As intimidating as the customs officials are in their Joseph Stalin uniforms, I quickly put aside any fears of being shipped to a labour camp by the Vietnamese equivalent of the KGB. The Vietnamese people are warm, humble and open-hearted and this is a country I would visit again in a heartbeat. When I exchanged money at the foreign exchange I became an instant multi-millionaire. What’s not to love?
Our guide Thien was friendly and informative and indispensable when it came to navigating the lunacy of the Ho Chi Minh traffic from the airport to our hotel. We stayed at the Grand Hotel, a real Colonial left-over which was comfortable, had a lovely swimming pool and a small, utilitarian spa. There are also the Sheratons and Hiltons and similar luxury hotels available. The heat in January was brutal and humid, but in the fashion of the elegant Vietnamese women I deemed it respectful to cover up a bit, especially as we planned to visit temples and pagodas. In both Vietnam and Cambodia I wore pants or long skirts, in the same way I covered my legs and shoulders when visiting the Vatican and other Catholic Churches in Italy.
My most vivid memory of our stay in Ho Chi Minh city is definitely the traffic. I have never seen anything like it since, and I am still absolutely baffled. There may be nine million bicycles in Beijing, but seem to be about a million scooters and motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh, with between two and four people travelling on each! The real kicker is that there aren’t any traffic lights at intersections and they definitely do not function as a four-way stop. Everyone just drives at once, in four different directions, and somehow they manage not to crash into each other. Unbelievable, but true.
As we are such shoppers at heart we headed straight for the Ben Thanh market, where there is a wide range of very affordable souvenirs. I bought three bags made from a combination of silk and bamboo, the kind of thing you don’t often see back home. When walking around the city you need to be cognizant of the standard of living and income of the local people. Conspicuous wealth is insensitive in a city where a lot of people are poor and earning very little in dollar terms. Bargaining is fine, but often the price is so reasonable there is no need. We bought some beautiful hand-embroidered tablecloths at an amazing price. There were a lot of children following us in the street offering various services for $2. I am not sure what advice to give on that front.
Another very strong memory is our visit to a suburban area quite far from the city centre in search of a small sports store recommended by our guide, and far off the beaten track. Not knowing that public toilets are few and far between in Ho Chi Minh I was completely unprepared for the reality. I was pointed towards the door at the back of the store, through which I discovered myself face to face with an entire Vietnamese family, sitting in the kitchen in darkness, eating their lunch. To my dismay, the toilet was off the kitchen. Separated by a wall with several missing bricks. There was no toilet paper, just a bucket of water and a cup which I wasn’t sure what to do with. It made me realize how lucky we are back at home and how we take our standard of living for granted. But I deeply respect the Vietnamese sense of hospitality. They didn’t blink at a strange, large, blonde Western woman invading their kitchen and using their toilet.
One of the most wonderful things about Ho Chi Minh was the flood. Vietnamese food is delicious, fresh, healthy and super affordable. We had five or six course dinners for about $20. There was also plentiful exotic types of fresh fruit served at breakfast. My favourite was the fresh, uncooked spring rolls made from rice paper wrapped prawns, basil, mint, rice noodles and other fresh ingredients dipped in hoisin sauce. If it were more readily available in South Africa I would eat only Vietnamese food and nothing else.
My top tip? If you want to cross the road, hang onto a local. Literally. They are so friendly they don’t mind holding your hand (if you are lucky) and guiding you across. The last thing you want to do is interrupt the flow of traffic and throw a spanner in the works. I highly, highly recommend visiting Vietnam. Visit Ho Chi Minh city, ride in a rickshaw, eat the delicious food and befriend the lovely people, respect the culture and make your own memories.