Saigon calling

TNIE reporter Aishwarya Prabhakaran shares diary notes and snapshots from a tour of Vietnam.
Ho Chi Monh City. (Photo | Express)
Ho Chi Monh City. (Photo | Express)

It’s 5.30 AM. A faint glow of sunlight kisses the windows. As I draw back the curtains, outside, Ho Chi Minh City is slowly blossoming with life.It doesn’t take long for the city to erupt. It all begins with the obligatory morning dose of bold and beautiful Vietnamese dark coffee available at street shops on every corner.

For the Vietnamese, the fresh brew acts like an ignition switch. It’s an integral part of their life. During the colonial era, the French introduced coffee to Vietnam, and since then, coffee plantations (Robusta Coffee Beans) and cafes serving a wide variety of coffee have sprouted across the country.I hit the streets and grab a cup of java. Installing a sense of reassurance, the aroma alone does the trick for me.

Everyone starts their day quite early in this city, known as Saigon (its old name) to the local people. Warm people. Even amidst the morning chaos, they take a few seconds to welcome travellers.“That’s how we are,” smiles Jackson, our tour guide, as he promises to take us to the places that serve the best street food in the country.

Named after the former president of the erstwhile North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s commercial hub. The westernised cosmopolitan vibe is palpable. However, it is well-layered with local tradition and culture that evoke a feel-good sentiment. The kind that makes one smile without any particular reason.

The city is well-maintained. Not only the skyscrapers and monuments but every little street and bylane is clean. As a city affairs reporter from Kerala, I must stress that the roads are spotless. No littering, no garbage. Trash bins are put to good use. Street vendors keep garbage bags well-packed, and sanitation workers frequently crisscross the city to ensure the roads remain clean. Kudos to that!

The city boasts French-period architecture, great food, and fascinating markets. Though street vendors in South Asian countries have trouble with English, the situation is different here. Almost all the shop owners greet and interact with you in English.

Blend of old-world charm and modernity

Strolling along, one can see that the city has retained its vintage charm while incorporating modern elements. Tall buildings with state-of-the-art features and old French colonial-style architecture coexist side by side. Bitexco Tower, the tallest building in the city, is mighty impressive. The 262m-tall building resembles a budding lotus, Vietnam’s national flower. The view of the city from its roof is spell-binding.

The magnificent Opera House, also known as the Municipal Theatre, is a marvel of French architecture. Built in 1898 by the architect Eugene Ferret, following the ‘flamboyant’ style of the French Third Republic, the building stands as one of the most impressive sights in Saigon. “It was built with materials brought in directly from France,” informs Jackson. The theatre is now a venue for many high-profile events and cultural entertainment activities. The location is also popular for pre-wedding photoshoots.

Other must-visit places are the Saigon Central Post Office, Ben Thanh Market, and the War Museum. The central post office was built and designed by French architects and gives you a slice of France as you enter it. The place is a busy tourist spot where postcards and other souvenirs are available. Another favourite spot is the Ben Thanh market. It is a large and thriving market with a variety of goods available, including local foods as well as souvenirs and clothing. The market is well-known for its abundant selection of handicrafts as well as its low prices. Yet again, the administration deserves plaudits for preserving the heritage buildings well, without compromising on modernisation. 

Ride of a lifetime

I loved this idea. Gouging on scrumptious street food while exploring the city on a Vespa scooter.
Anyone can book a ride, and a guide takes you pillion through the bustling streets, allowing you to blend in like a local. The city’s food is mouthwatering, and most dishes are mild and easy on the palate. I sampled a variety of local Vietnamese cuisine, including Goi Cuon, a form of fresh local spring roll.

Banh xeo, locally translated into ‘sizzling cake’, is a savoury crepe made of deep-fried pork fat with a batter of flour and turmeric. Apart from these highlights, the cuisine offers a variety of soups that are a must-try. Well, starting with a drink at one of the popular rooftop bars, to the street food, and then ending on a high note with live music at a cafe, the scooter tour works great for solo ‘trippers’.

Planning a holiday?

Vietnam has emerged as one of the favourite destinations for Indians, as it is budget-friendly and has direct connectivity. For Keralites, there is good news as the budget airline Vietjet has recently started direct flights from Kochi to Ho Chi Minh City.

The flight operates four days a week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Departing from Ho Chi Minh City at 7.20 PM (5.50 PM IST), the flight’s estimated arrival at Kochi airport is 10.30 PM IST. The return flight, VJ1812, takes off from Kochi at 11.50 PM and touches down in Ho Chi Minh City at 6.40 AM local time (4:50 AM IST).

Set your budget

A round-trip to Hanoi in Vietnam costs roughly Rs 30,000 as airfare. For a comfortable backpacker experience here, it costs around Rs 6,000. The rates are subject to change.

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