With my visa safely stamped in my passport, I then headed off on a 6-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Saigon in Vietnam. The journey was much more relaxing than the stuffy ride from Bangkok to Siem Riep, with the chance to stretch out in a much more comfortable bus whilst cooled down by the air conditioning that this time functioned. There were no scams en route either – the passing over the border was also swift without any real problems. On board, I met an interesting character called David who’d travelled over from California. He lived in Saigon teaching English and was on his way back after meeting his sister and friend at the airport and renewing his visa in Phnom Penh. He filled me with huge excitement as he described life in Saigon and Vietnam in general, how the people there were so friendly and welcoming, even owing to his American background.
As we approached the suburbs of Saigon, the green flat landscapes that passed us by began to morph into the huge tower blocks of a complex cosmopolitan city. The bus had been chugging along in the middle carriageway at peace until about an hour outside the city centre. Without warning we were hounded by the buzzing of hundreds of scooters that swarmed around us. We were massively outnumbered by about twenty or thirty scooters to every one car, the cars instead weaving in and out of scooter seeking gaps through the malaise. Mopeds were king in this city. There were even carriageways built for mopeds that were stacked up to ten or more wide at times.
We eventually parked up in the centre of town at around 9pm and were completely abandoned on the streets without any guidance as to where to go. With backpacks in tow, I joined up with a group that were ironically from Putney, the very place I left from to go travelling. The place was chaotic and disorientating as the mopeds zoomed by us frantically. Locals kept on approaching us to try and tempt us to jump on tuk-tuks and head to hostels that were probably in the middle of nowhere. We had to figure out a way to cross the road without getting knocked over which was a huge leap of faith. At one point, I just had enough and as I stepped out into the road, I just had to hope fortune was with me. The walk across the street seemed like a lifetime even though it was only about 20 or 30 metres to the other side. Buses and trucks would honk their horns as I dodged the ensuing mopeds. But somehow, the only way to get across was to saunter slowly, without hesitation and with confidence – the most important thing was to keep moving. With this in mind, the chaos around you was actually quite organised. This was the norm; the traffic expects people to be in the middle of the road asking for trouble. The traffic doesn’t batter an eye lid weaving past you without a qualm.
With the mission crossing the road accomplished, we finally found a street sign that gave us a clue as to where we were. Luckily we were only a couple of streets off the main Biu Vien strip in the centre. After checking into a hostel, we headed out for some food and this was the first chance for me to taste the many delights of Vietnamese cuisine. I’d never considered trying Vietnamese cuisine before, but without real reason not to. But the first meal I had was an incredible meat barbecue, the steaks so lean and tender covered in the freshest hard-core spices that hit you square between the eyes, keeping you strangely perked up and refreshed. After the food, we then hit the town for a night of partying into the early hours which served up all that you might dream of finding in Saigon. The scooters would continue to dodge round the streets but this time with cool looking young guys brandishing black shades and American outfits, together with slick-backed hair and girls clambering on the back. The bars and restaurants were lined up side by side lit up by bright neon lights whilst all kinds of locals and travellers gathered in the sticky heat amongst the echoing Euro pop music pumping out from the clubs around. Fish bowls were a common drink made up of a concoction of spirits and alco-pops, all served up in huge buckets to sup away by the gallon. Local street dwellers would keep trying to sell all kinds of merchandise from croaking frogs to glow-in-the-dark bouncing balls. There were even people dragging a weighing machine around.But, the most disconcerting of sites was seeing hoards of girls, as young as six or seven, all dressed up as teenage school girls in pigtails, short skirts and long socks, sent out into the streets to enter the bars and restaurants begging for money or even selling cigarettes and alcohol. The parents would be a few metres away watching on.
As the night dragged on, we hopped from bar to bar, meeting all kinds of people from a number of countries including Sweden, Germany, France and the US. The good thing was that we were never too far away from some local Vietnamese, with a big group of us dancing and mingling away throughout the night in dirty basements and big open planned dancefloors. We even had a chance to taste the local beer sold out the back of people’s homes which were overpoweringly potent and probably not made solely from usual hops and barley. The strange thing was that the AC Milan vs Manchester United Champions League game was on everywhere – the world showing us how small it’s getting. You’re never really too far away from home. With the drinks pouring and the music cranking up, you were never left alone to your own devices without catching the eye of someone interesting in the distance…The following day was a tough one whilst nursing a hangover in the blistering 40 degree heat. The sun felt like it was on top of you, beating you down to the floor. The guys I was with decided to have a lazy day close by, but I was up for checking out the main parts of the city before booking a trip to the Mekong Delta for the next day.
I jumped on a man-cum-bicycle powered tuk-tuk to take in the sites of downtown Saigon. I had the chance to witness first-hand the chaotic streets full of scooters as the guy peddled his way through the city without a fuss. That was until we crashed into two other mopeds as he dropped me off after the tour around, smashing my back in for the fun of it. But, I’d survive.
The city was like any other in terms of its infrastructure, with long wide avenues dominating the huge towers either side. But what was evident from the visit were the telling signs of the Vietnam War. Not in terms of destruction, but there were countless museums, government buildings, barracks, vehicles and monuments all over the city symbolising the tragic war. The city also still appeared firmly rooted in its routes, with symbols of the Southern Vietnamese Army draped around the city.
What was also quite strange was seeing the Notre Dame Cathedral which was built by the French colonists in the mid to late 1800s which replaced an abandoned Pagoda on the very same spot. I also managed to visit the first of many Pagodas on my journey through Vietnam. The first was the Jade Emperor Pagoda that was built by the Chinese community in the early 1900s. This is a beautiful red coloured pagoda that had living tortoise at its heart, the symbol of longevity, power and tenacity.
Inside, various chambers for prayer would be decorated with painted figurines whilst incense burned in the background. The second pagoda was a traditional Vietnamese Pagoda that had one single towering column, a bell and a couple of huge Buddha either side. In Buddhism, the tower acts as a communication between the living and the dead, with names of the dead stuck to the inside.
From the Pagodas, I then headed over to the huge War Remnants museum. This was as touching a visit as the Killing Fields were to me in Phnom Penh, giving me another chance to understand how destructive the Vietnam War was. It also showed me the diehard passions of the Vietcong and the North Vietnam Army and their ruthlessness to defend their own land from American invaders. It demonstrated their cunning and strength, one that the American’s wouldn’t have dreamt of encountering. Around 3 to 4 million people had been affected through death or injury throughout the country during the war which ran between 1955 and 1975. The war came off the back of the first Indochina War between the Viet Minh allies of Southern Vietnam and the occupying French forces where the French were eventually forced to retreat from Indochina altogether. From there, the Viet Cong and the Vietnamese People’s Party then escalated their conflict against anti-communist forces in the South. The U.S took this as an opportunity to enter Vietnam with the loose idealism of preventing communism from spreading in South-East Asia. The battle then escalated into one of the most brutal and fruitless wars of modern times. Eisenhower entered with the notion of preventing the communist spread. Nixon left the country defeated, but couldn’t leave without dropping tons of chemical weapons over it, including the dioxin ridden Agent Orange onto the innocent Vietnamese below, scarring the country forever.
This was just the prologue to my travels throughout Vietnam – one of my greatest adventures – which saw me visit the Mekong Delta before later heading up to Da Lat in the Highlands to jump on a motorcycle up the Ho Chi Minh trail to Hué…
Further Reading on Saigon and The Vietnam War
Ho Chi Minh City Life
History Channel – Vietnam War
Encyclopedia Britannica – Indochina War
More Photography :
“The Photography Collection” by Antematters