Coconuts, Bees, and Agent Orange

Coconuts, bees, and oranges? It sounds like it could be some kind of strange concoction to  me. As much as I would love to  taste it, what I actually experienced during my next two days in Saigon was not entirely that pleasant of a combination. It was still interesting, nevertheless.

I signed myself up for my first tour, a Mekong Delta tour by the name of Muy Tho and Ben Tre after the small islands on the river. I had originally wanted to do it combined with a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels, just for the sake of being able to shoot the AK-47 and M30. *sly smile*

Much to my dismay, I was unable to fulfill my small dream because of lack of signups. 😦

Still, I was up for a tour because I was slowly starting to already get sick of not being able to talk much. I figured I would be able to meet some new people and be social again.

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the Mekong River

It was a long four hours drive to the Mekong Delta, which looked pretty grand up from the bridge but was nothing much up close. Still, getting on a boat and crossing the river which flows through six countries felt interesting enough. The boat ride to the small islands seemed to take longer than I thought it would, but it gifted me with a nice breeze and serene view of the seemingly still waters.

It was on this boat that I met Jensen, a Canadian backpacker who was quick to emphasize that Jensen was her first name, not her last, as so many of the Vietnamese tour dealers called her. I immediately liked her because she had just come through Vietnam after visiting Thailand, and even more so because she would be heading right back again just because she loved it so much. Although I was appreciating being able to visit another country, you know how it’s like with home taking a soft spot in your heart. Anyway, it was inspiring and insightful listening to a tourist talk about the familiar places I used to wander about. 🙂 I joined in on all her “oohs” and “aahs” of Thailand.

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Jensen, avid Thailand fan

Jensen and I had a fun time talking and eating a considerably good meal despite my worries about a skimpy tourist company lunch. After discovering our common love for coconut, we immediately made plans to taste and buy lots of coconut products at the coconut farm later on. Much to our surprise, though, mediocre free coconut candy was all we were satisfied with.

We also got to cram ourselves into little bamboo boats and row, or in my case, make a failed attempt at rowing, which Jensen teased me for.

And then came more failed moments for me. We visited a bee farm, and our tour guide held out a bee hive and convinced us to put a finger through it and taste some legit honey. I shouldn’t have let curiosity win over me, because I did exactly what he told me and… yes, got stung.

I know I look ridiculous because… well, I guess you can be excused to look the way I did, getting stung by not bee but a freaking hive of bees.

Note to myself: maybe I could be a little more distrustful with tour guides the next time around, eh?

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Bright and early show-up at the tour office with a cafe sua da in hand

Don’t take me wrong. I am still kindly attaching this photo revealing the name of the tour company. All jokes aside though, I think that the Sinh Tourist, actually one of the most popular choices by tourists in Vietnam, does live up to its name and price.

I had my taste of beloved coconuts in the form of flour, candy, oil, and even wine, I definitely had the most amount of honey I’ve ever had from what Yo slathered onto my pinky claiming it was ancient remedy, and I had made a backpacker friend. Three checks!

And now on to the less exhilarating part of my Saigon trip.

It was actually a very humbling, sad experience but one I think was meaningful and in some terms, necessary when in Saigon.

I’m talking about the Vietnam War and Saigon’s associated monuments, exhibitions and museums, which made up the last part of my stay.

I’m a history nerd, and I am especially fascinated with wars, in particular WWII and the Vietnam War. Being so, I was actually looking forward to the historic part of my trip in Saigon.

What I found and learned, though, was far deeper and touching than I had thought it would be.

I didn’t make it to the Unification Palace where I intended to brief myself on some rough Vietnamese history, and so the War Remnants Museum was my first and last historic visit.

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The War Remnants Museum, which can honestly be quite a difficult handful to take in, I thought

I don’t want to go too deep into everything and read between the lines or anything, but to see the destruction, losses and hurt both nations went through during the time was not easy for me, to say the very least. I guess I am normally more emotional than average people are, but regarding this, though, I don’t think I was the odd one in the museum on any scale.

There were quite a number of exhibitions, I believe six or seven in total, spread on three floors. Despite the vast space, it felt like everything was in slow motion. The moving of the people’s lips reading the horrendous descriptions of pictures, the footsteps which faltered before being able to move onto yet the next graphic representation, and even the clicks of camera shutters seemed hesitant in capturing the remains.

I appreciated the well-organized structure of the exhibitions, though, as well as the really vivid descriptions for each picture, news article clipping, and graphic model.

Some of the posters really shocked me with how strongly and clearly the images were trying to communicate.

This museum came to an end with a final exhibition called “Agent Orange”, also the name for the powerful chemical defoliant used by U.S. military forces during the war which later caused serious health issues ranging from tumors, birth defects, to cancer and psychological symptons.

What really moved me though, was how it was divided into two sides, one focusing on the losses of the Vietnamese, and another shedding light on the sacrifices of the Americans as well.

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Although some images really just made my heart throb at the thought of the pain both sides had to and still do go through, the museum seemed to make at least one thing clear as crystal:

A war is a war between two parties.

This means that both are affected.

And finally, it is something that cannot be weighed by losses and gains, and shouldn’t be.

The French Know Their Architecture

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The beautiful Ho Chi Minh City Hall or Hotel de Ville Saigon, built in 1902 in a French colonial style

P20170308_202959449_A8E25F04-6037-452E-8835-F27FACD79912Fortunately for me, Saigon at night was a much better experience. From Benh Tanh night market, I walked on for around twenty or so more minutes, and found myself in a garden-like space with a statue of Uncle Ho and a beautifully lit City Hall in the background. To my left, I took in the sight of the Rex Hotel, famous for originally having opened as a French garage. I would have loved to visit the rooftop bar to have a feel of the ambience. I do regret it just a bit.

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The Rex Hotel not as grandiose as the historic descriptions, but with a great ambience nonetheless

The center of the city, surrounded by the Tao Dan Park, was filled with more locals than foreigners. They were freely strolling around the grounds and surprisingly taking many shots of Ho’s statue and also of the City Hall. I was immediately cooled off by breezes which I was sure were made by the impressive amount of big trees and greens. Appreciating the cool weather, I walked further along to make a stop to the Saigon Central Post Office and also have a look at the Notre Dame Cathedral, although I was planning to revisit the next morning.

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Notre Dame Cathedral

I admired both the a.m. and p.m. views of the buildings which definitely seemed to have “French” stamped all over them. The details on the arches and the moldings were just stunning. The inside of the post office though, did surprise me with a different view from that of the exterior. I have a thing for high ceilings, and the French were right on track with my taste. I don’t know if it was the picture of Uncle Ho or the old, homely-feeling wooden chairs and tables, but there was a pleasant kind of warmth I don’t normally feel with French-style buildings, and the Saigon Central Post Office was a good combination of Vietnamese and French.

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For a few minutes, I did feel like I could have been in France. I could faintly recall my view of the Notre Dame back in Paris three years ago, viewed from a boat on the Seine. The soft, creme colors of yellow, orange and brick red seemed to do the magic. After taking more long gazes and stares at the beautiful buildings, I found my mind drifting on to dreaming of a French architect for my future house. 😉

Dazed and Confused in Saigon

That’s exactly how I felt on the first day of my solo adventure. I knew that taking a semester off from college was a rather big step for me, yet I was unsure of how I would be able to make my choice of a trip alone kick start the new chapter of my life. Well, there wasn’t much time for guessing because it wasn’t long before I found myself boarding a plane, not yet fully recovered from both a flu and two hectic years of college life.

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Sick, yet keen on posing for a photo at the Incheon International Airport to kick-start my trip!

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My first sight of Vietnam in a Vietjet aircraft, which had me singing the “Vietjet song” for days…

Having had Thailand as my home for over twenty years and several visits to the countries nearby, Southeast Asia was no stranger to me. Strangely, I had never had the opportunity to visit Vietnam. And what’s more, my mom had actually picked the destination for this specific trip (although she unfortunately did not make it). Nevertheless the reason, I was excited for the trip, but only because it would be my first time travelling solo. Concerning the country, I don’t know what I exactly had in mind, but it definitely wasn’t what I faced when I landed in Ho Chi Minh City, far better known as the capital city of Vietnam as Saigon.

Okay, I can tell you I always thought of myself as the typical city girl, having endured the famous and ridiculous Bangkok traffic jams. Endless streams of colorful taxis and motorbikes crowding the roads is not that crazy of a sight to me.

Saigon, now… Motorbikes there play on an entirely different scale. Oh yes, you bet. Not only is spotting traffic lights in the capital a rare sight, motorbikes come from all directions and most impossibly, all at once. This isn’t the end of it, though. The locals find their way through the craziness like it’s no big deal. Now I’ll tell you why I am lucky enough to have this descriptive view. I stood with my mouth gaping open for literally fifteen minutes. I remember feeling so vulnerable, and it was something I had never quite felt before. After standing on the side of the road for so long, I found myself attaching myself to a local girl who seemed to know how to do this thing. Now that I think about it, I do actually feel sorry for her having to have a bewildered tourist sticking to her like Velcro. Oh well. Thanks to her, I was able to cross the big street and make it to my hotel.

I was sweating like a dog when I caught myself a glance in the mirror. I am sure it was more of having to be alone on this entourage than Saigon’s warm weather, which is nothing compared to Thailand’s sweltering summer months.

After freshening up, I headed out to grab some food, which I was looking forward to, way more than the awful road situation I knew I would have to face again.

I don’t know why Geography was one of my favorite classes back in high school, because I definitely suck at directions and finding myself around. I was having a horrible time with the map the hotel so kindly gave me, yet which I found useless for me. I realized I was lost once I started recognizing the top of the clock tower of the local nightmarket, Ben Tanh for the fifth time.

I have no idea how I managed to end up in my original destination, Pham Ngu Lao, or the Backpacker’s Street, only after about two and a half hours. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to any one of the must-eats in the guidebooks by then, so I seated myself in one of the chairs for waiting outside a place that seemed to have a sizeable local population inside. I ordered a favorite Vietnamese dish of mine, Bun Cha, which seemed to be the main dish the restaurant was selling.

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Bun Cha, a Vietnamese dish of grilled pork and noodles

Words cannot describe how I felt after taking my first bite. The grilled pork was so savoury, and the papaya slices went really well with the other veggies  with the noodles soaked in the rich sauce.  It was nothing like I had back in Korea, and with a fresh passionfruit juice and a pork satay wrapped in banana leaves to go with it, I was able to partially forget about my horrible past few hours.

I did have an interesting first meal on my solo trip, that’s for sure. I was feeling so exhausted from the nervousness of being alone that I mustered up the courage to speak up to a foreigner sitting next to me, high with hopes of striking a good first conversation in nearly ten hours. I found myself in an awkward surprise after learning that the first person I befriended on my trip was unable to speak, and thus only communicated by typing words in her phone. I won’t lie, I didn’t know what to do at that moment, but I remember being proud of myself for garnering the courage to talk to someone and now am thankful it was a good first moment to remember later.

God must have felt sorry for having me experience a rather unpleasant and uncomfortable few hours on my first trip, because the rest of the night went surprisingly well.

I walked out of the restaurant heartily satisfied with my meal, and snapped a picture of the shop only to recognize the Trip Advisor board next to its sign. I had no idea I had stumbled on to a place that was after all, recommended by many people! I doubt myself on those kinds of restaurants in fear of them being overrated, but I am confident this one is a good find, and I would definitely recommend others to give it a try. You could look it up on Trip Advisor, or just cross your fingers and hope you end up lucky like I did. 🙂

I spent the rest of my night exploring the Ben Tanh night market rather easily, thanks to having run into it like a thousand times earlier. It was a rather small night market I thought, with only two short streets open for business. I do think that you would catch better finds at the daytime market, which has its stalls lined up in an indoor space. Still, the ambience was nice, what with the bustling vendors and rows of cheap shirts, scarves, and eatery. Although I was ripped off on my purchases just like a tourist does, I still walked back to my hotel content that I had successfully ended my first day as the perfect tourist in Vietnam.

The Start of Something New

I don’t know how cheesy this is going to sound, but yes, the title of my first blog post is the infamous High School Musical song that Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron croned almost what, a decade ago? Wow, I guess you know life moves fast when HSM is a talk of the past.

Never mind my rather random introduction, and to the point now. I have always been an avid fan of new things, all from trying suspicious-looking cuisines and making foreign friends to discovering newfound crooks and crannies. Approximately three weeks ago, I embarked on my first solo trip of fourteen days to Vietnam, and I thought I would commemorate it by starting a travel blog, regardless of how late it might be and my lack of skills in doing so.

So, kudos to my small beginning or in other words, the start of something new!

And let it begin.