The first piece advice that we were given before we crossed the border into Vietnam was actually pointers on how to cross the street once we arrived in the bustling Ho Chi Minh city center. Apparently the best way to cross the hectic streets was to close your eyes and walk. Now the logic is similar but we are pretty sure that if we closed our eyes and walked we would most definitely be killed by a car because the motorbikes, no matter how fast or slow you might be walking, somehow always manage to dodge you. Upon arriving in the city, it took us about 10 minutes to get the courage to even attempt to cross the street to find our hostel; it also didn’t help that it was pouring rain and we were as always, too cheap to take a cab.
The first item on our Vietnam bucket list and if we are being honest, the first item on Nat’s Asia bucket list in general, was to try Natalie’s all time favorite food, pho. If you’re not familiar with the Vietnam specialty, you can unfollow this blog now, jk…. but really… jk… besides knowing of course that it is the best, pho is a noodle broth soup with either chicken (pho ga), beef (pho ba) or fish (not sure of the Vietnamese name for this one as we always get the pho ba), along with bean sprouts, shallots, chilis, basil, rice noodles and cilantro. Nat researched all of the possible pho locations that we could scout out and settled on Pho 2000, a chain made famous by President Clinton on his trip to Vietnam. After finding our way to the street the restaurant was on, we saw it shining like a beacon of deliciousness across the street. Seeing the glimmer of hope in our eyes and sensing the hunger in our tummies, a waiter came running out of the shop and literally stopped traffic so we could get across the street, clearly we were not the only tourists afraid to cross the streets in Ho Chi Minh. The pho was not only the biggest bowl we have both ever bee served in our lives but also the best. On our way back from pho, we stopped into an open air market selling everything from fish to shoes. Natalie stopped to admire a watch as her’s had broken earlier on the trip. She tried on a watch that looked like a replica of the one that she had broken and decided that it was just a little on the big side. She said no thank you and handed it back to the seller. He immediately lowered his price from 300,000 VND to 200,000 VND, when Nat was still genuinely not interested, he lowered his price again – 150,000 VND. As we walked away and tried to tell the persuasive salesman that we simply did not want the watch we heard his voice trail away in the distance, 100,000 VND – or name your price! From then on we realized that most of our bargaining tactics had been too soft.
The next day we set off to explore the city and of course try more of the food. Surprising enough one of the big tourist attractions in Ho Chi Minh is Norte Dam Church, which not surprisingly looks like the Vietnam version of its French namesake. In order to make it to the church we trekked across town in the sweltering heat. About half way to the church a coconut salesman asked us where we were headed… he was holding a big stick with two coolers full of coconuts on each end and he pointed us in the right direction. He was friendly and asked us where we were from and began to tell us about how many pounds of coconuts he carried down the street a day. He even asked Ross to hold onto his pack to test how heavy it was. The man was nice enough but fearing the inevitable ask for money, we kept walking and he kept up with us. He caught up to the point of almost being in front of us and before we could say no we would not like a coconut, he had chopped off one of the tops and put a straw in it for us. So we were not considered rude, we accepted the coconut but had to stop him before he opened another. He told us the price in USD and we handed him 100,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong, yes it is still hilarious), and he handed us 20,000 VND back. Ross being one of the few lawyers who doesn’t loath math, quickly deduced that this was not nearly enough change and had to argue with the man about the change that was due. So it turns out that he was trying to rip us off; we had successfully narrowly avoided our first almost successful scam. After our first real swindle in Asia. After we made it to the church we sat and watched couple after couple take wedding photos. We realized that the tradition in Vietnam must be to bring several different wedding outfits to take pictures in as each photographer came prepped with a giant box of different outfits and props.
That night we decided to hit the town because we heard that the streets take on a new life when the sun sets over the horizon. Hundreds of people flooded the streets as tuk-tuk drivers weaved their way among the masses. Bars began to pump music onto the streets and the place where we were staying became completely unrecognizable in the sea of people. Again since we were in money saving mode, we opted to buy our beers in the 7/11s nestled between shops, clubs and bars. Instead of going into the bars, we walked between them as the shop owners tried to beckon us in with the promise of drink specials and cheap food. But how could they possibly beat the deals that we already had in our hands? Nat ended up finding a nail salon that would fix the hideous things on her feet commonly known as toenails and Ross ended up having dude time with a friend (soon to become one of the best bargainers we had met all trip as he bargained down the fixed price of a travel SIM card) at a bar that was beckoning them in with a free first drink, which happened to be their only drink… we don’t think that promoters thought of this when they made the first drink free deal.
The next day we stuffed our faces at a weekend market with delicious soups and street meats and then headed to the claustrophobic but historically important Củ Chi tunnels. The Củ Chi tunnels are a massive network of tunnels used by Vietnamese soldiers in the Vietnam war against American troops. Before climbing in these small underground tunnels that were actually made bigger for tourists (we are guessing for the American sizes) we toured all sorts of different traps built to slow down American troops. Some of these traps were absolutely brutal and meant to severely hurt and dismember soldiers so they were slower to find the Vietnamese fighters. One of our favorites were combinations of trap doors that when stepped on threw the unsuspecting victims into what resembled a human meat grinder. When we finally got the chance to try out the tunnels for ourselves, we had the choice of a 25 meter stretch of tunnel, 50 meters, 75 meters, 100 meters or 200 meters. We decided to pick 100 meters because Natalie seems to have inherited a little of her mom’s claustrophobic genes. From the second we entered to the second we exited, we felt pure fear. Sweaty pits turned to sweaty everything as we wiggled our way through the small tunnels. It felt like we were stuck in a hot plastic jungle gym at McDonalds but still being adults, we didn’t quite fit. As we passed the 25, 50 and 75 markers (well not markers, just unmarked turn offs) the tunnels began to narrow and twist. Ross was fine and did much better than Natalie besides his quads seizing from months of not being in CrossFit shape. After we took our first beautiful breaths of freedom, we were ushered to a black and white PSA in Vietnam that featured a beautiful farmer lady carrying a rocket launcher and wearing braided pigtails who won the award of “American Killer Hero” for how many American solders she killed during the war. On the bus ride home when everyone asked where we were from, we contemplated saying Canada…
That night we led our new friends on an accidental wild goose chase when Natalie saw a flyer on Facebook for a Hello Weekend night market on the other side of town. After 30 minutes of walking with almost everyone thinking, “are we there yet,” with our new friends, we made it to the location of the weekend market. It was completely deserted and people were taking down tents and what looked to be a kids carnival. Our mission to find something new and exciting failed (mostly because Nat ended up looking up the flyer again and it was from 2009) and after loosing a few of our friends, we ended up settling on more pho for dinner, because lets be real, you can never have too much pho. That night with our bellies full again, we boarded a night bus for De Lat, the canyoning adventure capitol of southern Vietnam.