After spending about 2 weeks in Cambodia, it was time to change countries!
To reach Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, for short) from Koh Rong required a ferry ride back to the mainland, a 5-hour bus ride to Phnom Penh where we stayed overnight so we could catch a bus for another 6 hours to HCMC! Luckily, we took a different road on the way back to Phnom Penh and the journey was smooth sailing!
We were up bright and early to catch the 7am bus which would take us across the border to Vietnam. Can you guess what fantastic company took us on this journey? If you guessed Mekong Express then you guessed correctly! They were particularly helpful as they guided us through customs at the border.
Fun fact: You can’t get a visa on arrival in Vietnam if you enter via land. We knew this ahead of time, so it wasn’t a big deal (and the eVisa process was super easy), but just in case that information might be useful to anyone…
I will also say: this is the first time where I’ve been noticeably (I won’t say discriminated against because it wasn’t that) more ‘scrutinized’. As a white, American girl let’s face it – no one pays attention to me. I understand this is a privilege many others unfairly aren’t given. But, when I looked around and the only 6 people who haven’t made it through customs yet are white (the 4 of us and 2 (oddly enough) Dutch), it gave me pause. All the other passengers were Asian and were quickly called through while our passports and visas were sent elsewhere for extra checks. No one at customs was rude or disrespectful, and before too much longer we were through so it was certainly not anything monumental, but it was a moment that made me think and caused discussion amongst ourselves later on.
We stayed in an Airbnb in District 2 of HCMC, which was about a 10 – 15 min walk to District 1 that houses many of the main attractions. This Airbnb was AH-MA-ZING. Maybe it was because we just spent a week without air-conditioning or hot showers, but between the view, the water pressure, and the strong air-con, we were living the good life. And, our stay included access to the neighboring building which had a 33rd-floor rooftop garden and a view over the city. It was also prime viewing spot for the Bitexco Financial Tower, which I hear some like to call “the Stark Tower” if you’re into the Avengers…
We arrived in HCMC on Christmas Eve, so I unpacked the Santa hats and off we went. First stop… PHO!
Pho is probably the most famous dish in Vietnam and comes in two flavors: chicken and beef. Since I am by no means a food blogger, I will skip the details of our delicious Pho, but what I will tell you is that I could spend the rest of my life eating only Vietnamese food. Everything was so fresh and flavorful! And we would quickly learn that the best food came from carts and was eaten street-side on tiny stools. I think we ate in an actual restaurant twice during our entire time in HCMC – on Chrismas Day and when Terry found a McDonalds.
As I mentioned before, it was Christmas Eve, so after our introduction to the world of street food, we headed back to the Airbnb for some Christmas Eve traditions.
I think I can speak for everyone when I say that Christmas Eve was a great night – more so than Christmas day. This was the first Christmas that all four of us had spent together, so we tried to pull together some Christmas traditions from all the families. We listened to Bing Crosby & Raffi’s Christmas, we played cards, we drank wine & hot cocoa (not at the same time lol), we even found Home Alone on TV. And one tradition we all shared was reading Christmas stories on Christmas Eve. This year, Terry did the honors. I must say, I was quite impressed with the little Christmas we pulled together.
We woke up Christmas morning to the best gift Santa could ever give…
The gift of bánh bao from the 7-11 at the bottom of the building!
I don’t have a picture of said 7-11 bánh bao because by the time we took the elevator back up to the room they were already gone. Oops. It’s basically a ball of dough filled with things; ours was filled with sausage and a quail egg. You’ll just have to trust me, it was delicious.
What I do have a picture is Shane getting taken for some coconuts by a seemingly nice man on Christmas Day.
He looks so nice, right?!
I mean, I’m sure he’s a perfectly fine person, but (go figure) white people walking around in Santa hats tends to draw some attention. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been in more random peoples photos than in the 24 hours we wore these Santa hats around town. At one point we were literally standing in a line and posing while 4 people had out their DSLRs taking pictures.
Anybody wanna make this go viral? I’d love to see those pictures! haha
Anyway, back to Shane. We are walking down the road on our way to the War Remnants Museum, and like so many others that day, this man waved and pointed at the hats and said Merry Christmas. We returned the gesture, and the next thing you know he’s asking for a picture with Shane. Then he wants Shane to hold the coconut contraption, and before you know it he’s hacked off the top of 3 coconuts (to drink the coconut water) and is asking for the equivalent of $16 USD.
What the eff!?!
After (unsuccessful) protesting to return said coconuts followed up with some negotiating, we ended up paying ~$4 USD for 3 coconuts we didn’t even want. Somehow, Terry managed to escape this awkward coconut experience unnoticed.
We were well hydrated when we reached the War Remnants Museum, which is the main museum in HCMC covering “the American War”.
Isn’t that an interesting thing. We know it as “the Vietnam War”, but of course it wouldn’t be called that here in Vietnam. I put that in the category of “things you never consider” – like when I had the realization that Anne Frank’s Diary was originally written in Dutch, not English.
I won’t go into detail about the war, but what this museum did best (and subsequently the Ken Burn’s docu-series “The Vietnam War” on Netflix reinforced; highly recommended) is that Vietnam just wanted to be a free nation. The museum started with French colonization, which morphed into Japanese control, which morphed into fighting America – all for their freedoms. And in my opinion (people are of course free to disagree) it’s just too bad that Ho Chi Minh sought training and help from communist Russia & China because the American fear of communism then was so real. Perhaps things could have been different.
Anyway, all in all, it was a terrible war for both sides. I felt like I didn’t really have a grasp about the who/what/why of it all until we came home and watched the docu-series, but what the museum was good for was a solid punch in the American-gut. We, as Americans, are taught to believe that we are the greatest nation in the world but we’ve also made our mistakes. This museum put those mistakes in the forefront. It’s always good to challenge one’s perspective, and this museum definitely did that for all of us.
So, uh – Merry Christmas to us, right?
After a heavy morning, we spent the rest of the day eating, wandering, and watching more Christmas movies on TV.
Honestly, HCMC is so big and with Christmas interspersed, I don’t feel like we got to properly explore. There’s just never enough time!
Over the next 2 days, we went to the Ben Thanh Market which is a huge and probably the most famous one. Sis ended up buying the best shirt of all time (well, Shane bought it for her).
We thought markets in Cambodia were crazy. You looked at something and it was guaranteed to get a sales pitch, probably by multiple people. Here, it was like they had super hearing! I swear we would whisper “look at that shirt” and we had two people on us – “Do you like that shirt? Do you like that color? I have other colors! I have a tank top version!” And, the women here were much more touchy-feely, so as Sis was trying to back out of buying a shirt, the lady turns to Shane, grabs his hand, and starts wheelin’ & dealin’.
And that’s how Sissy got a Pho-nominal tank!
(required a photo shoot of course)
We also went to a few pagodas in the city center.
And stuffed our faces. I swear, I dream about this food.
And that sums up our time in HCMC! Next up on our Vietnam adventure:
Ben Tre province in the Mekong Delta!