If I could describe Ho Chi Minh City in one word, it would be ‘mad’. Sometimes overwhelming, its swirl of colour and cacophony of car horns is something which assaults all of your senses. Aromatic and inviting smells waft from street food stalls, intermixed with the volatile smell of petrol exhaust from a legion of mopeds. Crossing the road is at first an act of bravery, feeling you’re putting your life at risk each time you do so as you weave your way through the fleet of scooters and bikes and taxis. After a while, however, you realise that there is order in the apparent chaos, a rhythm to the beating heart of the city. You just have to stick around long enough to discover it for yourself.
The first morning I woke up in HCMC, I was pretty jetlagged, but this was much outweighed by a desire to explore. I went down to breakfast, leaving my friends to sleep, grabbed a map of the city from reception and set off into the alley and the unknown urban expanse of Saigon. By chance, I happened to bump into a couple of travellers – Austrian and Swiss – before I reached the market at the mouth of our alley. I asked to tag along with them, they agreed and together we explored the city.
First we went to the flower market, strolling through a rainbow of blooms, of sweet smelling lillies and elegant orchids, of giant bonsai trees and lucky trees with yellow flowers adorned with gold decorations for Tet, the lunar new year. Then onto Ben Thanh market, a riot of stalls hawking their wares, each storeholder imploring you to look, to try on, to buy. Then to the City Hall, an impressive building sat at the back of a wide open plaza lined with trees and flowers with a statue of Ho Chi Minh himself, hand extended in beautific greeting. A Vietnamese man approached us here; at first we weren’t really sure what he wanted but it became apparent that he just wanted to practice his English. Then to Notre Dame Cathedral, which we didn’t enter, and to the Post Office, which we could, an impressive sunshine yellow building inside which contained a quiet and orderly hive of productivity. We stopped for a Vietnamese coffee – strong and sweet – before moving on to the War Remnants Museum after having breaked for lunch (rice soup) and to look at the Reunification Palace on the outside.
The War Remnants Museum was such an interesting, yet harrowing, experience. Squirrels scurried among the trees above tanks, guns, boats and planes, painted black, mute monstrous monuments to the horrors inflicted on a whole people. Although I’d learnt about the Vietnam War, facts and figures, in history, some of the photos in the museum were truly disturbing, especially in the ‘War Crimes’ sectjon and of the aftermath of the chemical warfare, such as the use of ‘Agent Orange’ – these chemicals damaged their very DNA. I think what tugged at my heartstrings most though, despite all of the vivid atrocities committed, was the pictures of the next generation, the disabled children, whose ‘instinct for life’ and ‘joy of living’ kept their parents going. The next day, my friends and I visited the History Museum, which contains artefacts from prehistoric times right up until the end of the Nguyen dynasty in 1945. Walking through the rooms, through various ages, cultures, occupations and dynasties, it struck me just how many times Vietnam has been invaded: literally again and again and again. You start to develop a better understanding of the Vietnamese people, of their pride, determination and fierce independance.
Another section of the museum displayed cultures from Southern provinces and various Asian countries. Avalokitesvera, Surya, Lokesvara and Buddha statues stood and sat in silent rows, some missing limbs, fingers, heads, representing cultures that long ago faded into the past. Other figures, made of wood, were almost fading away into the room, peaceful smiles on faces blurred by wind and water. At the back of the museum was a water puppet workshop, crammed with puppets of people and animals, their brightly painted faces glowing eerily in the gloom. From behind the workshop, I could see the rehearsal for a performance, water shimmering through the mesh of the set, oriental staccatos drifting through a stage door which stood slightly ajar. We then went to the Hùng Kings Temple on the other side of the Botanical Gardens. I took my shoes off, feeling the cool stone against my feet and breathing in the soft spicy smell of incense. The setting sun streamed in through the windows, sending golden shafts of light in dappled patterns onto the stone floor.
Our last day in the city was spent visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the guerillas of the Viet Cong had operated and lived during the Vietnam War. Although it was really interesting going down into the tunnels – it is so claustrophobic down there and it’s amazing that people lived in these conditions for so long – the whole thing felt way too touristy. You are sheperded round in small flocks like sheep when it would have been nicer to go at your own pace and it seems a bit in poor taste to have a shooting range on site. Watching people take smiling selfies with tank almost made a mockery of the whole thing, at least for me. However, enroute to the tunnels, we stopped off at a workshop where people were sat in rows making intricate mosaics from tiny pieces of eggshell and delicately cut pieces of mother of pearl. It was beautifully done and obviously took a lot of skill and attention to detail.
That evening, my friend and I went to go and seek some good food in the street food stalls next to Ben Tranh. By night, the streets were thronged with people, many of whom were Vietnamese on holiday for the new year. There was such a relaxed and happy vibe, neon lights twinkling in a sparkling manic city. We finally stopped on the other side of the market at a place crammed with people and hung with brightly coloured lanterns. In front was a load of containers with live crabs and even a turtle, which made us really sad to see. We stood around trying to get a table until eventually a lady showed us a tiny space where we could slot in. Everything looked and smelled amazing, so we ordered a heap of stuff to share, pork and Vietnamese spring rolls and ‘banh xeo’. I think the Vietnamese ladies next to us felt a bit sorry for us – they had just watched us cut (mangle) a spring roll in half with a spoon – because before we knew it, one of them had snapped a claw each off their own crab, spooned over some sauce and pushed it in our direction. Although we refused politely, she insisted and it was absolutely incredible – beautifully cooked crab in a sweet almost smoky spicy sauce. Then, after we’d finished our meal, she handed over two steaming bowls of a fish broth, containing king prawn, squid and clams – it was honestly one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and by far the best in Ho Chi Minh City.
So, yes, the city is mad. It definitely took a lot of getting used to and figuring out how everything works. But there are pockets of peace there, in gardens and temples and under bridges, where we once saw a family having a small diner party. And there is a distinctive buzz of happiness, of kindness and motivation and generosity. What I would say about Ho Chi Minh City is to perserve: first impressions are not everything.