Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels: A Trading Standards nightmare

As ethical travellers, Caroline and I share a moral code that entails strictly avoiding any country in which “Richard” The Hamster “Hammond” has done something zany.

But much like Richard “The Hammond” “Hamster”, morals are sometimes best ignored. Vietnam may have starred in its own Top Gear special, but Caroline insisted it was the most memorable country she visited during her last Southeast Asian jaunt, and I was desperate to co-opt her previous experiences into my own narrative.

So it was that we found ourselves crossing the Cambodian border into Hammond Country.

Ho Chi Minh City

Two months – and two countries – into our grand voyage, Caroline and I were in self-congratulatory mood. Other Westerners (idiots) regularly fell prey to scams and pickpockets, but not us: we were immune. We may be more honky than a gaggle of geese, but we are true citizens of the world; it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at. Clearly Southeast Asians recognised this and would therefore never deign to rip us off.

Our illusions were shattered within minutes of arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, the Southern Vietnamese metropolis formerly (and, to the majority of residents, currently) known as Saigon.

Foolishly, we had neglected to pay any attention to exchange rates before leaving Cambodia. Sensing blood, two motorbike taxi drivers accosted us within seconds of stepping off the bus and offered to drive us – huge backpacks and all – to our hotel; when we asked how much (because we’re extremely smart), one of them mumbled “500”.

I was vaguely aware that 500 dong was pretty cheap (it’s actually slightly less than 2p), so we went with it. But after transporting us all of ten minutes to our hotel, they demanded 500,000 dong (about £17) per person – an astronomical fee in a city where the average monthly wage is around £360. Tired after our international bus trip and weighed down by our luggage, we argued futilely before eventually paying up. (While I’m kind of on the subject, our hotel was so mint that we featured it as the first entry in our new Indie Asia series. You may read it here if you wish.)

Saigon, it transpires, is something of a hotbed for grifters, hawkers, and service providers who fall somewhere between the two. As a tourist walking around Quan 1 (essentially the city centre), you’re constantly presented with opportunities to lighten your wallet of fistfuls of pesky, bulky dong. On a side note, if you’re wondering what the Vietnamese currency looks like, may I suggest you take this opportunity to Google Image the phrase “bulky dong”.

Strolling alone through a park one day, I sat on a bench shaded by towering tropical trees. In a matter of seconds, an aggressive street cobbler – possible Wu-Tang name? – had started gluing a new rubber sole to my battered Nikes. Sensing that this was unlikely to be a charitable act, I pointed out that I’d left the hotel without my wallet and only had 20,000 dong (£0.70) on my person (I wasn’t expecting a walk in the park to involve any major financial outlay), but he cobbled away unperturbed, presumably believing this to be some kind of negotiation.

As he worked, a feeling of extreme tranquility washed over me, safe in the knowledge that my shortage of money perversely meant I was holding all the cards. When, after two minutes, he predictably – and cheerfully – demanded 500,000 dong for his labour, I reminded him that I’d highlighted my current lack of liquidity several times. In the end, I was happy to part ways having spent 20,000 dong on a very creditable shoe repair, safe in the knowledge that my cobbling acquaintance had learned a valuable lesson on the importance of listening to one’s customers.

I have no wish to spend the entirety of this blog discussing the minutiae of my various fiscal transactions. Instead, these half-anecdotes are intended to be emblematic of daily life as a visitor to this frequently maddening city. The simplest task – nipping to the shop for a Diet Coke, say – takes on epic proportions. You swim uphill against a stream of angrily beeping scooters driving directly toward you on the pavement, fighting off the attentions of someone trying to sell you a cigarette lighter that looks like a bullet, while their mate attempts to “fix” your immaculate, recently repaired shoes.

For the first day or so, we found this utterly intolerable. But then, as if struck by a collective madness, everything changed and we suddenly adored it. Everything is unhinged in HCMC, and if you just sort of accept it as a city-wide piece of performance theatre with an ensemble cast of 8.5 million people, it’s brilliant to watch.

Kind of like Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, there’s a beauty behind Saigon’s insanity. Actually, Heath Ledger played the Joker as more “psychopathic mass-murderer” than “a bit mad”. You wouldn’t describe his character as “a card”, would you? I’m not sure this simile stands up to scrutiny. Perhaps Saigon is more like Heath Ledger’s portrayal of effortlessly charming yet quirkily brooding bad boy Patrick Verona in 10 Things I Hate About You.

Much like effortlessly charming yet quirkily brooding bad boy Patrick Verona (10 Things I Hate About You, 1999, Touchstone Pictures), Saigon is dotted with expansive tree-lined boulevards, dilapidated French colonial buildings and vertiginous, glass-fronted riverside tower blocks. Once you’ve zoned out the street traders, scammers and all-pervasive fear of imminent scooter-induced death, it’s an absolute treat to explore on foot.

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The abominable Ho man

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It’s also, purportedly, a treat for gourmands. Seemingly every pavement is crammed with miniscule, preschool-sized seats upon which the Saigonese gather for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or just whenever they want a meal (which can be literally any time of day). Many of these diminutive eateries specialise in selling a single dish, perfected over years, or even decades.

While eating at such establishments is the best way to glean an insight into HCMC’s acclaimed culinary scene, it’s not ideal for vegetarians. As recently as the late 1980s, Vietnam was one of the world’s poorest countries, with a populace used to eating whatever they could get their hands on (dog is still an extremely popular dish in the North), so it’s little surprise that they don’t hold much stock in deliberately eschewing meat and seafood.

It’s also, understandably, rare for tiny pavement “restaurants” to provide foreign-language menus, so it’s all-but impossible to know what you’re getting unless your server happens to speak English. We were fortunate enough to track down one such (sort of) Anglophone working in a side street near our hotel; we ate there four times during our week-long stay, slurping down huge plates of noodles and fried veg with lashings of soy sauce alongside bottles of Saigon Special for a sum total of less than 50,000 dong each. We never saw another tourist frequenting the restaurant – or, indeed, the alley on which it was located – which obviously gave me an insufferable feeling of authenticity.

However, man (and woman) cannot live off veg and noodles alone. Craving a slap-up English meal (i.e. a curry), one night we ventured to Bui Vien, Saigon’s famous – some would say notorious – backpacker street.

Bui Vien is packed full of Indian restaurants, burger joints and pizza parlours, as well as dozens of gaudy bars and “massage establishments”. Unlike its Bangkok equivalent, Khao San Road, it’s not even remotely pedestrianised, so the omnipresent scooters gaily weave through the intoxicated masses at giddying velocity. The paneer karahi and tadka daal we consumed there were delicious, but the experience was somewhat tarnished by a scooter crash and ensuing brawl between two extremely irate Vietnamese men directly outside the curry house. Worse than the altercation itself, all the waiters rushed to film the proceedings on their phones, which made it much harder to order another beer. Naturally, this counted against them in our Tripadvisor review.

Out and about: The Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels

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Gotta have me my boats and pho 🚣‍♀️🍲

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As much as we grew to adore Saigon, there was a limit to our tolerance, so we broke another of our cardinal rules – avoid being stuck with large groups of backpackers for any length of time – and booked places on a couple of tours heading out of the big city.

First up was the Mekong Delta. Given that this vast maze of floating markets, rice paddies, rivers and swamps encompasses a distance of more than 15,000 square miles – roughly the same size as Switzerland – the concept of seeing it on a day trip is deeply flawed from the outset, but it’s one of the “things” you’re “meant to do” in South Vietnam.

Mostly, our tour involved sitting on various modes of transport – first, a bus to the mighty Mekong, then a small converted fishing boat to the islets of Cồn Phụng and Thới Sơn. Far be it from me to claim that these islands don’t provide an authentic glimpse of life in the Mekong Delta, but I’m struggling to imagine that a combined population of 17.5 million people subsists primarily on coconut candy production, bee-keeping, and traditional music performances.

Snarky comments aside, the Mekong Delta is undeniably beautiful, and the canoe journey down a stream winding through villages of stilted wooden houses was worth the trip alone. Plus it looks great on The Gram.

Next came the Cu Chi Tunnels, a relic from the American War (or the Vietnam War, for those less #woke than me). Used by the Viet Cong as their primary base of operations during the 1968 Tet Offensive, this claustrophobic warren stretches for 150 miles and once housed around 12,000 people – not just guerillas, but their families too.

Visiting the tunnels today is not what I’d call “fun” – more “objectively terrifying”. Despite being enlarged to make access easier for massive Westerners like me, they’re still far too small to stand – or even crouch – comfortably. Blind corners appear every few metres – a design feature intended to protect tunnel-dwellers against attack by flame thrower.

Our guide, who does the “trip through the tunnels” bit 30+ times a day, absolutely whizzed off and was out of sight within seconds, leaving us – at the front of a queue of tourists – to blindly scrabble around while hoping not to venture down one of the countless connecting passages, some of which haven’t been properly explored since the end of the war. As we exited, blinking in the harsh midday sunlight, the tunnels echoed with the plaintive cries of our confused travel mates. Hopelessly lost, they ended up turning tail and crawling out the entrance. As we desperately called out to our fellow tourists, believing them to now be one with the subterranean network, our guide proudly informed us that we’d been tricked into traversing 40 metres of Hell Tunnel rather than the promised 20. Oh how we laughed.

While the trip was largely harrowing to our eyes, much of the rest of our tour group – predominantly comprising an extended Filipino family – found it an absolute hoot. They took gleeful selfies alongside the waxwork figures of Viet Cong fighters and the metal carcass of a US Army tank destroyed in a mine blast.

However, our Filipino compatriots weren’t persuaded to have a go on the Cu Chi shooting range, where – for an astronomical fee – you can maniacally fire off round after round of bullets from M16s and AK47s into a nearby earthen mound. What better way to get into the headspace of an embattled, terrified, PTSD-addled American G.I. or Viet Cong soldier? I eagerly await the day when the PC idiots at the French tourist board finally cave to my endless emails and open a rifle range at the Somme.

The true meaning of travel

thank u, next

Intermittently challenging as it may have been, Saigon was the perfect introduction to Vietnam. But a week there was just about sufficient. A thousand miles lay between us and the capital city, Hanoi, where we planned to spend Christmas and meet our friend Craig for New Year’s Eve.
More pressingly, Caroline’s lovely mum was visiting us in Hoi An in less than a week, so the clock was very much ticking. There was just enough time for us to spend three nights in Bai Xep, arguably the most “I’ve found myself” place we’ve been to thus far. But you’ll have to WAIT UNTIL NEXT TIME for pictures of our matching shark tooth necklaces and “Not all those who wander are lost” tattoos.

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