Our last day in HCMC was more relaxed, mostly due to the morning rain which dissuaded us from visiting the China Town. We just walked through the city and explored less visited sights instead.
Once the rain was over, we had our lunch at a vegan restaurant (actually a cheap eatery) recommended by our host Thao. That was the first time we tried very tasty ‘fake meat’ – dishes made of soya and flour yet closely resembling meat, fish or seafood both in terms of texture and flavour.
FRENETIC MARKET AND TRANQUIL PARK
Once we realised that the vegan restaurant was relatively close to the tomb of Le Van Duyet (marked in Google.maps and Maps.me as ‘Lang Ong – Ba Chieu’ -tomb of the marshall in Ba Chieu) we decided to check it out. Getting there involved a not particularly pleasant walk along a very busy avenue which ended at a lively Ba Chieu market.
I had never seen people doing shopping straight from their scooters before but I wasn’t particularly surprised to witness it in Saigon. The motorcycles were even passing through narrow lanes inside the covered market. It was sheer madness (see my video).
Just next to the market, there was a small park featuring the tomb of the national hero and an adjoining, small pagoda. Le Van Duyet was a general who unified North and South Vietnam in the early 19th century but in spite of hundreds of streets bearing his name all over the country, his tomb looked surprisingly modest.
It was so pleasant just to sit under the old, shady trees in the park, side by side with grandpas and grandmas. While were resting, away from hustle and bustle of the city, we were lucky to witness an interesting ritual.
A man in brown robes who looked like a monk and a group of mostly elderly women gathered around three large cages full of warbles. The birds were set free simultaneously and then the monk hanged something on the necks of all the people involved in the release. We forgot to ask Thao about the meaning of this scene but much later I learned that releasing birds was a way of gaining merit.
HOW I BECAME AN ENGLISH TEACHER
When we came back home, we received an unusual request from Thao. She was short on staff so she asked us to teach her English class. She promised her flatmate would help us out a bit. We were all in, especially when we heard the topic of the class: designing a utopian state.
I easily found myself in the role of a teacher, coming up to the blackboard to write new words or moderating the discussion. The class was really interesting, especially once we begun discussing the imaginary state’s government. I was totally shocked to learn that this group of young and educated people didn’t know the meaning of terms such as ‘democracy’, ‘anarchy’ or ‘dictatorship’.
I was doing my best to explain those words one by one when a young girl suddenly asked: ‘So Vietnam is a democracy?’ I was just about to explain why it was not when I noticed an urgent ‘no’ shake from Sayak. I reluctantly let it go.
Soon afterwards, the flatmate of Thao joined in and the discussion became very heated. We spent a long time talking about corruption and other controversial issues. Many of the young people pointed out the drawbacks of democracy, giving examples such as election of Donald Trump. It seemed they genuinely appreciated the Vietnamese political system. It became clear to me that evening that although censorship existed in Vietnamese public sphere, in private people felt free to speak their minds.
As soon as the class finished, we packed our stuff. We had to reach the bus pick up point, located just next to the September 23rd park. We took Grab motorbike taxis for the first time and had a crazy ride through the city. It felt a bit weird to carry our big backpacks while riding a motorbike but it actually worked out quite well.
We enjoyed our stay in HCMC thoroughly but it was time to move on. Our next destination was Da Lat, a city located in the southern part of Central Highlands.
How to get to Ho Chi Minh City?
There are plenty of direct international flights to HCMC from many places in China, Japan and the Middle East but just a few direct connections from Europe.
Budget airlines connect the entire Vietnam as well as Thailand and Malaysia. The internal flights aren’t particularly budget if compared with, let’s say, Thailand. Only if you buy a ticket much in advance and with no luggage you could find a ticket from Hanoi to HCMC for around a 1 400 000 VND ($60).
There are direct buses to HCMC from the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh for just around $12-15. The journey takes only 6 hours. This is by far the most affordable way to get to HCMC from Cambodia.
Open bus journey from Hanoi would cost you, depending on the number of stops, 750 000 to 1 000 000 VND ($32-43). The ticket is valid for a month and you could stop over in Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Da Lat and Mui Ne.
The distances in Vietnam are huge, so you could get to HCMC by an air-conditioned sleeper bus comfortably only from the nearest destinations such as: Can Tho (3h), Mui Ne (4h), Da Lat (6.5h), Ha Tien (8h) or Nha Trang (9h). The other interesting cities are much further away (eg. Da Nang- 20h, Hue- 23h). A bus journey from HCMC to Hanoi would take unimaginably long 35 hours and cost roughly 750 000 VND ($32).
All Vietnamese private, AC sleeper buses represent very good value for money; the berths are almost horizontal, there is an onboard toilet and free water bottle. The main drawback is that they aren’t comfortable for tall people.
The alternative to a sleeper bus journey from the north of the country would be a sleeper train. Vietnamese AC trains are clean and comfortable but more expensive than buses, particularly on shorter routes. A 35-hour long journey from Hanoi on the ‘hard berth’ would cost you around 800 000 VND, while on ‘soft berth’ – around 1 000 000 VND ($33-42).
Prices in HCMC [in Vietnamese dong as of July 2018]
220 000 A/C sleeper bus HCMC- Da Lat
110 000 A/C sleeper bus Can Tho- HCMC
50 000 2 kg laundry
50 000 2 km distance in a regular taxi (car)
45 000-50 000 com chay (vegan rice buffet) for two
40 000 ticket to War Remnants Museum
20 000 3.5 km distance in a Grab motorbike taxi
20 000 cheap rainproof poncho
15 000 fresh coconut
10-15 000 banh mi (baguette with filling)
5 000 short ride on a city bus