Ho Chi Minh, HCMC, Saigon. Whatever you call it, this massive city in Southern Vietnam has become a post-war metropolis, tourist destination, and cultural capital. To some Americans, Vietnam evokes images of rice paddies, small children, and the horrors of the 1960’s and 70’s. To others, it is an exotic labyrinth of markets, canals, and mysterious soups waiting to be slurped and Instagrammed.
To me, it is a five-hour bus ride away. And in a simple weekend, the city of distant awe became a real place in my memory and my heart.
Our school in Phnom Penh—along with others in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam—is part of the “Mekong River International Schools Association”. As such, our sports teams all compete with each other, and we travel to the respective schools for the tournaments. There is also a “Cultural Exchange” between the schools and their art programs, which happens once a year. This past February, I was the female supervisor for our schools varsity basketball team at the MRISA 2014 basketball tournament in Ho Chi Minh.
In between watching the games and helping as needed, I was able to slip away and explore the city.
The first place I headed was downtown. The above photo is at the massive roundabout in front of Bến Thành Market. The entrance to the market is below the clock tower on the right. As you can see, there are as many—if not more—motos in Vietnam as in Cambodia.
Actually, that reminds me—if you’ve never thought about the size and scope of populations within Southeast Asia, this is a prime time to do so. In the map below, you can see the population densities in our region:
Laos is the least populated country in SE Asia, with Cambodia a close second. Vietnam is jam packed all along the coast, and particularly around the Mekong Delta.
But you would never have known it, the morning I was out. The streets were quiet in the early morning, lined with trees and paper flowers.
I headed into Bến Thành Market, ready for a coffee and something to eat.
If SE Asia is famous for its iced coffee, then Vietnam is king. They have perfected the iced coffee, with sickeningly sweetened condensed milk, hot, rich coffee, and a chilled glass filled with ice.
Much of the market was similar to Cambodia, especially with the gelatinous deserts.
All the skewers tempted me, with their perfect seasonings and fresh herbs.
But behind the pristine displays of food is a chaotic kitchen!
I walked through the produce area, feeling just as if I was back at home in Phnom Penh.
Although I have never come across fish this delicious in my local market! Look at that! What type of fish do you think it is?
After Bến Thành, I strolled around the streets of the city with an iced coffee and my camera.
A few cages waiting for a bird to make them their home.
As Vietnam is communist, I saw governmental posters all over the city. Sean thought this one was particularly interesting, and it shows all religions coming together under Communism.
More promotional artwork, celebrating the government.
Did you know there was a Notre Dame cathedral in Vietnam? In the center of the city is this gigantic basilica, built by the French in the late 1800’s. It is still used to this day, and all of the original material the building is made of was imported from France.
The Saigon Opera House, where regular performances are held.
Ho Chi Minh City’s city hall building.
One man I spoke with described the downtown as the ‘lungs of the city’. And I can see why. With it’s beautiful architecture, flower-lined pathways, and bustle of people, it really felt like an integral part of the greater puzzle that is Saigon.
And for my final meal before the bus pulled out of the station to go home: legendary phở. Pho is becoming more popular in the States, but I’ve never had it myself. A steaming bowl of heavily seasons soup was set before me, alongside a massive pile of fresh herbs, limes, bean sprouts, and chilis. Need I describe how delicious it was?
I can’t wait to return to Vietnam, and see more than the city of Ho Chi Minh. I also want to bring Sean back with me—the country is absolutely massive, and this was a mere weekend.
Stay tuned for a blog post on our second adventure to Silk Island, as well as our first village celebration!