Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Vietnam, day 1: Chaos Theory - Relearning the Road Code

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
14 May 2017
After packing up our apartment in Wilby Central, where we had lived for the last three and a half months, we paid our teary farewells to Singapore and took a turbulent but otherwise uneventful flight to Vietnam's capital city.
The visa upon arrival process was quick and easy, and before we knew it we had officially arrived. We bought a SIM Card each, with unlimited data for the month for about USD25. They were very simple to set up and we were able to catch an Uber ride to our hotel for only USD4! Having a data plan really makes a difference when travelling, and I think we'll try our hardest to have data wherever we go in the future.
It was fun to be back in the crazy Vietnamese traffic, with motorbikes whizzing past on all sides carrying strange and oversized cargo. Most people were either texting or talking on the phone while zipping through the lanes, and one guy had even sellotaped his phone to his helmet as a makeshift handsfree setup. As we gathered our backpacks from the boot of the Uber, a downpour began and we quickly tried to find our hotel. However, Google Maps sent us too far down the road and we had to backtrack a couple of times before we found the right place. Once checked in, we took off our backpacks and immediately washed our feet of the grime. Yannick had already spilled chocolate onto his shorts from a slice of cake he procured at the Singapore airport, and he didn't want to stain the fabric more with the dark street mud. 
Though our room had no windows, we already knew that we had to be prepared for any type of weather in Vietnam, as like Singapore it was very changeable. Armed with umbrellas and jandals, we went out in search of a spot for lunch. Down a dubious looking alleyway, we found the entrance to an apartment. Winding our way up the spiral staircase decorated with Chinese lanterns, I wasn't at all sure we were in the correct place, but then it opened up into a charming restaurant themed a bit like a mud hut: Mountain Retreat. If the heavens hadn't just opened and left the balcony sitting in a puddle, it would have been wonderful to sit out there and watch the street below.

With an enormous menu, Mountain Retreat could make a dawdler out of any decisive person, though I eventually settled on the braised tofu and mushrooms with a side of carrot juice. Yannick ordered a lime leaf chicken dish and was excited to have access to Vietnamese coffee again.

Feeling like stretching our legs some more, we walked to the Ben Thanh market - a covered market with vendors selling souvenirs and hand crafted items. Nearby were several streets lined with produce markets.

Then to 23 September Park, where we saw a dog run past in a t-shirt, and Yannick batted a balloon back to a playful child. There was a considerable amount of construction going on nearby, which didn't help our attempts to remaster the art of crossing the road, but we got back in the swing of things fairly swiftly regardless.

The entrance fee for the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum was 10,000 dong (USD0.44) so we decided we may as well have a look.

Honestly, I would have paid more than that just to see the building itself, which was a huge and beautifully designed 1929 French villa, with airy shuttered windows, tiles, and balconies.

There was an interior courtyard with lush foliage, and while there you felt like you had been transported into a previous era (if the illusion wasn't hampered by the skyscrapers poking out above the rooftops).

Now that I've raved enough about the building itself, let me rave about the art. There were powerful sculptures, lacquer engravings, sketches of soldiers and more.

Some of the art had a Mayan-esque quality to it, as though the Mayans and Vietnamese shared some connected historical art style. It was very interesting, and something that we would see more of in Vietnamese art.

Continuing to explore, we found streets rife with antique shops and narrow apartments, thick clumps of cabling branching off like a diagram of a human body's nervous system. 

As a fan of pedestrian zones, I had to check out Nguyen Hue Walking Street. A long paved pedestrian street dotted with trees, fountains and art exhibits, I enjoyed the stroll. Along the way we saw a building in which every balcony advertised a different shop, and were called out to by many fruit hawkers. I considered buying some mango with chilli salt, but opted instead for some delicious ripe pineapple, which the lady chopped into pieces for me. 

At the end of the street we reached Sông Sài Gòn, the river that snakes through the city. It wasn't particularly attractive, with rather a lot of flotsam in the form of rubbish and aquatic vegetation, and giant billboards advertising beer. And yet as with most cities, any little bit of nature one can get is cherished. (Except for Singapore, which somehow manages to combine a modern city with nature excellently.)

From couples to tourists (itsa me!) to the elderly, an array of people congregated along the river's banks to watch the slow ebb of the water as it drifted past container ships and skyscrapers.

A few minutes' walk up the bank, we crossed some terrifying multi-laned streets to reach the statue of Tran Hung Dao, a 13th-century military leader who looked somewhat like a cross between a samurai and a figure from the Terracotta Army.

And before heading home we of course had to see the Saigon Opera House, which opened on 1 January 1900. Stylistically, it's based off the Opéra Garnier in Paris, and was intended to please French colonists. We weren't allowed inside as a show was about to start, so we decided to return at another time. The opera house was in a swanky part of HCMC, with Gucci Stores and window displays of Moët et Chandon. We passed by two historic hotels: the Hotel Continental, which was Saigon's first ever hotel (built in 1880); and the Caravelle Hotel, which was a hub of communication during the Vietnam War as it was popular with journalists, writers and was even the location of the Australian and New Zealand embassies in the 1960's. Famously, a bomb exploded in room 514 (a floor known to be occupied by foreign journalists) in 1964, injuring several people but fortunately killing none.

The People's Committee Building is another example of the splendour of French colonial architecture. Originally a hotel, it now functions as a city hall.

By the time we reached the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, we had grown weary and were in need of rest. We snapped a few photos of the outside but decided to return on another day. After resting in our hotel for a while, we ventured out again for dinner. Yannick had heard that Banh Mi Huynh Hoa made a wicked sandwich, so we waited in line to acquire one. There were two lines: one for pedestrians and one for motorcyclists. For 35k dong (USD1.50), it was a ridiculously affordable dinner. I wanted something a bit lighter, so on the way back we popped into a small supermarket where I bought apples and ciku, a fruit that tastes like brown sugar. Though the banh mi made Yannick weep from spiciness, it was worth the wait and the mouth flames.