Are three months enough to understand and enjoy a new country? Certainly not… but that didn’t stop me from trying. Vietnam, with some of Asia’s most killer coastlines, dense jungles, rugged mountain ranges and colourful urban foliage, has somehow never got around to welcoming travellers in hordes, like it should have. It had other things to keep it ‘occupied;’ like the century-long French colonial rule, followed by three decades of being held hostage by the Japanese and countless years of war (French, American and Chinese).
My home for the next few weeks was to be the centre of it all – District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) a.k.a. Saigon. Its population of seven million and counting remain brasher, more outgoing, more energetic and more relaxed in comparison to their more ‘correct’ northern cousins in Hanoi. So don’t be surprised if you can’t shake off young Viet girls who just want to practice their English with you.
To understand the full extent of Saigon’s mayhem I recommend you sit at one of its million cafes. Saigon’s streets are perennially packed with 100 cc Hondas hauling tourists, housewives, school kids and expats from cafes to market to school to bar. The noise and activity, plus hard-to-identify smells (pork chops? durian? fish sauce? diesel fumes?), are often enough to overwhelm even a local like my landlady.
But the city offers visitors a chance to let loose in the moto-madness only to emerge, armed with your own guidebook of the best, back-alley banh mi sandwiches (French-styled baguettes layered with Laughing Cow cheese, pickled veggies, and pork pate), street-side duck embryo stalls (served with salt, pepper and lime), the most secluded rooftop bars with a view and the perfect glass of iced coffee or ca phe sau da. But this in no way means that you won’t still catch a peep of postcard Vietnam, conical hats et al.
For some time now, HCMC has been popular with backpackers for its cheap eats, budget bedding and shops that count on travellers to bargain for souvenirs. Tourists can leave with bags of local treasures: straw hats, lacquer work, porcelain elephants, inlaid chopstick sets, Ho Chi Minh and Good Morning Vietnam T-shirts. Also van Goghs. Or Rembrandts, da Vincis, Picassos, Warhols, Monets… you name it. I have never been to such a reproduction-obsessed place before.
Food (and drink) is everywhere in Saigon, and the street is the place to eat (and drink) well and cheap. On any given day you can find anything from pho bo (beef and rice-noodle soup) to banh xeo (a rice-flour crepe stuffed with pork, bean sprouts and shrimp meant to be rolled in fresh lettuce and had dipped in nuoc mam; fish sauce) stalls lining up on the pavement. The most exquisite meal in town can be found at Le Bordeaux, a decade-old temple of French gastronomy that remains the best bet for scallops, foie gras, sea bass and salmon.
If you ever find yourself stranded in Saigon with a day or two to spare, take a boat ride the Mekong Delta or dig in deep to find the survival stories from the Cu Chi Tunnels.
A 90-minute bus ride will transport you to the tunnel network and town of Cu Chi, which became renowned during the 1960s for its role in abetting the Viet Cong. Today, the once ‘tunnel rats’ have turned guides and opened up their, largely, 1.2m high and 80 cm across tunnel network – this subterranean network stretches from HCMC to the Cambodian border; over 250 km – for the world to take a peek. The underground labyrinth creations include hospitals, storage facilities, living areas, kitchens, weapons factories, command centres and umpteen untold and barely detectable trap doors and booby-traps, mostly made with recycled American war supplies.
Vietnam’s rice basket region or the Mekong Delta is much like our watery southern landscape. So, daytrippers can expect green paddy fields, sudden downpours and rowboat rides through small crowded canals and creeks. The floating market of Cai Be makes for a perfect watery-pit stop, where you can squabble with vendors over the price of sugarcane, rice, coconut and shrimp.
These day-trips are flogged by travel agencies around Pham Ngu Lao – the most popular being Sinh Café– and should set you back by 200,000 VND (around Rs 500).