It looked nothing like I thought it would. It was loud and busy, colourful and vibrant. The humidity put me in a state of perma-shine as my skin was sticky and sweaty. In every photo of me I am glossy but smiling. The city may have been hot in temperature but the people were warm too.
Waking in to the city the first day, I was overwhelmed by the amount of mopeds and motorbikes scooting around. There are over 6 million motorbikes in Vietnam that over trump cars. Traffic laws are rarely obeyed and the foreign officials who came on board to speak to us at cultural pre-port gave us only one piece of advice. The advice was: “when you cross the street, walk slowly and confidently”. Basically what this translates too is, don’t wait for a red light that will never come, just walk out into the middle of traffic and trust that all the drivers will go around you. After a few attempts, I have to admit it was true. The motorbikes just swerve all around you. No one stops but they do slow down… sometimes.
On my way to the Ben Thanh Market, a central market that is open all day long indoors and is complete with a fish and fruit section. The market then turns itself into a night market outlining the outdoor perimeters of the building where the day market is held. It wasn’t like the markets in China, full of knock-off westernized stuff, such as UGGs and Nikes. Don’t get me wrong, there is a fair share of knock-offs, but there were mostly cultural things for sale. All of these amazing hand-bound and beaded shoes; which I might have bought 3 pairs of for 15 dollars. There were Asian lanterns, bowls, and bags, with strong and bold patterns while others had crazy, yet lively colours.
Before noon, I had already exercised the use of 400 photos, and it was time to make our way back to our meeting spot: The Rex Hotel. A beautiful, grand 5- star hotel that offers tours with English-speaking guides to the famous sites around Saigon city that are a bit of a drive. We made our ways for a day-trip to the Cu Chi tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple.
Used during the Vietnam War, the Cu Chi tunnels are an intricate system of underground tunnels were the Vietnamese would crawl through, live in, and fight from to fend off their offenders. If you ever have a chance to visit these tunnels, you will see the ever so genius, yet slightly disturbing ‘boobie-traps’ that they had created and placed all over Southern Vietnam. We even got the opportunity to travel 30 meters in one of the underground tunnels, that took so much longer then you would have thought, and felt like a furnace inside. Within minutes of being underground we were drenched in sweat as if we had just run a marathon.
We then travelled another hour to the Cao Dai temple, a religion sprung out of Southern Vietnam that has intricate and large temples full of colour with various statues all around them. Statues of Buddha, Confucius, Gandhi and even Jesus lay at the front of their temple. They worship all religions and praise various saints that can be found as modern day Hollywood actors. Cao Daism holds services 4 times daily: 6 am, 12 pm, 6 pm, and 12 am. The 12 pm service is much more crowded and allows tourists and visitors a chance to observe the service. Lucky for us, we were the first visitors to arrive during sunset for the 6 pm service, even our guide was a little nervous to be seen with the only white people.
Approaching the temple we learnt that we were not allowed in at this service. Slightly confused and a little upset, we were fortunately informed that we could ask the head master for permission to observe. Good news arrived when he agreed to allow us just 10 minutes inside the temple. This soon became a more secluded, private experience that seemed designed just for us. We were the only ones there witnessing hundreds of devotees bow before their gods in colourful robes of red, yellow, blue or solid white.