Experience Travel

Being Miss Saigon

A Banh Mi sandwich kiosk

A Banh Mi sandwich kiosk  

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Travels around Vietnam’s largest city are an exploration of sights, history and food in equal measure

The first thing that one notices in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City is its people. The teeming multitudes are everywhere (much like India). And even though there are lots of them, there is a kind of silent acceptance of order (very unlike India). Rules, discipline — these words kept coming to my mind as I spent a week in erstwhile Saigon. Even though there is happiness, and one can sense it in the common folk, it’s still a controlled celebration of it.

Favourite with Indians

Vietnam is gradually making it to the map of the offbeat Indian traveller. But while Hanoi and Ha Long Bay attract most interest, I would strongly recommend delving into urban living in Ho Chi Minh City, to get a true feel of the country. And that’s exactly what we did earlier this year. Our plan was to soak in the city’s hues and pleasures much like a local. We skipped staying in one of the many backpacker hotels and camped instead in a charming studio apartment on Nguyễn Cu Vân, 15 minutes away from the city centre. Choosing to live here opened us up to a delicious mix of French-Vietnamese culture, without the commercialism that comes with tourism. We also witnessed first-hand how the locals are steadily moving towards increased economic activity.

Being Miss Saigon

A former French colony and evolving Communist country, Vietnam has in less than 30 years ironed out its bloody history with the US, and has even started emulating its capitalistic ways. It’s giving tough competition to India in manufacturing (Vietnam exports 10 times the number of electronics as us). And with a three-year successive growth rate of 6%, is fast emerging as an economy to watch out for in Southeast Asia, along with Laos and Cambodia.

Vietnam stands at the cusp of economic explosion. The old colonial buildings surrounding the replica of the Parisian Notre-Dame Basilica are now offices housing smartly dressed young men and women. At any given time, you’ll find hundreds of two-wheelers on the streets stopping obediently at red lights and then whizzing past in an orderly fashion. Vietnam is growing and its pace is palpable to the discerning traveller.

The vibe in Ho Chi Minh City is buoyant. A lot has been achieved, a lot remains. And Vietnam is moving fast. But along with this pace, the Vietnamese also believe in enjoying the simple pleasures of life. A few hours are spent every day at the numerous roadside cafés, serving the most delectable Vietnamese coffee or drinking some chilled Tiger beers (with extra ice!), along with a lunch of beef pho. And there’s always a smoke or two to go with it. The mandatory visit to the War Remnants Museum and Independence Palace provide a window to the war-ravaged country and its painful past. Once the history has been learnt, there’s little else to do but soak in the city’s spirit. And if food is your God, then you’re on a culinary pilgrimage.

Clams in a lemon grass and basil broth

Clams in a lemon grass and basil broth  

From the numerous cafés dotting every street, small or large, to the cheerful ladies selling delicious banh mi sandwiches out of makeshift kiosks, Ho Chi Minh City is a food lover’s delight. Every meal is an orchestra of flavours — whether it’s the noodle soup (pho) or crunchy French-inspired banh mi sandwiches made of baguettes filled with roast chicken, beef, duck, pork or ham and accompanied by tangy pickles; food in Ho Chi Minh City is an Epicurean’s journey. From clams in sweet lemon grass and coriander-infused broth to the more adventurous fried frog, the city’s flavours will joyously tease the palate.

Ho Chi Minh City and its people also give lessons on how to enjoy this most basic but essential necessity of life. The cafés are unhurried, serving complimentary jasmine tea steeped in ice to cool off from the humidity outside. There is work to be done, but it can wait during lunch. Most people take a lunch break spanning a few hours, while they sit with friends around low plastic tables on the streets. There’s always a walk down the river or even a boat cruise to change the mood. For a night out, the backpacker’s street, at Pham Ngu Lao Street, with its raw energy and loud music, is perfect. There is at once so much to do and then nothing at all. Living in the city comes so easily, that when the time comes to leave, you’ll be surprised that Ho Chi Minh City has already etched a place in your heart.

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Printable version | Dec 11, 2019 7:32:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/travels-around-vietnams-largest-city-are-an-exploration-of-sights-history-and-food-in-equal-measure/article20003882.ece

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