the nothing whatever...

Ho Chi Minh City

Our flight to Jakarta was about as uneventful as our flight to Ho Chi Minh, and it is not real great writing material when things go off without a hitch. I am not sure if this hold true in most parts of the world, but the entire procedure for flying on a plane, the demonstrations and the boarding etc, is almost completely the same as it is in Australia, with the only subtle difference being the announcements that are broadcast about immigration, safety and security. On the flight into Jakarta, Nic and I couldn’t help but laugh at the hostess’ calm and friendly voice announcing “we would like to remind you that narcotics are prohibited throughout Indonesia, and anybody caught carrying contraband substances faces the maximum penalty of death.” And again, we had a chuckle when they announced we were to start our descent into Ho Chi Minh city, and rather than ask us to switch off all electronic devices, they decided to list every single possible electronic item one could ever be carrying on their person. When they mentioned “CD player’s” Nic looked at me and asked “CD player’s? Really? Have we flown back in time?”

I have to admit, when I envisioned what it would be like in Vietnam, I saw fairly stereotypical scene. A war devastated country attempting to claw its way back to a state of financial prosperity, and although battling to emerge from its own depravity and corruption, still well within the grips of the third world. But, even driving through the city on the way to our hotel, I could already see I was wrong, very wrong. Dad once said a good way to measure the progression of a country or a city is through its curbs and gutters, and I guess he is right, curbs and gutters tell you a lot about the infrastructure supporting a place, not just its roads, but its waste and flood management too. I wont go as far as to say that it is as good as I have seen, but Ho Chi Minh city is definitely on its way. It has curbs and gutters.

The city is broken up into Districts, District 1 is where we currently reside (the backpackers district), and it is alive until 4 in the morning almost every night. I never thought it would happen, but after spending our last month in progressively more and more remote areas of Indonesia (very low on the curb and gutter scale), as much as we enjoyed the peace and the solitude that is the by-product of such a sparse population, there was something in us that lit up when we were driving through the organized chaos that is Ho Chi Minh city. It was like, through its absence, the vibrancy, the hypnotic flashing, the collective hum of voices in their unrestrained excitement, all that we had become so used to living in Sydney had regained some of its appeal.

Without really knowing what Ho Chi Minh city was about, the first thing we did after checking into our place was head back out onto the street again and get amongst the fray. I think it is only natural to have an underlying level of fear when you first begin to travel. As I have mentioned in previous weeks, actively trying to anticipate the worst possible scenario is the best way to be grateful for any experience you have, even if it is a bad one. Very rarely does an experience match up with what your imagination can throw at you, and as such, you become a little desensitized to the unknown, and it becomes easier to open yourself up to the mercy of world, or in our case, Saigon; the midnight masseurs, the street vendors selling their Banh Mi and their Co’m Binh and their dehydrated squid and their seafood stir-frys, the night clubs pumping out hard-style Vietnamese techno that is almost comical in its passion, and the 24 hour Greek restaurants, Indian restaurants, Mexican restaurants, Italian restaurants, almost any cuisine you could imagine. And the cheap, cheap beer, like, ridiculously cheap.

We stopped on the corner at a place the hotel told us does a great pho (a clear soup with beef or pork or prawns, rice noodles and an assortment of leafy accompaniments), and, again, it was a scenario in which we were the only westerners in there. Up until now (thanks mainly to the Indonesians) the language barrier had been a very simple hurdle to overcome. Your average Indonesian knows a comprehensible amount of English, and although I had started to get to a point where I could maintain a very basic level of dialogue in Bahasa, and I mean very basic, the Vietnamese language is an entirely different beast. Being a native English speaker, it uses areas of the tongue and voice box that I have not really worked before, and it has some strange pronunciation rules. Nic had downloaded an app that I had been listening to on the flight over (other passengers were forced to listen to seat 17B randomly counting to ten and saying out-of-context things like “where is the ATM?”), but even still, I was scared to use any of my newly learned dialect. I thought that if I did mess up the pronunciation, there might be a remote chance it could be interpreted as a filthy word or an insult, or they might even just laugh in my face and announce to the rest of the place what an idiot I was. So, our first meal was filled with a lot of pointing and nodding, which worked surprisingly well.

However, there is a well-known rule amongst chilli eaters that is used as a rough guide for their heat; the smaller the chilli, the more fire is contains. We received a bowl of large sliced chilli’s with our pho, very similar to the ones I would buy from Woolies and use in a chilli pasta. Without restraint, we piled a few into the clear soup, along with some mint, Chinese coriander, and some other leaves that we didn’t recognize. Well, it suffices to say that these chilli’s threw the rule book out the window, it was like nothing I have ever experienced from a chilli that size. As the meal wore on, the warmth of the soup extracted every drop of oil contained within them, until every molecule of flavor and heat had been dispensed into the pho, and at about halfway through, both our pho’s were so hot they were close to inedible. But, along with the chilli, all the other herbs emitted their own flavors, sending out a pungent aroma and making the soup more and more delicious with its growing heat. We couldn’t help but persist, sniffing and slurping loudly, sweating back into our bowls, looking every bit as out of place as we felt, and if the Vietnamese weren’t such a polite race, I am sure we would have heard a few snickers.

After that, we went for a walk down the main strip, found a sports bar with a balcony that overlooked it, and downed a few 90c Saigon Reds (the local brew) while absorbing it all, still not quite grasping the fact that we were in Saigon, a part of the world that carries so much historical significance. We played a few games of darts (Nic destroyed me every friggin’ time), and we spoke with a friendly Vietnamese girl who worked behind the bar. She gave us a city map which we have basically used until it has become a jigsaw puzzle, just a collection of individual rectangles, such is our perpetual folding and unfolding.

At around 1am, on our way back the the hotel, we decided we were hungry again and ducked into another nightspot for our second dinner. There must be something about my approachability that attracts your stock-standard drug dealer, as although Saigon has a certain civil, safe and clean quality to it that had been minimal if not absent throughout parts of Indonesia, before we sat down to our meal the waiter told me that if I need any drugs at all, any drugs, then he is my man. I shook his hand with a smile and said “maybe later”, but I have not seen him again since (although I have had the same offer from many other discrete street vendors). “Maybe later” seems to work a lot better on insistent Vietnamese drug dealers than it does pleading Indonesian children.

The city itself has a similar cross-street structure to that of Sydney and is fairly tightly compressed. If you have the time, which we do, you can pretty much walk to any District from any other. We have covered a great area by foot, to the War Museum, to Phatty’s bar for the AFL, to the Opera House and Caravelle Hotel, to District 3 for some more fantastic pho and Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake), and some streets and allys that I swear were not on our map and that we will probably never find again. As there are so many places to eat great food, and with the price being so reasonable, any body sculpting that may have occurred over the past month of surfing in Indo has been undone by this week of copious eating and drinking. We went to an Indian place called “Babar’s Kitchen” that rivaled (and may have bettered) Queens Tandoor. We went to an American themed hot-wings place after eating at a cheap little Vietnamese place on the same block, two dinners in one night. We have been to about 4 different Vietnamese bakeries in the middle of the day just to get out of the heat, and all of them have looked far too delicious not to eat in. Much to the detriment of my waistline, I have found that in Ho Chi Minh city, with everything looking so good and costing so little, hunger is not a necessity for consumption.

As you could probably tell by the food I listed, there is a diversity of nationality that is intertwined seamlessly with tradition, and it makes for nights of endless random spontaneity. One evening, in order take a break from the incredulous amount of chilli we have been consuming in the past month, we sourced out a place called “Zoom”, which does a great hamburger. There we met the Australian manager, Darren, who made sure we received beers at happy hour prices (75c) all night, and invited us to play beer pong (a game invented by American college fraternities) at “Beer Pong”, a place that specializes in beer pong. Along with his American girlfriend and a couple of their American and Australian friends, we did, and after beer pong, Darren and company went to a place called “Skybar”, which unfortunately Nic and I could not enter as we were violating every dress code they had. We were a little disappointed we had to part ways so soon, but Nic and I later found out Skybar was $7.50 AU a beer (which now seems criminal) and we got over it pretty quickly. We wandered the city, I picked up a Banh Mi from a street vendor (a delicious culinary cross-breed of a French bread roll filled with Asian meat, herbs and sauce), then we stumbled across a “foot shuttlecock” tournament, a sport that is exactly like badminton but with your feet instead of a racket. My enthusiasm for their amazing skills did not go unnoticed, and as we were speaking about it with an British guy who was looking on in as much awe as we were, one of the shuttlecock coaches approached me and sold me a shuttlecock for a dollar, probably the easiest sale he has ever made. The British guy, whose name was James, told me that he was just as easy, and had already bought one, and was being pressured to buy another. We then crossed the street and went to a pub called “Allezboo” on the recommendation of James, and sat on the top level smoking grape Shisha (not Nic’s favourite thing, she described it as pouring sherbet on your tonsils) and watching the tournament in the park across the road. Each activity just flows on into the next and makes you want to stay up all night just to see where the city takes you.

However, as I write from an apartment in Da Nang, I can tell you that there is one thing that is worth a mention that we both began to get sick of, gradually wearing us down like a stream would a boulder. It wasn’t the people constantly pressing you to buy bracelets and DVD’s and books as you sit for a meal, nor was it the motorcycle men and tuk-tuk men hassling you about where you are headed and claiming that, whatever your answer, it is too far to walk. It wasn’t the transvestites that appear in the later hours of the night to offer you massages and tell you that you are cute, some of which you recognize as the waiters who waited your table earlier that same day. None of these things irritated us as much as the unyielding thick stream of beeps and sirens that is the Siagon traffic. It is inescapable. You will be walking along on the footpath and all of a sudden be startled by an aggressive beep directly behind you, some jerk-off motorbike rider who has decided to cut a segment of traffic by pretending he is a pedestrian. It might not sound like much, but at times (especially when you are lost and looking at the map), it makes you furious, and to be honest, I am looking forward to going somewhere where I don’t have to write my last will and testament every time I cross the road. At numerous stages we tried to capture the chaos on video, and although it doesn’t really do it justice, here it is.

But even with this inconvenience, for those who have the same image of Vietnam (or more particularly, Saigon) in their head as I did, of a dilapidated and shady town being run by a race made hostile due to oppression and war, I can tell you without a doubt that Ho Chi Minh city and its people are not that at all. The people are hospitable and welcoming and the place is an absolute spectacle. It is just one of those things that has to be lived.