Good Morning Vietnam

Good morning Vietnam! The 1987 film starring Robin Williams was all I knew about Vietnam. But having visited Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), over Christmas last year, my vision and knowledge of this highly underrated country has been enriched and widened. Located in the southeastern region of Vietnam, Saigon can be best described as an eclectic mix of the old and new. It is a fast growing commercial center pulsating with life and energy. Here’s my take on Saigon and what it meant to me.

One of my first experiences of Saigon as I left the airport was the city’s traffic. For me, it was almost like a homecoming. Akin to India’s chaotic road traffic, Saigon’s roads are a sight to behold. Long winding lanes of motorbikes, bumper-to-bumper traffic, cyclos and cyclists meandering through the maze, cars honking, drivers screaming, sudden jolts and brakes and that’s Saigon’s infamous traffic for you. The good thing about Ho Chi Minh’s chock-a-block traffic is that it gave me ample time to connect with the city’s character and its varied sights and sounds. It was interesting to watch the motorcyclists cleverly navigate through the sea of vehicles and how footpaths turned into motorbike lanes. I saw nondescript little wooden shops selling textiles seated right next to a glitzy mall with flashing neon signboards and glass facades; gourmet restaurants just a few yards away from the street-side pho shops; and government buildings in peaceful coexistence with commercial complexes. Having lived in India for over 25 years these images weren’t out of the ordinary for me, but it was certainly a stark contrast from the traffic free, super clean, and highly organized city of Singapore, which is where I currently live.

There are several things to see in Saigon. You can embark on the War Trail and visit the war museum, cu chi tunnels, and the reunification palace or you can head out of city and take a canal boat ride on the legendary Mekong River. If you have a penchant for pagodas, there are several temples you could visit in the city or you could hop over to Notre Dame Cathedral. You can shop for local handicrafts, textiles, and gourmet food products or you could sit back and enjoy a water puppetry show.  So here’s what was on my itinerary.

Based on research and hearsay, the Reunification Palace seemed to be a “must-see” destination and that was where I was headed on the first day of my Vietnam vacation. Apparently, the Palace is the most important historic landmark in Saigon as it marked the reunification of North and South Vietnam.  After the French left Vietnam, the country was split into North Vietnam, controlled by the communists, and South Vietnam controlled by US-backed Vietnamese leaders. In 1975 the North Vietnamese army tanks crashed through the gates of the palace, marking the fall of the South Vietnamese government and well in a sense, the fall of Saigon; hence the term reunification palace. Given that the palace was the South Vietnam President’s residence and workplace during the American-Vietnam war you will find conference rooms, meeting rooms, entertainment lounges, a library, the palace kitchen, and of course war command rooms. It was like being in a time machine where time stood still. The furniture and artifacts were of a bygone era and you could almost picture the scenes of that period. The best part of the palace tour was the tunnels in the basement, which had previously served as the President’s war command station. Telecommunication equipment, maps, and projectors have all been preserved and it’s almost eerie to walk through those dark corridors.

The second hop over was the War Remnants Museum. Now this is certainly not a place for the faint hearted. The museum has exhibited proof of the Vietnam War and its horrific consequences. There are not only remnants of artillery, tanks, arms and ammunition but also gruesome pictures of war crimes meted out by American soldiers against Vietnamese civilians. The most profound exhibits were a series of photographs depicting the horrid consequences of Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a toxic dioxin used by the US military forces to wipe out forest cover that helped the enemy to hide.  However, the herbicide did more damage than that. It caused birth deformities amongst the Vietnamese civilians and the photographs in the War Remnants museum are testimony to the terrible consequences of the war.

After the War Remnants Museum I didn’t have an appetite left for visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is usually popular amongst the tourists. Instead, I opted for a more pleasant, cultural, and entertaining experience – the Vietnamese water puppet show. Water puppetry is more widespread in Hanoi than in Saigon, but there are a few places that stage the water puppetry show to cater to the Ho Chi Minh tourists. Having read mixed reviews about the water puppetry show I wasn’t sure as to what to expect. But I was delighted beyond belief! The water puppetry show is one of the most unique cultural shows that I have ever seen. Puppeteers stand behind a screen in a waist deep pool of water and control the wooden lacquered puppets with bamboo rods. None of this is visible to the audience and it appears like the puppets are floating on water. The performance is accompanied by music rendered by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra. Although the performance is delivered in Vietnamese, it is easy to understand the story. The most common themes center on day-to-day rural living including fishing, reaping a harvest, attending a royal procession, watching dragons fight, etc. This is a must-see if you are visiting Vietnam.

No trip is complete for me if it does not include shopping.  I’m not a chronic shopaholic but I just love picking out souvenirs and artifacts for my home from every place I visit. The Ben Thanh Market in downtown Saigon is the one-stop place for souvenirs and knick-knacks. The market sells local handicrafts such as figurines of Vietnamese women in the traditional “au dai” costume and conical hat, metal and cane representations of the famous cyclo (a cross between a bicycle and a trishaw), lacquered boxes and vases in the most vibrant hues, paintings of rural Vietnamese life in muted tones, silk handbags with colorfully embroidered motifs, and eclectic hand-made jewelry. You will also find a section dedicated to flowers, fruits, ceramic ware, and food.  Walking through the narrow aisles of the cool market one can’t help but take in the aroma of coffee beans that wafts through the air. A coffee kit makes the perfect take-home gift and you can ask coffee sellers in the market for any quantity of coffee that you wish to take home with you. Coconut candy, preserved fruits, and tangy tamarind sweets are also one-of-a-kind and worth a try.

If you are looking for high fashion and off-beat stores then a stroll down Dhong Khoi is worth your time. Dhong Khoi is a shopping strip in Downtown Ho Chi Minh and houses some of the top Vietnamese fashion labels. Tastefully done up stores sport very classy silk scarves, blouses and au dais while some stores stock the most unusual and  captivating works of art.

I wouldn’t be doing justice to Saigon if I didn’t mention the wonderful Vietnamese cuisine that I had the pleasure of sampling while I was there. If you love beef and pork then you will love Vietnam. Beef is almost found in every dish from noodles (also known as pho) to rice. There are various types of restaurants, eateries, and cafes in Ho Chi Minh and there is no dearth of choice for foodies. Quirky cafes are aplenty and street side pho stalls are highly popular with the locals. During lunch hour, it is a common sight to see Ho Chi Minh’s corporate executives with rolled up sleeves, squatting on a small stool in front of a low table on the pavement, slurping up piping hot bowls of pho. Alternatively, they head to the nearest Pho 24 outlet for their steamy bowl of noodles. Pho 24 is a popular local fast food chain that serves nothing but noodles of various types. As for me, I headed to Lemon Grass and Vietnam House. Both the restaurants serve excellent Vietnamese fare and don’t cause a dent in your wallet. The ambiance is wonderful and the food is sumptuous. Vietnamese fried rice is light and tasty and pairs well with silky tofu in soy sauce. The vegetarian noodles were quite novel and the banana fritters and coconut ice cream whets your appetite for more. The perfect end to a hearty meal is a cup of Vietnamese coffee, which consists of a dollop of condensed milk topped with freshly brewed coffee.

Saigon is a wonderful, bustling, and pulsating city. It brings to mind evocative images whether it is svelte Vietnamese women in au dais’, elderly ladies in conical hats peddling wares, street side pho shops, or a cyclo trudging along a cramped and crowded alley. You just can’t get enough of the Saigon kick. 😉

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