In April, I took a work trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Though it was a very brief trip without the opportunity to see very much, it’s fun to look back and give a reaction, as well as to think about what I would like to make sure I see next time!
Leaving from grey, damp Heathrow at 6.00am, fuelled by cheap coffee and Costa Croissants, we boarded the waiting 747. A 14-hour journey on Vietnam Airlines was made more bearable by my first experience of Premium Economy. No special treatment, but a wider recliner with decent legroom made everything a lot more enjoyable. Stepping out of the plane, even at dawn, was like being slapped with a hot, wet flannel.
Once all of the various Osprey packs had been collected, we found a taxi, bartered a price and headed off in the right direction. Experience had allowed us to anticipate the classic “foreigner tricks”, (the driver realised there was no use stopping in the middle of the busy main road and making demands for more cash!), we finally got dropped off at the conference hotel.
The details of conference meetings are boring, so skipping to the good parts is a lot more fun. The rooftop pool lets you put a twist on the classic; not singin’ but swimming’ in the rain. Views over the Meekong Delta and downtown HCMC are pretty spectacular, while a close-up view of the city’s seven and a half million motorbikes is simultaneously impressive and intimidating.
We took a Vespa tour around the city’s many districts, which was our only real chance to escape the hotel. Putting your life in the hands of the highly skilled driver while riding pillion is an experience that I’d highly recommend. Nowhere outside of Asia have I seen riders flirt with death so frequently, yet always come out unscathed. The roads appear to have no rules, yet all drivers somehow anticipate every action of others and understand the pandemonium as a kind of opportunistic “if I fit through that gap, I’m going” mentality. Green light means go, but so does amber and red…
We visited old Chinese temples, learned the origins of the name Saigon, saw the location of the famous photographs of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation protest and the CIA Building’s wartime extraction via Huey Helicopter. We saw outlandish wealth pressed up against extreme poverty, wrapped up in the packaging of Communism. Red and yellow Hammer and Sickle banners flutter on every street alongside the identically coloured national flag.
Visiting a market hall aimed squarely at tourists was a familiar experience; being baffled about why some people would actually pay money for some of the things that were for sale. Does anybody really want this stuff? Knock-off trainers, framed insects, wooden model ships, garish fabrics and other, unidentifiable plastic objects in bright colours were all for sale, peddled by the indefatigable barterers.
Other than these brief moments, the rest of the time was spent in a fairly anonymous business hotel. While the food was exceptional, with a huge variety of local, Asian and international delicacies, the rest of the hotel could have been anywhere in the world.
All in all, it was an excellent and enjoyable trip. I certainly plan on returning to the country, though I’d like to go of my own accord, to visit the highlands and travel without constraint.
Have any of you been to Vietnam? I’d love to hear about your experiences. I’ll use them to build my next trip itinerary!