Vietnam and I started off on the wrong foot. After arriving at the airport in Ho Chi Minh late at night, I thought the visa process would go rather smoothly since we already did the paperwork. I was wrong.
Apparently you need 25 USD per person to get a visa, and there are no ATMs except past the visa checkpoint. So here are my questions for whoever designed this visa system:
- Why do you expect everyone to have USD in freaking Vietnam? We are Americans and we didn’t even have USD.
- Why could you not put an ATM on the correct side? How hard would it be to move it a couple hundred meters?
A wonderful man gave us $50 to pay for our visas (we tried to pay him back but he wouldn’t let us), so we were able to finally get out of there. Then we took an expensive taxi to our hotel. The taxi driver stopped at the end of a very dark alley and pointed down the way. It was extremely sketchy.
It was even sketchier when we got to the hotel. Since the whole visa process took longer than we thought, the person at the front desk had gone to sleep on a cot in the middle of the lobby area (if you can call it that). There were also three motorcycles parked inside the lobby and everything looked filthy.
We woke the guy up and he said to give him our passports for the night and then we could pay tomorrow because it was so late. I was completely uncomfortable with that idea but we went ahead and did it. When we got to our room there was no hot water, no pot to boil water for drinking, no towels, and no Wi-Fi.
I personally felt very scared, and Seth must have too, because he slipped the nun chucks under his pillow before going to sleep. We spent one more day in that hotel and then we were outta there. The rest of the time we stayed at Boss Hotel, which was super nice and only about 150 RMB (22 USD) a night.
The first day we visited the War Remnants Museum, which was probably the best part of the trip. If you do ever visit the museum, be prepared to feel like scum if you are American. The first floor is basically just pictures of every country in the world protesting the war and telling America to withdraw their troops.
The second and third floors have heartbreaking images of Vietnamese civilians who were killed during the war, as well as a whole room of horrific images of what Agent Orange did to the Vietnamese people as well as U.S. veterans and their families. People my age are still being affected today.
NOTE: if you are headed to the War Remnants Museum, some men will try to sell you a coconut drink. They are super good, but he will charge you 50,000 VND for them when they are usually only 20,000 VND. Also, make sure you give the correct bills. We accidentally gave him 1 million instead of 100 thousand — those zeros are tricky. Another trick they do is tell you the museum is closed and try to take you on an overpriced tour to somewhere else. Don’t fall for it.
We spent a good deal of time at the markets a couple days. The biggest one is Ben Thanh, which is where we spent most of our time. We also went to some smaller ones and a Russian market. We got some great deals with Seth’s haggling skills, but he accidentally broke something at one of the shops and felt so bad he paid 550,000 VND for a handmade lacquered painting (not sure what you call it), which was a little pricey and bulky for our taste.
On Sunday, we went to the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica. They had an English service that morning so we decided to see what it was like. We stood in the back because it was packed full. Seth went up to take communion but since he isn’t Catholic they wouldn’t let him (I figured as much). Poor guy just wanted to remember Jesus.
Other than that, we hung out in the parks and Seth played Vietnamese hacky sack (similar to Chinese hacky sack but made with plastic instead of metal). The parks were really nice with vine trees that made me think of all the fantasy stories I read as a kid.
The last full day in Vietnam we took an actual tour. First we stopped by a handicraft factory that employs those affected by Agent Orange. The coolest artistic technique they used was using duck eggshells in the lacquer ware. The effect is stunning. They also cut mother-of-pearl and integrate it into the lacquer ware. The price is well worth the time they put into it.
After that, we proceeded to the Cu Chi tunnels that the Vietnamese people used in the war. I couldn’t even go in them. Take me skydiving or hang-gliding and I would do it no problem, but tell me to go in a 1-meter high hole in the ground with two dozen other tourists in front and behind me – no way. I don’t even like elevators. Seth did it though! You had the option to go up to 150 meters in the tunnel, but several people just did 20 meters. Seth did the full 150 meters with all the other brave souls.
Beyond the historical stuff and the markets, you really must go to Vietnam if only for the food. The food is unique, and even the hole-in-the-wall restaurants will bring you a plate that looks like it came straight from a 5-star restaurant, and tastes like it too. Oh, and don’t forget the drinks! They have fresh fruit iced drinks and smoothies, unlike most places in China. They are absolutely delicious.
Now on to Thailand!