There were a few things that changed after moving to Singapore: how I viewed and valued my work, how efficiency ruled my world, and moving at a faster pace is a given. What I didn’t anticipate is how I started to treat vacations – something I’m still conflicted if it’s because Singapore happened to me or because I’m simply getting older. When I was younger, vacations needed to be memorable and sleepless like a sprint to cross off as many items from a list as you can–after all, I’m paying for something expensive that I’m likely not going to see again so might as well do EVERYTHING. Ate this? Check. Seen that? Check.
Which is good, because now in my 30s and with meager energy, I’m flying to places just to eat. Or so I thought.
Folks, welcome to my trip to Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh was a decision made out of a realisation that my core friends in Singapore and I have never flown out for a vacation. We had long weekends coming up and we were itching to get away for a bit, but as we struck off beaches and farther places because flights were more expensive, Ho Chi Minh became the more obvious choice. C and I have never been to Ho Chi Minh so that’s a plus; they’re also keen to visit it again just to get their fill of Pho.
But HCM from my view is another Manila, just like Bangkok, Malaysia and Jakarta. I thought if I were flying in from the Philippines I’d be a little bit underwhelmed, after all, we have the same busy streets and cheap fake clothes and cheap beers. We only made plans to look at a few places for a day and just wing it for the rest of the trip to make it less stressful.
What I did not anticipate, however, is finding out just how much history of Asia I did not pay attention to and how much of that is reflected on every facade of Ho Chi Minh. Finding these stories in their war memorials you uncover more things that make them stand out.
In Cu Chi for example–a place about 2 hours away from the city–showed how physically small the Vietnamese were but their ingeniuty and will to survive is unparalleled when we explored the improvised holes they hid in during the Vietnam war and small underground tunnels they made to crawl around the areas undetected. We saw dozens of different handmade traps that were meant to maim the enemies, if not kill.
Talking to the guides, you can feel the memory is still fresh and you get the impression of how much they’re relieved that it’s over and they’re reunified, but somehow wondering if this is really the right path–Communist Vietnam may not be what they want, but it will do.
But if Cu Chi shows aggressiveness, cunning and survival, their museums show a different side: they show hurt and anger–of how much damage the war has done. The War Remnants Museum in District 1 have photos and documentation of everything they could collate, from the US soldiers to the journalists to the Vietcong and later, to the sufferers of the Napalm and Agent Orange. The latter, which was so powerful the poison has not only damaged them physically but also altered their DNA that there are still handicapped children living in Vietnam. They’ve started foundations focused on the rehabilitation but the reality is removing the poison completely in their forests and rivers may take a while; near the city they’ve set up businesses in villages that create art using eggshells and selling the proceeds to support the handicapped, but not nearly enough to support everyone.
While their museums scream of propaganda you can’t deny the suffering of their people, especially how they still have casualties to date. It is unbelievable and senseless, and you will walk out of it feeling like you were robbed of a soul.
It’s hard to feel down for long, however. If there’s anything Asians share strongly it’s probably the optimism to move forward, and Ho Chi Minh now is a great vision of progress: the overlap of the French past and the Vietnamese future.
Walking around HCM is a surprising delight–for example, you always have one foot on the grave as you have to weave around the motorbikes who are using the side streets when there’s traffic; if that’s not excitement, I don’t know what is. They close some of the streets around Ben Thanh at night and convert them into marketplaces for fake items (think Northface bags and Under Armour dry fits) or for drinking (over at the backpacker street, although I’m sure there’s plenty of them around). You have people wearing rice hats selling food to you while you’re walking, and yes, there’s Pho everywhere. They have a more known fast food named Pho 24 that’s kind of like Manila’s Jollibee (except they also have Jollibees here) and the soup tastes amazing, but almost every other restaurant offers pho anyway.
You also start to realize that half of Vietnamese food is just offering variants of Pho: Spring rolls are made with the same Pho noodles, mung bean sprouts and basil, and there’s this Pho ingredients fried into some pancake looking stuff (kind of like Vigan empanada version). It’s going to wear you out. It’s okay, you’ll get over it. Just grab some $2 SGD cheap beer anywhere and you’re good to go.
It’s also very interesting how HCM forces you out of your comfort zone little by little—this coming from someone who grew up in Manila. I accidentally found a new place by looking up in front of an Adidas Neo store where a friend was buying a pair of shoes and thought, well hey, there seems to be something interesting upstairs, perhaps we should check it out? But going through the very narrow stairs it started getting shady: it was dark, the corners smelled of piss, and while we’re in the middle of hesitating to climb up an old Vietnamese man opened the door of the top stairs and looked at us and said, come, come. The walls behind him that we could see from the small door opening were not comforting at all, and we were preparing ourselves to find a seedy bar with ladies lap dancing, or worse, a drug den–
–only to be greeted by one of the best rooftop bars in the city, with a rainbow flag draped over the DJ table. Welcome to Broma, a club that’s really more like a lounge that’s not a gay bar but owned by a gay guy. It’s surprisingly a part of the description if you look the place up.
How the city looks from Broma’s terraces
The next night had an almost similar story: dubious dim street with a crooked looking cat and the smell of cat piss. The door was unassuming and you almost brace yourself for the probability of someone putting a knife near your throat – only to find a classy, loft-type modern bar stocked with an impressive number of liquor. The Alley Cocktail Bar, a 5-star reviewed bar, we were told.
There, we met Vu, one of my friend’s old contacts who used to fly back and forth to the Philippines. He gave us a good Vietnamese experience by suggesting to have the drinks at The Alley and cap it off with a huge bowl of pho that’s about 15 minutes’ walk from the area after we got drunk. Pretty much the same Manila drinking story except replace it with a lugaw or pares from your favourite dirty kanto seller that’s popular with the jeepney drivers.
It’s charming, what Ho Chi Minh is. From the huge empty spaces to the street graffiti to the modern western-inspired spaces to the street vendors who would pinch you when you try to walk away from a potential sale and scream “rude!” to your face. It’s a place that’s struggling to find an in between from their progression and their past; what comes off it is a specific branding that’s distinctly Vietnam.
Maybe next time we will fly in really just for the food alone? Or not. There’s still a lot of seedy places hiding good bars and other interesting places we have yet to discover.