Lost in Saigon: My first week in Ho Chi Minh City!

Wednesday the 11th marked 7 days in Vietnam! It is so crazy to reflect on the last week and how much we managed to fit into it. Having never been this far from home before, these last few days have shifted my perspective on the world, and every moment has brought me a new experience. I am really looking forward to seeing what else the next few weeks bring!

Day 0 – Travelling 

The flight experience was quite overwhelming for me. The last (and only time) I took an international flight was in 2010! Walking through international check-in by myself in Auckland was terrifying, but I pushed through and waited by the gate. Our flight was timed to depart at 01:10 NZT, got delayed until 02:05, and then didn’t end up taking off until around 03:00. By the time I got on the plane I was so tired that I fell asleep almost instantly. When I woke up and checked the flight progress, we had already flown past Australia, and I spent the rest of the flight watching the plane fly further and further away from New Zealand – each kilometre being further than I had ever been before!

Me with my family before leaving Auckland!

Once we landed in Malaysia, we realised we had narrowly missed our connecting flight to Ho Chi Minh City due to the delay in Auckland. The airline moved us to a later flight, but that meant we had a 6-hour layover. I was so stressed about how this would impact us being picked up at the other end and how we were going to fill the time. We wandered around for a bit trying to find something to do, but despite it being the middle of the day in Kuala Lumpur very few places were open. We decided to settle down with some coffee and chat about what internship everyone was doing and get to know each other better. I felt a lot better afterwards, and we all got along so well. 

After what seemed like an eternity, it was finally time for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City. The connecting flight was short and quiet. Many of the seats were empty so we could all see out a window. As the plane went in to land it circled the city a few times and it was so interesting to see the city and surroundings from the sky. Everything – even the farmlands and road layouts – was so different to anything I had ever seen in New Zealand before. That made me nervous for how I was going to manage to survive here for seven weeks, but it also made me excited for the adventure that the seven weeks would be! 

Once we landed, CRCC Asia picked us up and took us to our accommodation. Looking out the window while driving to our accommodation was also a crazy experience! It was rush hour, and there were thousands of people getting home on scooters (on what seemed to be roads with no rules!). We saw ladies in heels and parents with very young children casually navigating traffic. At that moment, I had no idea how I was ever going to manage to cross a road! 

The accommodation is so luxurious! Aria and I spent so long just walking around trying to take it in. We eventually had to put our things down and get ready for the welcome dinner. The walk to the restaurant was crazy! I saw a lizard on the way, and we somehow managed to cross a few roads. The food was amazing, but by this point I was starting to feel the lack of sleep from the journey and was ready to go home. Despite the day being very long, I had a great time and was looking forward to taking on the city with more sleep.

The view from my room!

Day 1 – Walking around the city 

CRCC Asia left our first day in Vietnam free so we could recover from the jetlag, but because our layover made us stay awake for so many hours we all managed to get a solid sleep on Wednesday night and were ready to explore. We walked to get coffee and had our first few attempts of crossing the road unassisted. To begin with, it was terrifying, but we managed to get where we were going. I got a coconut coffee, and it was amazing! 

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city as a group. First we went to Ben Tanh market. I thought I would be overwhelmed by the number of people asking me to buy things, or the sheer volume of things available, but I actually found it exciting. It was absolutely unlike any other shopping experience I had ever had! After a while, I got tired and stopped for food with the group. I had my first Banh Mi there and it was delicious – I could tell I would later get addicted to them. After the market we went to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts. It had art from many different eras and it was all very beautiful. After the Museum we walked down to the Saigon river to see the waterfront. It had been decorated for Tet (Lunar New Year celebration) and it was so interesting to see what had been put up. 

Saigon River waterfront decorated for Lunar New Year!

Day 2 – Induction day and Welcome banquet

CRCC Asia picked us up in the morning from our accommodation and took us to their offices for an induction day. We learnt about what we should expect from Vietnamese business culture, a few Vietnamese phrases that would be useful for our daily lives, and the best ways to get around the city. We also learnt about what support we would get while we were in Vietnam – it was so comforting to know that we had someone to call if things went wrong. The session was so much fun, and I felt more confident that I had been crossing the road properly! After the induction CRCC took us to lunch. The restaurant was so beautiful, with artefacts on display and polished wooden walls. We had Pho and a type of corn dessert. It was the first time I had ever had corn as a sweet dish. It was an interesting taste to get used to, but by the end of the meal, I liked it. 

The outside of the restaurant!

Day 3 – Guided tour of the city 

CRCC Asia picked us up again in the morning from our accommodation and took us on a tour around the city. We started on book street – a whole street dedicated to books! There were shops that had second hand books, brand new books for education, all different types. We managed to find a few places that had books in English, and it was interesting to see what was on offer. 

Next we went to the Reunification Palace. It was a bit strange to see a building that was so historically significant look so modern. It was also hard to imagine that people lived there! It was so grand and had so many different rooms and levels. Overall it was good to experience what the palace was like and think about the significance behind some of the decisions that were made there. 

Me at the Reunification Palace!

The last thing we did was go on a water bus tour on the Saigon River! It was so cool to see the city from a different perspective. 

Day 4 – Củ Chi tunnels on speedboat 

A group of us decided to try visit somewhere a little further from the city, so we booked a tour of the Củ Chi tunnels. A got picked up from our accommodation at 7 am, and then travelled for about an hour by speedboat on the Saigon River to get to the tunnels. I loved watching the tall city skyline get smaller and smaller as we got further away from the city, and then eventually saw smaller villages and people fishing from the river banks.

When we arrived our guide took us on a tour of the complex that had been set up for tourists. I had learnt a little about the Vietnam war in high school, but it was so much more impactful seeing some of the tunnels and realising how ingenious the Viet Cong had to be in order to outsmart the Americans, who were better resourced by far. It was also eye-opening to realise how resilient these people must have been to live in the dark with little food and no security for years on end. It also helped me put into perspective how recent the conflict was and how that influences Vietnam’s development today. All Vietnamese people would have been alive during the conflict, raised by someone who was alive during the conflict, or at least know someone who was alive during the conflict. Despite how recent the conflict was, Ho Chi Minh City is still two times the size of my whole country. Vietnam may still be developing, but it seems to be developing incredibly quickly!

Later in the afternoon, I tested positive for Covid-19, so I began my isolation period 🙁 

Day 5-7 – Covid isolation 

I was sad to see everyone else go off to start their internships and see photos of how excited they were while I was stuck inside in isolation. Luckily, I could still get food delivered, so while I could only experience the sights of Vietnam from my window, I could still experience the flavours! 

I know my isolation will pass quickly, and I am looking forward to getting back out there and starting my internship at NFQ Asia next week!

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