I clearly remember how it rained cats and dogs as I stepped out of the Tan Son Nhat International Airport that serves Ho Chi Minh City and as I got into a taxi that drove me to my hotel, I was convinced that we would get lost in the swarm of motorbikes. After a two hour wait courtesy of the maddening traffic and convoluted lanes, I arrived at my destination, standing along the quiet and peaceful Saigon riverside, a perfect contrast to what I had been witnessing on my way. I knew then that an interesting experience awaited me.
The largest and the most populous city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is one place that exudes this inexplicable manic energy. The horns never really stop blaring, the locals are almost always in a hurry to go about their business and the hawkers unabashedly holler at you in the shrillest of voices. Every skyscraper has a shanty to complement itself, the roasted corn on the streets often gives fancy restaurants a run for their money and multi-coloured pagodas confidently overshadow the glass panels of luxury shopping malls. This city has had a long rendezvous with history considering the fact that it was once a Khmer territory only to be conquered by the French and finally falling into the hands of the Vietnamese People's Army. This rich past can be observed in the form of French colonial elements that dot HCMC and in the several remainders of a destructive, indelible war.
What intrigued me the most was how Saigon has managed to keep pace with the changing times with classy boutique hotels and modern, minimalist high-rises while effortlessly retaining its heritage. Several locals proudly flaunt their recognizable conical hats and for every 'Pho' joint, there is one that sells pretty cake pops. While HCMC is a shopper's paradise (Bangkok will always be a better option but the variety and prices are competitive indeed), it also is a storehouse of information for those who harbour a soft corner for politics and history. And if you are a glutton, this city will make sure you put on a good amount of weight before getting back home. One of the most vivid memories I personally have of Ho Chi Minh City entail the many smells that greeted my nostrils. I remember how the petrichor beautifully mingled with the salty fragrance of fried seafood, how the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted through the air and helped me forget about the stinky open drain on the other side of the street and the children playing around it, their innocent faces smeared with dirt. While the lobby of my hotel constantly reminded me of jasmine with undertones of lemongrass, the strong, incapacitating smoke from the vehicles outside told a different story altogether.
There are cathedrals, one in particular that will remind you of Paris, the pagodas will transport you to Bangkok, the war museums will easily be a reflection of several parts of Germany, the tall, glittering structures will take you to Singapore and the pollution coupled with an enormous number of happy, nonchalant and simple people will remind you of home, India. HCMC is not one city; it is an amalgamation of the souls of many. Despite the economic stagnation and basic social problems all of which were the result of the Vietnam war, Saigon has survived and how. It has gradually grown and transformed, like a phoenix that rises from the ashes. Do visit Ho Chi Minh City around December to April. You will certainly be in the vicinity of the madding crowd, but I can assure you that you will not be disappointed.