It was two years ago that we began to hypothetically discuss ‘travelling’. An exotic idea shared over chicken and chips at the Harvester. If I look back honestly, I never thought we would actually do it. I saw many more lunch dates and wistful conversations about far flung destinations. But, after a less than perfect year at University, I took the plunge and sent a text which would set the ball rolling. “Let’s just do it.”
Christmas came around fast as it always does and the pressure was on to get planning. One wet, wintery night in December we booked our flights! A return trip to Vietnam for three weeks in June. Having studied the Vietnam War at school, I was always interested in seeing the country whose history was so emotive and whose climate was so intoxicating. I could never have prepared myself for the amazing cultural experience we were about to embark upon.
Arriving at Heathrow on a sunny June morning, we were excited but could both sense each other’s nerves. It was my first long haul flight and the potential for turbulence made my tummy flip. Nevertheless, once we were on the Qatar Airways A380 my trepidation turned to jubilation. Hour on hour we were fed again and again. It became a running joke that we would roll off the plane into Ho Chi Minh, unaware of what time it was due to having breakfast only a few hours after dinner.
When we landed the heat hit me like a fire blanket. It was a suffocating humidity that seemed devoid of oxygen. Sweat poured down my chest as I heaved on my backpack. Once we reached the first hostel after a disorientating spin around Ho Chi Minh airport, I was glad to lie down. As we had booked a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels for the following morning, we spent the evening in search of our meeting point to be prepared for the morning.It was rush hour. There were thousands of mopeds on every road, like a school of fish weaving in between each other in perfect synchronization. We stared at each other thinking “how the hell do we cross the road?” Following an old Vietnamese lady we hopped our naive touristy derrieres across a lane of traffic, amazed at how they effortlessly glided around us.
Our first full day began with an early start and a tour of the Vietcong’s famously tiny Cu Chi Tunnels which run from South Vietnam to North Vietnam. Our tour guide told us of the horrifying traps the Vietcong set for their American enemies. These tunnels allowed the Vietnamese communists to send supplies back and forth, up and down the divided country. We made a stop at a small-holding on the way to the tunnels where we got to experience making rice paper and feeding the biggest pigs I have ever seen (sounds strange but it gave us a great sense of people’s lives around Ho Chi Minh). Once we arrived at the tunnels, we were able to drop down inside them and walk through them. They were miniscule spaces, only large enough to fit our crouched bodies. And, unbelievably, these tunnels had been enlarged for tourists!
After the tour, we were exhausted. The heat had dehydrated us and the jet lag was wearing us down. We stopped at a bustling market and experienced Vietnam’s national dish ‘beef pho’. It was a delicious bowl of vermicelli rice noodles, coriander, ginger, spring onion and Vietnamese fish source. Just tasting something so delicious gave us the energy to keep exploring and making the most of this incredible city.
The second day began with a wonderful visit to the Bitexo Financial Tower where we had the most thirst quenching drink of our lives. At the top of this luxurious (air-conditioned!) business tower we sipped strawberry smoothies whilst breathing in panoramic views of Ho Chi Minh city.
Replenished and recharged, we moved on to the Jade Emperor Pagoda (a beautiful, tiny Buddhist temple). Taking in the smell of incense and the sound of prayer, we felt calm and peaceful for the first time in this buzzing metropolis. There was even a pond full of little turtles! Next we stopped at a gorgeous restaurant for lunch. I had sticky orange chicken with coconut rice – and it was heaven on a plate. We finished our final day in Ho Chi Minh by visiting the very moving, fascinating War Remnants museum.
That night we decided to have a proper Ho Chi Minh send off, marked by a huge bowl of chicken and fried rice at a Vietnamese street food place (where they spoke very little English and offered us an option of: rice or noodle, beef or chicken?). It was fab. As we sat by the side of a bustling road we felt a strange sense of sadness to leave the Southern capital and excitement towards the next stop on our journey!