City chaos meets old world charm PDF Print E-mail

Three days in one of the world's liveliest cities.

Ho Chi Minh City is a city that never sleeps.

As the taxi weaves its way through motorbikes, trucks and cyclists navigating the busy inner-city junctions between the airport and the old part of town in the hours before midnight, I get my first fleeting glimpses of life in Vietnam’s cultural heart.

The blaring horns, neon lights and humidity infiltrate the cab until I’m intoxicated by this South East Asian city, a place where history emanates from the colonial architecture of the Dong Khoi area with its majestic hotels to the youthful embrace of Western technologies and style in the shopping megamalls of the Diamond or Parkson plazas.   

While the country may be more well-known for its bloody past and political ideologies, it is fast becoming recognised as a city that is alive and kicking, and it is experiencing a renaissance of sorts.

Sitting at the Allez Boo cafe in the Pham Ngu Lao area on the morning after my arrival, I watch as middle-aged women wearing the traditional conical hats of the rice fields sell cigarettes, bracelets and scarves to Western tourists while tour bus drivers manoeuvre the limited space on De Tham Street amid a constant buzzing of passing motorbikes.

Tucking into a big breakfast of hash browns (curly fries), bacon, fried eggs and fried tomatoes, I’m steeling myself, both in body and mind, to cross the street. While it may not seem like much of a big deal in any other city it is in HCMC, where traffic lights for pedestrians are a wasted luxury in the old part of town. Here, you brave oncoming traffic and hope no one hits you. Simple enough in theory, but not so much when faced with the prospect of either impending death or a seriously annoying injury that would see the remaining part of your holiday in a crowded hospital room.

Hot tip: get behind an older local and walk when they walk. The Vietnamese are apparently quite respectful of their elders so it is universally known (mostly by other wary travellers on travel forums) that motorbikes are less likely to hit you when faced with the prospect of hitting a respectable senior citizen. Unfortunately for me there weren’t any older citizens wanting to cross the road when I did, only other tourists looking as sceptical about getting to the other side of the road as me.

Enter Vietnam’s tourist police, who politely stopped traffic and watched as the now large group of tourists, power walked their way to safety.
While you can find people smoking, driving, drinking or eating at most times of the day or night, HCMC can also be described as a city on the move.

Moving swiftly away from its colonial and bloody past to a future of its own making, this growing South East Asian city offers one hell of a ride for those looking to immerse themselves in the heady romance of Saigon with the fast and furious pace of today’s HCMC.

Saigon is a name that conjures up a jumble of images – American GIs lounging around hotel lobbies, jasmine incense filling the air at ancient pagodas and teeming markets full of spices and silk – and you can still find the last lingering wafts of this around District 3, which is also where you will find one of Vietnam’s biggest tourist attractions – the War Remnants Museum on Vo Van Tan Street.

Arguably the city’s most popular museum, this testament to the brutality of war is not for the faint-hearted. The stomach churning images of human embryos in jars, burnt human remains, and children deformed from the effects of Agent Orange, are an eye-opening reminder of Vietnam’s bloody past, the scars of which you can still glimpse in the country and its people.

After the grisly museum, I head back towards my hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao area with a quick stop on Tran Hung Dao to book a day trip for my second day in HCMC. What makes this city great and well worth visiting isn’t just the feeling of energy that infuses each sidewalk and street with activity, but the number of adventures you can see and do while based in HCMC.

There are trips to the azure waters of Phu Quoc Island or the Long Tan and Nui Dat battlefield (a must-see trip for Australians interested in the Vietnam War) as well as half-day tours to the Cu Chi underground tunnels and further afield to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple, where Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed.

I settle on a full day trip to the mighty Mekong Delta, a tourist favourite, to sample the simple life on and along the river.

I get picked up bright and early by my tour guide and driver along with a young American couple and an older Singaporean couple for a taste of life along Vietnam’s ‘rice basket,’ a landscape of rich green fields and brown canals which has fed and sustained its inhabitants for centuries.

After a leisurely longtail boat ride across the brown waters of the Mekong, our tour guide ushered us into an open air room where we sampled locally made coconut candy and what I had been really looking forward to tasting when I came to Vietnam – snake wine.

The Vietnamese put snakes in jars of alcohol and leave them to pickle for several months, which not only kills the poison of the Cobra snake contained within but also the nasty sting of the scorpion which shares the cosy confines of the same jar. The resulting liquid, with the pungent juices of the dead reptiles, is considered healthy.

While the Singaporean couple opted for the less unsavoury but equally potent rice wine, the Americans and I were game enough to try a little shot glass of the yellowish liquid. The taste can only be described as that of methylated spirits mixed with a hint of rotting scales, something that left an even more disgusting after-taste.

A quick tour around the sleepy village of Ben Tre Province where we got to hold pythons and watch bees at work making some of the village’s delicious honey was the last of the land sights before we were whisked onto a small skiff rowed by a Vietnamese woman to make our return to the city.

Travelling down one of the Mekong’s canals in a rickety wooden boat steered by a local woman wearing a conical rice paddy hat was for me one of the best moments of the trip. It represented the quiet, simple life of Vietnam’s rural villages and was an enjoyable way to experience another side of the country, one that was more relaxing than any day spa in the city centre could provide.

Back in the city and after a long day of travelling I decide to see out the rest of the day at the majestic Rex Hotel on the Nguyen Hue Boulevard in District 1, which I read had a rooftop bar and restaurant with spectacular views across the city and was therefore a must-see.

As dusk turned to night and HCMC lit up before my eyes I thought back over the last few days that I have spent in this remarkable city, with its chaotic traffic, Western coffee houses and nightclubs, and peaceful pagodas, and reflect that while it does have a turbulent past, this city and its people have a future that is as bright as its skyline.


Pic: (top) A Vietnamese woman steering a traditional longtail boat down one of the canals of the Mekong Delta, home to small fishing villages and was described by the World Wildlife Fund as a "biological treasure trove".

Pic: (centre) A tank sits in the forecourt of the War Remnants Museum.

Pic: (bottom) The People's Committee Hall is a striking French colonial building that sits at the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.

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