As we reached the end of our 30-day Cambodian visa, we found ourselves eagerly waiting to board a Giant Ibis bus to Vietnam. Travelling with a toddler brings out the innocent exuberance for simple things that we seem to lose at some point in the growing up process. We’d never usually have been that excited about a bus journey, but she was, and it was fun to add our own enthusiasm to the anticipation. With a few games of Eye Spy, a couple of naps (helped by the early start), a brief stop for lunch while our passports were put through their paces at the Vietnamese border, before we bypassed the queues and walked through for a final check, we breezed into Vietnam.
This lazy journey left us totally unprepared for Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon (a place we started using both names for because different people refer to it by either and will tend to correct you, if you’ve used different version to the one they do!) If we’d thought Phnom Penh was manic, we’d been sorely mistaken! Never had my field of vision contained so many scooters. Just crossing the road from the bus stop took nerves of steel! Scooters are everywhere and come at you like metallic spiders. And even with the practice that came with having spent 4 days on the way in and 3 days on the way out of Vietnam in this city, I still couldn’t help but hold my breath and squeeze our little tot as tightly into me as I could, each time I slowly and purposefully put one foot in front of the other, while frantically looking each way (as you never knew where armies of them could be coming from), and eased myself in front of machines that do no stop, operated by people who do not make eye contact, while they whizzed either side of us. Even using a zebra crossing or obediently waiting for the green man at a traffic light didn’t ensure safety – hundreds of bikes speed towards you and then wrap around you any time you step out onto the road. And you can’t sigh too big a sigh of relief when you make it to the pavement on the other side because any surface is fair game for the scooter, if it’ll save them a few seconds or mean they can keep moving.
The constant and furious flow of traffic sets the motion of Saigon, while the background whining and hooting sets the tone. It’s a city that exudes a sense of restlessness and industriousness. It’s manic, bright, loud and screams Asia. And we loved it!
On our first few mornings we sat on the side of the road, on tiny plastic stools (which in the West would only be found in a kids’ play area), and ate fried noodles with garlicky greens and ladles of vinegary chillies for breakfast, and grinned at each other with an unspoken consensus that moments like this were the reason we’d come travelling.
It also happens to be a fantastic city for vegans! Even the guy cooking on the side of the road (after barking at us to sit down and choose rice or noodles), immediately inquired whether we wanted egg or not when we mentioned “vegetarian”. And there are countless vegetarian and vegan restaurants, easily identified by the word “chay”, meaning “vegetarian”, and tending to serve “strict vegetarian” (without egg or dairy), which is the diet followed by many Vietnamese Buddhists.
Just down the road from our apartment was a modern chay restaurant, called Heathy Farm, where upon entry you picked up a little basket and loaded it with your choice of noodles, veg and mock meats and then passed it to cashier to price and cook up into a magical hotpot – a traditional Vietnamese loaded soup dish. And at the back of the Ikea-catalogue style restaurant were shelves and freezers selling every type of vegan mock meat product a western vegan wouldn’t even be able to dream up – including suckling pig (appropriately or – for some of us – inappropriately, shaped to resemble its namesake), carp (complete with fake fish skin), packets of dried pork kidney, tins of duck liver, and even fake eggs, looking like their real counterparts! Not quite vegan Disneyland, with the air of Sweeney Todd about it!
I’ve never been very keen on most mock meat outside of burgers and sausages – not because the idea of eating something akin to meat grosses me out (apart from when it actually resembles a full animal, like the fake little piggy), but because it doesn’t tend to taste very real or pleasant. But Vietnam changed my perceptions. We sampled some of the juiciest, fattiest mock pork with crispy crackling, coated in umami, smokey BBQ flavours that wowed us and kept us going back for more! And they also do wonders with tofu – serving piles of it, with pillowy soft middles and gently crisp outers, coated in rich tomato sauce, or with lemongrass and chilli, which became our Vietnamese staple dish.
Food is everywhere in Saigon. Wherever you look, people (dressed in anything from suits and ties to funky jeans and trainers) sit on tiny plastic stools on the side of the road eating out of full-to-the-brim melamine bowls, afterwards collected and washed up in large plastic buckets that are then emptied into the drains on the side of the roads. A few dogs tend to laze near their owners tossing heavy woks over gas flames, and on side streets and alleys a cockerel or couple of hens often make an appearance, somehow not seeming out of place, despite the total lack of any greenery. In amongst all the makeshift but very permanent street food cooking operations are restaurants to suit all budgets, and more coffee shops than you’d care to count, always full of people, and often buzzing until late at night.
You can buy anything and everything from the multitude of shops, some spilling onto the streets selling knock-off jackets, bags and shoes, or touristy bric-a-brac, others with slick window displays containing expensive western fashion brands, sports brands, and electronics. And at intersections happy people smile down from massive bright billboard ads for Dove, Close Up and Baskin Robbins, when the space isn’t occupied by old-school communist billboards depicting people with all manner of vocations proudly standing in solidarity in support of the hammer and sickle.
Just as the scooters consume every available surface, so do the buildings rally for space on the sides of streets. Old buildings are patched up with colourful signs, and sleek new glass ones have squeezed up in between and loom over them. In amongst this hodgepodge, well manicured green spaces can be found, dotted with grand, bushy trees that offer some welcome respite from the stifling heat of the day that the traffic fumes seem to intensify.
For a tot who hadn’t seen an outdoor playground in over 6 months, coming across the delighted squeals of kids whizzing down slides; the out-of-breath, feverish laughter from siblings chasing each other and shooting out of tunnels; animated giggles from toddlers perched on top of brightly coloured animals circling on roundabouts, periodically nudged by bemused parents; gentle squeaks from four-seater seesaws that little clans of friends or whole families balance on; and the rhythmic creaking of various swing contraptions, was music to her ears. Come sundown and the playgrounds teem with cooped up city kids letting off steam. We let ours loose in the vast kids’ area in Tao Dan park on a couple of evenings, after which a good night’s sleep was guaranteed.
Stepping out of the playground at night meant swapping one kind of frantic energy for another. With nightfall, the heat might diminish slightly, but the energy of Saigon remains. Everything lights up. Traffic turns into red or white rivers. Fairy lights trace shapes of funky restaurant patios. Illuminated and digital billboards shine boldly above old buildings. And coloured lights chase each other up and down modern skyscrapers.
Our two intoxicating encounters with Saigon were based in the central hubbub of District 1. Day or night it was noticeably full of juxtaposition – touristy streets bursting with backpackers, travel agents, bars and restaurants; narrow alleyways full of real life, where women cook on little gas burners or wash dishes in large plastic bowls, and families watch TV from wooden sofas, with the odd scooter parked next to them in the living room; an abandoned chinook, tanks and a museum full of facts and horrific photos from what’s known in Vietnam as the American War; old French colonial buildings, like Norte Dame and the Central Post Office; exclusive hotels and high-rise apartments; and rivers transporting industry and tourist boats, rub shoulders with each other. And when we splashed out on the exorbitant fee to go up the Bitexco Financial Tower to gaze down over the city, we gauged just how far it spans, and realised that District 1 is just a small part of it.
This is a city we know we’ll make our way back to one day.