Jess Warren experiences the buzz and energy as a first time visitor to Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Romain Garrigue.
My first impressions of Ho Chi Minh City, looking down from the aeroplane window as I sat aboard an Airbus A330, was the snaking river and streets pulsing with mopeds; a continuous flow of ant-sized machines could be seen across the city.
This is my first time in HCMC, and my first visit to Vietnam. I am not unfamiliar with travelling across Asia, having spent time in India and Thailand before now. Yet, whilst there are similarities, needless to say there are many differences; from language, to culture, food and local customs, I knew I was in for an exciting two months.
My name is Jessica and I’m visiting HCMC as an intern, here at AsiaLIFE for eight weeks. Whilst I travelled here alone, I am one of 12 students from Cardiff University spending the vast majority of summer on an internship placement to suit my future career. The 12 of us are spread between districts 1, 2 and 3, depending on the location of our placements. A decision that will influence our individual experiences of the city.
Having done as much research via YouTube videos on HCMC before my arrival, it became clear to me that the glamorous aerial videography of rice paddies and temples was a well edited version of the city.
As I arrived in Tan Son Nhat International Airport, and stepped out of the departure gates, the wall of hot and humid air hit me. Starkly reminded that for the next two months I will be living in a tropical climate, I jumped in a Grab taxi and made my way to my apartment.
Gazing out of the dusty windows, in awe at the agility of moped drivers who weave between traffic, I felt secure in the back of a car. But it wouldn’t be long until I was riding pillion across the city…
In order to find my feet quickly, the second evening of my stay was spent on a motorbike food tour of the city. Our guides took us to three different street food locations where I sampled pancakes (banh xeo), a range of seafood including scallops (so diep nuong mo hanh) and a cold noodle salad dish (bun thit nuong). We then finished the evening with dessert of ice cream and fruit.
Each stop for food was accompanied with a Saigon beer, and plenty of discussion with our guides about the ways to eat and enjoy Vietnamese street food. I couldn’t think of a better activity for one of your first evenings in Saigon, as I learnt so much about the city in a short space of time. And if you’re nervous about travelling by moped, the experienced guides were an easier introduction to this means of travel, compared to jumping straight in with a Grab motorbike.
What struck me within the first few days of arriving is that I could not wipe the smile off my face. Where my expectations were set on a colourful, busy and glamorous way of living in this Southeast Asian city; the former proved more true than the latter. That is not to say HCMC lacks a luxury feel, as every city has wealthier and poorer areas. Instead it is to say that glamorous towers can sit alongside run-down shops or pop up construction sites. Travelling between D1, 2 and 3 it is clear to see the dynamic and ever changing city of Saigon in all its glory. With every new experience and sight, I felt incredibly happy to be spending my summer in this beautifully surprising city.
One thing that took some getting used to was the continuous beeping and tooting of car and bike horns on every road. Whilst in the UK, the car horn is reserved for making your frustration known, this is not the case here in HCMC, and in much of SE Asia. Instead, it serves as a reminder to other road users of your presence, whether that be to the side of someone, or on the road as they begin to pull out of a junction. Whilst much of the group found it surprising to begin with, it now is recognized as an essential part of navigating the roads safely.
But with every chaotic and exciting trip, downtime is needed too. It became apparent to me that there is a huge choice of bars, lounges, coffee shops and restaurants on offer in D2, and with the majority having a relaxed, air conditioned environment it provides a fantastic escape from the daily heat, (or rain). Rain is certainly something I am used to in the UK, but when it rains here, it pours. The sky opens for a few minutes and after one short downpour, I’ve witnessed streets quickly flooding. I’ve been caught out with this one, expecting a light drizzle to blow through, I can assure you that light drizzle will turn into a heavy downpour within a matter of minutes. I have no doubt I shall witness plenty more of this, having arrived just in time for rainy season.
For the other interns staying in D3 and D1, their experiences of the city differ from my relaxed setting of Thao Dien. Those residing in D1 are located just next to Le Van Tam Park, and those in D3 are incredibly near to the Independence Palace.
Having been here for five days now, eating well was something playing on my mind, yet the variety of cuisine available at my doorstop still amazes me. Wherever I have visited for lunch and dinner so far has had an impeccable array of choice, all cooked to perfection. In Vietnam, the ideal dish has a balance of spice, sour, bitter, salt and sweet, with each element corresponding to a part of the body.
Vietnamese food has a strong French influence, and I have grown to love the banh mi; a French style baguette filled with fresh vegetables and meat. The perfect balance of every flavour on offer. Combined with a strong coffee, often served with condensed milk, it is easy to see how Vietnam has become popular for its delicious variety in food.
With one of eight weeks completed here, it’s safe to say Saigon has surpassed my expectation in many ways. The dynamic aspect to the city is keeping me on my toes, and retreating to my apartment in leafy district two is providing the essential relaxation to keep up with the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City.