The bus journey from the airport to the city was like any other random journey in India. Except that the bus started on time. As the horizon of the city drew near us, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of the city to India. The street which we were on could have easily been one in Pune. With the same number of mopeds and scooters whirling their way through the crazy traffic, the fruit and snack sellers with raincoats on, the busy pedestrians pushing everyone in their path, the scene hit a much too familiar note. This city and this country, with its many similarities to India, and yet we know nothing about. Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, the capital of Vietnam was indeed a thriving and bustling metropolis, much to my pleasure and shock.
As Indians, we don’t think much about South East Asian countries, especially ones like Vietnam. So to have a preconceived notion about the country would be very biased. And having this biased opinion in my head I was shocked to see Vietnam as a rather developed and clean country, much more than India.
When the bus reached our stop, of which we had preciously and eagerly found out using the free Wi-Fi on board, we scrambled down amidst the rain and incoming scooters to head toward our hostel.
Traffic in Saigon
Long hostel is located in a small alley next to the famed backpacker’s street in the city. The alley is filled with hostels sporting equally ubiquitous names. The alley itself is a stereotypical Vietnamese scene. The limping dog at the entrance, the street food vendor serving soup and bread and scooters are all reminiscent of what you’d see in an old Asian film.
The hostel itself was pretty decent. They served free beer in the evenings, which was a novelty amongst all of the hostels I’ve stayed in the world. The accommodation was super cheap as well. Not more than USD 6 a night. I’m pretty sure I drank more beer than the cost of the accommodation. Not sure how they made a profit though.
Dried Fish on the road
The first evening we had an intense discussion about India and Indian culture, with free beer, which made the discussion more intense. The odd combination, of a conservative Indian American, a Vietnamese American, a dreadlocked white American, a Canadian, an Israeli and an Indian girl living in Bangkok ramped up the debate to a whole new level. The evening ended with a delicious meal of Pho, a soup, which can be safely assumed to be the national dish of Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City is an eclectic mix of Vietnamese culture and French influences- most commonly seen in the architecture and the food. The banh mi is nothing short of a French baguette, albeit filled with Vietnamese ingredients. The effects of the American war can be seen throughout the city and the country as a whole. The museum dedicated to it is an emotional and tear filled roller coaster which will leave you with nothing but hate in your mind for the American Government. It reminded me of the fact that we are taught nothing about the atrocities the West has committed in poor nations after the World Wars and how oblivious we are to their suffering and existence. The museum is a jewel in the red star crown; however the fabric of the city and the museum is an epilogue for today’s Syria and Iraq.
The Notre Dame Cathedral
Traveling in HCMN, one cannot get enough of the food. The food is extremely cheap, even when compared to India. In fact it is cheaper than food in most Indian cities. Also, the quality of street food is fresh and superior. My friend Gayatri and I stumbled upon a French boulangerie which happened to have the cheapest and most tasty food in the entire city. Needless to say, we were regulars there!
The city has a nice area called pub street next to the backpacker’s area. Full of pubs and clubs, it was our haven for the night. Vietnam has local and cheap beer. Saigon and 333 (ba ba ba) are good ones.
We were lucky on this trip, that a typhoon was expected to hit Ho Chi Minh that day, and the weather had already become bad, but it suddenly weakened and decided to hit the north of the country and the Philippines instead. We were saved again.
Within one day, the city makes you feel at home. What with its scooter taxis, the ladies selling banh mi and banh bao , the heavenly Viet coffee, we decided to extend another day and book a tour to the border town of Chau Doc and take the ferry boat to Cambodia. However the city decided to love us back and be possessive. It did not want us to leave soon and made us miss our bus by a few minutes, leaving us stranded with our luggage in the middle of the street.
Accommodation : Long hostel
Budget: INR 800 per day
Best Time to visit: December to April