Backpacks in Southern Vietnam

cairong market
Cai Rong floating market at sunrise.

Traveling from Cambodia to Vietnam by bus is like going from Three Oaks, Michigan directly to Times Square without everything between. The minibus is packed with a mix of foreigners with their legs crammed against the seats in front of them and locals. We pick up and drop off several people along the way as the bus swims through a sea of motorbikes like a shark through a school of minnows, honking the whole way.

It’s nighttime by the time I reach Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. The place is lit up like a Christmas tree due to the upcoming Tet (New Year) holiday. At night, the multitude of motorbike headlights is almost unrecognizable from the lighted decorations of the main avenue. I go to a vegetarian restaurant for a bowl of noodles and a couple beers for under US$2.

My friend meets me in town the next day. We have nothing planned until the next morning so we walk around town, frequently stopping for coffee. The coffee is good and cheap, served with a complimentary tea as we are seated on little stools on the sidewalk. We eat Banh Mi Sandwiches for less than a half dollar. The town is full of people, but tranquil. At night, we have beers out of a bucket of ice at a local restaurant until they are ready to close up.

At 5:30am we wake to go to the Cai Rang floating market, one of the biggest in the region. Our small boat cruises down the Mekong for almost an hour before the market presents itself to us, first in the form of a small boats zipping around selling coffee and drinks. We drink black coffee. The market isn’t exactly what we expected, more of a collection of large boats loaded with fruits and vegetables bobbing around in the water. Not very exciting, but cool to see. Our boat driver takes us down a small canal where we visit a local noodle factory. The rest of the day is a mix of coffee, sleep, and Banh Mi.

war museum hcmc
The War Remnant Museum, formerly the Exhibition House for War and Aggression (1990-95), and before that Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes (1975-89).

The ride to Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City, but forever Saigon) is shorter than expected. It doesn’t feel like we’re entering the largest metropolitan area in Vietnam. We find a budget hotel near the main backpacker area for a good price and get a Banh Mi.

I’m sitting with others on little plastic chairs, crammed together tightly enough to accommodate the maximum amount of white people in front of this simple storefront – identical to the storefronts on either side, with the same plastic chair setup. Am I supposed to be convinced I’m getting some sort of authentic Vietnamese experience, drinking Bia (Beer) Saigon while little boys walk by breathing fire eating hot coals, women peddle photocopied books, cigarettes, men walking around selling lighters offering to sell weed to anyone that will listen, and the old women selling fruit, only a few pieces left for the day slowly trotting down the street? Prostitutes wave at white people walking the street with bandages and casts from motorbike accidents.

Somehow I’ve lost my acquaintances and I find myself with an Englishman DJ/exhibitionist that is telling a 20 year old American international business student who doesn’t know Snickers from shit that he has to go to Khao San Road in Bangkok – as if this kid traveling to Thailand’s capital of depravity wouldn’t find the most infamous street in Asia. I’ve resigned myself from comment and try to deflect questions from the Swiss woman next to me when we’re joined by another Englishman and the two start to make fun of each other in a way that a New Yorker might talk to a Bostonite, which I find amusing but also wholly irrelevant to my being in Vietnam.

The next day, I meet a friend that I had met in Luang Prabang, Laos (written about in these pages) who teaches English at a school in HCMC. Him and his girlfriend take me to Com Nieu Sai Gon, a fancy culinary treat that may or may not have been visited by Anthony Bourdain. They are famous for their crispy rice, which is cooked in a clay pot, then cracked with a mallet in the dining area, the ball of rice flung into the air and caught by a waiter across the way, maybe with a little added juggling for fanfare. When this trick is being performed for a large table of Koreans, the clay pot is cracked right next to our table. We are in several people’s photos and videos – maybe a dozen separate cameras are focused just to our side.

A street stall and graffiti in Saigon.

I visit the War Remnants Museum, a collection of trophies of American military machinery, pictures of atrocities performed, and a hefty display of international condemnation for the war. A large part of the city is under construction for the new subway, which will hopefully relieve some of the traffic that plagues the city. For now, it only exacerbates it. My friend and I go see a Thai movie called I Fine..Thank You..Love You. It’s a romcom with corny jokes and a predictable plot, but a cultural experience nonetheless.

Sitting at a curbside table drinking Bia Saigon away from the hypocrisy of the tourist district, I can watch the city go by. Saigon is a capitalistic monster, renamed by the north, but always maintaining its independence as the capital of southern Vietnam. Things move fast here. McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, and the like are popping up at alarming rates. It’s not to say that Saigon doesn’t have a strong cultural identity, but the encroachment of chain restaurants and stores seems all but inevitable, the city knowing nothing but upheaval and adaptation.



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