Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City



Ho Chi Minh City is pandemonium. Imagine a high-traffic Manhattan block, add 50 motos, eliminate signs, lights, crosswalks, any right-of-way or laws and you have a typical HCM street. The Vietnamese jump into oncoming traffic, speed down sidewalks and run red lights without hesitation. Crossing the street parallels an intense game of Frogger or a suicide attempt.

Relentless honking, blaring techno music, and shouting add to the disorder. The constant motion and cramped space exacerbates
the stench: a mixture of lavender, smoke, coffee and putrid fish.  The humidity makes everything worse. I walk outside and I’m immediately drenched in sweat. Within 2 minutes my hair frizzes into a Shakira, Amazon woman mane.

I expected chaos. Asian cities are known for their intensity. But I didn’t anticipate the hospitality of the Vietnamese. If you smile at anyone they smile back. I’m not accustomed to city friendliness. If you smile at someone in New York they might spit on you. And you never ask for directions because a real New Yorker (which I’m not) would never need them. But each time I stopped for directions the Vietnamese patiently guided me.

Some locals simply stopped to chat. One woman wanted to know where I bought my sunglasses, which turned into an hour conversation about her learning English in Singapore. In the city park, a boy sat on my bench. He pinched his cheek, pointed at mine, and said, “You have very nice…” We both laughed and talked about our countries.

During a monsoon rain I ran under an umbrella where two women sat. One woman tapped a stool inviting me to sit. She handed me hot tea, and while I sipped they talked about me in Vietnamese. They laughed as they pointed at my toes and Amazon hair. I let them point at me, their umbrella was my only salvation from the downpour, but I was thankful I couldn’t understand what they said.

In an attempt to escape the madness of the sidewalks I found my first philanthropic adventure. In need of a caffeine fix, I stumbled upon SOZO café.

(A side note: Vietnamese coffee is unique. The beans are fed to cat-like animals and then obtained from their excrement. I’m serious… The coffee is ground and drinks are made the same way. So you can order a cap-poo-ccino (Sorry, I had to!), but it’s going to taste a little “earthy.”)

I ordered coffee and found out SOZO employs street children. Sozo is a Vietnamese verb that means to save, keep safe and sound,
to rescue from danger or destruction. The employees said they loved working there and SOZO was also providing for their education. If you’re ever in HCMC go visit them.

On my final night in HCM I raved about the city. The friendliness of the people, the ornate temples, the fresh food all surprised me. But before I settled into vacation mode I was jolted back to my trip’s purpose. I saw my first brothel.

Sitting outside to eat dinner, I noticed a 60-year-old white man sitting with an Asian girl who looked 18. He whispered in her ear. She didn’t shy away, but she didn’t react like a girlfriend.

I glanced at the bar across the street. It looked like a bar you would find in the States. Five stunning Vietnamese girls sat on stools in dresses that barely covered their butts (keep in mind you scarcely see girls wearing shorts in Vietnam). Then I noticed four middle aged, white males sitting in the bar.

I examined the building. On top of the bar were three one-room levels of cinderblocks. Square holes served as windows and were covered with colored sheets from the inside. The levels above the bar looked like they wouldn’t survive a strong monsoon. They were basic and dingy.

When I realized it was a brothel the back of my eyes started to swell with water. An extreme hot flash began with rage. I couldn’t believe that everyone could eat dinner and ignore it. But then again this a daily sight in a huge city like HCM.

This is the first of many brothels I’ll see in the coming months. It’s an unfortunate, dark reality that consumes most of Southeast Asia. I’ll give more information on prostitution and sex-trafficking in a later post. The numbers will shock you and the stories repulse, but for now I’m not going to let it ruin my days in Vietnam.

Click here for more photos of Ho Chi Minh City.


22 comments on “Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City

  1. Julian Cabrera says:

    I absolutely love the pictures! They are so amazing, I can’t believe them. The smell of the city you described was very interesting. It sounds like HCM has a little bit of almost everything haha. I’m sorry about the brothel you had to see. Don’t you wish you were like Liam Neeson in “Taken” and run in there and take out some bad guys?! Perhaps you shouldn’t think of that because, knowing you, you would probably do something crazy. Take care out there, and thanks for the amazing writing!

    • batesla says:

      Thank you!!!! I was definitely that annoying tourist with the camera. And I don’t think I’m up to Liam Neeson’s level yet, but give me a few more weeks and maybe I’ll be storming in! haha (No, Dad, I’m not serious. You can stop freaking out while reading this.)

  2. Amanda Borzilleri says:

    1. I want your shakira hair!!
    2. You’re brave to be drinking Vietnamese poo-poo coffee!! I don’t know if I’d be daring enough to try that…but you do love your coffee 😉 And I thoroughly enjoyed your cap-poo-ccino joke! lol
    3. I think it’s amazing how many people you’ve met so far…so like you!! I’m sure your beautiful, friendly face is attracting all of these lovely people to come and talk to you!! You should keep a log of all the people you sit down and talk to so you’ll be able to remember them!
    4. I can’t imagine the rage that you felt when you saw the brothel. As I told you, that book was devastating to me, and I can become infuriated about it halfway across the world. It’s just mind blowing. 😦
    5. You’re such a good writer!! You really are-the way you compose these descriptions, it’s like I’m there!!
    6. Love and miss you!!!! xoxoxox

    Oh, and Julian, don’t put any ideas in Laurens head! Next thing we know she’ll be chasing down Armenian guys in France!

  3. Liz Mitaro says:

    It’s making me depressed that I’m not there seeing these things with you. Know I’m there in spirit (and keep an eye out for the animals for me!) 🙂

    • batesla says:

      You are so here in spirit! Today I was in this super chic cafe called Cong Caphe drinking an avocado shake and I remembered Color Cafe in Valparaiso!!!! I miss our travel adventures! When’s your fall break?? Meet me in Nepal! I’m dead serious. 🙂

  4. Michael Bates says:

    Okay. How about “cat-poo-ccino”. If I had known you liked that sort of thing, we could have kept your grandmother’s cats, and you could have stayed in the U.S., in Houston even.

    Anyway, with peculiar coffee and brothels behind you; are you ready to come home? No, of course you’re not. You are a wandering gypsy on your way to Dragon Bay!

  5. Carmen says:

    i can smell it, i can see it, i can taste it…you challenge all my senses with one description of a city and its people. i now feel the addiction tugging…..the addiction to the soap opera of Lauren’s adventures…i can hardly wait for the next episode, pictures and all. you know have top rating for the hottest show of the summer, forget the Chinea hostel reality show….this is an epic! Recuerda siempre, “En veinte anos estaras mas desilusionada por las cosas que no hiciste, que por las cosas que si.”
    un beso grande, mija.

    • Liz Woodhatch says:


      I have heard of this Coffee on NPR and it’s a delicacy to some and expensive!! I don’t think I could have taken a sip!

      Your Photo’s and writing are wonderfully descriptive and beautiful to see.
      Have you ever thought of being a Photo Journalist?! You photo’s remind me of the work of AMerican Photographer Mary Ellen Mark. Go to wikipedia and read about her and then check out her website and view her photograph collections: I know you will understand her photographs.

      Be Well and try some Tai Chi with the People in the Park!!! Liz

      • batesla says:

        Liz! I love her Indian street performer collection! I’m a photography amateur. I’ve only gone to 2 one hour intro classes and read a book about it. I’m still learning how to use my camera! It does feel natural though. Maybe my artistic ways from the Lemon Tree era are emerging through a different medium! Anyway I love taking photos of the people here, and I’m glad you are enjoying them! xoxo

    • batesla says:

      Good thing the Chinea hostel reality show NEVER ends! and I get to jump right back in when I get home! Everyday I wake up and think if Carmen and Olivia were here, what would we be doing today? who would we talk to? what new things would we try? and then I do those things and wish you were here with me! Besos!!!!

  6. Evan Bates says:

    Lauren todo que escribiré aqui, estará en español porque necessito guardar todo que aprendé. Carmen esta correcto, su detailes de su experiencia están muy bueno y necessitarás un espectaculo sobre Las Adventuras de Lauren: La Mujer con Pelo Mas Grande cuando regresarás. Quiero ver todo que has visto. Entonces espero que tomes muchos más fotos por mi en tu proximo viaje. Y soy serguro cuando hablas conmigo otra vez, necessitas cafe immediatemente (or however you would spell that word)

  7. Evan Bates says:

    oh yeah, and i love you!

  8. Olivia Richman says:

    evan bates!!! escribiste este post perfectamente!!!! (pues, casi) debo hablar solamente espanol contigo para q no olvidemos q aprendimos en barcelona. te vas a regresar a georgia el 17 de agosto, no? me voy pa casa el 6 de agosto por el pig roast, debe venir por esta fiesta tremendaaaa! Pues, lauren, ya hable contigo hoy jaja pero ya te extano 🙂 xoxox besitos

  9. Olivia Richman says:

    OH and i remembered why i was writing on this lol when i first saw these pictures, i thought you got them off the internet from google or something and then i realized you took them yourself! you’re so talented, you fascinarme lol

  10. Jon Holverson says:

    Hi Lauren,

    I am proud of you for undertaking this project. Your work is excellent. I especially enjoy the photography. You have a real talent in that area.

    It’s a good life!

  11. Carole Mann says:


    I discovered your blog by luck.
    I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City two weeks ago, your photos are amazing and your comments describe exactly the atmosphere, the people of this vibrant city. I still cannot drink the coffee here. We are supposed to stay here for four years and by then I am hoping I will be able to speak a bit of Vietnamese.
    Keep on writing!


    • batesla says:

      Hi carole, thank you so much! 4 years, that’s a long time! I’m sure you have already discovered more about the city than I did during my short stay. The coffee definitely takes some getting used to haha. But what a wonderful opportunity to expose yourself to another culture 🙂 thank you for reading! Lauren

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