Tales from Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Before I talk about Saigon I want to share a cautionary tale about the importance of checking your visa dates before you attempt to cross into Vietnam. I’m about to make a long story short (first time for everything).

We went to the Vietnam embassy in Vancouver in November to arrange for our 3-month visas. They arrived in the mail, we tucked them in with our passports and never gave them another thought.  Four days ago, we discovered our visas had been incorrectly dated – to end May 2018 (not 2017). This did not sit well with the border guards, who took over  an hour and a half to determine what to do with us. In that time, we a) held up our bus and our fellow travellers while they waited for us, b) entered a Kafkaesque state of despair and fear as the guard holding our passports and visas had disappeared and no-one knew where he was, and c) discovered what breaking the rules in a socialist republic country feels like (hint: no need to try this yourselves). Finally, an English-speaking official was called in on her day off, it was determined we posed no threat, a work-around was figured out and we were on our way.

This inauspicious start to our six weeks in Vietnam was soon forgotten as we neared Saigon’s downtown. Among the mad swarm of motorcycles that buzzed around our bus was this rider and his eager little passenger.

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You know how you visit a new place and complete strangers offer you a place to stay for a week? No? Well, this happened to us – and while the Chute family are not complete strangers – they are friends of friends – we had never met each other.  I have a deep-seated worry about putting anyone out, so the idea of doing anything more than meeting them for dinner made me uncomfortable.

Lisa, Tim and their son Simon moved to Saigon seven months ago to begin their new life there with an international school. They live in a beautiful, leafy area of the city with a park across the street and a landscaped canal running beside a main shopping street.

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Before we knew it, we were ensconced in their home (on our very own floor) and I was having my hair cut at Lisa’s hairdresser.  Tim took my misbehaving computer to his workplace (it is now fixed), and Lisa took us out on an insider tour of Saigon.

Their incredible hospitality has been a highlight of the trip for us, and best part – they are now our new friends.

The Chute family and friend Sierra about to enjoy fabulous pho at one of their favourite restaurants.

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We’ve told you about the legendary traffic in SEAsia, but Vietnam probably earns top spot for sheer volume. We’ve navigated the roads all the way along, but I was having difficulty understanding why I wouldn’t be  run over. Surely there would be at least one biker with a grudge against Westerners? Someone texting or eating or carrying parcels and children while driving with their knees?  But no, as with the other countries, there is a flow and Lisa explained it perfectly.”Think of it as the river and the rocks. The motorcycles are the river – you move through slowly and they flow around you like water. Anything bigger is a rock – they are immovable – you wait and walk around them.”  For all of you who have been here already – you know this. For anyone else contemplating a visit here – pay heed. This tip is the exact image you need to be safe and confident on the roads.

In this clip below, our strategy would be to wait until the crush of bikes went by, look for a break in the traffic, and wade through.

So…on to Saigon and our impressions. I’m calling it Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City because that is what most Vietnamese call it.  Also, I like the name Saigon – it conjures up romance and history and danger.

Our immediate impressions of Saigon have  been overwhelmingly positive. Of course – it is a massive city – I’ve heard anywhere from ten to fourteen million people, but the areas most tourists want to visit cover a small, almost entirely walkable part of the city called District 1. The impressive skyline is dominated by the distinctive lotus-shaped Bitexco Financial Tower with a skydeck jammed into one side.

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This is the view from 68 floors up; a city with moderate high-rises, bisected by the Mekong, and intersected with numerous canals.

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The joy of Saigon is how they have combined their modern growth with respect for heritage architecture, which leads to some intriguing sightlines of old and new. Every street brings another perspective and strolling down the alleyways could keep a visitor occupied for days.

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Lisa took us past the big French influences – the Notre Dame Basilica…

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…around the corner to the Central Post Office.

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The interior of the grand concourse have painted maps of South Vietnam and Saigon, as well as a prominent portrait of “Uncle Ho.”

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Ho Chi Minh is a revered figure among the Vietnamese people – his vision of a united Vietnam was shared by all and his portraits and statues are everywhere. Here, he stands guard in front of the City Hall.  Between the City Hall and the Mekong River is a magnificent pedestrian-only promenade.

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This area is fronted by elegant shops and old hotels, such as the Rex Hotel, which had a cherry red Maserati in front of it the day we walked by.

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Most of our friends would love this next stop. There is a delightful small street that is dedicated to bookstores. Just bookstores and coffeeshops – all set on a quiet, shady street – can you imagine anything nicer in the middle of a busy city?

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Saigon is full of trees and parks and places to find a bit of solitude.

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There is so much to take in here – I think Saigon is a city that needs a fair bit of time to begin to understand and discover. We can hit the main tourist spots, but without our insider knowledge, would we have discovered the bookshop street? We are only here for another day and there is so much more to talk about, but I wanted our first blog posting to be about the city and the people.

Some fellow travellers have told us they found Vietnamese to be rude and not that friendly. We have encountered exactly the opposite, and I’ll give you a few examples.

A couple of days ago as we were waiting for our bus to take us downtown, I struck up a conversation with an elegant Vietnamese woman who spoke English and French and who had an interesting story to tell. She lived in New Caledonia, a French Island in the South Pacific, until 1964, at the age of six, she moved back to Vietnam with her parents. That simple fact hung there in the air, as it carried so much potential information about her life. It isn’t appropriate to start grilling people about their experiences during the “American War of Aggression, but like Cambodia, you can’t help but look at anyone of a certain age and wonder what burden they carry.

This lady, Huan, carries her life with grace. She invited us to have coffee at her son’s restaurant, and we were honoured to be asked. We were joined by her friend, who is a Saigon native and retired architect, but for all her urban polish has retained the charming habit of cooking up food (in this case, a sweet potato) and bringing it in a little baggie to share.

Huan (by the wall) with her friend.

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Huan’s son owns three restaurants called Modern Meets Culture – http://m2ccafe.com
They are very modern indeed – he is also an architect and designer. Lisa told us about the phenomenon of the Việt Kiều – the “overseas Vietnamese” who left the country after 1975 for Los Angeles, and whose U.S.-educated children are now returning back to their country as adults. They are bringing new life, entrepreneurial ideas and cash infusions into Saigon – many of them are barely in their 30’s. That, combined with the fact that foreign investment is strictly curtailed, is helping Vietnam prosper and grow independently.

Many of the Vietnamese are quite curious about us and are quite funny. We were at the Museum of Fine Art yesterday when we came upon this scene:

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We stopped to take photos as well, thinking this might be a Vietnamese celebrity, but it was just a fashion shoot. We were turning away when the photographer in the white shirt caught sight of Stephen. He could not believe his eyes, “What a beard you have – can I take a photo to show my brother?” He explained that Asian men can’t grow beards and they are fascinated by them. He took a few shots from different angles – how I wish I had my wits about me to take a photo of Stephen’s expression!

While we were in the museum (more about that in the next posting), we met one of the artists whose works were on display as part of the “Hanoi artists” exhibition. We were especially drawn to his work as it was contemporary and strongly influenced by water. His name is Nguyen Van Trung and our conversation with him was though his interpreter. I told him I was interested in seeing art created after the war, and what those influences would look like. He talked about the “aloneness” of humanity and how that can be both painful and peaceful. It was such a pleasure to be able to converse a bit, since language is obviously a complete obstacle to getting to know anyone here, unless they speak English.
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And the food! Our first dinner out was with Lisa at The Secret Garden – discovered by walking down an alley, up five grotty flights of stairs to a garden-like setting, with simply delicious food. We would never have found it on our own. That is our goal – spend the next five weeks searching out the local gems.

Lisa snapped this shot of us at the Secret Garden on our way out.

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I have so much more to share about this beautiful city – the War Remnants Museum and  Reunification Palace deal with the American War, and that is an inevitable part of travel through Vietnam. But there is a whole lot more – Saigon looks to the future, not to the past.