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Adjusting to the Chaos of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the beauty of Vietnam « Career Break 360
February 2, 2014 @ 8:57 am - posted by Dominic Brendell

Ho Chi Minh City

So I hit Saigon (HCMC) with a bang and walked into the chaos of Vietnam. I had to collect my visa at the airport, which I thought was going to be straightforward but turned out to be organised chaos. It was a fight through a crowd of people to a glass window, where I handed over my passport and then waited 2 hours for it to be returned with my 3 month Vietnam visa. On the plus side I met a guy, who had just arrived from Canada. We got talking and then shared a taxi into town. The taxi turned out to be a pirate taxi (unmarked car) which normally I’d never get into with all my stuff but after the whole airport ordeal, and as I was with another guy, that rule went out the window. Turned out we paid well over the odds but it really is a battle with taxis and getting the correct price – have since found two good companies that stick to the meter.

We got to a hotel and for the second time on this trip I’d left my little bag with camera, computer and basically everything of value in the taxi; and for the second time, 30 minutes later, the bag was returned to me – talk about lucky! This prompted me to buy a new bag that’s easier to carry and after visiting a museum the following day and knowing how things happen in threes, I left my old bag in the locker to which two minutes later a man came running down the street to return it to me. AMAZING. (I guess the three times rule has been cancelled out now!)

Street scene in HCMC (Saigon), Vietnam in 2012Chaos of HCMC /Saigon

HCMC was a great city, very very busy with 12 million residents and 7 million scooters on the road. I’ve seen nothing like it and the photos just don’t do it justice. Crossing the road was an experience as you just walk through a river of scooters as they drive around you. In some places there were tourist police who’d help people across the road, but I didn’t need any of that and found it quite fun crossing by myself. Also interesting was the things people would carry on their scooters: from kitchen supplies; furniture like sofas, glass windows, just about anything will go on the back of a scooter.

Another interest is that although there’s a local currency, Dongs, the majority of people like to do business with US dollars.

One night in a plush hotel was enough for me, and although it was cheap after Malaysia, I really needed to hammer down costs, so the next day I took a walk and found a great small hotel for $12 a night: super clean, air con, TV and a lovely clean bathroom with hot water; such a change after some of the places in Malaysia and it was so nice to have a clean place again – I ended up staying in HCMC for over a week just catching up after my travels around Malaysia.

Met up with another Australian guy, who I’ve been travelling with for the last 2 weeks. He’s a bit of a character and very brash at times but has been good to hang out with.

Had a few good nights in HCMC meeting up with other travellers and drinking extra cold beer for under a $1. Went to the war museum which was very distressing to say the least and I had to walk out halfway through. The photos were a real exhibition of the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the horrific things that happened to the native people of Vietnam. A gruesome experience but one every visitor should see – war is not the answer. Outside were a lot of old American Military tanks, planes, helicopters and bombs, etc. The first floor inside showed all of the protest material from around the world trying to stop America from continuing the war effort. The second floor is where it got into the photos of the war and all the death and destruction; it really turned my stomach. Then the next section showed the results of the use of Agent Orange and that’s when I had to leave: just seeing the mutilation of so many children and civilians was horrific.

Later on in the week I went on a tour of the Chu Chi tunnels, where the Vietcong were hiding, setting up traps and holding their ground against the American troops. A very sophisticated tunnel network, with hidden kitchens and ventilation systems as well as traps. They’ve had to widen the tunnels for the Western tourists to go through but you still have to crawl. After the tunnels it was off to the shooting range to try out an AK47 and then back into HCMC. A great day and full of so much history of the Vietnam War!

Van in Cu Chi tunnelsVan takes the plunge

Although I enjoyed HCMC it was definitely an eye-opener to the darker side of Vietnam. Everywhere you go there are these men on scooters either offering to drive you somewhere, sell you drugs or pimp out a girl. Massage parlours everywhere with people trying to hustle you in, in quite an aggressive way; also pickpockets and bag snatchers everywhere. I was constantly hearing stories of people having their cameras ripped out of their hands. Luckily I’ve not had any such problems. A couple of guys I met were both scammed in the first two days of arriving, both by the same con executed by different people. Basically someone approached them asking where they were from, then saying they had a family member staying in the country they were from. An invitation was made to come and meet the whole family and tell them about their home country. A taxi was laid on, food given, etc, etc … then it came up that the brother was a card dealer in a casino and had all these special signs to let certain people know when to bet big (I would not of even gone back to the house and as for a game of cards …). Anyway, cutting a long story short, suddenly the opportunity to join a private card game comes up at the house where some Arabs were joining the game. Free money was then given to the unsuspecting tourists so they could join the game with no risk. The free money then ran out and bigger bets were needed, so loans were offered and trips to the local gold shop and ATM were made. One guy ended up loosing $8000 and the other lost $500 – a painful lesson for both. They both then fell into another trap when we went to a local night club. What an experience that was. Loads of locals spending massive amounts of money in a very slick club with amazing security; it was like one big VIP section. All the guys were drinking cognac and partying hard. Anyway some local girls took an interest in the group of us, to which I had no interest, so left for the dance floor only for the other two guys to follow 20 minutes later looking quite shaken up that the girls were actually hookers and were getting quite forceful with them to leave the club and go back to their hotel; and then the pimp stepped in from the background. Amazing really but wake up guys! Anyway that resulted in us leaving the club and heading back to the safer parts around the backpacker district.

Stella bar saigonUndoubtedly the best people watching spot in town

Another thing you see a lot of is Western men in their 60s married to girls in their 20s and also the amount of guys that like the fact that these local girls come and talk to them and give them attention; they are normally bigger and older guys. Luckily I don’t get too much hassle thank goodness but one of the guys who is 36 and quite a big guy attracts them like a magnet and he loves it……………each to their own!

But enough of the seediness of Vietnam; although it plays a massive part of the country, which is sad: it’s everywhere you go apart from the countryside.

Vũng Tàu and Mũi Né

From HCMC I went with the Australian to a place called Vũng Tàu on the coast near HCMC. It was a dirt bag of a place; like a tacky beach resort with loads of rubbish on the beach, loads of men trying to pimp out girls and loads of older Australia men hanging around bars talking to the local girls. Only stayed a couple of days there for obvious reasons, then went to a place called Mui Ne.

This was a very touristy resort, basically a long strip of restaurants, bars and places to stay; very chilled and relaxing but more of a romantic place. Only spent a couple of days there but did hire out some motorbikes and went right out into the countryside, exploring the desert area, sand dunes and dirt tracks through some local villages.


Nha Trang

We then moved onto a place called Nha Trang, which is a combination of a lot of things. It has a great beach, the bar culture and tourists, but also the local cultures. Have found a great place to stay, above a post office for only $7 a night. Food is cheap and so are the drinks. Spent the day on motorbikes and went right out into the countryside where you drive along dirt tracks. Found a beautiful waterfall by mistake. The evenings are cool and the days are hot and sunny with no humidity; such a relief after HCMC.

Probably going to stay here until the weekend and then have to figure out where to go next. My bank card has finally arrived in HCMC, which is 10 hours away and Bex has arrived in Thailand. I now have to backtrack 10 hours to get my card at some point and then decide whether I go to Thailand and do the rest of Vietnam later, or travel back up the coast. I’ll be looking at that over the next few days.

Still no real access to Facebook throughout Vietnam, although I’ve heard you can access it through a proxy site.

Nha trang vietnamThe vibrancy of Vietnam depicted in colour

Nha Trang and Hoi An

I’ve now left Vietnam, which was a bit of a rush as spent a long time in the city of Nha Trang and then had 4 days to cover 900 km up to Hanoi to catch my flight.

After collecting my bank card from HCMC I returned back to Nha Trang, where I stayed for a month living the beach life infused with a lot of beer. I then got a 10 hour train ride to a place called Hoi An, which is famous for tailors. It really was mind blowing – a place I’ll certainly be going back to for all my suits and shirts. Complete freedom in what you have made, from materials to styles, colours, designs, absolutely everything. The town itself is beautiful, very French colonial and the day I arrived it was Earth Day where all the electricity is cut at night for 1 hour – the streets were covered in candles and people had little boats to float candles down the river as well. Michael Jackson’s Earth Song was played across the town, followed by an air raid siren and then all the lights went out with loads of cheers from everywhere – it really was an emotional experience!

The weather wasn’t great for my stay and due to time constraints I got a bus two days later and went to Hue. The journey was only four hours but the bus I was on was a sleeper bus, even though the journey was during the day! It was fun to be laying down for the four hour journey, but as I’m tall I would’ve found it very hard to sleep on.

Hoi an vietnam If Walt Disney had designed Vietnam, it would look like Hoi An

Hue and Hanoi

I arrived in Hue at midday and the weather was even worse than in Hoi An (it gets worse up north in Vietnam, and also since the earthquakes the weather systems have really been messed about). I got a taxi straight to the train station to see if I could get a sleeper carriage to Hanoi. Sadly it seemed they were fully booked, but after asking I found there was one seat left. It was a hard night as the train got delayed by 3 hours and then I had to sleep on a seat for the night, but surprisingly managed to doze off soon enough and arrived in Hanoi at 7am.

Two English girls I met in Nha Trang had just got to Hanoi a little earlier than me and suggested a hotel for $10 a night. I jumped into a taxi and went straight to the hotel. It was nice and clean and I bumped into one of the English girls in the reception area. They had quizzed the city out so we spent the day going around the shops and pagodas. Even though the weather was very British, we had a good time. The girls left the following day back to England via Bangkok.

The following day I set my alarm for 4am as I had to leave and get the 5am bus to the airport to catch my flight to Thailand (very excited to be heading to Thailand).

Hanoi VietnamSerene Sunsets

The strangest thing happened when I got up. There was a lot of thumping coming down the stairs, like someone was dragging something heavy, which then smashed against my door. There was a lot of talking in Vietnamese and then it went quiet as the thumping went down the next set of stairs. This was then following by a women screaming and crying, which at 4.30 in the morning totally put me on edge. Knowing that I shortly had to go down the same stairs, I sat in my room pondering on what that was all about and thoughts of Mafia (who are everywhere in Vietnam) started rushing through my head.

Eventually I decided to go out with my bags. As long as there’s no blood, I told myself, it’s fine. I got my bags on and walked down the stairs only to find massive pools of blood on the floor at the top of the stairs. My stomach flipped and I rushed back to my room wondering what to do as I really needed to get my bus. I then walked back down the stairs over the blood and to the reception area, where I saw two other travellers using the computers. The guy behind the desk was asleep, I woke him up as he needed to unlock the front door and let me out. No sign of anyone else and no signs that anyone had heard the screams – very strange, and I’ll never know what that was all about. I’m sure it was something completely innocent, but not the best way to start before walking out onto the dark streets of Hanoi!

Find out more about Dominic’s travels here:

A week’s R&R in Malacca before heading to Vietnam

Dominic travels to Langkawi, Malaysia on his Career Break to the Far East

Travelling from Penang to KL on my Sabbatical and the Jungle train trials.


About Dominic Brendell

Dominic Brendell has just returned from 3 years of travelling around Asia, he left with a budget and a plan to be away from the UK for a very long time. It only took 6 months to exhaust his funds and left him in the choice of either becoming a drug dealer or an English teacher to avoid returning back to the UK. Having seen the same old story over and over again on Channel 5's “Banged Up Abroad” it was an easy decision to go with teaching English. This helped him fund another 2 years of travelling in Asia and also to develop himself as a DJ. Please feel free to message any questions regarding travelling or teaching abroad at www.facebook.com/ukdproductions

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