of what was in the museum thankfully, although Noah came away understanding a little about the chemical warfare that went on and the ongoing affects it has on children his age even today.
We also visited several of Saigon’s markets and temples. We really enjoyed the Chinese temple with its beautiful spiral incense. We wrote our names on one and hung it in the temple.
Cu Chi tunnels
Today was our last day in Ho Chi Minh. We visited the Cu Chi, an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City. They are part of a huge network of tunnels that underlie much of Vietnam and the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War.
The people of Cu Chi lived in these tunnels for 20-30 years, fighting as guerrillas, raising and birthing children, sleeping, eating; even long after the war. After so many years living underground many of the people took a long time to adjust to life above ground and stayed living there. 5000 US and allied forces soldiers died trying to take the tunnels, and 10000 Vietnamese died trying to defend the tunnels.
Crawling through the tunnels is hard work. We were only underground for a couple of minutes and travelled perhaps 50m but our legs were aching and the earth was pressing down. Hayley was the only one who could walk upright, the rest of us had to walk crouched. And these were in the special tunnels that have been enlarged for foreigners!
Mum, Noah and I also climbed into one of the camoflagued guerrilla sniper hiding places. Colin tried but he couldn’t quite fit. They’re not really designed to fit the shoulders of western men!
Hayley’s doll, Hannah Bubba managed it easily!
The kids really enjoyed spotting centipedes on the jungle floor, giant snails in the trees, watching rice paper being made, seeing all the ‘traps’ that were laid around the tunnels and the bomb craters, and climbing inside the destroyed US tank. Apart from the heat it was a great day out with kids and very educational for adults.
Colin of course couldn’t resist shooting a handgun and M16 with Wilson…
… while the rest of us ate ice creams.
We’re really glad we chose to go to the tunnels the day after seeing the War Remnants Museum as it put it all in good context. Visiting here you can start to understand what happened on both sides of the war.
Our tour guide Trang was amazingly informative. She was born during the war and can remember the end of the war. She had a lot of eye opening stories about her family and friends in post-war Vietnam. After the tunnels it was off to the airport to catch a flight to Hoi An for three days.