The Hectic Haze Of Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City
There are few cities in the world with the same exotic draw as Ho Chi Minh City. Steeped in war only 30 years ago, it's still got a sort of off-the-beaten-track allure to it that's hard to pin down. I traveled there to explore its nooks, crannies, corners and fascinating relics from decades gone by. What I found was a medley of French colonial treats, sizzling street food markets, wild evenings filled with homemade whiskey, uber-friendly locals, and a hectic haze of urban energy. Read on for more…
I emerge from the overnight bus. My head's heavy and my legs feel like they've just popped out of an overly-tight sleeping bag. I bend my knees with a crunch and a click, and rub my eyes to take in my first glimpse of sleepless Ho Chi Minh City. It's a far cry from the sandy stretches and rolling waves of Mui Ne, and nothing like lazy Da Lat, where the scents of coffee drifted down to meandering rivers weaving between the hills.
It's throbbing. Throbbing with the purr of tuk-tuk drivers whizzing this way and that down the boulevards. Throbbing with the nectar scents of blond flowers that sway in the small parklands behind me. Throbbing with the patter of millions of feet as they course up and down the pavements. Throbbing with the morning smells of sizzling fried rice, or the overhang of pho broths from the evening before. Throbbing with energy; with life, pandemonius life.
My first task is to find somewhere to stay. I consult the dog-eared Lonely Planet. It directs me across a river-like road where the water is hulking buses and trucks and streams of growling motorbikes, and into the warren of streets that is, apparently, HCMC's main backpacker district. I obey.
I'm soon dodging the carapaces of metal automobiles. Jumping like Frogger as I navigate the roads of the great city. Then I'm on the far side, passing beer bars where locals cluster and chat with ebony coffees in the shade. Then I'm lost down an alleyway, high apartment blocks looming on all sides, rows of washing strung out between the windows of each one.
A labyrinth this District 1 might be, but trusty LP never fails. I'm soon rapping at the door of a recommended aparthotel, ready to dump my bags and kick back. The smiling face of a Vietnamese local appears in the misted glass of the door. It flings open. I'm inside, wrapped in greetings and handshakes and happy vibes. There's a room ready for me, of course. My bags are down in a jiffy. There's a moment of calm. But the megalopolis of Saigon breaths outside.
I have to admit it: My dreams were of the South China Sea. I was back in Nha Trang again, watching the palms sway in the salty breezes along the promenade, sipping uber-cheap beer as the shore waters crashed against an arc of shimmering golden sand. When I wake, it's just the sound of the honking, the hooting, the petrol rumbles, and the clang of pots and pans that echoes around my room. I'm suddenly back in Ho Chi Minh. Suddenly aware that I'd traded the ocean for the frenetic metropolis only hours earlier when I stepped of that bus.
But cities are a different adventure. I sling my day pack over my back and hit the mad streets once again. It's still pulsing. It's still alive with the smells of ginger and chili and slow-cooked pork cuts ready for the evening broths. There are people everywhere, weaving like ants through this concrete colony.
I make for Ben Thanh Market. Glided by a glowing white French tower, it's easy to spot. Clusters of motorbikes hug the building's exterior, others whirl by as they speed over the pot-holed road and out into the urban mass of skyscrapers beyond. As I dip behind the arches of the outdoor arcades and into the heart of the bazaar, I become aware of the sheer cacophony of the place. Stalls, ramshackle stalls, occupy every corner and concourse. Some tout multicolored Buddha effigies, others jangling trinkets emblazoned with Ho Chi Minh – the communist leader, not the city.
Then there are the food sellers. Crammed into nooks and crannies, wedged into every alcove you can imagine, they steam and smoke and clang their stainless-steel pots, cooking up a storm of crunchy spring rolls, banh xe dough cakes, grilled octopus legs (eight in a serving), banh canh cua – a blend of tapioca paste and noodles with the spice cranked up to astronomical levels.
I settle for a vegetarian rendition of the traditional banh mi. It's a hangover of the French colonial days, and something of a favorite of travelers in Vietnam – perhaps the crunchy baguette offers a nostalgic taste of home. It's packed with slices of cucumber and tomato, lemongrass infuses the lot, and those ubiquitous sweet-strong chili slices are laid on top. I stroll as I eat it, and wallow in the pizzazz of this sprawling marketplace.
As my banh mi dwindles to crumbs, and I'm reinvigorated by the spicy panache of the sandwich, I form a plan to check off two of Ho Chi Minh City's main sights this afternoon. First up is the Nha tho Duc Ba Sai Gon – that's the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon to you and me.
It's not hard to find. A quick wander up the hillsides from the marketplace at Ben Thanh should get you there. It stands tall and proud against a backdrop that's typically HCMC: currents of scooters crammed into narrow roads, trees shooting high straight from the concrete pavements (many people say this looks like a metropolis sprouting in a jungle), and rows of noodle vendors cramming around the blocks outside.
The building itself is noticeably French. In fact, it looks just like its namesake Notre Dame back between the streets of Paris' Latin Quarter. Only this one's a little newer, surprisingly cleaner, and much smaller than its UNESCO counterpart. I get chatting to a local who tells me the whole thing was built from materials imported from Toulouse in the 1880s. It's an impressive feat, I think, or perhaps a reminder of just how much Vietnam's erstwhile colonists felt they needed to stamp their mark on the nation's fabric.
I'm also told of a mysterious statue that stands out front. Predictably, it's of the Virgin Mary. The city's most pious devotees say that this very effigy was spotted shedding tears back in 2005, and petitions were made to the Vatican to proclaim a miracle. Nothing followed, but the monument remains and important gathering point for Christians in the metropolis.
My next stop lurks just behind the curious Francophone cathedral of Notre Dame. An altogether different attraction, it's the grand Reunification Palace, once Independence Palace, that stands watch over the city in the very heart of its politico district.
I'm too young to remember the end of the destructive, 20-year-long, Vietnam War. For many travelers to erstwhile Saigon it's a palpable specter looming over it all. Before 1975, this whole city was under the joint control of South Vietnam and de facto American forces. That all ended with the momentous Fall of Saigon in April that year, when tanks crashed through the gates of this symbolic municipal hub. What followed was the victory of the North's communist forces, and the reunification of the country under the banner of Ho Chi Minh the revolutionary.
It's easy to see why the place is now so famous. I couldn't resist catching a glimpse. I found it thronged with tourists and guards. There's a replica tank still perched on the frontal lawn, and now clutches of swaying palm trees that belie the more stable era the country now finds itself in.
I decide to go inside. It's rated as one of the top museums in the city, and it doesn't disappoint. I get to see the very room where the Viet Cong finally consolidated control in 1975, and I get to see the helipads on the roof from which the last American troops, diplomats, generals and citizens were evacuated in a hurry as the armies of the north snapped at their tails.
As I emerge, I think of the tumultuous past of old Saigon. I think of the coups and counter coups that have unraveled here. I think of the war games that were planned in the rooms of the great Independence Palace behind me. I think of all the lives that were caught up, lost, and affected by the struggles. I think of the direction of the new Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City, and how it now pulses with energy at every turn. It seems a suitable outcome that the place is now flourishing once more. It seems right that life now fills every corner of the metropolis, and that it is looking forward to a new age, not back to the haunting one that's past.
It's night time. Plumes of steam are rising from the alleyways. Endless bursts of tooting horns are rebounding down the side streets. There are smoky cookhouses in the shadows, and crooked bodies hunched in the corners, chattering, laughing, smoking, eating. I'm wandering down the narrow roads that shoot off Phạm Ngu Lao Street. It's Ho Chi Minh's bustling epicenter of action in the night, and a veritable hub for backpacker parties and expat meetups.
This is the stomping ground of the iconic Bia hoi beer bar. Often little more than a shack and a bent-double Asian babushka serving uber-cheap beers to the thousands of vest-touting backpackers who settle on her lopsided chairs and tables each night, they are something of a rite of passage for night owls in HCMC. They offer the revelers of District 1 a place to start – and often finish – their nights on the town. People come here to imbibe Saigon's top brews before shooting off to the curious cowboy-themed nightclubs and karaoke dives that pepper the boulevards elsewhere in this seething morass of a metropolis.
I dutifully take my seat. I'm soon sipping a frothy glass of hoppy beer amongst a crowd of chattering American backpackers. The conversation flows almost as quickly as the booze. It's the usual: Where we've been; where we're going; where we want to go; what we plan on doing in Ho Chi Minh. But the atmosphere's easy and there's plenty of street watching to keep me going as I sip and roll the chat out. There are motorbikes buzzing left and right, and sizzling street stalls that spurt miasmas of soy-scented smoke into the darkening airs. There are much worse places to be stuck with the infamous 'backpacker chat', I think.
Leaving behind the Bia hoi bar, I attach myself to a group of other travelers who are making for a local club. It's gaudy and glitzy and packed with ping pong table and pinball machines. That seems like the norm in these parts, and it's certainly part of the charm. I'm sipping strong whiskey cocktails as the night descends and the streets return to their neon glow. I'm dancing to 80s Europop echoing out on a muffled speaker system. I'm taken over by the haze of the night; the darker, nocturnal spirit of mighty Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City is just one of the awesome metropolises and Vietnamese highlights that we visit on our acclaimed Vietnam Explorer itinerary. Allowing you 19 days to flit between the beaches and old monuments of this awesome nation, it also includes stops in Da Lat, the mountain town, Nha Trang, for parties on the South China Sea, and fabled Ha Long bay, a wondrous UNESCO World Heritage Site in the north. What are you waiting for?