Despite the name change after the end of the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh City is still called Saigon by many of the locals, especially District 1, the backpacker ‘party district’, where we stayed. Our hotel, the Luan Vu, was a little gem, tucked away off the main strip, so it was in the heart of the action but still quiet enough to sleep, and all for the mere sum of 25 GBP a night, including breakfast for all four of us! Amazing value.
We had also, on the recommendation of an Aussie family we met in Hoi An, booked a food tour with the Back of the Bike Company. Seven Vietnamese university students picked us up at the hotel, and for four hours drove us around Saigon on the ‘back of their bikes’ taking us to 5 different food areas to get a taste of real Vietnamese cuisine. The kids were absolutely in their element getting a ride on the back of the scooters, looking very relaxed while I, for one, held on for my life as they merged into the crazy scooter packed streets of the City, a literal white knuckle ride! But soon you realised that the girls were excellent riders, well used to negotiating the chaos, one of the girls noted that there are over 6 million scooters in Saigon and one thing they were good at was avoiding hitting one another! I can confidently speak for us all when I say it turned into one of our most memorable nights in Vietnam!
Our ‘girls’ were so interesting to talk to, we asked them so many questions about the City, the food and their lives and they were great fun with the kids. And the food? Amazing. We had street food from a stall of grilled meats, green papaya salad with beef jerky, whilst sitting in a park, a busy locals restaurant specialising in seafood soup with rice puffs and a speciality desert-only café for a selection of the most delicious ice-creams, fruits and sticky rice – yummy! And we even learned that the word yum is rude, not to cross your fingers and how to pronounce Pho (soup)properly so you were not asking for something unmentionable! We also found out why people sometimes laughed when Ben said thank you in Vietnamese – it’s all in the inflection apparently – he’s been telling them to ‘shut their mouths’ instead!
And finally when the girls dropped us off at our hotel that night they asked if they could take the kids out for ice-cream the next afternoon (how could we refuse?), and so the kids all got another scooter ride the next day, free ice-creams and their faces all over the girls Facebook pages! The kids are just as popular here in Saigon as they were in Hanoi, stopping daily for cheek pinching, hair stroking and photograph taking.
This gave the adults a bit of child-free shopping time. We had already enjoyed a brief but alarming encounter with the hawkers at the Ben Thanh Market the day before, where the kids were manhandled a bit too much for our liking, so Saigon Square 1 was a welcome relief. We did return later for some souvenirs, but stuck to the ‘fixed price’ stalls to avoid the aggressive sales tactics.
Then it was history curriculum time with a trip to the Cu Chi Village where the infamous Vietcong tunnels system was used very successfully in guerrilla warfare against the American soldiers inthe Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s. We went on a private tour with Quang, a very knowledgeable tour guide who explained how the tunnel system worked, and demonstrated some of the ingenious, but brutal, man traps and ambush techniques the Vietcong used.
There are also some tunnels that you could go down to ‘experience’ how the Vietcong lived and fought for nearly 20 years. The kids loved it but far too hot and claustrophobic for me. It was interesting viewing the war from the Vietnamese point of view, rather than the war movies of the Americans. Quang also talked about how his family was affected as his father fought for the South Vietnamese Army, the SVA, on the side of the Americans and how his father was later ‘re-educated’ by the Communist government. Ollie was quite shocked to hear the term ‘American Killer Heroes’, used in the displays celebrating the Vietcong victory, but it made for an interesting and lengthy discussion about how we write history with Ollie afterwards.
Considered too graphic for the kids, Ben and Rob followed up with a visit to the War Remnants Museum. We later took the boys to see the tanks, jets and armoury in the museum courtyard. Ollie wanted his picture taken with every single one.
Sadly, this was also where we had to say goodbye to our awesome travel companions, Cath, Rob & Lani. We had such a ball with them, we walked, drove, cycled, flew, swam, biked, rowed, floated, chugged, laughed, played, haggled, ate and drank our way through this amazing country together and have some incredible memories to take with us. Thanks so much guys, you made Vietnam a very special experience – how does same time next year sound??