As the plane descended, I looked out of the window and saw a thousand lights brighten the night sky. My love affair with Ho Chi Minh City was going to continue. This was my second call of duty in two years and I thought about the things I could do differently this time around. In my mind, this city somehow seemed small. I figured that was because I thought I had covered a lot of ground walking around the city, sweating profusely on late January afternoons. I remember expecting to waltz into a nice bookstore and find a Lonely Planet on the city, only to wander around with no copy available and feel adventure manual-less. But Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon from those war movies, has a growing population of about 9 million and the surrounding metropolitan area is the largest in Vietnam. I realised I had much more to discover and hope descended as I landed in the city once more.
There’s a buzz in the city sometimes resembling Mumbai at night. Over 3 million two-wheelers cover the streets and mark the rush with which the Vietnamese are zipping by. Sometimes I’d cross the road in surprise seeing how two-wheelers would quickly fill up on either side of the road, anxious riders readying for the green light. I remembered that buzz because I took a scooter taxi for a random ride around the city and with ease, I became Vietnamese. At the traffic signals, the locals would look at me and perhaps wonder why I was smiling, wide-eyed. The scooter ride wound along the river Saigon and turned to history, where the vestiges of French colonialism remained. The 19th century Notre Dame cathedral looked a bit like its much older cousin in Paris, but this red brick version missed the strong gray feel of the original and wasn’t as detailed. Beside the cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office which functions both as a post office and a tourist attraction. As I walked in, everything turned sepia and I could see soldiers lining up to send letters to their loved ones home. In one corner, a souvenir vendor played a familiar Western hit on the t’rung, the traditional bamboo xylophone. A little further away was the Municipal Theatre, or Opera House, built by the French which was once the home of the South Vietnam’s Lower House assembly. The experience of watching a Vietnamese cultural show in a building with French motifs was something else. Much like Paris, the streets around these monuments were wider than other parts of the city. One was called Rue Catinat, of course.
Towards evening, young and old Vietnamese can be spotted in the park in front of the famous Reunification Palace. Vendors walk up and down the lanes for their last bit of luck before the end of the day. As I stood on the porch of the famed building, which looked ordinary architecturally, I struggled to imagine the symbol it held for the people of Vietnam. Much has been written about how a North Vietnamese tank rammed through the gates of the Palace as Saigon fell in 1975.
I walked around downtown past the many souvenir shops and the odd French cafes tucked between fancy Vietnamese restaurants. I walked into Hotel Majestic and stepped into the tiny classic elevator. This hotel from history had a lovely rooftop restaurant overlooking the Saigon river. Quite often, local bands would take the stage and play old hits. Just my luck, the local band one night decided to do a rendition of Gangnam Style. The rooftop bar at Rex is more towards the city and quite spacious, also giving a good view of the surroundings. These hotels were still partly stuck in the past with a certain heaviness that came with the lavish decor.
I had had my first pho in Seoul. Determined to have the real thing, I had walked to a local joint with the help of a Vietnamese colleague on my first visit. Language was a barrier but when I said ‘pho’ the locals would smile and quickly guide me to a table. They had more spices and condiments than the ones served in fancy restaurants and I read that different regions of Vietnam had different styles. This popular noodle soup in Vietnamese street joints have been top notch. For those afraid to take risks on the street, the popular open air restaurant Nha Hang Ngon serves good local cuisine. Anything on a hot pot is an instant winner. Ben Thanh market is another place where one could sample local food, including an assortment of indigenous fruit juices.
As one moves away from the heart of the city, nooks and corners begin to look like Assam or Meghalaya. Ho Chi Minh City, of course, is much cleaner. When the paddy fields emerge, I am instantly home except for the conical hats every now and then. I headed to the famed Cu Chi Tunnels north of the city, from where major operations of the Tet offensive was said to have been launched. It wasn’t just a trip to history but to childhood. Strangely, I had been fed with a consistent diet of Vietnam war movies from Hollywood. Most Naga men will know of Vietnamese tunnels and who the Tunnel Rats were. I recall excitedly walking hand in hand with my father to Mayfair, a video library in Kohima, to select the latest war release. Little did I know that many years on, I’d be on location sitting with a smiling Vietnamese soldier who proudly spoke of his people over a tapioca snack.
Wanting to go a little further away from downtown, I ventured to Bin Quoi village in Binh Thanh district on the weekend. This tourist village was located in a riverine island near a bend in the Saigon river and popular among the locals who come in the weekend for games, music and a generous buffet. My colleague and I sat enthralled listening to a live rendition of some Vietnamese songs with classical guitar for accompaniment. These old men were quite good guitarists.
I ate at the restaurant by the river in the village. The adjacent table had a family of six eating together and laughing in between. In the gaps I could hear the occasional gush of the river. Here, fancy streets and high rises were replaced by thatched roofs and occasional canoes on the river.
Here, I felt home.