After 13 hours in the air we arrived at Kuala Lumpur where we had a quick dash across the airport to catch our connecting flight to Ho Chi Minh City. This flight was only a short 90 minute hop from Malaysia to Vietnam, and it was fantastic to see the mighty Mekong river snaking its way underneath us as we approached our destination.
Having successfully navigated immigration we made our way to baggage reclaim to discover that a couple of bags had gone AWOL somewhere along the way. Kathryn and Daryl filed the necessary paperwork with lost baggage, and we all made our way outside the terminal.
And what greeted us was a seemingly impenetrable wall of people, sound and heat. It turns out the number of people is higher than normal because of the imminent Vietnamese New Year festival of Tết.
Somehow one of our Vietnamese guides, Phat, managed to find us amongst the throng and escorted us to the minibus that will be serving as our support vehicle whilst we’re in Vietnam. The air conditioning was most welcome (we were still partly dressed for the UK winter), as too was the unexpected on-board WiFi which allowed emails and messages to be sent back home and the ubiquitous check-ins on social media to relay news of our arrival.
First stop was the cycle shop to try out our bikes for size and swap over pedals and seats for anyone that brought their own. We then headed off for lunch at a nearby restaurant, which started with some tasty soup followed by a selection of traditional Vietnamese vegetable, seafood, chicken and pork dishes.
After lunch we checked into our Saigon hotel and some of the group then headed out to explore the nearby area. Our lack of sleep since Tuesday was starting to catch up with us though, so instead Michelle and I got our heads down for an hour-long power nap.
We all regrouped at 5pm in the hotel for a briefing session from our group leader and doctor Alex, on how to stay safe and healthy over the next few days. Phat, who together with his colleagues Hai will be accompanying us on the Vietnam side of the trip, then covered all the logistical aspects and answered any questions we had.
Having been simultaneously reassured and warned of the challenges ahead, we hopped back in the minibus for a short trip to the “Indochine” restaurant for dinner where another great meal of local dishes was accompanied by some live music.
On the way back to the hotel Hai mentioned that we could get great views of the city from the Chill Sky Bar, at the top of a neighbouring hotel. The opportunity to see this bustling city from a different perspective was too good to miss, so after a quick change to ensure we met the venue dress code (no shorts, no flip flops) we all jumped in the lift and headed up the 26 floors to the top.
The view that greeted us was a world away from the moped-filled streets we’d experienced on the ground. Like the on-board WiFi on the minibus, it challenged any expectations I had of this city. Multi-coloured neon lights, an array of corporate logos, and bright spotlights illuminate the spaces between the ribbons of moving lights below.
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still refer to it, is most definitely a city with a foot in both the old and the new. I think it’s going to be an interesting point of reference as we jump on our bikes and head out into rural Vietnam over the next few days.