14 Apr The Craziest Place I’ve ever Been: Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
There’s no doubt about it, I’m a born city rat. I love feeling lost and anonymous amongst teeming crowds, while at the same time feeling like a tiny cog in a complicated, ever-changing machine. Back in London I used to relish strolling along the riverfront and through the city squares, or sitting on packed trains watching millions of lives unfold all around me. The bigger and more hectic the city, the better, I used to think. That was until I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – the craziest place I’ve ever been.
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Maybe it was the fact that we arrived in the evening when the city was full of noise and flashing lights that made it so initially overwhelming; or perhaps it was that we visited just after Christmas so the streets were still full of decorations and people were gearing up for the legendary New Year’s Eve Celebrations ahead. Whatever the cause, I found myself disorientated and stuck in a stupefied state of sensory overload as we battled through crowds and got lost down tiny maze-like alleyways searching for our hotel.
The first thing that hit me was the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City; the streets were even crazier than those in Hanoi. As evidenced in the video below, swarms of weaving motorbikes, cars and cyclos overran the streets, horns blaring while their riders sat nonchalantly aboard; at every turn whole armies of motorbikes were stationed at traffic lights ready to charge at a moment’s notice. We weren’t even safe on the pavements and had to dodge bikers who’d mounted them in a bid to avoid one-way streets, park or simply get ahead of the herd.
Crossing the road was a test of nerves for me, as we stood on the precipice waiting to plunge into the stream of shiny machines and exhaust fumes my palms would prickle in panic. As we were later advised, the best strategy is to walk slowly and steadily into the path of the vehicles, one hand raised, and let the river of vehicles part and then close seamlessly around you. This is easier said than done; I found it hard to hold my nerve and would often shield myself behind local pedestrians and hold tight to Andrew’s hand, scared that I’d get lost in the churning flow forever.
To begin with it felt like I was being assaulted by the City and I kept getting the agoraphobic urge to retreat back inside. My ears were constantly attacked with blaring horns and music, my eyes struggled to take in all the colourful lights and the smells of rubbish, spices, fruit rotting in the sun and fish being gutted by the roadside filled my nostrils. During our first couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City a woman accidentally bashed her street cart into me, leaving a bloody wound on my thumb. I certainly hadn’t expected to feel so totally overpowered by the city and I was a little shaken up by that.
Growing to Love Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Thankfully, as time went by I adjusted to the hectic vibe and felt myself falling into the rhythms of the city, its energy became exhilarating rather than staggering. Armed with a map Andrew and I began walking miles around the city, discovering an oasis of calm amid the chaos in Cong Vien Van Hoa park where we’d sit and eat bread from the German bakery across the road and watch people walk their dogs. We spent hours in museums and tiny cafes; we had massages and even got to meet up with fellow travel bloggers Steph and Tony from 20 Years Hence.
One day we were stopped on the street by some young students from the Talking with Tourists group who wanted to practise their English with us so we sat down on the curb and chatted to them about our lives back in England and theirs in Vietnam. Most of the kids came from smaller towns or villages and had moved to the city to attend University and take English classes in the hope of improving their employment prospects. As they laughed and made fun of each other, telling us about the apartments they shared with friends and their part-time jobs, they reminded me of Andrew and I when we first met back at University in Bristol. At the end of our chat they gave us some leaflets, including one about how to cross the road and presented us with some scarves as thank you presents.
New Years Eve in Ho Chi Minh City
After a quiet Christmas up in the central highlands of Dalat, we were excited to be spending New Year’s Eve in Ho Chi Minh City alongside millions of other people. Although the Vietnamese celebrate Tet, the Lunar rather than the calendar new year, they still take celebrations on 31st December pretty seriously.
The streets were full of people celebrating beneath elaborate lights and decorations; stages were set up to host free live entertainment, including popular Vietnamese bands. Since some of the central city streets were shut down for the evening traffic was even more crazy than usual and the roundabout at Ben Thanh Market was absolutely chock-a-block with thousands of motorbikes reduced to a standstill. Despite the party atmosphere there were none of the drunken New Year shenanigans you’d get in England and the mood was upbeat and friendly, with many Vietnamese people stopping to shake hands and wish us a Happy New Year.
After a lovely Indian meal (minus the dead bug in the rice) at Ganesh, Andrew and I had a beer and wandered the streets soaking in the sights and sounds. As time moved onwards towards midnight we followed the crowds to a central square where we could just see the fireworks exploding over the river through a gap in some tall, glass buildings when the clock struck twelve. Although the display was pretty underwhelming, we couldn’t help but be swept up in the tide of excitement as we bid goodbye to 2013, the year we finally began to realise our travel dreams, while looking forward to a new year of adventures ahead.
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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)Posted at 02:50h, 15 April
I am so glad that HCMC grew on you and that you ultimately came to love it–I really think that those days leading up to NYE were the craziest I had ever seen the city, and as you know, we have spent A LOT of time in Saigon. One of the reasons I love big cities is because they always have something new to show us, new things to discover, no matter how much time you spend there. HCMC is DEFINITELY one of those places… I thought we’d see it all in 3 months, but we didn’t even come close!
And of course, I’m so glad we finally got to meet up in Saigon! Was so wonderful getting to chat with you guys and see the love for Vietnam begin to burn so brightly in your eyes. 🙂
AmyPosted at 04:21h, 15 April
It was great getting to meet up with you guys too Steph and I can see why you decided to stay in HCMC for three months. I feel like we only just scratched the surface of HCMC and Vietnam in general but I’ll let you into a secret: we may just have booked flights back to Hanoi for later on this year 🙂
RhondaPosted at 18:11h, 15 April
Glad to see you enjoyed HCM… what a nutty place and the craziest street crossings ever! Although I must admit to being more of a country mouse, I did thrive on the hustle and bustle of it all and can’t wait to go back. We spent Christmas in Hanoi… crazy enough in it’s own right. Imagine ten thousand moto’s all carrying kids in santa suits!
AmyPosted at 15:03h, 16 April
Hi Rhonda, Christmas in Hanoi must have been great, we loved it there – so cute that the kids were wearing santa suits!
Hitch-Hikers HandbookPosted at 20:40h, 15 April
Fascinating blog, guys! Thanks for connecting with us on Twitter! Keep up the great work and travel safe!
AmyPosted at 15:04h, 16 April
Thanks! Always great to connect with fellow travellers 🙂
RobPosted at 21:19h, 16 April
That traffic is insane! It reminds me of a huge flock of starlings, somehow they never seem to collide (hopefully).
AmyPosted at 11:51h, 17 April
True Rob, we only actually saw one very minor collision in HCMC which is amazing really considering how crazy it all is!
PattiPosted at 03:53h, 17 April
OMG! The 2nd video of the traffic in Saigon and the lone bicyclist who rides (seemingly calmly) through the maze of traffic! I think I’d have a difficult time there as I don’t do well in crowds, I tend to feel overwhelmed and unnerved by it. But, I guess, as you say if I stayed long enough I guess I would acclimate. You’re having some amazing adventures, Amy, and I enjoy following your journey. Safe travels ~
AmyPosted at 11:49h, 17 April
Thanks 🙂 I totally understand what you mean Patti, I felt really overwhelmed to begin with in HCMC and was shocked to see people nonchalantly strolling across the crazy roads or meandering through the traffic on bikes – insane!
VictoriaPosted at 05:30h, 26 April
So pleased that you finally got to like Ho Chi Minh City, but also so understandable! It’s a crazy city and I too found crossing the road a mystery and confusing. We were also approached by students who helped us and gave us tips as I’m normally a fast walker. This time they told us not to skip or run (that’s usually me!), but to walk straight purposly forward. The traffic will move AROUND you. Don’t stop walking and definately, don’t look back. You’d panic if you did!
Having said that, I liked Hanoi better than I liked Ho Chi Minh but I had a wonderful time in Vietnam and would highly recommend it to all LOL!
AmyPosted at 11:37h, 26 April
Hi Victoria, I’m with you on that, although HCMC was great I really loved Hanoi. I still can’t believe just how crazy the traffic is in HCMC, you really have to see it to believe it!