I’ve just got back from my fantastic first trip to Vietnam. Expect to hear lots more from me on that once I’ve got my tired head around all the amazing things I experienced in this complex, multilayered country.
For now, these are extracts from my journal, written while I was in Ho Chi Minh City. They just scratch the surface of all I did and saw, highlighting one stand-out experience from each day.
Day 1: Arrival in the (Socialist Republic of) Vietnam 🇻🇳
I arrived in the afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). It’s still called Saigon by many Vietnamese, despite being renamed in 1976 after the war. And as one local guy in his early twenties (so born well after 1976) said to me ‘it was only renamed recently(!), so we all still call it Saigon’. I’m left wondering how many more years it might be before people refer to the city by its ‘new’ title.
First impressions through my jet-lag haze? HCMC’s full-on busy as you’d expect; the moped (but everyone refers to them as motorbikes) is clearly a preferred mode of transport; and there’s no doubt it’s a city of contrasts with layers to be unpeeled. But I was tired and wired after sleep of just 2 hours in the last 28, so resolved to start exploring properly on day 2. For the rest of the day, this stunningly beautiful bedroom on the 32nd Floor of The Reverie Saigon Hotel was beckoning, and I sank gratefully into the sheets to stare in dazed wonder at the panoramic view, and get over the jet-lag.
Day 2: Coffee Culture in Ho Chi Minh City
I was delighted to discover that coffee culture is big big big in Vietnam. A standard Vietnamese Coffee is often served black and slightly sweet with lots of ice. But there are lots of weird and wonderful coffee variations that I haven’t come across before. This gorgeous thing, for instance, is a Cốt Dừa Cà Phê – whipped up frosty coconut milk with coffee. It’s a signature drink at the small Viet Cong-styled chain Cong Caphe (cà phê = café = coffee), describing itself as a ‘hipster café and lounge’ with branches in HCMC and Hanoi. A sort of Vietnamese Starbucks then, but much much cooler.
Other things I found out on day 2 were that you have to be very bold indeed crossing the extremely busy multiple-lane streets, as only police motorbikes stop at red lights, and the rest just carry on thundering towards you. This was alarming and quite a culture shock at first, although later in my trip I perfected the art that the Vietnamese have of walking slowly and steadily across the road in oncoming traffic so that the motorbikes and cars could see me clearly and judge a distance for weaving past me. For the rest of day 2, since I’d read that drinking alcohol is also a massive part of Vietnamese culture – I took myself off out to check that it was true.
Day 3: A Street-food Tour in District 4 of HCMC
On the evening of day 3, I went on a fabulous Vietnamese street food walking tour – in District 4, one of the proper old local districts of Saigon, which used to be notorious for gangsters. And, rather appropriately it seemed to me then, it was here that I was offered a shot of snake wine. That is, rice wine (similar to Japanese saké) which has had a snake marinated in it, as in the jar on the right in the picture below. The jar on the left is lizard wine. Both are traditional tonic wines drunk in the belief that they will improve health and longevity.
The snake wine smelled like sherry – so like a fortified wine then, which is what it is really, only fortified with a snake! The first sip also tasted like a medium sherry, but that gave way to a taste reminiscent to me of an aged tequila. So quite nice really. Whether it had any actual effect on my health – positive or otherwise – still remains to be seen.
Day 4: A Neon Nightscape in Downtown Saigon
It was October when I was in HCMC, and sunset was around 530pm (although being in the Tropics, it doesn’t differ much all year round). I went to see it in the EON Heli Bar on the 51st floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower in central HCMC, but I was a bit late. So instead I just enjoyed seeing this thrilling city nightscape, and my hotel The Reverie Saigon from a different perspective (it’s the tower lit up in red). It was all a bit Blade Runner.
Day 5: Dining in the Dark
Why is day 5’s picture black? Because on this evening I ate dinner in the restaurant Noir. Dining in the Dark – Saigon, where you sit in a completely pitch-black dining room and are served by blind/visually impaired waiters. You do not know what the food is in advance, and so have to try to work out what are the many different dishes for each course, through the senses of smell, taste and touch – all heightened by the lack of sight.
The dining in the dark concept features in many cities across the world. The experience challenges you to appreciate both the food in front of you, and what it means to be sightless. And without the crutch of your mobile phone, placed in a locker outside, you need to rediscover the art of conversation too!
Day 6: National Women’s Day & the Mekong Delta
Day 6 was National Women’s Day in Vietnam. It’s held here twice a year – on International Women’s Day on 8 March, and again on 20 October when I was there. Women have traditionally been subject to severe oppression and ill-treatment in Vietnam, so there has been, and still is, much to overcome.
National Women’s Day is mentioned by many men and women you meet in both city and country, and it’s referenced in signs all over HCMC, so it’s very much in the popular national psyche. It’s intended to promote female emancipation, empowerment, education and economic, political and social achievement. Women also receive gifts from husbands, partners and male friends. And two women I met on day 6 gleefully told me that you can do what you like and men can’t say anything! Meanwhile this picture of women rowing sampans in the Mekong Delta is one I’d taken on a trip the previous day.
Day 7: Saying Goodbye to HCMC
On Day 7 I waved goodbye to Ho Chi Minh as I left his city to go on an adventure on a 32 hour sleeper train ride to Hanoi. That train trip turned out to be an experience-and-a-half, so watch this space for a separate blog post all about that soon.