Saigon has charmed us by the time we travel from the airport to our hotel. Absolutely buzzing with activity, people and scooters everywhere, the footpaths struggle to contain the masses of people eating, chatting and cooking, as close as they can get to the middle of the road without being run over. The three and four storey terrace-style housing means everyone is living on top of each other, so groups congregate out in the hot air under the street lights, perched on parked motorbikes and impossibly small plastic stools, forcing the traffic into single file.
Our hotel, the Duc Vuong, in the bustling District 1, is like a tiny, cool oasis in which to recover from the heat and sensory overload of the street. Ironically, I have succumbed to the “holiday flu”, the one that you manage to avoid during the stressful planning, booking and packing stages but that finally gets you once you are airborne and relaxed. Upon checking in, the manager mentions a “free dinner” to be held at 7pm for anyone in the hotel who wants to join. Too tired to think about other options at the time, we give in to his charm and agree. 10 guests are there that evening, seated together at a perfectly laid out table, and we’re welcomed by the manager, grinning from ear to ear. As if reading our minds, he begins to speak,
“You may be wondering why we offer you free dinner. Well, because at Duc Vuong Hotel we are a family.”
The speech goes on for a few minutes, the manager obviously ecstatic that we have accepted his generous offer. And the food which follows is delicious beyond our expectations. Succulent fried tofu with pineapple and tomato, delicate clear soups, chicken and vegetables all part of the banquet.
Far from being just another grotty, overcrowded city, Saigon has an energy in which nothing seems to stand still long enough to let the dust, sweat and soot settle and weigh it down. At the time of our visit, a four-day national holiday celebrating the end of the Vietnam War (or “American War” as it is known in Vietnam) has everyone in vacation mode.
Of course, in Saigon, like elsewhere in Vietnam, everyone rides a scooter. There are whole families of five balanced casually atop a single bike: the father at the front, mother and two children holding on behind, with the toddler standing in between its father’s legs. It’s clearly the most effective method of zipping around the narrow streets, nudging through 4 lanes of oncoming traffic and squeezing past tourist buses with arms held out to ensure you don’t scrape as you go past.
To get around on foot you literally have to walk in the road, dodging the traffic as it dodges you. The busy, steaming pace of it all somehow manages to accommodate all forms of human activity without discrimination. Parents push prams, ladies carry boxes full of undecipherable nicknacks, young men smoke and chat, grandmothers sell noodle soup made on bicycle kitchens. Despite the chaos and constant horn-honking, the atmosphere is immediately relaxing. We feel as though we could happily disappear into this disarray and emerge completely unwound several days later.
Our next destination, Mui Ne, is a complete contrast to the city. A small seaside town around four hours north east of Saigon by bus, it is a sleepy stretch of resorts and houses along the South China Sea. Here food vendors amble down the main road on bicycles, Vietnamese pop tunes pumping from tiny stereos attached to their tiny awnings. They always smile and say hello, but it’s far too hot to purchase the dried, salted fish most of them are selling.
For our evening meal we sit at small tiled tables at a beachside shack, feasting on the catches of the day. As we drink Vietnamese beer and watch the day settle into night, hardworking fishermen continue to replenish the restaurant’s tanks with crayfish, clams and fish brought up fresh from the beach below. We have entrees of gigantic prawns, and scallops slathered in garlic, shallots and pepper cooked to perfection on a 44-gallon drum. The waitress, with her limited English (our Vietnamese is worse!), entices us with a suggestion of “fish soup”. It is one of the best dishes we have ever eaten! A small terracotta pot comes set over a bed of flaming coals, filled with a sweet pineapple, tomato and onion broth and stocked full of chunks of shark meat. It’s accompanied by a plate piled high with okra, bok choi, and other strange vegetables we’ve never seen before. The moon is bright red as it rises up through the clouds above the tin roof, and happy, Vietnamese synthesizer-pop blares over the speakers.