There’s no doubt about it, I’m a born city rat. I love feeling lost and anonymous amongst teeming crowds, while at the same time feeling like a tiny cog in a complicated, ever-changing machine. Back in London I used to relish strolling along the riverfront and through the city squares, or sitting on packed trains watching millions of lives unfold all around me. The bigger and more hectic the city, the better, I used to think. That was until I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – the craziest place I’ve ever been.
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Maybe it was the fact that we arrived in the evening when the city was full of noise and flashing lights that made it so initially overwhelming; or perhaps it was that we visited just after Christmas so the streets were still full of decorations and people were gearing up for the legendary New Year’s Eve Celebrations ahead. Whatever the cause, I found myself disorientated and stuck in a stupefied state of sensory overload as we battled through crowds and got lost down tiny maze-like alleyways searching for our hotel.
The first thing that hit me was the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City; the streets were even crazier than those in Hanoi. As evidenced in the video below, swarms of weaving motorbikes, cars and cyclos overran the streets, horns blaring while their riders sat nonchalantly aboard; at every turn whole armies of motorbikes were stationed at traffic lights ready to charge at a moment’s notice. We weren’t even safe on the pavements and had to dodge bikers who’d mounted them in a bid to avoid one-way streets, park or simply get ahead of the herd.
Crossing the road was a test of nerves for me, as we stood on the precipice waiting to plunge into the stream of shiny machines and exhaust fumes my palms would prickle in panic. As we were later advised, the best strategy is to walk slowly and steadily into the path of the vehicles, one hand raised, and let the river of vehicles part and then close seamlessly around you. This is easier said than done; I found it hard to hold my nerve and would often shield myself behind local pedestrians and hold tight to Andrew’s hand, scared that I’d get lost in the churning flow forever.
To begin with it felt like I was being assaulted by the City and I kept getting the agoraphobic urge to retreat back inside. My ears were constantly attacked with blaring horns and music, my eyes struggled to take in all the colourful lights and the smells of rubbish, spices, fruit rotting in the sun and fish being gutted by the roadside filled my nostrils. During our first couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City a woman accidentally bashed her street cart into me, leaving a bloody wound on my thumb. I certainly hadn’t expected to feel so totally overpowered by the city and I was a little shaken up by that.
Growing to Love Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Thankfully, as time went by I adjusted to the hectic vibe and felt myself falling into the rhythms of the city, its energy became exhilarating rather than staggering. Armed with a map Andrew and I began walking miles around the city, discovering an oasis of calm amid the chaos in Cong Vien Van Hoa park where we’d sit and eat bread from the German bakery across the road and watch people walk their dogs. We spent hours in museums and tiny cafes; we had massages and even got to meet up with fellow travel bloggers Steph and Tony from 20 Years Hence.
One day we were stopped on the street by some young students from the Talking with Tourists group who wanted to practise their English with us so we sat down on the curb and chatted to them about our lives back in England and theirs in Vietnam. Most of the kids came from smaller towns or villages and had moved to the city to attend University and take English classes in the hope of improving their employment prospects. As they laughed and made fun of each other, telling us about the apartments they shared with friends and their part-time jobs, they reminded me of Andrew and I when we first met back at University in Bristol. At the end of our chat they gave us some leaflets, including one about how to cross the road and presented us with some scarves as thank you presents.
New Years Eve in Ho Chi Minh City
After a quiet Christmas up in the central highlands of Dalat, we were excited to be spending New Year’s Eve in Ho Chi Minh City alongside millions of other people. Although the Vietnamese celebrate Tet, the Lunar rather than the calendar new year, they still take celebrations on 31st December pretty seriously.
The streets were full of people celebrating beneath elaborate lights and decorations; stages were set up to host free live entertainment, including popular Vietnamese bands. Since some of the central city streets were shut down for the evening traffic was even more crazy than usual and the roundabout at Ben Thanh Market was absolutely chock-a-block with thousands of motorbikes reduced to a standstill. Despite the party atmosphere there were none of the drunken New Year shenanigans you’d get in England and the mood was upbeat and friendly, with many Vietnamese people stopping to shake hands and wish us a Happy New Year.
After a lovely Indian meal (minus the dead bug in the rice) at Ganesh, Andrew and I had a beer and wandered the streets soaking in the sights and sounds. As time moved onwards towards midnight we followed the crowds to a central square where we could just see the fireworks exploding over the river through a gap in some tall, glass buildings when the clock struck twelve. Although the display was pretty underwhelming, we couldn’t help but be swept up in the tide of excitement as we bid goodbye to 2013, the year we finally began to realise our travel dreams, while looking forward to a new year of adventures ahead.
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