Crossing into Vietnam airspace from the South China Sea with the infamous Mekong Delta below us, our flight from Hong Kong landed easily in sizzling Saigon. After waiting an hour for our visas to be issued, we breezed through customs and immigration and soon were afoot in Vietnam. Still it was hard to believe: Vietnam… VIETNAM!
This country, looming so large on my childhood and all of America in the 1960’s and 70’s, this city Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Viet Cong’s successful capture of the South Vietnamese capital). Unreal. Yet here I was, extracting Dong bills from the ATM, purchasing an iced tea, freely walking outside of the airport.
Coming from Hong Kong where navigating the city was simple (thanks to exceptional public transport) and communication not a problem since English is widely spoken, Paul and I decided to make our way to the central Dong Khoi district via the local bus. After paying roughly USD $0.20 each, we were soon bounding towards downtown in a worn but acceptable city bus.
Things went quickly downhill from there. First the driver motioned for us to get off the bus, and since we couldn’t speak Vietnamese nor he English we simply did what he said. But we had no idea where we were and the meager Lonely Planet maps did not provide much help. We tried to gesture with a friendly local, he helped on another bus but we had no idea where it was headed.
Thinking we were somewhat close to the tourist hub of downtown, Paul and I made a decision to get off the bus so we didn’t end up even farther from our goal. We asked several people in stores and on the street but no one spoke English and since Vietnamese is a tonal language our attempts to name places fell flat on their faces.
Not wanting to prolong our “adventure” we jumped in a taxi, pointed to a hotel in our guide book and 10 minutes (and $2) later we were exactly where we wanted to be. In another 10 minutes were were checked into our spacious, old-style room in the historic Riverside Hotel overlooking the Saigon River. We were thrilled to arrive so (relatively) easily into welcoming Saigon.
After a quick nap (we were up that morning at 4 AM and I was still battling my cold) we walked around the neighborhood, marveling at all the motorbikes on the streets and the more subdued vibe of Saigon. Commerce and consumerism was everywhere, this was striking and unexpected for a communist country. Glitzy fashion stores, skyscrapers rising all around us and with new construction on every block, and chic restaurants and cafes adding a sophistication to the central neighborhood.
But we were most mesmerized by the street foods and merchandise sold on sidewalks and from bicycles by an array of vendors. Everyone seems to be vying for the action, with guys offering their motorcycles for hire, food of all sorts made to order, counterfeit purses and backpacks, tourist souvenirs, pirated CD’s, DVD’s and even best-seller paperback books (photocopied Lonely Planet guides are rife) — the streets and sidewalks of Vietnam are awash in consumer capitalism.
The locals are friendly and quite warm, but everyone wants to make a deal and we as foreigners are obvious targets. Children are especially gregarious, they greet us with a hearty “hello” and hand wave as we pass. Restaurant workers are helpful and often show us how something is eaten or done since we are not privy to the local customs. And very often someone will be looking out to ensure that we aren’t being taken advantage of, which certainly can happen if you’re not careful. It’s a very nice mix of friendliness and consumer-oriented professionalism.
We did quite a bit of walking in Saigon, despite my upper respiratory illness. The hot, humid air made for some struggling afternoons. Thanks to the many cafes (presumably a legacy of the many years of French rule) we rested often and regularly enjoyed the tasty Vietnamese tea (usually offered for free with a food purchase at restaurants) or sweet iced coffee with a hint of chocolate.
With the communist party still in firm control of the country, the one-party state has clearly tilted strongly towards market-oriented socialism since the fall of the Soviet Union. This has been accelerating more quickly in recent years as an economic boom has brought a considerable improvement to the lives of most Vietnamese. But there is systemic corruption and a strengthening monied class that increasingly has great pull with the powers that be, resulting in further disenfranchisement of the Vietnamese people.
Despite this overt capitalism, the face of socialism is inscribed everywhere on billboards, street signs, the ubiquitous yellow-and-red government or Party buildings, even the loudspeakers on street corners that broadcast public “news” and other information the political machine wants the masses to hear. The omnipresent image of Ho Chi Minh (“Uncle Ho”) reigns in all quarters of Saigon, but he passed away in 1969, and his Marxist-Leninist vision for his country, while still purported in official doctrine, is hardly reality today. Vietnam is a crazy mix of capitalism and communism.
We spent our days visiting museums, mostly about the war (which I will post next) and mostly just watching the city flow by. A couple of afternoons we had a brief deluge of rain, which forced us to sit under an awning and watch the hustle and bustle in the streets as vendors, shop owners, pedestrians and passengers worked frantically to find cover. These are wonderful travel moments where everything is out of your control and you just sit and wait, all the while watching the cultural carnival in front of you.
After one particularly voluminous downpour, we gazed with mouths agape as the locals quickly swept the emerging cockroaches from stores and restaurants into the watery streets, some the gargantuan size of 2-3″. Apparently such a rush of water disturbs the creatures’ hiding places and they roam wildly about.
Ho Chi Minh City, despite its “on-the-move” reputation, can be a highly relaxing place. We spent leisurely time in the immaculately maintained parks and green spaces, enjoying the views of local couples, children and elders socializing and exercising (tai chi and net-less badminton are very common here). Walks along the riverfront watching the dinner cruise staff recruit clients into their glittering boats, our idle time in shady cafes during the hot afternoons, and cocktail hour on rooftop terraces with splendid views of the city were highlights of our time in Saigon.
Vietnamese cuisine is renown the world over, so food was a standout experience during our stay in Ho Chi Minh City. With tasty food stalls on nearly every corner, there is no shortage of places to grab a quick bowl of noodles or other tempting treat. There are restaurants, of course, but most Vietnamese prefer the streets and they sit for seemingly hours, socializing over tea, iced coffee, and fragrant meals served on tiny tables and child-sized plastic chairs.
We also were pleased to find very good vegetarian options (an chay) in Saigon, since most Vietnamese are (nominally) Buddhist. So we found no shortage of seasoned tofu, stir-fried vegetables and fruit juices and smoothies.
Our first meal was at the sumptuous Temple Club, which was hidden behind a sliver of a door, up a candle-lit staircase to a French-colonial dining room and lounge with a stylish mahogany bar and comfortable teak furniture. With ocher-tinted light emanating from silken lamps, sentimental bossa nova and fado in the air, and attentive waiters in crisp linen shirts, the atmosphere was decidedly circa 1940’s Indochine.
The cuisine matched the setting: we downed cold Bia Saigon beer, lightly fried spring rolls with a passion fruit dipping sauce, pumpkin ginger soup, tofu marinated in tamarind and lemongrass, and roasted vegetables and sweet potato in spicy curry. For what we consider a unique, first-class gourmet experience cost a whopping $15. We were completely delighted with our first proper meal in Vietnam.
For the next several days we enjoyed culinary surprises every few hours. We tasted the kiwi-like green dragon fruit with white flesh dotted with edible black seeds and a fuchsia peel. We downed tall, thin glasses of sinh to, the sweet yoghurt shakes made with fresh tropical fruit. We dipped into bowls of pho noodle soup, and lapped up stir-fried vegetables with com steamed rice. And bit into intricately-peeled pineapple and sliced & chile spiced mango on bamboo skewers. And sipped chilled sweet coconut water through straws. These street fruit snacks weigh down the distinctive “scale” carrying devices that balance on the shoulder of the roving street vendors.
We soon became huge fans of the sandwiches served on crisp, hot baguettes from street carts and loaded with cheese, vegetables, fried eggs, hot sauce and anything else the vendor has in her cart at the time. These proved to be quick “pick-me-up” meals while sightseeing. The bread is so wonderful: light and fresh, we figure this is likely a legacy from the French.
In restaurants we learned to order by pointing to a dish on another table, which was generally more reliable than the grimy menus in basic English with such meaningless listings such as “vegetable stir-fry” and “stir-fry vegetable”. Actually, we did order both of these once, and were delivered the same vegetable dish, the only distinction (that we could perceive) is the same green vegetable seemed to have slightly more leaf in one of the dishes.
A discovery on our final night in Saigon in one of the street restaurants are the seafood hot pots, wow. These are normally shared at your table and come in various prices depending on the size of your group — the Vietnamese love to congregate in the streets with family and friends all days of the week, so hot pot soon became a familiar sight on tables as we meandered through the city.
When we didn’t know the protocol for a particular dish, such as hot pot which is quite complex, the waiter never hesitated to show us the ropes. These “interactive” meals can be loads of fun: a flaming stove appears on the table, along with a covered pot filled with fragrant and flavorful broth. Then plates start to appear: bean sprouts, leafy greens, rice vermicelli, and a hearty mix of fish and crustaceans which are added to the pot as it slowly comes to simmer.
When all is combined, chiles and limes are added, and the resulting feast is divine. All is washed down with bottle after bottle of refreshingly cold beer: Bia 333 (pronounced bee-ah ba ba ba, an essential bit of travelers’ Vietnamese), Bia Saigon or any of the other lagers brewed locally. Paul and I gladly spent our evenings over meals such as these, and the chatting Vietnamese around us with friendly smiles made each dining moment a delight.
We also had the great fortune to meetup with other CouchSurfers for beers and street food one of our nights in Saigon. I saw a posting on the website in the Ho Chi Minh City group so we decided to attend, and over 20 people showed up and basically took over a small street restaurant just a couple blocks from our hotel.
There were lots of local Vietnamese, highly sociable and they eagerly shared information about their city, explaining some of the cultural nuances, and swapping travel stories. They love to meet new people and practice English so they attend these meetups regularly (there can be 2-3 per week), but not many actually host travelers since most they live away from the city center and share small apartments with many family members.
And we non-Vietnamese were well represented too, with travelers from France, Hong Kong, Japan, Russia, Singapore, and Germany (we were the only ones from the US, as we have seen few Americans on this trip). Some were travelers passing through but most were living there, working for multinational corporations setting up factories or running local administrative offices, or teaching English for which there is huge demand (hourly rates are around $20-25 an hour which goes a long way in Vietnam).
The evening was thoroughly enjoyable, both Paul and I had fun, substantive discussions with lots of outgoing, energetic people, all of whom share our zeal for travel. Definitely we will be using CouchSurfing to connect with locals and fellow travelers more in the coming weeks. It’s also a great way to learn about opportunities in the area, for example travelers looking for companions to ride motorcycles from Saigon to Hanoi, hiking/camping trips organized by local CouchSurfers, volunteer gigs, events in the cities, even solo travelers looking for people to share the journey for a few days or weeks. CouchSurfing continues to impress (and deliver)!