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Inside Vietnam - HoChi Minh City, Hanoi and Hoi An

By: Jacques Smit Posted: October-31-2011 in
Photo Credit - Jacques Smit
Jacques Smit

I arrived at Tan Son Nhat alone. It was humid, I was tired and it was winter. Bus 152 (50 cents a ticket) stood parked beneath an arch, slightly beyond and to the right of the plethora of people gathered outside the terminal building. Denying I was American to the same woman thrice, I watched new streets become familiar through the dirty window. After more than 13 hours I was finally in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh
The girl behind the counter told me it was Tet and that I had to be quick – essential advice when crossing a street like Pham Ngu Lao in the backpacker district for the first time. I was on my way to August 23 Park which stood drenched in scents of peach blossom, sunflowers, kumquat and orange trees. Sitting on a bench, I watched men playing cards, women selling fruit and fitness fanatics bend and stretch – all the while enveloped by the subtle turbulence of new encounters at dusk. Not long and a Vietnamese man sat down next to me and, judging by the thirst in my eyes, he pointed at a nearby stand and said “Heineken”. He then showed me his tattoos, complemented me on my arm muscles and was gone by the time a pretty girl caught his eye. Slowly the night drew its veil across the city only to be pierced by its millions of neon lights.
The city seldom sleeps. The traffic quickens and ebbs. Run through Ben Thanh Market at least once – even if only to practise saying no a thousand times before eventually saying yes. If you’re South African like me, you might find the old Post Office enticing; apart from its splendid architecture it also includes Pretoria local time (?!?!?) on its wall of clocks.

Eating (upper end of Bui Vien, especially) is a $1 feast (thank Pho!) – drinking a $1 (Saigon!)delight. And then it was New Year. Again. Dong Khoi, the city’s central shopping nerve, resembled a veritable Garden of Eden, all for the Cat! There was music and balloons and street vendors broadening both girths and smiles – cameras lightening up the sky flash upon flash – a suitable send off before I grudgingly realised I needed (but couldn’t afford) more time before heading north to Hoi An.

Hoi An
6am. Time travel. Not a single brick of Hoi An’s tube-house streets has been altered for at least a hundred odd years. With its multitude of tailors and trinket shops it must be one of the most charming villages in all of Vietnam. The Central Market is a melting pot. Watch your head. Herbs, flowers, boat rides, fish, meat (suspicious cow eye included)... make sure you say “yes” to something here at least once – especially if it’s to something fried containing either banana or coconut. Hoi An is made for strolling, especially across the old Japanese bridge in the late afternoon when the village turns into a riot of pastel hues (ochre!) Make sure to pop into the photo and print shop of Thai Tuan Kiet on Nguyen Thai Hoc for a rare treat.

If I could remember the names of the two food joints on the riverside Bach Dang Street we overfrequented, I would certainly tell you about them, but I only remember the tastes and the smells and the intoxication. If, by chance, you happen to find yourself in Hoi An and you find a desperate looking young girl asking you to “come in please,” do so and if an old woman by the side of the road tries to sell you a clay cow, elephant or donkey, don’t be scared to blow on its bottom.

It must have been around 10 degrees in Hanoi. The skies loomed grey as I moved into a rambling old communist hideout (complete with roof terrace) on West Lake, a popular spot for paddling swan-boats. Hanoi is small and easy to navigate (especially on the back of a little two wheeled pony). The city turns into a kaleidoscope at night when sidewalks fill with hungry locals in desperate need of a Pho, Bun, Xoi, Lau or Banh Cuon fix. Although the Bia Hois, bars and restaurants around Ta Hien offer up welcome hideouts for quenching thirsts and calming hunger, I still prefer tracking down more obscure gems such as Cong Caphe on Trieu Viet Vuong, Chuon Chuon Quan on Hoi Vu or the roof top bar on Hang Gai (which you have to enter through the back of a silk shop).
Hanoi is very much about turning left where the sign says turn right, if only to catch a glimpse beneath the skirt of one of the most mysterious, melancholy and and exhilarating cities I have ever had the pleasure to call home.

Republished with the kind permission of Pathfinder Vietnam


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