Finishing university 2 months ago, having 3 weeks off work as a summer holiday, I wanted something different for myself to enjoy the last freedom before getting a (full – time) job. So I decided to take a 2 week trip to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) and Cambodia. Even though I hadn’t been to Saigon before, I didn’t make a detailed plan for this city. It was actually a stop on my way to Cambodia, but more than a stop, it has brought me a lot of thoughts, especially ones about choices.
Unlike Hanoi, Saigon is hot for the whole year. I felt the heat right after getting out of the airport but then I realized it wasn’t as humid as Hanoi, hot but still comfortable and endurable, at least for me. The first day was nothing much. I was given a drive by my friend who hosted me in Saigon, hit up some food places, strolled around the city and finished our day by a meet-up with another friend, whom I met in Thailand 2 years ago.
The following day, I went to Cu Chi Tunnels as I had heard of this place many times and I wanted to see it with my own eyes this time. It was an immense defense underground network in a jungle, about 200 km long, used by Vietnamese people, including soldiers, as a hiding spot as well as communication and supply routes, hospitals, schools, and food and living shelters in Vietnam War. This place was nice, the guides were friendly and helpful. Interestingly, we were able to experience the inside of the tunnels. At the beginning I explored the tunnels by myself but after being told by a guide about the tough situation inside the tunnels, I got in a random group although I didn’t want to. I walked inside the tunnels for about 200 meters which was shorter than I expected, so I felt a little bit disappointed. However, it was tough to walk as it was dark, narrow, low (I had to bend my knees) and so oppressive due to the lack of oxygen (at least the guide was true about this ) and I found it so hard to breath. Some people, who were scared of darkness and not strong enough (especially the elderly), did not (and shouldn’t) venture in the tunnels. Anyway, it was a cool experience of being inside the tunnels. Then a question popped up in my mind that was how come people could make that long tunnels and live in there for years without sunlight, air and other necessary things. It’s just unbelievable. In addition, at the end of the tunnels, we were given a free simple meal which is boiled cassavas with mixture of sesame, salt and sugar. I was so hungry at that time so this meal was wicked for me! Although it’s a tourist spot, Cu Chi tunnels is such an interesting place to hit up. Your eyes will definitely be opened as mine was if you visit it.
Cu Chi tunnel is about 70 km away from the city center so I chose buses to get there (You can go by motorbike if you know the way, or have got GPS with you or brave enough to venture Vietnamese traffic). The buses were packed of people, most of them headed to the tunnels. They talked on the buses with Southern accent which is very difficult for me to listen and understand. Moreover, unlike Hanoi, vendors and big belongings are allowed to be in Saigon buses. As the result, the buses got more cramped and cramped. On the other hand, the bus drivers and conductors were kind and helpful as they all gently showed me bus stops to get off. And it was fun to experience public transports in a different region in Vietnam, at least I got to know the (Southern) culture.
After the tunnels, I got back to Ben Thanh Market, then walked to Notre Dame Cathedral and City Post Office. I felt so good after a day long being packed in the crowded buses and being at the back seat of my friend’s motorbike the day before. These places were built by French so the French architecture was very distinct. I just thought they looked like the ones in Hanoi and ones in Paris, especially the cathedral. Next to the cathedral was a park which is a popular place for young people to gather together, chat and enjoy “ca phe bet” (a phrase for saigon coffee as people sit plump in the park to enjoy coffee) and other street food.
I hit up some places and bought some stuff, then had dinner with my friend after that. I was back to Saigon for one night after my Cambodia trip to see some more friends. The last day of mine in Saigon my friend and I went to a café called “cà phê vợt” (literally “Racket coffee” in English) before going to the airport. The name comes from the tool which is used to make coffee. The owner of this shop uses a racket (“vợt” in Vietnamese) instead of traditional filters to make coffee. The coffee was OK (not as good as one in Hanoi and a bit light for my flavour), but it was genuinely interesting to watch the old lady making the drinks. Every move of her was quick and definitive (it’s understandable since she has been doing this for over 60 years) and she worked incessantly to make coffee for customers. Therefore, the shop was crowded but no one waited for long for their drinks. I was very happy to make it to this place as trying “ca phe vot” was in my Saigon to – do list. Watching the old lady, her smiles and kindness actually made me feel so peaceful.
My time in Saigon was short but it has given a lot of experiences and thoughts. They are not only about the city itself, but also about my choice of place to live and work. As being the biggest city in Vietnam and the economic and commercial center, Saigon is more developed than Hanoi. Maybe because of this, many people think Saigon is the capital of Vietnam. It is also better than Hanoi at some points. The weather is more comfortable weather (very cool in the evening, except unexpected rains). A lot of parks have built (I was quite surprised about this), which make the city fresher, cleaner and greener than Hanoi. People pay cheaper but get better service (this one may be the best). Moreover, for newly graduates, it is easier to find a job there than in Hanoi. My friend has told me to move to Saigon to live and work. She even said for my ability I could get a job with high salary. The offer sounds so good, doesn’t it? I actually have been thinking about this quite a lot, especially when I sat in a café, observed people and the city through a window,. Should I go and try my luck in a new land or still in Hanoi where I have been living for over 20 years? It is all about my choice now. Honestly, Saigon is modern, dynamic but too fast for me. I still love walking around the Old Quarter in Hanoi (Saigonese rarely walk), enduring the extreme weather and enjoying the food with harmonious flavours rather than only sweetness which comes from sugar (Saigon folks like sweetness and they add sugar to everything so the food is actually dominated by that flavour) and the distinct street culture that I can’t find in anywhere else. I might not find a job with high salary in Hanoi, but at least I’m happy to be here. Saigon can be a place for relaxation, but Hanoi will be one I choose to continue to live.