This afternoon I hop on a bus to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. It was tough deciding where in the region I wanted to go, especially due to my limited timeframe. I recognize that I'm lucky to be here for two whole months, but two whole months is hardly enough time to see all of Southeast Asia. It's huge! Had to skip Myanmar, which is something I really wanted to do. But I'm also heading to some places I didn't expect. More on that later...
My last full day in Ho Chi Minh City (until June, that is) was wonderful. In many parts of Southeast Asia, there's an app called Grab, which is essentially the region's equivalent of Uber or Lyft. If you're planning on traveling here at some point, I'd recommend downloading it before you come. Anyway, the major difference between Grab and Uber is that on Grab--at least in Vietnam--you can order a xe om.
A motorbike taxi.
This isn't surprising--motorbikes are the most common way that people travel in Vietnam. The streets are clogged with them. Thing is, I've never been on one in my life. And everyone at my hostel was telling me that I was just supposed to climb on the back of one, with a stranger driving, and enjoy the ride through some of the most harrowing traffic I've ever witnessed?
Reader, I did precisely that. The driver gives you a helmet, if that's any consolation. It wasn't actually as scary as I thought it would be--except when there were buses about an inch from my knee. That made me nervous.
I think my driver noticed I was worried--he took it pretty slow. I had him drop me off at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts, which is housed in a beautiful mansion (a series of beautiful mansions, actually) from the French colonial period. Most of the art is from during or after the war, and the styles of the work vary wildly. Here are pictures of some of my favorites. The history buff in me was satisfied by one of the other buildings on the property, which contains a huge collection of ancient religious statues and pottery. None of the buildings were air conditioned, so it was a little stuffy. But there was hardly anyone there, so I got to wander around wherever I wanted and look at the work as closely as I wanted. An ideal museum trip, all in all.
After wandering over to the Mekong Express office and picking up my bus ticket for today's adventure, I made my way to L'Usine, a major hub of expat life in Saigon. The first floor is a shop, and the second floor is a fancy cafe. Walking inside was bizarre--I felt like I'd been suddenly transported to Brooklyn. Mason jar lighting, chic black-and-white tile walls. Nicki Minaj blasting on the speakers. Not an authentic Vietnam experience by any means--but my salad was delicious. Hard to find western-style salad over here, as it requires rinsing the vegetables in pre-boiled water. And, you know, because not every culture has to be obsessed with salad.
It was a good salad, though.
While digesting the salad, I walked to the post office again and dropped off a gigantic batch of postcards, which made me feel like an extremely responsible and efficient pen pal. Then I rode an elevator to the 49th-floor Skydeck of the Bitexco Financial Tower, HCMC's tallest skyscraper, to watch the sunset. I knew the air pollution was bad here, but you can really see the smog from all the way up there. Nevertheless, I captured some great views of the sprawling city and the wide river winding through it.
I took another Grab bike home during rush hour--we drove along the river, which was a nice change of pace--and that evening we had another family dinner night at the hostel. Clam & sausage linguine. Yum yum yum. A bunch of us played cards late into the night, and I kept accidentally winning. What can I say? Beginner's luck.
I rose early this morning to pack up, and now I just have to wait for my 6-hour bus ride to Phnom Penh. Ugh.
Not ugh, actually--that's 6 hours I can spend revising my novel. I am supposed to be a writer, after all.