TRAVEL: Eating the past

After being inspired to travel to Vietnam by a TV cooking show, it was no surprise much of our time in the country was spent discovering new foods.

But the unexpected boon of the trip was uncovering the long and often turbulent history of the people who so determinedly survived decades of conflict and the rich influence of the French on Vietnamese culture.

My partner and I spent about five days exploring Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). We arrived late at night and, like many Asian cities, Ho Chi Minh was just hitting its stride. As we were warned by our friends, the streets were packed with cars, people on scooters and bikes, all rushing from one place to another and happily beeping along the way.

 We saw families of five packed onto a single scooter, couples with the ladies riding side-saddle in the scooter pillion and street street sellers who pack their scooter or bicycle to the hilt with wares for sale, be it flowers, bags or rice or even cages of puppies.

Despite the seeming lack of road rules for motorists (apart from near constant beeping), there are some rules worth following as  a pedestrian. Wait for a slight easing in traffic  and then walk steadily across the street. Don’t worry about the scooters whizzing towards you – they are well-used to pedestrians and will judge your walking speed and dodge around you if needs be. It does take nerves of steel the first few times you cross the road but soon enough you’ll be confidently walking into a moving wall of scooters. 

We spent a few days exploring Ho Chi Minh on foot, walking to the Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, post office and more.

The most impressive – and perhaps most bizarre – sight of our tour was the Reunification Palace.

 The guide books aren’t kidding when they say time has stood still here since 1975. Formerly known as Independence Palace, the building was the site of one of the defining images of the fall of Ho Chi Minh, when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates on April 30, 1975.

Restored tanks and the odd jet are on display in the leafy grounds of the palace, but the real fascination lines within. Room after room displays modest yet opulent ’60s and ’70s interiors. There are war rooms, libraries, bedrooms, dining rooms as well as a bar and rooftop nightclub. In levels below the palace there are a myriad of tunnels and rooms lined with maps, phones, radios, tactical charts and even a bedroom for the president should conflict beak out.

A short walk away is the War Remnants Museum, the most moving part of the entire trip. Once you’ve dodged the fellow tourists checking out the tanks, jets and military equipment outside, you can head inside for heart-wrenching accounts of the impact of the Vietnam War on the country and its people. There are a few levels of in-depth information about jails, tortures, escapes and a section dedicated to the victims of Agent Orange.

Other sights worth checking out on a walking tour of Ho Chi Minh include the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon Opera House) and the nearby Ho Chi Minh City Hall or Hotel de Ville de Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee headquarters). Both have beautifully decorated facades and are worth seeing by day and night.

Even just wandering the streets and alleys of Ho Chi Minh offers an insight into Vietnamese life, so driven by the capitalism borrowed from the West but still permeated by the influence of the government (as seen in the numerous propaganda-style posters littering the streetscape).

Make time to visit the bar at the famous Rex Hotel where the US military command held a daily conference (dubbed ‘‘The Five O’Clock Follies’’ by cynical journalists) and the famous rooftop bar.  Though a little expensive by Vietnamese standards, the cocktails are delicious and the views from the rooftop well worth the price.

 Other rooftop bars popular with tourists include Saigon Saigon at the Caravelle, Shri and the newest kid on the block, Chill Sky Bar. Chill Sky Bar offers some of the best views over the city but  it is packed with tourists rather than locals as is the nearby Le Pub.

Another tourist must-see is Ben Thanh market, even if you just stroll through to get a feel of the place. Yes, it has  row upon row of fake handbags, sunglasses, tacky T-shirts, liquor with snakes and scorpions and more, but it’s a quintessential part of the Vietnamese tourist experience. Delve into the less visited alleys of the market to get a better taste of real Vietnamese markets.

Visit the fresh food area and check out the freshly cooked food, fruit, meat, fish and flowers. If you’re game to eat street food (as we were) tuck into some pho, banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) or a juice made from freshly-squeezed sugar cane.

Pho stalls also dot most street corners so check out which stalls are popular with locals and dive in. If in doubt watch the food being prepared by the vendor.  Often they are used to the enquiring eyes of tourists and will be able to give you some kind of description of the dish. Bear in mind it’s best to eat food cooked in front of you and avoid ice unless you’re at a westernised establishment (you can’t drink tap water in Vietnam) but generally we dove into street food opportunities without too many consequences.

Also keep your eyes peeled for patisseries in Ho Chi Minh (a remnant of the French occupation of parts of the country) which can be a quiet and usually airconditioned stop from the chaos on the streets. Be sure to also make time to relax at a coffee house. Even if you’re not a caffeine addict, take a punt and try the local brew. The coffee houses serve ca phe da or cafe da (Vietnamese iced coffee) and Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk.

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