After 24 long and tiring hours, I made it to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city. I knew it would take a few days to get acclimated, but here we are, more than a week later! I have been wide-eyed with amazement at what I have seen and experienced, so it's time to share my first impressions of Vietnam.
PEOPLE: Vietnamese people are all about family. There were many on the flights with multi-generation members. I learned from talking with a couple of families that this trip for many of these folks was long in the making since Vietnam shut down entirely for two years. They came bearing gifts, lots of them. Boxes and boxes of gifts, going round and round on the conveyor belt in baggage claim. For every piece of luggage, there were several big boxes. It took me over an hour to get my bag. Outside the exit, I saw hundreds of family members eagerly and excitedly awaiting their loved ones. It was a sight to behold, much like hundreds of passionate fans awaiting their beloved sports team to come home after winning a championship. An interesting thought, I know.
Vietnamese people are friendly, helpful, kind, and hospitable. I had made arrangements to be picked up by a private driver, who kept in touch with me, assuring my safety and reiterating instructions on where to meet as soon as I landed. Finally, at 1:30 am, I checked in at the Lotte Hotel Saigon. The staff there rolled out the red carpet for me during my short stay. Everyone I met could not have been any nicer or more accommodating. Their welcoming gestures made me feel right at home.
Saigon is busy, crowded, and noisy. Dare I say, if New York is the city that never sleeps, Saigon appears to be the city that is constantly on the move. The traffic and the people are engaged in a continuous dance movement in front of sidewalks full of parked motorcycles, tiny shops, restaurants, and food stalls. Walking down the street requires skills and engagement of all my senses. So I make sure to be fully alert, with eyes darting in all directions, ears perked up for honking horns, nose taking in all the wonderful aromas from different kinds of food and drinks, hands clutching my backpack for safety, and making frequent thirst-quenching stops. After a few times attaching myself to other pedestrians crossing the streets and paying attention to how they do it, I built up enough courage to do it myself. It looks scary and super messy, but because of that, no one can go fast. Once you decide to go, keep going slowly, without sudden stops, and the traffic will manage to avoid you. I usually say a prayer every time I get to the other side unscathed:)
One of the first things I wanted to do was to walk around the Central Business District, where the historic Opera House, Caravelle Hotel, and Hotel Continental are located. These are iconic places and names I have heard as a child and read about when doing research for my writing. Hotel Continental stands out since that's where my oldest sister Chanh and my brother-in-law Alan married in 1971. Today, one can assume Vietnam is doing well with the addition of many high-end stores to this area. I saw Burberry, Chanel, Dior, and Louis Vuitton, all within walking distance.
FOOD & DRINKS: Being here for only a little over a week, I've just begun to scratch the surface. My first cup of coffee was in a quaint, artsy Vietnamese café on the second floor of an old building in Japantown. Yes, there is a Japantown, a Koreatown, and probably other ethnic enclaves in addition to the well-known Chinatown (Chợ Lớn) in District 5. Since Vietnam has a strong coffee culture, my expectation was high. In coffee, I look for a good smell, a steamy hot temperature, and a pleasing taste to my tastebuds. Bâng Khuâng (Conceptualist) Café delivers! More than a great cup of coffee, it has a nostalgic look and feel of old Saigon. There are thousands of coffee shops here, and I already plan on returning to this place for more.
I am also already partial to Highlands Coffee, especially the one between the Saigon Zoo and Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon. The coffee was good, and their Bánh Mì Que was to die for! According to Hanoitimes.vn, this simple, footlong breadstick originated from Hai Phong, Northern Vietnam. It happened to be my first food. It comes slit with a light spread of paté and a few strands of dry pork. I was so good I could have eaten a handful of them. Highlands is a chain with locations all over the city. And, lucky for me, there is one on the ground floor of the building where my current Airbnb is.
For my first meal, I had my favorite traditional Canh Chua Tôm (sweet and sour shrimp soup) and Ca Kho Tộ (braised catfish in a clay pot). Since I was in a popular restaurant (in Japantown again), I was a little skeptical about the taste. When served, I was pleased with the freshness of the ingredients and extremely happy with their authentic taste. The only regret I had about this meal was that I could not take my leftovers with me. I was staying in a fancy hotel and didn't want to warm up shrimp and fish for lunch the next day:)
The staff at the hotel suggested I give the hotel's Chinese restaurant a try. Crystal Jade Palace Restaurant is part of the Singapore-based Michelin-starred culinary brand, serving award-winning food rooted in Cantonese cuisine. I heeded their advice and thoroughly enjoyed the crispy Peking duck and perfectly blanched (soft yet crunchy) green beans with ground pork in my room. Earlier in the day, I picked up a bottle of Georges DuBoeuf Pinot Noir, which paired well with the food. Either that or because I could finally fall asleep during local nighttime that evening, I am happy to give old Georges credit.
After three days in a hotel in District 1 (D1), I moved into an Airbnb in District 4 (D4). Almost entirely free of jet lag, I spent more time exploring. A couple of days ago, while looking for Bánh xèo (aka crepes or pancakes), I stumbled upon Phở Trang, an establishment in existence since 1936! So, of course, I had to eat there. Isn't having Phở in Vietnam like eating spaghetti in Italy, chocolate croissants in France, and pierogi in Poland? It was the best phở broth I have ever had!
This morning the cold cut Bánh Mì did not disappoint. Summoning Anthony Bourdain's spirit, I sat on a child-size stool in front of the stall and ate while hundreds of motorcycles passed by. Life doesn't have to be more than simple to be good.
As with every kind of food, thousands of vendors serve their version of specialty in formal sit-down restaurants, food stalls, and push-carts, even carrying them in baskets, on bicycles, on their shoulders. I felt privileged to have the time and resources (and good health) to experience something that's deemed an iconic part of Vietnam travels. With these thoughts, this morning, I feel at home and like a tourist visiting a new country for the first time.
Until next time...