Stepping into the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), your senses are overtaken by the cacophony of whirring motors from scores of motorbikes zipping by, and car horns blowing at pedestrians and cyclo drivers on the chaotic streets where traffic rules seem nonexistent.
Your skin dampens after mere minutes of exposure to the powerful sun and relentless humidity. In every direction you look, people occupy space, whether it’s working in one of the many retail shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, street kiosks, businesses, and residential units that flank the roads, or pedestrians – some wearing masks covering their nose and mouth – boldly darting across the hectic roads from one side to the other.
Sidewalks are scant and the few that exist frequently serve as parking space for motorbike riders out eating or shopping.
My first impressions of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) – Vietnam’s largest and most populated – where I spent less than 36 hours this past December, left me a bit dizzy and unsure what to make of it all.
Other tidbits about HCMC:
Pho tastes about the same there as it does in California
I had one goal for my short visit to Vietnam: eat a bowl of pho – that delicious noodle soup in a flavorful meat-based broth – in its homeland. Goal: met.
Living in California I’ve had the good fortune of tasting some of the best Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam. After all, outside of Vietnam, more Vietnamese-Americans live in California than any other state.
For lunch on my first (and only) afternoon in HCMC I ordered a traditional bowl of beef pho aaaaaand….it tasted no differently from what I’ve had here. To confirm my unscientific finding, I again chose beef pho for dinner later that evening. Aaaaannnnndd….same result. I guess that’s good? I get good pho at home.
Cyclo drivers deserve major kudos
Having arrived in Ho Chi Minh a day earlier than my tour began, I used the extra time to explore as much of the city as I could. At the recommendation of the hotel concierge, I opted for a cyclo ride around HCMC. What’s a cyclo? Imagine an oversized tricycle with a bucket seat in the front to hold passengers.
My driver spoke very little English – enough to communicate the names of the landmarks we paused to view – which is more than the Vietnamese I knew (“cám ơn” or “thank you”). At various points along the 2.5 hour ride, I’d close my eyes and inhale deeply, while with the ease of a pro, he steered us through the frenetic tide of vehicles careening in all directions – as I mentally reaffirmed my desire to live a long life.
It’s difficult to gauge the age of my cyclo driver – I think he’s at least older than I am. His skin was worn with sun, smoke, and life lines, but he exuded youthful energy. He pedaled that giant bike – with me on it – for nearly 3 hours. Granted we took brief breaks here and there, but still. Good for you, dude. Just goes to show that you can be fit at any age.
Being Black gets you noticed
Did you know that I’m kind of a big deal in Vietnam? The minute I walked out of the airport, I noticed so many eyes fixated on me that had I not been prepared for this, I’d have thought that maybe my blog had taken HCMC by storm. Finally famous in this bitch. Everywhere I went, I attracted attention. They never mention this phenomenon in the travel guides..
None of it was meant to be rude or to cause me discomfort. It’s just that some people have never ever in their whole long lives seen a black person IN REAL LIFE. Generally, when I would smile at the owner of the gawking eyes, they’d return the greeting with a sheepish grin.
Even though Vietnam is one of the least religious nations in the world, Christmas is a thing.
Albeit in a secular sense and no doubt influenced by “Western” culture.
That final evening in the city, I met my tourmates – the 6 other people I’d be spending the next 10 days with. At dinner, the conversation flowed easily as we dined, until it ended abruptly as a scene grew directly in front of the open-air restaurant. When the crowd drifted away, we were shocked to see a terribly disfigured man dragging himself across the pavement.
It’s hard to know how to react or what to say in that moment. My mind reeled with conflicted thoughts and questions. Our group fell silent for several counts as we all processed what we’d just witnessed. The images will be with me for awhile.
The next morning, we said goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City and hit the road shortly after the roosters crowed – I could hear the cocky birds from my hotel room. Within a few hours we’d reach the border of Vietnam and cross into Cambodia.
I’ll have to return to Vietnam. My visit was entirely too short and I hear good things about Hoi An, Halong Bay, and Hanoi.
Stay tuned for more in my series on my travels throughout Southeast Asia!
Have you ever been to Vietnam? If not, is it on your list of countries to visit?