Ho Chi Minh City was our first stop on a trip from the south of Vietnam to the north. Formerly known as Saigon, the city is home to eight and a half million people, and is chaotic, vibrant and bewildering. More so when you have just stepped off a plane into 35°c heat and it’s 7am.
After a short bus ride from the airport to Bến Thành market, we grabbed our rucksacks and climbed off the bus straight into the gutter, where an elderly woman was sitting among discarded fruit having her head shaved.
Wearing jeans and warm jumpers, and sweating far more than is socially acceptable, we navigated our way though fifty lanes of weaving traffic and checked into our hotel (the superb-value Town House 23) Our jet lag strategy was to have a couple of hours nap, then face the day. Surprisingly, this worked a treat, and we awoke on time, before heading two minutes around the corner to Maison Marou. Here we sat by the vast copper coffee roaster, sipping on coffee, and poring over the Lonely Planet Guide to plan our time in Vietnam.
The book recommended a restaurant called Secret Garden, which, it turned out, also had a large sign proclaiming where it was. After climbing up four flights of anonymous doorways, we walked out onto the roof, where a few tables overlooked nearby rooftops. We sat at the edge, grazing on Vietnamese food and watching the people opposite sweep their balcony, water their plants and generally keep themselves busy. We finished with our first genuine Vietnamese coffee, which was strong, syrupy, earthy and exactly what we needed to beat jet lag.
French influence is ever-present in Vietnam, with hundreds of leftovers from six decades of French rule. One example is Ho Chi Minh City’s central post office, which was designed by Marie-Alfred Foulhoux. Inside, the arched ceilings are supported with steel girders reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower, which has led to people saying it was designed by Gustave Eiffel. It wasn’t, but we had a good old look at the girders nonetheless.
For dinner that night, we went to a restaurant that was recommended in several places, a place called Nha Hang Ngon, specialising in Vietnamese dishes from across the country. What better place to start our Vietnamese food adventure? It was a beautiful restaurant, with a quiet courtyard complete with fountain in the middle, surrounded by tables in alcoves full of silks, palm trees and soft lighting. We finger-jabbed a mix from the menu without really knowing what we were ordering and every dish was superb. We ended up with a slightly posh array of Vietnamese street food, a mix of lemongrass chicken, spicy beef, pork, tofu and noodles, all washed down with glasses of cold Saigon beer.
Vietnam is sadly a place which has become synonymous with the war. I’m certain the entire conflict is extremely nuanced and complicated, so I won’t go into detail here, but in the north of Ho Chi Minh sits the War Remnants Museum, which is a fascinating, yet harrowing place that explores the conflict and the effect on the people of Vietnam. The square concrete building houses a mix of artefacts, photos and accounts of the war, some more graphic and upsetting that others. I’m not sure if I’m overly sensitive, but it was a little heavy on the gruesome photos, and a little light on information about the political background of the conflict.
Needing cheering up, and needing a positive view of Vietnam-US relations, we headed for the Pasteur Street Brewing Company, a little craft beer brewery who use American craft beer techniques with Vietnamese ingredients. We sat on the roof, sampling little goblets of beer, some of which were better than others, before retiring to our hotel.
On our final day in Ho Chi Minh City we headed for the BitExco Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Vietnam, complete with a helipad cantilevered from the top. Avoiding the touristy viewing deck, we headed for the café a couple of floors below at the top and got a seat by the window. A nice waiter came over to take our order and Nicola decided she fancied a strawberry ice cream.
Both strawberry ice cream and strawberry sorbet were listed on the menu, so Nicola was very careful to indicate that she wanted an ice cream and did not want a sorbet. To make it completely clear that she didn’t want sorbet, she said the word ‘sorbet’ several times, while shaking her head and pointing at the sorbet on the menu. Upon ordering, we sat and watched a storm roll in across the city, and as the sky darkened, the lights of a million tiny mopeds illuminated and swarmed on the roads far below.
As we sat there in awe of the scale of the city, the waiter came over with a very generous portion of strawberry sorbet and placed it very carefully in front of Nicola.
Next stop, Hội An.