Have you ever watched The Truman Show? Truman basically lives in this perfectly constructed bubble of a world where everything is neat, orderly and surreal. This is how I describe our experience of Ho Chi Minh city. A lot of the middle-upper class Vietnamese now live in emerging ‘Vinhome’ complexes; which are essentially small suburbs of high-rise towers complete with their own schools, shopping malls, restaurants, parks and every other bit of infrastructure you could possible need. The streets are tidy, every building has a swimming pool with a lifeguard, there are cleaners sweeping the pathways and traffic controllers to help guide the traffic. We rented an apartment within one of the Vinhome complexes and we were spoilt with everything the first world could offer. I’d like to say we regretted our choice of accommodation and immediately relocated to a more authentic, grubby part of the city… but no, we embraced our good fortune and dived head first into experiencing modern upper-class Vietnamese culture. Our daily visit to the VinCom mall was a highlight for the kids ( ok and for me). The kids LOVED the ice-skating rink (it became an obsession ). I enjoyed a morning stroll to a lovely, modern coffee shop where I sipped on a latte next to the guy who brought his cat along with him. No-one seemed to think this was odd. When we did leave the Vinhome bubble it was immediately obvious that this was not how the vast majority of Vietnamese live.
Our first major departure from Vinhome was to the city centre to get a bus to the Chu Ci tunnels. It was a hold-on-to-your-child experience. The Vietnamese treat pedestrian paths a bit like an extension of a road. Motorcycles duck and weave around you, or more accurately, you are required to jump out of their way as they approach you from behind and blast their horn loudly into your ear. Crossing a road is a near-death experience each and every time. I will admit that I have struggled with the Vietnamese traffic more than any other country we have visited. The sheer number of motorcycles and the clear lack of rules is overwhelming. Maya had a school assignment on ‘Road Safety’ to complete during our stay in Vietnam. She had to demonstrate crossing a road properly using the ‘stop, look, listen, think’ principle. This was laughable in Vietnam. We honestly would not have crossed any road (outside Vinhome) if we tried to apply this in practice. Despite the 2.5 hour trip from the middle of the city to the tunnels (largely due to the horrendous traffic), it was a pretty enjoyable day. The complex itself was large and well set out. After we had looked at some of the tools of war and other exhibits, we were allowed to crawl through some of the tunnel complex. I Have to admit that I had slight heart palpitations just thinking about going underground in a small, dark, one-way tunnel. Maya was adamant that she was NOT going through the tunnels, full stop. I am pleased to report that Maya and I both managed 50m of tunnel (widened and lit-up for tourists). The twins skipped their way through about 100m and wanted to do it again (and again). Overall, it was a good family experience. Maya got to see first-hand how the Viet Cong lived during the war period and the amazing three tier complex of tunnels. When you see the widened section of the first tier, you can’t help but think ‘how on earth did they live like that?’. I wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes in a smaller, darker tunnel, and certainly not three levels underground. The twins thought it was a big, fun adventure, nothing more.
Our other major departure from Vinhome was to the local Suoi Tien Theme Park. It’s the sort of theme park that doesn’t seem to attract many visitors, and especially of the non-Vietnamese type. I can understand why. We were somewhat prepared for this as we had quite a bit of ‘unusual’ theme-park experience up our sleeves by now. We entered the Harry Potter House first. As we made our way through dark narrow, halls Maya started to experience mild anxiety. She had just finished her third Harry Potter book , so we thought she might find it interesting. Wrong. She had a major panic attack by the time we were half way through the house and was not seeing anything amusing in the creepy objects flying out in front of her. I had a bit of a giggle at some of the ‘Engrish’ signage. I was wondering about the specific ‘odour of the Phoenix’ when I was suddenly whipped on the backside by something or someone I could not see. Sure enough there was a creepy person waiting in a dark corner with what I imagine was a whip, ready to pounce on unsuspecting tourists. Maya was right – time to get out of this creepy house. Harry Potter house done, we head straight for the water park and spent the rest of our day splashing around in the underwhelming pools. All in all it was up there with one of the worst theme parks we have encountered.
Moving on from Ho Chi Minh we stopped by the beach-side town of Nah Trang for a week. We stayed in Air-BNB apartment across the road from the beach. The view was amazing and the beach is quite spectacular. Our favourite thing to do was hire some beach chairs for the day, eat food from the local vendors walking along the beach, and play on the HUGE inflatables in the water. Maya might be afraid of small , dark places but she is fearless when it comes to heights. Brooke and Sienna also loved the slides and trampoline. After hours playing in the water we would stop by one of the beach bars for a cool drink before heading home.
The week was broken up with a day trip to VinPearl (ANOTHER theme park) and a snorkelling trip. The snorkelling trip was a disappointment. There was a lot of pushing and shoving to get on and off the boats, the island was way too crowded and the reef was a disappointment. Vietnam seems to attract a LOT of Chinese tourists who love a day trip to an island. VinPearl, on the other hand, was a terrific day out. With the Chinese tourists packed onto small islands, the theme park was virtually empty. We went on a lot of rides without waiting in a queue and spent hours in a first-class water park. Maya had to coax me down one water-slide that was ‘not scary mum’. She forgot to tell me that the water slide would turn into a large sink with a hole in the middle that you literally fall through into a deep pool below. I think I preferred the lazy river with the twins. Besides the beautiful beach, Nha Trang has some incredible food choices (Japanese, Greek and of course Vietnamese) and the day spas are divine. If it wasn’t so hard to cross the damn road it would have been near perfect!