Vietnam: Motorbiking Around Phu Quoc

Today is the day. After a motorbike accident in Thailand almost two years ago, I haven’t really tried to drive one again. There was a brief ride around Sapa before I got scared and returned it. Today shall be different. Phu Quoc is the perfect place to get comfortable on a bike again.

Vietnam: Island Sunsets and Swiss Burgers

The first thing we do when we wake up is to find some food. We find a small restaurant down the street with decent prices, and each order a plate of “seafood noodles”. The plate comes full of vegetables, squid, and shrimp, which are cooked to perfection. It hits the spot.

Motorbiking Around Phu Quoc

Today is the day. After a motorbike accident in Thailand almost two years ago, I haven’t really tried to drive one again. There was a brief ride around Sapa before I got scared and returned it. Today shall be different. Phu Quoc is the perfect place to get comfortable on a bike again. There are minimal hills, the traffic is mild, and there are very few buses/trucks/large things that could kill me. Motorbiking is the only real way to get around anyway. Our hostel is at least an hours walk outside the town, and even further from the cooler, more untouched areas of the island. I see hills covered in jungle and I wanna go!
No tour companies have established any trails in the jungle yet, so we would get the chance to explore it completely on our own. Provided that I make it there alive on my bike.

We rent bikes for $6 each. My stomach is turning, but I hate feeling afraid of anything and know I’ll have to face this at some point. We aren’t asked for passports, a license, or any form of ID. Just 120,000 dong up front. I get on my bike, and awkwardly have to ask how to turn it on while simultaneously pretending I’ve done this before. The shop keeper asks me if it’s my first time driving a bike, and I say no. Which is true. I choose not to point to the big purple scar on my ankle to prove it.

I get off to a really unbalanced and slow start, but luckily there’s no one else on the road. It takes me some time to get used to the speed control at my right hand, but after some practice my driving becomes much less jolty. Corners are where I screwed up in Thailand, so every curve in the road fills me with doubt, but I make it through a series of curves unscathed and am instantly more confident. This isn’t so bad! I still drive at a snails pace…but I do what I want.

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We head North on the island and through town, to find a road that will take us up to the jungle. There are maybe 5 roads total on the map of Phu Quoc. While it’s a soon-to-be vacation hot spot, it’s still in the process of being built up (which is a huge shame by the way), so for the moment it’s pretty hard to get lost. We head straight North for half an hour before hitting a dead end. A small, gravel side road jets off to our left, and after consulting the map we figure it could potentially lead us to a trekking trail. We decide to follow it.
Feeling extra dodgey and unexperienced on the gravel road, I take it really slow and follow behind Tamara. The road just gets worse and worse. We hit sand, mud, more gravel, large rocks, and some steep slopes. I still don’t know how, but I survive. There are some close calls when driving through the sand, though.

The only things back here are farms and houses. After driving for half an hour and finding nothing, we stop at a fork in the road and discuss turning around. Just at this moment, a group of locals drive by and tell us it’s “same same!” “It’s okay!” and encourage us to keep going. We do. Another half hour of near death experiences passes when we find ourselves at another dead end. This time for real. Luckily for us, the dead end is a small farm and the family is sitting outside. I know that no one will speak English, but I hope that by showing them the map they can point us in the right direction.
I point up to the area that we’re in; the north west side of the map. One of the farmers inspects the map with me, and points to a mid-south eastern point on the map. We are in a totally different place than we thought we were. How have we ended up south east when we thought we were going north west?! I almost don’t believe him. The area he’s pointing to has a picture of a big waterfall next to it. I try to ask him where it is, and he points to a downward sloping tree-root covered trail just next to his home. He points at the motorbikes and I know I will definitely die if I am to drive down such a steep incline in a jungle. We motion to ask if we can walk instead, and somehow figure out that it’s what he meant for us to do in the first place. He was pointing at the bikes for us to leave them. Aha! Good thing we didn’t try to rip down that path on a motorbike when they were telling us to leave them behind. That might have gone over poorly.

We leave our stuff and set out on foot to the jungle trail. It feels so wonderful to walk. We meander, alone, along a sandy pathway and across a stream.

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The stream is good news, the waterfall must be close! We skip across dry rocks scattered over the water, until we come across a Vietnamese couple having a picnic lunch under a tree. We say “Xin Chao!” and keep walking, but they stop us, shaking their hands about and saying “no”. They speak no English so I can’t figure out why we’re being told we can’t continue but it annoys me. But I want to keep walking up the stream. It doesn’t look dangerous and I’m almost certain this is the way to the waterfall. I also doubt that they’re any kind of park official. Just to be sure. We reluctantly turn around anyway. They seem pretty adamant that we can’t continue. Rude.
We haven’t eaten yet today so we walk back towards the trail and stop to cut up a mango before going back to our bikes.

After driving along the same questionable, sandy trail all the way back to the main road, we are starving. We stop for lunch at a cheap Vietnamese restaurant in town. I try to order chicken Pho, because it’s cheapest, but am told there’s no chicken so ill have to have shrimp. No problem! It’s only 5,000 dong more and I am on an island after all. Tamara tries to order shrimp fried rice and is told she can’t. She has to order stuffed squid. What? Again, she just agrees but how is it possible that there are no shrimp for her but enough shrimp for me? Nothing makes sense. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a nation-wide joke just to screw with the tourists.
When our food comes it’s delicious though! Pho is even better with seafood, and Tamara’s stuffed squid is unreal.

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All for the affordable price of 40,000 dong/person.

From here we head South to find a beach. We’ve heard from friends at the hostel that the beaches in the South are even nicer than the one nearest us. We drive for another half hour or so before getting sort of lost again. We know we’re on the right road, but can’t find the side road to the beach. We come across a small turn off with a sign that says “do not enter” in big block letters, but we see a bunch of Vietnamese people pulling in on their scooters, so we follow too. Do not enter doesn’t really mean do not enter in Vietnam.

Just kidding, it does. We make it 20 meters before Tamara is stopped by a man with a huge gun. Like maybe an AK47. I don’t know, that’s the only gun type I know. He’s holding it, ready to go, it’s not just tucked away behind his back. He comes over to us shaking his head and we do our best to stay calm and act stupid. We didn’t see the sign. Isn’t this to way to the beach?? So sorry. Our mistake. Please don’t shoot us. Okay bye. How can I turn this bike around as quickly as possible?

We escape unscathed but WHAT road were we just going down? Hey Zeus.

We find another street jetting off from the main one. Just as we’re trying to figure out if it’s safe to venture down, the two German guys from our hostel pull out on their motorbikes and tell us that the beach is incredible. We’re almost there! Sweet! We have to drive down another sandy road but I feel quite confident on my bike now so I handle it with ease. The sand is white and so soft between my toes. The water is calm and although it’s busier than the beach we were on yesterday, there are still minimal tourists.

We float out in the salty water for a long time before returning back to the beach. I’ve discovered the most horrendous tan on my legs. Motorbiking has worked against me yet again.

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As we’re relaxing in the sand I hear a “Hello! You! You! You!” and turn to see a Vietnamese man approaching me. What did I do?!
He asks me to go over and sit with his friend for a picture. Best believe I am not uber comfortable taking photos with strangers while I’m in a bikini. I look at Tamara, then back at the man, shrug my shoulders and say fine. I don’t want to be rude, and I don’t think it’s a creepy thing. It’s just a being-blonde-in-Asia thing.
Tamara is hilarious and gets a photo of them getting a photo of me.

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They ask me questions like why I’ve come to Vietnam, if I am married, have a boyfriend, if I liked Ho Chi Minh City, and my age. Some of their friends crowd around and ask questions in Vietnamese to be translated. They’re all visiting Phu Quoc for a weekend from Ho Chi Minh. If I wasn’t sitting in a bikini surrounded by people all fully clothed I would totally love this. They have the best intentions though and I roll with it. One of the girls my age in their group asks if we can take a selfie before they leave. Of course we can!

Shortly after the group of Vietnamese tourists leave, we do too. The sun will set soon and we’ve got an hours drive before we can make it back to the hostel. Tamara gets fancy and takes a selfie of us driving on the bikes during the sunset. It’s so beautiful to see the sky light up and set behind the trees, but I don’t dare try to photograph it.

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We return our bikes and get back to the hostel safe and sound. Hoorah I didn’t die!! It’s official!
We meet up with some people at the hostel and go for dinner. We’ve got an early morning start tomorrow to leave Vietnam and move on to Cambodia. I feel excited and sad at the same time. I’ve only got one month of traveling left before I have to go home, but I’m always up for a new place and a new adventure. Bitter sweet for sure.

Island Sunsets and Swiss Burgers

The first thing we do when we wake up is to find some food. We find a small restaurant down the street with decent prices, and each order a plate of “seafood noodles”. The plate comes full of vegetables, squid, and shrimp, which are cooked to perfection. It hits the spot.

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We spend the rest of the afternoon lazing around on the beach. We are the only people all afternoon, besides Claudio, the Italian pasta cook who made us dinner last night. He comes to join us mid-way through the day. We’re craving more fresh fruit but pretty far away from anywhere we can do some shopping, so Claudio offers to drive us down to the market on his motorbike. He was going to pick up some more fish anyway. Awesome!

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He can only fit two of us on the bike, so Tamara decides to stay back and trusts me to pick up a good selection of fruit and veg. We’ve got a pretty regular order now; mangoes, bananas, pineapple, carrots and cucumbers.

Getting on Claudio’s motorcycle feels less than stable. It’s old, and every bump in the road makes me wonder if a piece of the bike might just go flying off. We make it into town alive but I hang on for dear life. We buy a whole lot of different fruit, including some stuff I’ve never tried before, and Claudio picks out a big red fish. Neither of us know what kind it is, though. We stuff all the fruit in my backpack, including an entire watermelon, and tie the bagged fish to the back of the motorbike to drive home.

When I get back, Tamara and I enjoy a delicious mango and try the mystery fruit. It’s red and shaped a bit like a bell pepper, but much smaller. It tastes like an Asian pear and is quite refreshing. I still don’t know it’s official name.

For the sunset, we walk back down to the beach. I make sure to bring my camera this time. Devon, a fellow Canadian, joins us as we climb up the rocks for the fabulous sunset and we all chat away, exchanging travel stories. He’s been traveling for almost a year so far, and doesn’t plan to be back in Canada for at least another two. I always envy these people who just leave everything behind to go wherever and do whatever they want for such incredibly long amounts of time. It’s so cool, and I think a lot harder than it sounds. Living in hostels for three years wouldn’t be a walk in the park, but the things you would do and see in those three years would make it all worth it I’m sure.

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After the sunset we’re all hungry, so Devon drives us into town on his motorcycle, which is much sturdier than Claudio’s. All three of us squeeze on and drive ten minutes into the centre where we find a place called “SwissFoodViet” who’s sign boasts to have the “Best Burgers in Town!”.
I don’t know when burgers became a Swiss dish, but we all want to indulge in a big juicy burger anyway. It just happens sometimes. We all get a burger with Swiss cheese, which I guess kinda makes them a Swiss restaurant? They taste incredible. So far the food in Phu Quoc has been amazing, but I make note that I should be eating more seafood and less burgers because I’m only on this island for another couple days.

We stop for an ice cream on the way home, and have a relatively early night. Tomorrow, a group of people in the hostel are leaving, and Tam and I plan to do some trekking or motorbiking around to explore the island. There is a huge spider in our room and Tamara bravely murders it with a water bottle, which I highly appreciate.

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Okay, so that’s not the spider from our room…but it was in the bathroom which still counts. Our room spider was much smaller, but still creepy.

Vietnam: Floating Markets and Mushroom Hostels

At 3am I’m woken up by the announcement of our arrival. I look out the window to the bus station and can see the address printed on a sign. We are indeed in Can Tho. Who could have suspected we would ever arrive an hour early?! Not I. Now we’ve got more waiting to do before the market opens. Fortunately, the bus station is playing Chernobyl (a crappy teen horror flick) on a little tv in the corner of the room, so that keeps us entertained for a bit.

Floating Markets and Mushroom Hostels

At 3am I’m woken up by the announcement of our arrival. I look out the window to the bus station and can see the address printed on a sign. We are indeed in Can Tho. Who could have suspected we would ever arrive an hour early?! Not I. Now we’ve got more waiting to do before the market opens. Fortunately, the bus station is playing Chernobyl (a crappy teen horror flick) on a little tv in the corner of the room, so that keeps us entertained for a bit.

Asking the station staff where the market is does not go well. I’ve forgotten we’re off the mainstream tourist trail now, and it’s far less likely to find anyone who will speak English. The internet is a magical thing, and by using the wifi we manage to translate a couple quick phrases in order to communicate where we need to go, and to arrange for our next ticket. Everyone at the bus station is really patient and helpful, which is such nice change from the shooing we’ve become quite accustomed to in these situations. I’m so happy we arrived early to allow for all extra translation time!

Our next step is to grab a motorbike from the bus station to the Mekong. This is another hurdle. Do you know how hard it is to bargain with a language barrier? They want to charge us 40,000 dong each to drive to the river. I have no concept of how far away it is, it could be around the corner! I’m not even sure they’ll take us to the right place yet. What am certain of, is that they’re taking the opportunity to rip off two overtly lost foreigners, so I feel that I have to at least make an attempt at bargaining. I can’t blame them, it’s just a struggle to barter back. Somehow they agree to drive us there for 30,000 each, which isn’t much of an improvement but it’s 4am and they’re our only way there so what can we do but agree? We grab a helmet and set off speeding through the empty dark roads of Can Tho. I really hope this works out for us, I’m feeling kind of worried about it.

We arrive at the river 10 minutes later, where we pay our motorbike guides, who even help by asking what time we can take a boat and informing us that we’ll have to wait until 5am. That’s alright, what’s another 45 minutes at this point? A small land market is slowly opening up just beside the boat boarding area, so we stop to buy a mango for breakfast. The knife we purchased in Hoi An has really come in handy over the past week with the amount of mangoes we’ve eaten!

The positive aspects to us being so early, are that we will probably get to catch the sunrise, and that we’ll get first pick of seats for the boat tour. I expect tour groups to start arriving shortly, but at least we’re here at the front of the line.

We communicate with a boat driver who writes a departure time on his hand so that we’ll understand. 5:15, he says. Sounds good to us. Trying to figure out how long the tour will take is another thing, and never really works out in my favour. I don’t get an answer, just a departure time. We need to be back at the bus station by 8:30am, but I really can’t imagine a market tour taking 4 hours in any case. We roll with it.

At 5:15 the sky begins to lighten as we board our boat. We are still the only people at the dock, and get an entire boat to ourselves as a result. Amazing!! The sky turns a beautiful vibrant shade of orange and the market comes alive as we slowly maneuver our way between the boats. A woman selling coffee pulls up beside our boat and exuberantly offers us each a large cup for 10,000 dong. I don’t drink coffee, but seeing as I’ve had a long night and it’s being served to me from another boat, I buy one. Tam does too, and concludes that it tastes a “little weasley”.
We watch as merchants pass large quantities of fruits, vegetables and seafood to one another, while others wait patiently for the crowds to arrive. We are still the only tourists on the river. It’s a calm and beautiful morning. I’m not usually up early enough to experience the sunset, let alone from a small boat along the Mekong Delta.

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Our boat tour only lasts half an hour, which gives us time to walk around the small land market too. We buy two carrots from a friendly vendor who speaks no English and holds up example bills to signify how much we have to pay. It only costs us 5,000 dong ($0.25) for two carrots. I don’t try to bargain. She even washes them for us! I say “Cam Un”, which is how one says Thank You, in Vietnamese, and she looks thrilled and repeats it back to me. Everyone is so kind this morning!! We do a little walk around the rest of the market, watching women stack piles of colourful fruits, vegetables, and spices, butchers chop up various meats, and live fish flop about in shallow pools of water before being sold off.
Somehow the atmosphere of the market makes this beautiful. Usually I wouldn’t like seeing raw pig tongues lined up on a tray to be sold, but somehow here it just intrigues me. It’s their craft, this is their job. Real people come here to buy their groceries and restaurant supplies. I think it’s awesome.

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No one pressures us to buy things like the other markets we’ve visited, but everyone always smiles. It’s an absolutely wonderful experience. We stop at another stall just before leaving in order to pick up a cucumber. We’ve been starved for fresh vegetables lately, so today we plan to eat as many as we can.

We walk the 6 kilometres back to the bus station, because we’ve got loads of time before our bus leaves at 9am, and because we won’t be stretching our legs for much more of the day. We’ve got another bus and boat journey ahead of us before we get to Phu Quoc.
We plan to wait at the bus station for the next three hours, but I can tell the staff are flustered. They keep asking to check our tickets. I think they’re worried we’ll miss our bus because they know we can’t read any of the signs or understand the announcements. I’m not sure how this works exactly, but they take some white out, cover up 9:00 and replace it with 8:00. All of a sudden we’re on the next bus to Rach Gia. From here we can catch a boat to Phu Quoc; our final destination in Vietnam.

Our bus to Rach Gia is plagued by a constant stream of music videos from the same cheesy artist. It’s hilarious at first, him wandering all over America in cities like New York and LA, singing slow love songs to different girls in every city. It’s pretty entertaining, but after half an hour of the same guy singing the same thing I just want it to go away. It’s like when I marathon Cake Boss and start to hate Buddy. I end up putting in my headphones, cranking them up so they drown out the sappy love songs, and manage to drift into some semblance of sleep. Waking up and seeing rows upon rows of bamboo stilt houses along the Mekong is kinda cool too. I read some silly review online about the drive from Ho Chi Minh to Phu Quoc and how it “isn’t very scenic”. Whoever wrote this, clearly didn’t take the same bus as I did.

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Three and a half hours later we arrive in the coastal town of Rach Gia. It’s a miracle that our ticket was changed from 9 to 8am. We would never have made it in time for the 1:00 boat, which is the last to leave for Phu Quoc!
We buy our tickets and board the boat right away…no more time spent waiting! Well not exactly. We still have to sit and “wait” on the boat for the next two and a half hours. We’re almost there though!! There are more sappy love songs accompanied by long and really sad music videos. Someone always dies. I try to sleep, but the woman behind my seat on the boat keeps putting her foot up on my arm rest, and occasionally touches me with her cracked yellow nasty toe nail. It’s traumatizing and not a fun way to be woken up. Especially more than once.
The multitude of crying babies on board don’t help, either.

The sad love songs have changed, and now they’re airing an epic Japanese fighting movie. It’s more entertaining and all the dubbing is done by a female Vietnamese voice. It’s funny to see men yelling at and kicking each other, but with only one woman’s voice to accompany it. Strange.

We finally arrive in Phu Quoc at 4pm. Tamara has googled cheap hostels and saved the address for a place called Mushrooms. This will be interesting. We find a man with a van who offers to drive us to this Mushrooms place for 100,000 dong for the both of us. We easily talk him down to 80,000. He makes the assumption that we know the only other pair of foreigners on the boat, which we don’t, but we invite them to come check out this hostel with us anyway. The four of us pile into a van with a group of 10 Vietnamese men and are driven a long ways from the docks. At least we’re getting our 80,000 dongs worth. We learn that the other two travellers are from Germany and have just come up to Asia after working and traveling around New Zealand in a van, which is cool!

We arrive at Mushrooms, where an old British man with a huge white beard greets us and shows us to the $6/night dorm rooms. He seems like the kinda guy who would name a hostel “Mushrooms”. I try to bargain on behalf of everyone and negotiate paying an even $20 per night for all four of us, but he won’t budge and says $6 is the cheapest we’ll find on the whole island. I believe him, because we’re on an island and things do tend to be more expensive. We accept the price and settle in. The first thing I do is take a shower.

Tamara and I take a walk down to the beach, which is completely empty. I’ve made the mistake of leaving my iPhone in the hostel to charge. The sun is about to set and I am without a camera! We make our way over to a group of tall rocks that we can climb, and from where we can sit and admire the setting sun over the wavy ocean. I take the camera-less mistake and try to turn it into an opportunity to take in the sunset with my own eyes, instead of behind the lens of my phone. It actually makes a difference and I feel like I enjoy this sunset more than any other. We sit in silence for most of the time, and just watch the sun slowly fall to the sea-line.
We’ve had a long day. From sunrise in Can Tho to sunset in Phu Quoc, every moment of tedious travel by van, bus, boat, motorbike, and walking we did was worth it. Arriving in Phu Quoc feels like such an accomplishment and we are well rewarded by such a beautiful, calm, empty beach. Once the sun has dropped below the horizon we walk back up to our hostel.

I think we’ve come across a pretty great place, this Mushroom hostel. It’s far from full, but there are a few other backpackers around and everyone we meet seems super cool! An Italian guy makes a huge serving of pasta for everyone for dinner and we BBQ fresh fish. Everything tastes so great and is such a treat from our usual ritual of going in search of a cheap restaurant. It’s nice to sit around and chat with our hostel mates over a “home” cooked meal.
Eventually, a group of us move down the street to a place called The Pirate Cave. We are the only customers on this fine Monday evening, but we dance the night away anyway.

Vietnam: Free Movies and The Waiting Game

Today we leave Saigon to continue on south to the Mekong Delta, which is famous for it’s floating markets.

We’re trying to be as thrifty as possible, and to avoid paying for one nights accommodation in Can Tho (main city in Mekong Delta area) we have made pretty elaborate plans.

Vietnam: War Museums and Ho Chi Minh Nightlife

Our 95,000 dong ($4.75) hostel has an included free breakfast, which we plan to take full advantage of. We walk down to reception where a small table with some baguettes, margarine, and bananas are sitting on a table. It’s not the most exciting, but free is free, so I eat two bananas and a baguette to tide me over until lunch.

Free Movies and The Waiting Game

Today we leave Saigon to continue on south to the Mekong Delta, which is famous for it’s floating markets.

We’re trying to be as thrifty as possible, and to avoid paying for one nights accommodation in Can Tho (main city in Mekong Delta area) we have made pretty elaborate plans.
Can Tho is only a four hour’s drive from Ho Chi Minh City, so not long enough to justify a sleeper bus, but there is a regular local bus that leaves every hour. We figure if we can get on the last bus at midnight, it will get us to Can Tho around 4am, which will allow us to catch an early boat to start adventuring around the market that opens at 5am. The timing should work out well, if everything goes according to plan…which I know it won’t. Even if the bus is late and we arrive at 6am, we should be early enough to catch a boat.

We’d spent a bit of time asking around at different travel agencies about bus tickets and prices. Many of them tried to sell us on an all inclusive tour, and others quoted a single one-way ticket between $12 and $15, depending on who we asked. That’s far too expensive and we know it. We lucked out and found one travel agent who was kind enough to just provide us with the bus station address, and suggested we go there ourselves to buy a ticket. She estimated it would cost us $5, which is significantly lower than $15, and far more logical for a four hour drive. That’s our plan of action. The only trouble is that we can’t guarantee a seat on the bus until we actually go to the bus station to buy the ticket ourselves. We won’t do that until a couple hours before leaving, because it’s not exactly in a convenient location. We figure it’s a pretty low chance that the midnight bus will be full.

We spend our morning killing time. It’s really just a waiting game until 9 or 10pm when we can head to the bus station. We get our free breakfast, shower, and stay in the hostel room until 11:30 when we have to check out.
They let us leave our bags at the front desk for the day.

I find a cool review about restaurant online, that shows free movies all day. Sounds like a good way to kill a couple hours! The free movies come on the condition that you buy something. The menu isn’t exactly cheap so we scout out the most inexpensive options, an iced latte and a fruit juice, which each cost 45,000 dong ($2.25), then we head upstairs to the little theatre. Just in time for the start of the next film! It’s unlike any theatre I’ve ever seen, and only composed of about 10 couches for seating. We are lead right to the front of the theatre, and seated at a small comfy couch with a coffee table. Prime viewing location, and by far the comfiest theatre seat I’ve ever been in. It’s so cozy here! Monuments Men is playing, which I’m looking forward to. I remember having seen the trailer a few months ago and it looked cool. The film starts out with a scene in German, which is only problematic when the given subtitles are in Vietnamese. I don’t think I miss anything überly important.

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I do however miss a 10 or 15 minute chunk of the movie when some guy a couple seats behind us decides that playing some techno music from his laptop would be appropriate. My ADD mind can’t handle both sounds, so I struggle to tune it out. I’m not the only one, and everyone in the theatre turns around to look at this total loser playing music and surfing the internet in a freaking movie theatre. I’ll never understand humans. 10 minutes of madness later a staff member comes over and tells him that his music is too loud, by which he seems shocked, but does agree to turn it down. He answers a couple phone calls later, but this bothers me less.

Monuments Men has scenes in English, French, and German. The French is easy enough to understand without sub titles, but I am so jealous that Tamara can understand all the German scenes too! It’s pretty cool that she can be in Vietnam, watching an American film set in France and Germany, and still comprehend everything that’s going on with ease.

We watch a second film that starts immediately after Monuments Men. It’s called Anna, and has an actress from my favourite TV show, American Horror Story, as the lead character. I’ve never heard anything about this movie and I assume it must be relatively new, or is too “artsy” to have ever made it big in Hollywood. It’s definitely a little strange, but a pretty good psychological thriller. I thoroughly enjoy it, but still don’t fully understand
the ending.

After four hours in the dark, staring at a screen like zombies, we decide to back out into the world. Still playing the waiting game, though. We sit down for dinner at a restaurant on the backpacker street, and people-watch while we share a plate of sautéed veggies and steamed rice for the low price of 35,000 dong. I also try to order a carrot juice, but it arrives as a mystery white yoghurt beverage. Definitely no carrots…but maybe a bit of lemon flavour? Some sort of smoothie.

At 8:30 we decide it’s time to go. We collect our backpacks from the hostel and get a taxi to the bus station. The original plan was to drop our backpacks there and wander around district 5, but there’s nothing in district 5. More bus stations, some closed down cafés, a couple street vendors selling baguettes, but that’s it.
We also can’t leave our bags at the bus station. Hassle. We tote all of our stuff down the street until we find anything that’s open. We happen upon a three table café with a Vietnamese menu for what looks like different iced coffees. No one speaks any English so we just point at the cheapest listed item, 10,000 dong, and hope for the best. I’ll drink anything.
It’s awkward when they bring over two small bottles of Aquafina water, because we already have two big bottles sitting at the table. We laugh, our server too, and point at another item on the menu. He carries the bottles away and comes back with two cups of hot black tea.

It finally becomes time to board our bus. Hallelujah. Hopefully I can get some sleep for the next 4 hours. Maybe even longer if the bus is late getting to Can Tho.
We transfer from a small bus with a couple other people to a large one packed full. We even have assigned seats for the ride, which we only find out when strangers sit down beside us and give us funny looks. My neighbour points at his ticket and the numbers overhead, then directs me to my proper seat. I never expected such organization!
I have a love/hate relationship with the language barrier. Of course, it causes us to make some silly and embarrassing mistakes, but it also means we’re really in Vietnam on a local bus and not on some touristy tour. This is now officially an adventure. This is how I feel backpacking is meant to be done. We live and learn.

Hopefully, I’ll learn to stop making assumptions about when the busses will arrive. Instead of arriving late, at 5 or 6am like I predicted, we arrive at 3.

War Museums and Ho Chi Minh Nightlife

Our 95,000 dong ($4.75) hostel has an included free breakfast, which we plan to take full advantage of. We walk down to reception where a small table with some baguettes, margarine, and bananas are sitting on a table. It’s not the most exciting, but free is free, so I eat two bananas and a baguette to tide me over until lunch.

We walk over to the famous war remnants museum in the centre of Saigon. Just our luck, we arrive five minutes after it closes for the afternoon. It re-opens again in an hour and a half, so now we’ve got some time to kill. We were going to get lunch after the museum anyway, so we change our plans and go in search of somewhere to eat now instead.

We stumble upon a cute street-side pho restaurant with two small plastic tables and a couple mini stools out front. We order two bowls through very minimal communications with the vendor…meaning she says “pho?” when we sit down and we nod our heads in approval.

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She whips up the two noodle bowls in seconds and brings them over to us. A policeman comes by and also orders a bowl of pho. I guess he’s on break? He sits down at the small plastic table with us, and we have a short conversation. Both him and the pho lady are very kind and seem happy to practice a bit of English with us. When we pack up to leave, they both warn us to keep our bags safe and to look out for robbers. They say “Ali Baba!” while pointing at my backpack, which I don’t fully understand but smile and nod anyway. It’s Tamara who explains to me later that it’s a reference to a movie called “AliBaba and the 40 robbers”? Never heard of it.

We wander around the city for a while, going no where in particular until the museum is back open for business. It’s much bigger than I expected, and absolutely full of content. I, admittedly, know very little about the Vietnam war, but have been learning lots throughout my adventure through the country. This museum is by far the best source of information. They’ve got it all. Tamara and I spend an hour and a half exploring the museum in awe of all it’s donated artifacts, unbelievable photographs, propaganda posters, quotes and explanations about the war.
The two most impressionable points for me were the Agent Orange room, and reading about the shocking Bob Kerry story.

“Agent Orange” is a herbicide that was used in mass quantities by the Americans during the Vietnam war. It was used as chemical warfare, and has now affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people. It not only severely damaged and maimed people during the war, but continues to affect new born children today, who’s parents, or who’s grand parents, were exposed to the chemical. Many are born with severe disabilities such as deaf/blindness, missing limbs, extra bones, severe brain damage, cleft palates, different forms of cancer, cerebral palsy, and so many more awful side effects. As a result, thousands of children are abandoned left in orphanages to die. The museum reports that approximately 70 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed throughout Vietnam during the war. This makes me feel sick. The images of the victims are extremely hard to stomach, and make for a difficult, but very important walk through the museum. I had heard of Agent Orange before, but had no idea just how terrible and vast it’s effects have been. Some American soldiers suffered the side effects from exposure as well, but the numbers are in no way comparable to that of Vietnam.

The Bob Kerry story was another appalling truth I discovered. A man who was once a US Senator, was in charge of a fleet of soldiers during the war. On February 25th, 1969, he and his unit attacked the small village of Thanh Phong in Southern Vietnam. Unprovoked and without reason, they murdered 21 innocent civilians including children and pregnant women. There was no crossfire, they simply rounded up a group of civilians and massacred them at point blank. I’ve never been to war, but I can’t imagine how anything in the world could ever cause a “good” or “normal” person to do something so evil and sadistic. Similar to the Agent Orange room, I feel sick and am in total shock after learning about such a horrendous occurrence. What’s even more tragic, is that it isn’t the only one.

In some ways, the strangest and most enraging thing to me, is the photographers. There is a surprisingly large amount of photographic evidence to accompany each of these horrific stories. This quote from one of the war photographers sums up my issue with their participation. It hangs below a framed photograph of a crying mother and her two children, moments before their death.

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Yes, I am happy that these photos exist because I think it plays an important role in bringing to life how real this war was for people like me, who know next to nothing, but at the same time I feel angry that they did nothing but snap photos while people were being murdered in cold blood. One photo in particular, known as “The Terror of War” taken by an American, is world famous and has won awards. “Thanks for taking this photo of horrified children before they were murdered. Here’s a trophy and a million dollars.”
It rubs me the wrong way.

After a heavy afternoon at the war museum we have something planned to lift our spirits. We are meeting up with a friend we met in Ha Long Bay! Romain was one of our French pals on the disorganized boat tour, and lives in Ho Chi Minh for an internship. He’s offered to show us around the city while we’re here. We take a walk along the river, see iconic and beautiful buildings such as the Post Office and Cathedral, visit a market, and stop for a drink at a cute park-side restaurant.

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After our afternoon we head home to change, have dinner, and plan to meet up with Romain again for a night out. Ho Chi Minh is famous for it’s night life, and there’s no better way to find a good bar than to have someone who lives in the city show it to you!

Tam and I go out walking near our hostel to find a cheap meal. We find a cute noodle shop down an alley way and even though we’ve had noodle soup three times in the last two days, we order it again. It’s too cheap to pass up! The menu is all in Vietnamese, but we point to the cheapest listed price, 27,000 dong ($1.30), and are told there is “meat” in it. Sweet. 27,000 don’t for a bowl of noodles, and I’m happy with whatever is it in. The soup arrives with a few pieces of what I believe to be chicken, some cute mini-wontons, chopped green onions, and the usual salty broth. It’s yummy!
When we go to pay we are told the price is 64,000. We were expecting 54,000 because anyone who’s passed grade 3 math can tell you that 27×2 is 54. We ordered no drinks, used no napkins (which are sometimes extra here) and can’t figure out how in the world we’re being charged an extra 10,000. We don’t care, we’re more curious than anything, so we ask. The English spoken by the staff is minimal, but our waitress picks up an uncooked mini-wonton an tells us that they’re 5,000. We never asked for mini-wontons, and I don’t know if I was expected to know this would cost more…but apparently we have to pay for them now. I’ll never solve the mystery of why the unwanted wontons were added to my soup, but at least I enjoyed them. It’s times like these that I really wish I spoke Vietnamese just so I could understand how these things occur. Does this happen to locals too, or just us? Is it really a small scale scam just to squeeze 5,000 extra dong out of each of us? Do I just have a face that says “I love wontons”? I don’t understand.

We go back to the hostel to change for the evening. Romain suggested we wear something a little fancy, which is a major struggle when you’re backpacking. Fortunately, I celebrated my 22nd birthday from a backpack, and invested in an LBD that can pass as dressy for tonight. Tamara and I even put on a little mascara for the occasion. We still don’t know where we’re going or how fancy we’re really supposed to be, but this is about as good as we can manage under the circumstances.

We meet Romain and his friend Anthony near our hostel in District One. Everyone laughs when I greet Anthony with a handshake. I forgot that I’m in the company of chic Europeans, so I’m supposed to do the ever-fabulous double cheek kiss instead. Whoops. We start the night by Tamara and I showing them where to find 8,000 dong beer, because the cheapest they’ve found in Vietnam so far is 12,000. Granted, they have jobs and don’t have to sit on street corners drinking mystery beer just to save a few cents like we do. We stay for one cheap beer on the backpacker strip before moving on to another bar. Everyone in my company tonight speaks French as their first language. It’s good practice for me, but similar to our group in Ha Long Bay, everyone’s English is so good that we end up speaking this instead. Maybe they do it because they pity my lost and broken attempt at French, who knows. A few drinks in however, I start to get a little more bold about my second language, and we use a mix of French and English for the rest of the night. I love when this happens.

Romain shows us to a cool bar called The Cargo; a big open space concrete space with live music, test tube shot glasses, and red lighting. It’s cool and very hipster-chic. Most of the clientele look like expats and backpackers, though I don’t know too many backpackers that can afford 60,000 dong for a can of Sapporo. It’s the only beer they serve, and trying to play it cool while handing over so much for one drink is a challenge. Tears are in my eyes as I let go of what could easily be a whole meal… Or 7 beers back at our street-side 8,000 dong spot. Still, I know it’s not fun to be around people who are always so worried about money, so I remind myself that one night of splurging won’t kill me. I won’t have to fly home tomorrow if I buy a couple of over-priced drinks.

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We have a really fun night out doing a bit of bar hopping around Ho Chi Minh. It’s always so nice to catch up with people you meet on the road!