Secrets of Saigon: Traveling in a Land of Hospitality

By Zach Cook, May 16, 2016

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It’s hard to believe that just 40 years ago the most comprehensive bombing campaign in world history concluded in what is now an idyllic and all-around charming country.  

After failing in its attempt to prevent the spread of communism in Vietnam, the United States withdrew from Saigon (since renamed Ho Chi Minh City), but not before devastating the region.

Yet miraculously, after the US withdrawal, Vietnam did not become a communist dystopia, nor did any “dominos fall,” spreading communism throughout Asia, as so many Cold Warriors of the day had predicted. 

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On the contrary, today the country is one of the finest places to visit. Ho Chi Minh itself is an excellent city to frequent or even live in for those seeking a well-rounded environment that has both opportunities and an excellent quality of life.

There are numerous sites and affordable accommodations for travelers, while expats can pursue exciting prospects in the financial capital of a country growing in both economic and geopolitical significance in the Asia Pacific. That’s not to mention the delectable yet cheap food or the warm yet vivacious people, which of course everyone can appreciate.

Food

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Vietnamese cuisine is famously fresh. As in Thailand, even the cheapest food stalls can provide taste explosions using fastidious combinations of spices, all while maintaining a healthy freshness free of excess oil and MSG. 

Though many dishes contain seafood (most notably fish sauce), vegetarians can easily manage by simply saying chay to the server, which means vegetarian. 

Vietnam may be known for light bites like spring rolls, but there is arguably no better place in Southeast Asia for meat either. Walking the streets of Ho Chi Minh, one can find big juicy pork chops grilled on the side of the road with a host of rice and vegetables for only USD3. This is perhaps the best deal one can find anywhere… period.

What makes Vietnamese truly special is its fusion with French. The incorporation of the baguette into the local diet, for example, is one of the more positive vestiges of European colonialism.

Any Westerner looking for a taste of home while still getting an Asian experience should go for the banh mi dac biet, a mouth-watering sandwich that appears French on the outside but is all Vietnamese on the inside. The roll cradles myriad meats, like grilled pork, roast chicken and sausage. A combination of cucumber, daikon, carrot pickles, spicy chilies and cilantro sprigs gives it the perfect texture – another hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine.

To top it all off, as a leading coffee exporter, Vietnam is home to some of the finest java. The specialty is a rich iced coffee with condensed milk, the taste of which can ignite pleasure sensors throughout the body – it’s that good.

If the local food and delectable brews impress, however, it’s the gracious, jovial people who serve them that make the trip extraordinary.

Be it a meal or massage, a tremendous amount of care and technique goes into the meticulous craft of attending to others. Exemplary service aside, there is simply an ineffable warmth about the Vietnamese people that makes visits so very pleasant.

Sites

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It’s remarkable that locals are so genial, especially toward Americans, considering the recent past. Even beyond Ho Chi Minh, in places far up in the hills like Da Lat (where considerable fighting took place), people are no less affable. To appreciate the extent of this magnanimity in context, plan an afternoon to tour the War Remnants Museum.

While many will have heard various statistics regarding the conflict or seen the occasional macabre photo before visiting, it can still be difficult to fathom the gravity of it all once inside.

The bombardment of images of napalm victims and stories of massacres is enough to make the spine tingle; but perhaps most chilling is the Agent Orange room. There, a painted chamber is dedicated to the many victims of physical deformities due to exposure to the chemical poison that was sprayed over 10 percent of South Vietnam.

Apart from the glaring reminders of war crimes, there is also plenty of military hardware on display for the weapons enthusiast. But the real history aficionados should visit the Cu Chi tunnels. This crowning achievement in guerrilla warfare helped an army of peasants fend off the most powerful military machine in the world. The Viet Cong used the enormous labyrinth for combat, supply and communication lines, food and weapons caches, and even living quarters.

Visitors are allowed to meander through a tunnel that has been refurbished to accommodate heftier Western bodies, but even this enlarged version is taxing on the legs and will leave you sore. There are also displays of innovative traps, which, unlike the tunnel, are probably not worth a test.

Thankfully, those darker times lie in the past. During my stay in Vietnam, I only encountered one instance of anti-Americanism, and not because of ingrained resentment. A lugubrious cab driver expressed to me his contempt for those hailing from the US, so I apologized and asked if it was because of the war.

“No. It’s because a rich 60-year-old American stole my girlfriend, just like they always do!” he exclaimed. 

Ho Chi Minh is chock-full of characters like my cabbie. The people have very unique and animated personalities and opinions; they aren’t at all predictable, which is refreshing.

For this same reason, the city is terrific for nightlife. It’s almost always happy hour on Bui Vien Street, and you can find everything you need there.

Yet perhaps the most enjoyable excursion is a simple walk around the city, beyond the bustling tourist area surrounding Bui Vien. Crossing the street with a constant fleet of scooters coming at you can be unnerving at first, but just keep moving slowly and they’ll go around – just as they swarm around a bus, like a school of fish around a whale, when it comes barreling down a road using only the horn, not brakes.

Regardless of where your wanderlust takes you in Vietnam, you’re sure to come across ubiquitous French colonial architecture, exotic trees, delicious food and hospitable people all along the way.

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