I'm blogging about our recent trip to Vietnam in a few parts, because it's impossible to fit everything into one post. There was simply too much variety, confusion, elation, excitement, and adventure to communicate in one attempt, so I'm going to try my best here.
We arrived back to a snowing UK (SNOWING) on Tuesday morning - me, with my swollen ankles and abnormally large calf due to a particularly nasty mosquito bite - feeling, well, slightly deflated that our holiday fun was over. In fact, I felt (and still do) almost indignant, as if someone had turned the lights on the party way, way too early. I regret not taking a longer holiday and swinging by Hong Kong, for example, and all of this was made worse by the fact that London was even colder than we had left it, not warmer - frigid and unwelcoming.
But back to where we started: in Saigon.
I was most amazed and bewildered by the steady stream of motorcycle/moped/car/truck/bus traffic that encircled the city and acted as the pumping life-force of Ho Chi Minh City. If Ho Chi Minh was a heart, then its traffic was its heartbeat: neverending, steady, orderly chaos. Chaos was an understatement. I had read in copious Tripadvisor forums and guidebooks warning me of the traffic that never stopped, never stalled - not even for pedestrians. Instead, you are expected to stride slowly but purposefully, into oncoming traffic, with the promise that the city's ubiquitous motorbikes, carrying sometimes up to 6 members of a family (babies were held haphazardly on laps, toddlers stood at the front of scooters, eyes barely scraping over the handlebars), would dodge you.
I found looking at the ground particularly helpful. If I were to look up, I'd almost immediately fall into a hyperventilating panic attack, convinced that I would be hit. This only happened to me twice, by the way, which is pretty good going, IMO.
Horns were frequently used, not out of annoyance, like they are in the West, but rather as a courtesy to let mopeds know a car was about to pass, or wanted to, for example. A friendly "beep beep" here and there turned the city's air into a cacophony of frantic traffic noise, but to look at the drivers' faces would tell otherwise: placid, calm, often bored, situations that would cause me to slap my hands over my eyes (there were several near misses) did not faze the Saigon locals. Not one bit. I found this fascinating. And in our hallucinatory, jet-lagged state, we sat in 36 degree heat with a Coke and people-watched for an hour or so.
We stayed at the impeccably and charmingly kept Ma Maison boutique hotel, run by the very, very earnest Natasha Long and her equally enthusiastic staff.
Upon our very early arrival, we were asked to take our shoes off (in following with Vietnamese custom and the custom of many other Asian countries) and offered a cold drink and baguette with jam in this lovely courtyard, where we were promptly checked-in. We left our bags at the hotel and returned in the afternoon to be shown to our room.
The hotel's colonial architecture did not disappoint, and the rooms were tastefully decorated in accordance with the style. If the bed above looks like a dream to sleep in, that's because it was. There was no shortage of plumped pillows or cool sheets here and the strong air conditioning provided much respite from the oppressive heat.
Had we stayed in Saigon for a few more days, I would have loved to make Ma Maison our base. They make a mean beef pho for breakfast and I, foolish enough to have the Western breakfast of eggs and bacon (thinking the protein eggs would give me more energy for the day), had serious food envy at John's bowl of soup noodles, complete with homemade broth and fresh herbs.
That night, we ate at Quan an Ngon, as recommended by Natasha, which we later realized had been highly regarded by many papers, travel guides, and blogs as the place to dine in Vietnam. Famous for its authentic "street food" feel without the "street" factor (the restaurant is chic and looks suitably upscale, even if the prices aren't), it's run by one of Vietnam's most well-known chefs, with sister restaurants in Hoi An (where Colin and Sofie had kindly made reservations at for our first dinner together) and Hanoi.
I ordered my first rare beef pho of the trip, which arrived with succulent pieces of beef - tender and perfectly pink. John had a spiced beef stew served with a thick, crusty French baguette, or banh mi, and we shared the grilled prawns above, which were (as you can imagine) simply perfection. I cracked open the prawns greedily and the meat was sweet - exactly what you would expect from something that is fresh from the sea - and we rolled these in a salt and chili mixture with a squeeze of lime. At the end of the meal, I ordered the steamed banana cake, and John had a coffee. Our bill came to £12. I felt full and also a bit wrong, as a similar meal would easily cost over £25 or £30 in the UK.
Still, we strolled back to our hotel after a comfortable taxi ride with our bellies full of delicious, mouth-watering sustenance and our minds full of promise for what Vietnam could offer in the next few days. We slept restlessly that night, our excitement overtaking our simultaneous desire to simply "be" and exist in a new, vibrant country - wanting to absorb its culture and pulse by osmosis.