48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, where everyone smiles
Two days in this marvellous city can be quite a blur, but if you stop to smell the coffee, you'll never want to leave
Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American may not be as dense as Gregory David Roberts' ode to Mumbai, Shantaram, but it is just as romantic a read about a city that completely enraptures you with its liveliness. Ho Chi Minh City is, by all accounts, a breathtakingly beautiful smorgasbord of a city that will haunt you. The smells, the sounds, the smiles... People wear their hearts on their smiles here and it starts to seep into your bones from the minute you set foot in this city, resulting in a soul-stirring realisation that you want to belong here. Desperately. Unequivocally. Also, everyone's a millionaire here, but I'll get to that later. First.
The Vietnamese embassy in the UAE is in Abu Dhabi, but if you're in any other emirate, take my advice and save yourself the hassle - not to mention, about Dh350 - by applying for your visa online (www.vietnam-evisa.org). The service is extremely efficient and they take care of everything for you, including arranging for an airport taxi.
There are several airlines that fly to Ho Chi Minh City, but our pick is Royal Brunei, mostly because you get to fly out of the brand spanking new Concourse D at Terminal 1 and the airline flies shiny new Dreamliners equipped with some pretty neat ambient lighting and climate control technologies that ensure zero jetlag, even on a red eye flight.
HCMC is very well connected, offering taxis and buses that take you into the city from the airport. There is no subway yet, but our tour guide, Dong, informs us that one's on the way. Taxis are - comparatively - inexpensive and so are most amenities, as you will soon come to find out.
HCMC is divided into radial districts, much in part due to French colonialism, and right at the heart is District 1. There are several French colonial style buildings and the architecture is vibrant and varied. Short, stocky houses grapple for space with narrow, tall edifices, all painted in pale yellows and greens. Restaurants and cafes serving Vietnamese coffee dot many pavements, and hotels are aplenty and affordable. If you're looking for a historic hotel, look up Hotel Majestic, which is built in a classic French Riviera style and stands proudly in the bustling heart of the city. Other great hotels include Hotel Equatorial, and Hotel Continental Saigon, both in areas with plenty to explore.
A tale of forgiveness
If there ever was a city that emblemised the utter stupidity of imperial or neo-colonial wars, it is Ho Chi Minh City. From the despicable cruelty of the French overlords in the 19th century, when it became Saigon to the rest of the world, to the barbarity of the Vietnam War (called the American War by locals) that killed millions, the remnants that the Vietnamese people have collected tell powerful stories of the folly of man. But it also tells another story - one of forgiveness.
Tanks and artillery left behind by American forces at the War Remnants Museum in HCMC
The Vietnamese people, particularly in HCMC, don't exude any animosity, considering the atrocities done to them not so long ago. Instead, their smiles are infectious and filled with warmth. They treat everyone the same - as people. It's a beautiful thing really, something much of the rest of the world could learn from. They are also extremely hardworking, as Dong was happy to point out on one of our first sojourns into the city - an old lady, easily over 70, selling lottery tickets on the roadside, head nestled under the ubiquitous conical rice hat. You don't see hungry people or beggars, not because it is illegal, but because their ethos is more work-for-your-money than give-me-a-handout. Shoe shiners by day, fire eaters by night, it's work, work, work. But that doesn't mean the locals don't know how to have a good time.
Wake up early, like the Vietnamese, and skip the usual continental breakfast at your hotel. Stroll down the streets and have some Vietnamese coffee dripped slowly into about a tablespoon of sweetened condensed milk. The coffee is unlike any other - not bitter to the palate or intensely roasted, but rather delicate and refreshing, meaning you could forgo the condensed milk and it would still be very, very good. Coffee time is also a good time to people watch.
The Vietnamese national dish is pho (pronounced as a soft fa) and is the ultimate breakfast picker-upper with everything your body needs. Do not forgo this delectable bowl of broth that cradles finely sliced beef brisket (and many other cuts of meat, including offal) and rice noodles in its warm embrace, served with bean sprouts, coriander, mint, lime and chillies on the side. Vietnamese cuisine is big on fresh herbs, so expect to find them at every meal. In fact, food off the streets is often safer and much tastier than touristy restaurants, not to mention, fresher.
Tourists pose for pictures atop a tank at the Cu Chi Tunnels
After breakfast, head to the Reunification Palace to see where it all began for HCMC. On April 30, 1975, a lone communist tank bulldozed its way into Saigon, taking over the Independence Palace, which had been the seat of power for three South Vietnam presidents before. Ho Chi Minh, the celebrated leader, and considered by many as the father of the modern united Vietnam, had succinctly and thoroughly defeated South Vietnamese forces, leading to the palace being renamed as the Reunification Palace. Today, this massive French colonial building serves as a reminder of the fall of Saigon and of a past still stuck in a time warp. There is an entry fee, but the building is worth a visit, unless there are official receptions or meetings, during which time, the palace is closed to visitors. Then, head to one of the most popular attractions in the city, the War Remnants Museum, to immerse yourself in the history and horrors of the Vietnam War. Bomb shells, tanks, fighter bombers and ghastly pictures of the terrible plagues of war span the three floors of the museum, serving as a commentary, of sorts, on the depths of depravity of the human species.
American helicopters and tanks from the Vietnam War at the War Remnants Museum in HCMC
For a more peaceful remnant, head to the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the expansive Saigon Post Office right across it, in the centre of the old Paris Square. The cathedral took about 20 years to build in the 1860s and still stands as a monument to the architects and builders of the time. Saigon Post Office is one of the oldest buildings in HCMC, built just after the cathedral. It still serves as a functioning post office where you can send and receive mail, buy stamps and, of course, buy souvenirs.
The Saigon Post Office, one of the oldest buildings in HCMC
Grab some lunch at one of the many gorgeous French-style restaurants, and make sure you sample Vietnamese rolls - prawns rolled around fresh water cabbage and herbs, all encased in fine rice paper, served with the ubiquitous Vietnamese condiment that is fish sauce. Or head to the streets or one of the famous Vietnamese markets in town and grab a Bánh mì, one of the best sandwiches you will ever lay your grateful hands on. Perfect fuel for the all the walking that's coming up. Also, it's very cheap, which brings me to the money.
Sweet pancakes with shrimp
The currency is Vietnamese Dong and it is terribly undervalued. Dh100 is around 600,000 Dongs. Enough said. Apart from entrance to certain attractions, you would be hard pressed to spend more than Dh100 a day, unless you can't help but be a finicky tourist who deserves an eye roll at the least. But don't bother bringing your dirhams, because most exchanges will not accept them - even after carefully examining the notes like they're from some alien race. Carry US dollars and feel free to spend them, most places will give you your change in Dongs. And the notes go up to denominations of 500,000, so check them before you pay, unless you want to leave someone a very generous tip.
One of HCMC's best-known attractions is actually just outside the city. The Cu Chi Tunnel used to be a strong base for the farmers and locals that took up arms to fight the guerrilla war against the Americans. The tunnels themselves are marvellous; an engineering feat that took 25 years to build and spans several square kilometres underground, replete with kitchens, bunkers, schools, and many, many booby traps. Take the tour and watch the short introductory video to get a sense of how and why these tunnels had to be built, and also learn about the brave men and women - and it was mostly women - who put up one heck of a fight against American chemical weapons and bombs. The ingenious traps and tactical inventions of the Vietnamese fighters are particularly fascinating.
Once you're back in the city, take a dinner cruise down the Saigon river. It's not as touristy as you would think - there are plenty of locals and the food is stellar - and it's a great way to relax, especially with the live entertainment.
Alternatively - or, if you're like me and the night is always 'still young' - you could head down to any one of the party streets. Biu Vien was where our band of travellers ended up and I can't recommend it enough. The music is great, the drinks are endless and cheap and the food is delightful. The streets are filled with a menagerie of tourists and locals, the latter are extremely friendly and often invite tourists walking by, like us, to sit and chat with them. Aforementioned fire-eaters and street performers provide entertainment - only to duck away quickly at the sight of cops, before getting back to the show as if nothing happened. The perfect nightcap.
No trip to Vietnam is complete without a trip down the Mekong. Head to the Mo Tho gateway, which is about a two-hour drive from HCMC, that serves as one of the entry points into the mighty Mekong delta. The many little alcoves and islets on the delta are home to few inhabitants and extensive rice paddies and orchards. Much of the city's produce comes from these parts and it is unbelievably fresh. Most of all, it all tastes like real food!
One of the most striking of our experiences in Vietnam was the invisibility of men. It seemed like the country was run almost exclusively by women. Everything from street side restaurants where they cook and wo-man the cash registers, to the ferry drivers transporting travellers across the river - all industrious, demure and tough women. It certainly is a departure from what we're used to seeing in the Middle East, but something I couldn't admire enough. Dong joked that Vietnamese women would defend their men to the death. I think there is a lot of truth in that, particularly if you had watched the Cu Chi Tunnel video from the day before.
The river cruise in Mo Tho
The ferry we took was, of course, piloted by a lovely lady named Ahn (at least I thought that's what I heard over the din of the engines) who dropped us off at a small province of Mo Tho, where women harvest bee honey, pick many kinds of tropical fruits and make delicious, chewy coconut toffees. Popular amongst tourists is a cruise down the inlets of the Mo Tho river on longboats steered by, you guessed it, women. The old lady perched on the end of our boat looked dainty, but she could probably beat me to a pulp without breaking a sweat. Have I mentioned how much I admire these women? A volley of jokes from Dong ensue.
Women taking tourists back and forth down the inlets of Mo Tho river village
After exploring the delta and the islands, tuck into some fresh river fish at a local restaurant. There are also plenty of markets to explore, which is a good place to get a bowl of Mo Tho soup, served with all sorts of delicious meats for a hearty end to the delta visit.
Elephant fish in Mo Tho village
Prawns cooked in a coconut in Mo Tho village
Everything. Everything in HCMC was worthy of a highlights reel. The food, the people, the green fields, the chaos in the city. Just the feeling of being alive. Side note: don't run across the road when trying to cross. Walk slowly so people can see you and drive around you, instead of into you. Trust me on this.
The values of forgiveness learnt and new perspectives on life gained, Ho Chi Minh City will leave an indelible mark on anyone. The colours, the smells, the sounds and the smiles of people who have been through so much, yet find enough joy to be able to elicit a smile in response is definitely worth fighting for. I, for one, hope that I can go back to this wonderful city, sooner rather than later. Forty-eight hours is just not enough.