Any mention of Vietnam would bring images of war to most people’s minds. In fact, a visitor to the country, especially its largest city Ho Chi Minh City with its charming streets and delicious food, can discern the scars left by the bloodshed of the past.
A trip from Kerala
Flights of Vietjet now connect Kerala’s busiest airport Kochi with Saigon in Vietnam. The flight, taking off from Kochi at midnight, arrives in Ho Chi Minh City after five hours. Incidentally, Ho Chi Minh City is still called Saigon - its old name - by the local people. Often, Communist-baiters living in other countries are blamed for preferring the name Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City; but facts speak otherwise.
While Hanoi is the cultural capital of Vietnam, Saigon is the country’s financial hub. Saigon also ranks high in facilities for tourists. The city offers plenty of options for eating out, particularly street food; a vibrant nightlife and a wide variety of accommodation options.
What strikes a first-time visitor to Vietnam is the sight of every road teeming with two-wheelers. Most of these bikes are made in Japan and are the preferred mode of travel for Vietnamese people commuting to work. As per data, there are a total of six crore two-wheelers on Vietnam’s roads.
“During wartime, bicycles were our favourite vehicle. Now everyone has switched to bikes. It’s that simple,” says tour guide Jackson. A river which caresses the Mekong Delta flows beside the city, making it more enticing. According to historians, the natural beauty of Saigon was among the major reasons which attracted the French and Americans to Vietnam.
Another unique sight in Saigon is women selling a noodle soup called ‘pho’ at every street corner. Pho is the favourite breakfast dish of office employees while rushing to work. The dish is served in a bowl and sliced chillies and certain green leaves are also offered, along with pork and chicken. All these could be mixed in the bowl and relished. The soup has an intoxicating scent of lemon grass. Among the first historical sites where tourists are taken in Saigon is the Central Post Office. A massive French colonial building, the post office was built in 1891. It has Roman arches, gothic images and interiors filled with Vietnamese souvenirs.
Right next to the post office is the Notre Dame Cathedral built in 1877. The bricks to build the cathedral were brought from France and its walls are a striking red. The cathedral bell is massive, weighing 29 metric tonnes, and a huge cross of 600 kg adorns the roof. In front of the cathedral stands a statue of Virgin Mary, brought from Italy. The statue was in the news for reportedly shedding tears.
A vibrant city
Ho Chi Minh City witnesses a very active nightlife, with ‘Vespa tours’ – a package ride on two-wheelers - being the main attraction. Street food is yet another feature of nightlife. Unique dishes available from the street include a dumpling filled with prawns marinated in sugar; a salad with roasted fish and neem leaves as ingredients and a dish made with lettuce leaves and papaya, which is served with prawns fried after immersing in a batter. During the daytime, tourists can hop on to double-decker buses and tour the city.
Meanwhile, Ben Thanh market with its 1,500 shops is a paradise for shopaholics. Items on sale in the shops range from Buddha idols of numerous shapes and sizes to bags with pictures of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Most of the shopkeepers are women and the prices are low. However, you need to bargain to get the items cheap. While bargaining, it is easier to calculate in US Dollars as you could end up with a loss if trying to convert the Vietnamese currency Dong to Indian Rupees.
Yet another advantage of Saigon is the availability of cheap roaming mobile plans offered by companies such as Airtel.
Nearby tourist spots
Apart from Ho Chi Minh City, travellers can head to places such as Hanoi and Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels are located 70 km from Saigon and were the hideouts of Viet Cong guerillas during the war. Some of the tunnels extend to 120 km and are a symbol of human persistence and resistance against foreign occupation. Initially built as a safe place to escape bombings by French fighter planes, the tunnels later became the hiding place for the guerillas against the US armed forces.
A trip to Vietnam would fill a tourist with joy as well as grief. Any person who has read history would sense the invisible bloodstains on the Chinook helicopters and M48 tanks belonging to the US displayed at the war museum in Saigon. Pictures at the museum also depict the destruction caused by Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant sprayed by the Americans over Vietnamese forests.
Saigon was also the location where the Vietnam War came to an end. The city also had witnessed intense street battles between Viet Cong and US forces. The last US soldier also left Vietnam from Saigon in 1975.
The striking and timeless picture of the young Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc fleeing America’s Napalm bombing clicked by photographer Nick Ut would remain etched in the memories of every traveller to Vietnam.