If you have not visited, then please add Vietnam travel to your bucket list and that recommendation applies regardless of whether you will be travelling backpack budget or in four-star style. Vietnam travel has something for all tastes, pockets and ages.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit and work in Vietnam on 3 different occasions, the first time was in 2000 the same year that Bill Clinton visited Ho Chi Minh City, the last time was in 2016.
Influenced by its geography, it has land borders with China in the north, Laos PDR to the east and Cambodia in the south. During its history it has had, occupation by the French and wars with both the French and the Americans, where it prevailed, the country never ceases to amaze me.
Vietnam has an almost unparalleled “S” shaped coastline of over 3,444 km (2,140 miles). The big toe of Dat Mui, Cau Mau province in the far south has a tropical climate, mangrove belts fringing the coastline and is located at latitude of 9.15 N, while Lung Cu, 1,660 km north as the crow flies is temperate, has fir tree forests and is at a latitude of 23.3 N.
As a youngster growing up my mind was negatively influenced by action movies usually American made, showing cinema screen heroes defeating against the odds, hoards of North Vietnamese soldiers as the Americans fought in support of Southern Vietnam. My experiences in Vietnam have completely wiped the slate clean of those negative influences.
For my first trip to Vietnam, I flew in on a budget airline from Don Muang, Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as some people still call it and for the life of me I could not work out why on landing the plane had a police escort car driving in front, leading the plane from the runway to the airport terminal docking point.
After collecting my luggage and having my passport visa stamped, I changed US $100 at the airport and struggled with the math and the Vietnamese Dong (VND) bank notes, with several denominations with confusingly similar colours. At VND 20,000 per US$ 1, I was carrying VND 2 million. I’ve always wanted to be a millionaire!
Sitting in an air conditioned taxi from the airport to the Spring Hotel in District 1 of HCMC I was immediately struck by the contrast between the orderly Bangkok traffic jams of mainly cars and a few motorbikes with the disorderly traffic jam of motorbikes and relatively few cars in HCMC.
The 7 km trip to the hotel at peak evening traffic time took almost an hour, but I didn’t mind as there was so much to see on the crowded roads, streets, sidewalks and alleyways. Along the route I saw the evidence of the influence of the French occupation of Saigon which began in 1861.
Wonderful teak tree lined boulevards, with each tree with an inventory number on it; the Saigon Post Office with its wonderful high domed ceiling with sufficient air currents to negate the need for air conditioning and the Notre-Dame cathedral; coffee shops and fresh French-style baguettes long and short on sale at major road junctions.
The Spring Hotel on Lê Thánh Tôn Street, recommended to me by an old friend and colleague from the Mekong River Commission and the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT).
Family owned and run, the 3 star hotel was spotlessly clean, air conditioned, with starched linen and fluffy white fresh smelling towels and its wholesome eggs, baguette, fresh juice and coffee breakfast has lured me back several times since.
After checking in and dropping off my bag in my room and taking only about US$ 20 worth of my VND, I went out that evening to try some real Vietnamese cuisine. Playing safe, I did a walk round the block route, turning right out of the hotel, right onto Hai Bà Trưng Street and right again onto Lý Tự Trọng where I entered an open air hot pot restaurant and beer garden.
A bit like a blindfolded child sticking the tail on the donkey, I selected with the help of a waiter who spoke about as much English as I did Vietnamese and helpful people at nearby tables who spoke some English, 3 items from the menu together with rice and a glass of draft Saigon beer in a frosted glass.
My selections included diced beef called ‘bo luc lac’, fried soy bean curd and deep fried water spinach which came with a few chilli peppers hidden in it and wonderful plain rice from the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam. I don’t remember how much the final bill came to but it was ridiculously cheap for a great, filling freshly cooked nutritious meal, including a tip.
Continuing right around my block onto 22 Thái Văn Lung Street, I decided that to finish off my evening I’d try a Vietnamese coffee at a sidewalk coffee shop with very low plastic tables and very low plastic chairs which made me feel like a giant in Guilliver’s Travels.
I ordered a Vietnamese Bon Ma Thuot coffee from Dak Lak province with milk. I was surprised to receive a cup of boiling water with a clear glass inside it with a half an inch of what looked like thick condensed milk.
On top of glass was an aluminium container with coffee, boiling water and a metal filter plate that was filtering the black coffee into the condensed milk drop by black drop. As I sat there waiting for the coffee glass to fill up, I was witness to the absolute industry of the Vietnamese people.
I refused people selling lottery tickets several times and similarly I refused to buy chewing gum and cigarettes from itinerant children who knew a few American English phrases. I gave up my shoes to a passing shoe shiner who cleaned them for a pittance while the coffee brewed.
I saw a girl walk by my table twice with a bowl which she banged with chop sticks while shouting something in Vietnamese. The coffee shop owner later explained that the girl’s mum had a noodle hand cart on the other side of the block and the girl was walking around the block taking orders for bowls of noodles, delivering them to customers and collecting the bowls and chopsticks later on.
And the condensed milky coffee (called hot brown or ‘nâu nóng’) turned out to be exceptionally sweet and strong and was to become an addiction to me over time.
I’ve spent hours on self-guided walks around Saigon, it is a fascinating city and a bucket list place to visit for sure.
For my work I’ve lived in Vietnam for about 8 years in total, so as well as visiting Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) I’ve spent time working in other areas of Vietnam, such as Mau (big toe) in the far south to Son La bordering China.
I lived in Hanoi for a while and in the Mekong delta. As soon as time allows I will post about these other great places to travel to.