During the month of October I traded in my teaching flats for walking sandals and became a full-time traveler. After a short trip to Hawaii to meet up with my parents, I flew back to Bangkok, packed my stereotypical backpacker pack and headed to Ho Chi Minh City. I had meticulously planned a 2-week trip that would take me and a friend from southern to northern Vietnam, but some bad weather forced us to reroute and taught me that veering from the itinerary isn’t always a bad thing.
Two different strangers grabbed my arm in Ho Chi Minh City. The first was a woman on the sidewalk, who took my arm as I stood paralyzed trying to cross the street. I’d heard that the traffic in Saigon was crazy, but you have to see the mass of weaving, speeding motorbikes and total disregard for traffic signs to fully understand the chaos. I was working up the courage to maneuver my way through, when the woman simply took my arm and led me across, saying “we go, we go, we go.”
The second time, I had wandered into Ben Thanh Market, which my Rough Guide told me was a good spot for buying souvenirs. As I walked through the stalls of touristy trinkets– your typical poofy patterned pants and carved elephant statues– the salespeople became more and more aggressive. The persistent cries of “madame, madame, come here” quickly turned into a woman grabbing my arm and yelling, “buy from me!”
When I first started researching Vietnam, one of the main complaints I read about was the people. Many travelers whined about unfriendly servers and countless scammers. While I got asked an annoying amount of times to buy souvenirs or go on a cyclo ride, as long as you’re firm, savvy, and don’t sweat losing a dollar on something, I think you’ll have a good time in Vietnam. I met a lot of people like the woman who led me across the street, but I also had my fair share of frustrating experiences with people overcharging me. In any case, you can’t judge an entire country of people by the ones you meet on the tourist trail who are trying to make a living.
Anyway, I arrived in Saigon with almost no expectations. Most of what I’d read had likened it to busy, overcrowded Bangkok, so I just viewed it as launching point to explore the rest of the country. My low expectations also meant I did minimal research on things to do. (It also means I took almost no pictures….which is partially due to the fact that purse/camera snatchings are a major issue.) I was on my own for my first day in the city, so I decided to wander along the humid streets and see the Opera House, some government buildings, and a lot of parks. You could sense the French influence almost immediately. The wide boulevards, French-style buildings, and baguettes were a welcome change from Bangkok.
The next day, I met up with my friend Lucy, and we wandered around, ate too many pastries and sipped strong coffee at cafes. We also tried out pho— Vietnam’s signature noodle soup dish.
We had tickets to fly to Hoi An in central Vietnam the next day, so we woke up early and arrived at the airport to find that our flight was cancelled. A huge typhoon was heading directly to Hoi An that morning, so we found ourselves stuck in HCM City for another day.
We decided to use our extra day to head to the War Remnants Museum. I’m really glad we saw Vietnam’s perspective on The American War, but the exhibits on war crimes and the effects of agent orange were very difficult to handle. Feeling totally dejected from the museum and the typhoon, we sat on the floor of our hostel eating fresh baguettes and the variety pack of laughing cow cheese for dinner.
We still wanted to head to Hoi An, but reports of flash floods made us decide to reroute. After talking to the people at our hostel, we booked a tour on a whim to the Mekong Delta.