Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Vietnam
"Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." Neale Donald Walsch
Never have I been so out of my comfort zone as I was in Ho Chi Minh City, and that is perhaps the best holiday of all.
The city (still often called Saigon) has 7.5 million scooters and an equal number of people moving in a crazy, mesmerising mêlée, like a perfectly choreographed dance where anyone could fall and suffer a compound fracture at any moment.
Add to this the notoriously confusing currency (I was a millionaire for the cost of a meal in the UK) and the maze of alleyways my Airbnb room was hidden amongst, and I barely knew where I was.
I had a packed agenda to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, Mekong Delta and a Vietnamese cooking course. With each experience, Vietnam revealed its many layers and glorious colours.
Life happens on the street here. One morning I sat in a shop doorway with a coffee to people watch, and it seemed like the whole city passed by in 15 minutes. Elderly ladies pushed bikes laden with fruit, street sellers hawked sunglasses, commuters ate steaming rice from street food vendors. And of course scooters were everywhere, including one carrying a family of six.
The countless alleyways are hidden network life (many don’t appear on google maps). Ladies chop meat to sell, barbers cut hair, families congregate in living rooms opening onto the alleys with their scooters parked indoors. Of an evening, tables pop up for animated card games fuelled by homebrew.
Modernisation has come slowly to Vietnam, but rather than being a frustration, I wondered if in some ways they’ve got it right where we have it wrong. I didn’t see a single supermarket in the city, small independent traders congregate at food markets selling fresh fruit and veg, spices, rice and noodles, and the locally popular live frogs and fish.
The markets are tightly packed and teeming with people. My cooking lesson began in one of these markets.
Vietnamese cooking course
As a lover of Asian food, I booked a Vietnamese cooking lesson hosted by Oanh. Ho Chi Minh City’s equivalent of Carrie Bradshaw, she writes a dating and sex column for a magazine.
Our group weaved our way through the tightly packed stands of Nguyen Van Troi market in search of chilli, ginger, tofu, mushrooms, soy, noodles and salad.
Back at Oanh’s apartment, we collectively prepared braised tofu, spring rolls, chilli and garlic dip, fried rice, braised mushrooms and mango salad. It was the best food I tasted in Vietnam.
Oanh gave me a glimpse into the life of a young single in the city. Her bijou apartment is cleverly arranged over three mezzanine levels accommodating a bedroom, dining room, lounge, bathroom and laundry room, all stylishly furnished. Her kitchen window opened onto a tiny courtyard, which somehow felt like a luxury. Space is always at a premium in cities, but perhaps here more than most.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The tunnels are a monument to a war more contentious than most, and well worth a visit. A 75 mile network of multi-level underground tunnels built during the Vietnam war, North Vietnamese troops used them as hiding places, living quarters and communication and supply routes.
I squat-crawled through 20 metres of tunnel less than 4 foot high, 3 foot wide, dark and hot. Although now absent of the venomous bugs and rats troops endured during the war, I couldn’t imagine spending more than five minutes inside, never mind days.
A sunken kitchen demonstrated clever camouflage tactics. Smoke from cooking would give away the location, so cooking was done in the morning when smoke could mingle with the morning mist.
A ventilation shaft channelled the smoke to a vent 100 feet away, so if any smoke was visible from the air, an air strike would likely miss the real target.
I finished off my tour of the tunnels with ten rounds fired from an AK-47. I thought I was a good shot but apparently not!
The countryside is lush green, fed by waterways teeming with trade to and from the city. Life is simple and vital, centred on food markets and farming. I enjoyed dragon fruit, pomelo, lychee and jack fruit and ate honey straight from the hive. I navigated grassy canals in a wooden canoe and tasted rice whiskey at the homestead where it was brewed.
The honey, lemon and ginger tea, peanut and honey sweets and honey coated banana were as fantastic as the views of the fruit orchards we canoed past.
Nearing the city on our return boat ride we passed stilt houses, built illegally years ago they line several miles of the delta. The houses were rickety, some were falling into the river, yet still occupied. Some of the street vendors I saw live here.
As developments of luxury apartments appear, the stilt houses are dismantled to clean up the area, with no alternative housing offered.
Unable to afford legal housing near the city, the residents’ livelihoods are threatened, further compounding the poverty trap that passes down through generations.
While school is obligatory and ‘free’, the poorer families can’t afford the necessary school books and uniforms, so their children are raised in the tenuous family business. As Vietnam modernises, the rich/poor divide seems to compound, and I wonder what the long term effect of ‘improvement and modernisation’ will be.
Dining out and nightlife
I stayed in the backpacker district of Phạm Ngũ Lão. Vietnamese diet favours frog, eel and pork but there are higher end and/or western restaurants offering plenty of choice.
The city is hot and sticky, so I treated myself to a dip in the pool at the Rex Hotel, where the world’s journalists were based during the war. A beer here is £5. I preferred the street bars with their plastic gingham tables and endless people watching opportunities where a beer costs 65p and a plate of rice, cabbage and soy is £3.
Sadly I saw plenty of sex tourism – middle aged western men with one or more local girls young enough to be their daughters. During my stay I was reading Private Dancer by Stephen Leather which states “If you are a sex tourist, you will never have a successful long term relationship with any girl. Accept that and continue being a sex tourist.”
The tunnels offered little information about the war beyond a propaganda video that claimed life during the war was fantastic. So I visited the War Museum in the city in search of more information.
The displays are mostly photographic, with a few poignant stories and startling statistics. It is estimated 2 million Vietnamese civilians died, 1.1 million Vietnamese soldiers and 58,000 US soldiers. Sobering, given the context to some of the US blockbusters released on the matter.
Having taken in the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Museum I still felt uninformed and wish I’d done a little more research on the cause and effect of the war prior to my visit.
My first thoughts when I arrived had been “what the **** is going on” and “this place is out of control”, but I fell in love with it.
I had only decided to go at the last minute, making use of three spare days at the end of my Christmas holiday. It turned out to be the highlight of my three week holiday.
I will definitely return, adding a visit to one of the stunning beach resorts in the south which I’m sure will further Vietnam’s assault on my senses in the best possible way.
The currency is very confusing. £1 is about 32,500 Vietnamese Dong. Taxis will knock off the last 3 digits, so a taxi fare might be 85 dong. To ‘help’ they often convert it to US dollars which only adds to the confusion. Take a cheat sheet with you.
Organised tours stop at factories making and selling lacquer, candy and royal honey and often staffed by victims of agent orange, or people of limited means. As much as they tug at your heartstrings, the prices are astronomical – products can be ten times the cost you’d find the exact same thing on sale for in the city.
Understanding the currency and local prices is crucial here. A 20 minute taxi ride may only cost 50 to 80 (80,000 VD = £2.50). One such trip I was charged 295 (295,000 = £9). I laughed, gave him 100,000 and left.
Scooter riders will grab your bag as they drive past. The best way to avoid this is to keep your bag on the opposite side of your body from the road, and hold it tight. The same goes for phones in your hand. This is tricky considering you have to walk in the road sometimes. Additionally, in restaurants I either kept my bag on my lap or the seat next to me, very close and in view.
Ho Chi Minh City is hot and dirty. I lived in shorts, t-shirts and my trusty deck shoes. The city is worth walking around, so take comfortable footwear. Although my shoes were enclosed, my feet were coated in grime after a day out. If you want to wear nice footwear, take taxis everywhere and visit only the fancy places, but then you’re not seeing the city at all!