Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals *****
Ho Chi Minh has a definite big city feel to it. While Hanoi had a quiet charm, Ho Chi Minh is a loud, brash, confident city - one that wouldn't feel particularly out of place in Europe.
As with other areas of SE Asia, you can very quickly feel the French influences, however, Ho Chi Minh City has developed significantly, firstly as part of the the Republic of Vietnam, and then as part of a reunified Vietnam. Skyscrapers such as the Bitexco Financial Tower dominate the skyline, streets are wide and clean and the core of the city is devoid of the street vendors that dominate other large cities in the area.
The city on foot
I didn't have particularly long in the city, so I set about seeing as much as I could. The weather was warm and humid, although not particularly hot, certainly not as hot as the dry searing heat of Dubai or the humid, sticky heat of Bangkok.
The city centre is relatively well dispersed, so walking probably isn't the best way of exploring, I walked for a good 30 minutes from where I was staying to reach Ben Thanh Market, a large market in one of the liveliest areas of the city. It's large, don't get me wrong, but not particularly impressive. Like other markets, it's a conglomeration of a large number of merchants, however, for some reason, it just doesn't click. The prices aren't as cheap as other markets, and the atmosphere is nothing special. I had a quick walk around, but left relatively quickly. The city has a lot going for it, this just wasn't one of those things..
I continued my walk to the Independence Palace. The palace was built in 1962, and definitely has a mid 20th-century feel about it. During my visit, the city was heading toward celebrating the anniversary of the leader of Vietnamese resistance during their wars of independence, Ho Chi Minh, so security was understandably tight. I saw a large number of dignitaries walking into the building and guards armed with guns patrolling the perimeter.
Not much different from political events in London, I guess.
Most of the sights in Ho Chi Minh City are located in District 1, which corresponds to the equivalent Zone 1 in London. Some of the largest and most important buildings are pretty close to each other, but removed from other areas of the city. With the sun beating on me, and me wearing a heat absorbing black patka, I decided to head back to where I was staying, rest for a while and head out later in the evening.
Now, I like to stay in shape. I go to the gym quite regularly, play football, even did Thai Boxing for a number of years. I think it's important a Singh lives up to his name, and is able to defend himself and that he projects the image of a confident warrior. But as I've noted in this blog, my physique is nothing special, I'm certainly no Brock Lesnar.
In England, I just look like a normal guy that trains, nothing special at all. The older generation will sometimes comment but that's about it. However, in this city, as well as a few cities in Cambodia, the locals (as well as Japanese tourists) treated me as if I were something special, which couldn't be any further from the truth, I promise you.
Everywhere I went, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City, people were shouting "muscle man" or just pointing to their biceps. At first I found this odd, and wondered what they were trying to sell me, after a while I realised it was just random people. One Japanese couple actually stopped and asked for a picture. I thought they meant they wanted me to take a picture of them, but no, the guy asked his girlfriend to take a picture of me and him together while he did a Hulk Hogan-esque pose.
I guess being a Sikh and standing out definitely got their attention.
There was one guy who went in for the sell and he wasn't messing around. Walking back on a quiet street, away from the main roads, one local guy was leaning against his motorbike. He caught my attention and just pointed at me. "You, muscleman, you come here". I thought about continuing walking on, but I didn't want to miss out on the chance to have a little adventure, or at least a conversation with a local so I decided to head over.
I said hello, "you, England, I have many friends in England". I always find it funny how people can tell I am from England. I have brown skin, I look like a Sikh, but I've been to many cities; Amsterdam, Barcelona, Siagon, Bangkok - where people have assumed I am from England, sometimes without me even saying a word. Do we have a special walk or something? I literally have no idea how they do it.
"Let me show you, my many English friends". His English was good and he looked to be in his 40s. He pulled out a little black book, opened a few pages and said "you know Manchester? Manchester United? My friend from Manchester", and he showed me a review someone had written in his book, signed from Manchester.
He then proceeded to show me other entries; "look, Liverpool, London, Birmingham". "I'm from near Birmingham", I replied. "Oh, you must support a football team, Manchester United?". These guys seem to love United. "Aston Villa" I replied. "They no good, no good" was his response, one I have heard many times over the years. "You want ride on Motorbike?", he then proceeded to list prices for a two hour tour of the city.
I looked at his sorry excuse for a motorbike, is this safe? Is he going to take me to the outskirt of the city then rob me? A few thoughts ran through my head. I decided to negotiate, I cut his price to a third. "No good, my friend, no way". I thanked him for the conversation and began to walk away. "Okay, my friend, maybe a little more?". I walked back and we agreed I would pay half of what he originally asked for, it was still ridiculously cheap. I jumped on the back of his bike, and off we went.
I've been blessed to be able to pull some amazing memories from my mind; some great experiences, some good adventures. This ranks very highly up there. It was a little difficult to get used to, but after a few minutes we were off, riding around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. The first stop was the War Remnants museum, located not too far from where we set off, I looked around the museum which focused on the Vietnamese War with American but also the war against France. There were a lot of gruesome photos, that bought the horrors and reality of the way front and centre. Outside there were large models of tanks and planes. "Climb on", he told me, so I obliged. Climbing on top of the tank he began to take pictures for me. I'm pretty sure that wasn't allowed as he kept looking around for security. This was a good guy.
The Grand Central Post Office was next. Built in 1891, the post office has a very European feel, not surprising considering it was built by the French. We then went the short distance across the road to Saigon Cathedral.
Built just a decade earlier, the building was used by the Catholic population of Vietnam at the time. Pretty soon after, two large bells were added to the Cathedral. Standing in front of it, with the sun beating down above me, I literally felt as if I was transported to a continental European city.
In contrast, the next stop on the tour was a small Vietnamese Pagoda. Well, at least I thought it looked small on the outside. Inside, the temple was a maze of darkened corridors and numerous rooms, with statues in all. Unlike many other large temples that you can visit in the city that are swarmed by tourists, this was filled with locals, lighting incense candles and praying. It was a very nice, peaceful and tranquil experience, so I spent a little longer in the temple than I thought. As I walked out I could feel a cool breeze in the air, and looking up I noticed the clouds getting darker and a little spit of rain.
I should have realised what was coming next. After driving along on his trusty, rusty motorbike for a couple of minutes, the heavens opened and it rained. Not the type of rain we get in England, no, this was an absolute flood of a downpour. Within seconds I was soaked through, within minutes the streets were deserted. Pretty soon the road had become swollen with rainwater, the motorbike was struggled to get through the water, which by this time was above the the midpoint of the tyres and completely over my shoes.
We were going to head to the tunnels but he told me in this weather, it was probably not a good idea and so he decided to take a 20 minute drive to the other side of the city. At first the ride was horrendous, but after a while I decided to embrace the situation and it became pretty fun. I realised, however, that not only had my clothes soaked through, but my pockets were actually starting to flood, it had been 20 minutes and the rain was still lashing down. We stopped under a bridge as I quickly dried out my wallet and my phone and he told me to place them under his seat. He then pulled out a raincoat, 20 minutes too late, but a welcome addition nonetheless. We continued the ride and pretty soon I found the raincoat was less the useless, but I appreciated the gesture, and not wanting to hurt his feelings, I decided to wear it anyway.
Soon we arrived on the banks of the river, facing the city skyline, Only it was raining so heavily, we could barely see a couple of metres ahead of us, let alone the city on the other side of the river. It was a shame, because from the little silhouettes. I could tell the view would have been impressive.
With the rain not subsiding we decided to head back. He asked me where I wanted to be dropped off, so I gave him the name of the place where I was staying and we did the long 20 minute journey back in the city, and a further 10 minutes to my room.
He asked whether I would write a review for him in his book, and I was more than happy to. I also decided to leave an extra tip for him too. Some people know how to sell, how to build a rapport with their customers, and this guy definitely had it. In another life, he could be a successful broker, I thought.
I'm not going to recommend everyone jump on to a strangers motorbike and let him take you around a strange city you have never visited before. But I will say, this ranks highly as one of my favourite experiences from all my travels. I figured, in a worst case scenario, I can handle myself to some extent and felt the risk-reward ratio was slightly in favour of throwing caution to the wind and jumping on, and it paid off.
I jumped off the bike, crossed the road to the hotel. My clothes dripping, shoes completely ruined. As I walked in, the receptionists burst out laughing and I trudged my way into the lift and back to my room to shower, leaving a line of water behind me. It was worth it.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.