Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – The Unfamiliar (Part 1)

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

A trip to Vietnam.

There are many places you can visit and instinctively know you’ll find your bearings quite quickly. Vietnam is not exactly Borneo, but I had no idea what to expect. The Vietnamese I grew up with in North America had more in common with Tupac than Long Duk Dong, Vietnam doesn’t really get much love from the media, and if I cut all the bullshit out, I guess Vietnam is just one of those places I knew I had to visit because I was so ignorant about it. So, I booked a flight.

Hanoi is the sleepy capital and Hoi An is the cultural capital of Vietnam. I was more interested in finding out where Vietnam would be in the future. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) seemed to be the right place to be to solve that question.

In an attempt to save some money, I flew TigerAir, Singapore’s discount carrier with daily flights to HCMC. I was warned of a six hour stopover, but thought it might be a good chance to reacquaint my love for bak kut teh and kopi – Singaporean staples I’d been craving since my last trip to Singapore. A six hour stopover for coffee that’s worth a buck? I never said I was an intelligent person…

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After grabbing some Dong at the airport I headed over to my Airbnb pad. Not knowing the lay of the land and what the different districts meant to the unfamiliar traveller (“This district’s where they stab you!”), you instinctively pick a place somewhat near the downtown. I thought was reasonably priced, however the condo I chose turned out to be one of the nicest condos in Vietnam. Oops. Was this really Vietnam?! Where were the straw hats? The roadside food stalls? The packed street markets? Was my perception of Vietnam really so far removed from the truth? Had HCMC become Tokyo while I was sleeping?

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The Tokyo connection is actually not far from the truth. Korea and Japan represent some of Vietnam’s most important FDI sources. Everywhere I went, I heard smatterings of Japanese and Korean and many signs had both Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese come standard on them. Not knowing where to start, the Airbnb host (really nice guy) suggested I take a trip to Bui Vien Street, a famous backpacker night spot in HCMC. Sounded good to me. Wow, even on a Wednesday night, the street was packed. after having some pho (I’m not sure if you’ve had pho until you’ve had it in Vietnam) for dinner and headed down the main streets, side streets and alleyways, trying to get a feel for the energy of the city. Finally. this was the Vietnam I came to see.

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What people don’t tell you about Asian cities is that every city (at least the ones I’ve been to) has a very distinct smell. Hong Kong smells like an old ocean broth with hints of bonito. Singapore takes on more floral notes. There is a spiciness to Vietnam air that’s intoxicating and really lends itself to the atmosphere and the food you eat.

The first thing you notice is that the culture is incredibly close knit and warm. People sit in huge groups, there’s definitely a smaller radius devoted to personal space and everyone seems incredibly happy and in congenial company. Instead of having to eat tons of food in a stuffy restaurant to fill a conversation, everyone grabs a plastic stool chills and gets their buzz on over a nice, refreshing cup of iced coffee. Definitely my kind of city. The city itself is truly stunning.

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I snapped a few more photos, then headed home. Vietnam was a a lot more complex and interesting than I thought it would be. I slept soundly that night, knowing that a very good adventure lay ahead.

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*** Read Part 2 HERE and Part 3 HERE

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