Vietnam is Free: First impressions of Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City

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I’m not in Cambodia anymore.  This is obvious for reasons other than the fact that I know I crossed the border yesterday.

After we crossed the border, my first thought was “Everything looks the same”, other than the cows–in Cambodia, they’re white; in Vietnam, they’re brown.  As we barrelled deeper into the country, my thoughts didn’t change that much because, yes, the tiny roadside stores were selling slightly different products but they looked the same as Cambodia.  The major change was the lack of “Angkor Beer”, “Anchor Beer” and “Cambodia Beer” signs everywhere and the fact that I could read signs.  I couldn’t understand them, but I could recognize the alphabet.

Then, we got to Ho Chi Minh City, but people here seem to only refer to it as Saigon, and that idea changed completely.  I stared out the window at parks, huge buildings, lights, lush looking cafes and restaurants.  All of a sudden, I realized that this is not what I’m used to.  They have public buses here!  I forgot those were even a thing since, for the last few months, public transport has been motos and tuk tuks from place to place.  It’s like I was on another planet in Cambodia–how was I not culture shocked?!

I got out of the bus, shooed away the moto drivers trying to pick up a fare, grabbed my bag and headed away in search of somewhere to sleep.  I got the first hotel I walked into because it was cheap, mostly clean and they had computers I could use–uploading pictures!

The first thing I did was grab a snack.  I would call it a street smoothie but the Vietnamese refer to them as sihn tos.  Without milk or sugar (they always seem to put one or the other in everything in Asia), it tasted strongly of tomato but, it was just what my tummy needed.

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The first thing I ate in Vietnam--street smoothie. And my map!

After nourishment was achieved, I started wandering around, seeing the sights.  In the area around my hotel, it’s a tourist mecca but there’s a surprisingly local presence, as well. 

I drifted through a park, checked out the traffic that I’ve heard is so horrible and just took it all in.  The buildings seem to be taller and skinnier than in Cambodia, at any given time, I’m probably standing next to a smoker and people seem to ignore tourists more–they’re probably quite used to them.  Generally,  although it definitely has a Vietnamese flair to it, from what I’ve seen, Ho Chi Minh City is just another big city.  I love the markets and the bahn mi, though.  What will I do for snacks in Winnipeg without street food?!?

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Skycraper--not a typo, just an inside joke.

Through all my walking, I noticed that some of the cultural norms that existed in Cambodia don’t seem to be a big deal here, namely covering shoulders and knees and handing things over to people older than you with two hands to show respect.  It’s pretty warm here further south and that the rainy season is starting to creep up on us again so I was intrigued at the possibility that I could wear a tank top with nothing over top.  I decided to double check with a woman at my hotel to make sure it was okay and she told me “Yes!  Vietnam is free!  You can wear whatever you want!”  I thought it was a very interesting statement, one that I want to remember.

I did more walking during the evening and found a few things that I hadn’t intended to.

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A park where they sell tons and tons of ornamental mandarin trees.

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Park rules. They have parks...and rules!

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Huge plant market with rows upon rows of vendors selling flowers (mostly orchids), bamboo and other ornamental sculptures.

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It's nearly Vietnamese New Year so there are a lot of special products being sold. Guess what these sculptures are made of! That's right, garlic cloves.

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Pictures really don't capture how crazy traffic is. Fortunately, Phnom Penh prepared me pretty well.

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If you get sick of walking, you can work out! There are tons of these throughout the park!

After that wander around, I happened upon an outdoor mall but it’s called “Walking Mall” on the outside.  Are there malls where I don’t need to walk?  Are there bike malls?  Roller blading malls?  I would open a mall where you could shop while getting a piggy back around everywhere.

Anyway, I decided to check out this mall.  There was the usual tourist junk for sale and some that didn’t look as junky but I now I’m used to the cheap prices and I just don’t feel like buying things anymore.  My daily tolerance for bargaining tends to be about one thing per day…if I’m in the mood.  I’m a person who likes to window shop, look at something, think about it and come back when I’m good and ready.  Asia isn’t the idea place for that so shopping hasn’t happened in awhile.  I do plan to buy a scarf from every country I visit, though, because how could I leave the house and not buy a scarf?

As I was looking around, I was checking out the stage that was set up.  There were graphics flowing across the screen, music playing and people in costumes hanging around the sides of the stage so I figured there must be a show soon.  I had nothing better to do so I sat down and waited for whatever it was to start.

I had to wait awhile and I noticed that, not only was I the only foreigner there but I was also the only person there who wasn’t accompanying a child.  When the show finally started, I knew why: I was sitting at a children’s variety show.  Even though I felt a little ridiculous and that I’d get some really weird looks, I hung around. 

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I'm pretty sure this guy is the Vietnamese Zac Efron. The little girls loved him!

I’m glad I did!  Despite not being able to understand anything going on, I really enjoyed the songs and the different acts they put on.  Is that weird?

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And then she got a posse! Such a diva!

I headed back to my hotel after that to work out some travel details and do a few other things, even though many locals pointed me towards the never-ending multitude of bars.

Today, after walking to the post office to mail some stuff, I saw something that solidified HCMC’s “big city” status: Starbucks.  I didn’t get a picture because I had so much in my hands but I wish I had!  That’s the part of the city where there are big, expensive hotels, Hermes and Chanel and many, many “good quality t-shirt” stores.

Of all the things that would surprise me, I think the one thing that really stands out to me (other than the Starbucks, Burger Kings and Pizza Huts) is that I don’t feel as hassled into moto rides or buy things from street vendors.  It’s really weird but, maybe after getting used to drivers yelling “Moto, lady?!” and “Tuk tuk!” one after another, even though I told the previous one “no”, I’ve developed a bitch face scary enough to turn off even the most eager moto driver.

See you soon, Internets!  My fun in Kampot is coming shortly!

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