Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, represents many things for different people. The fall of Saigon, for one was a crucial historical event where South Vietnam was successfully taken by the North Vietnam. To the Vietnamese, it represented the reunification of Vietnam. To the Americans, it was a disaster. To the rest of the world, it was the beginning of a Communist state in Vietnam.
Today, the increasingly affluent Saigon represents the new face of Vietnam. The influx of foreign investment, the appearance of skyscrapers, the growing number of the middle class and their effects could be seen everywhere. Attitudes are changing, tastes are getting sophisticated and quality of life is improving. It’s a city moving constantly with times.
For me though, on a personal level, Saigon represents something simpler. It reminded me of why I first fell in love with Vietnam.
I remember being in Saigon for the first time. I was posted to the South Vietnam capital for work and knowing very little about it.
I remember stepping out of my hotel for the first time. Even crossing the road was a culture shock. If you are unfamiliar with Vietnamese roads, here’s why. Every inch of the busy street the central District 1 was filled with motorcycles. Like water that flows constantly on the river, these motorcyclists just keep moving. There are no traffic lights. No zebra crossing.
My Vietnamese colleague instructed me, “Just cross, don’t wait,”
And indeed, that’s how the locals do it. As you cross the motorcyclists will avoid you like a swarm of ants going around a piece of stone. A bit of courage is needed. But after the first couple of times, you get used to it.
My then-colleague and I had the fortune of befriending a local Vietnamese colleague called Khoi. He was working in the IT Department and we often go to him when we needed something. He was helpful and interested in knowing us Malaysians better. He would bring us to places around HCMC and made sure we had a good time. Once his mom invited us for dinner at his place and had the pleasure of meeting his family.
True Vietnamese hospitality, stays with you for a long time. (Of course, there’s an ugly side to Vietnam as well, as I will find out in the following weeks. But that’s a story for another day.)
Since it was my fourth time to Saigon, I was only there for a night. I still made it a point to meet up with Khoi and we managed to catch up over dinner and spend a whole day at Dai Nam Wonderland taking photos. We didn’t miss the chance to “uong ca phe” (To drink coffee, or to hang out), an important ritual in Vietnam for the locals, which I unconsciously picked up during my time in Vietnam.
Khoi and I used to take impromptu coffee breaks from work and there was a small stall outside the office that happened to serve pretty good drinks. I’m not a coffee connoisseur myself but cà phê sữa đá (Pronounced Ca-Fei-Su-Da, Iced Coffee with Milk, commit that to mind when you’re in Vietnam!) was my go-to drink. The strong bitter taste of the coffee served with sweetened condensed milk and lots of ice is the antidote to anything. Especially work.
Who would have thought sitting on a stool with a cup of coffee, overlooking the dusty industrial area was one of life’s little pleasures?
Back then, I used to wander around the streets near my hotel at night. Just walking and exploring and just noticing the small details. There was always something that would pique my curiosity – whether it’s the mother who’s babysitting on a stool by the roadside, or the employees having dinner and beer after work on mini stools and tables, the locals doing aerobics at public parks, or even the streets themselves.
Travelling was until then a foreign concept to me and perhaps it was the initial excitement of exploring the unknown that kept me fascinated each night. I don’t know if I would ever recapture that feeling again.
But what I’m sure is, my time in Saigon has helped to plant the travel bug in me. The urge to keep moving. And I haven’t stop wandering since.
On March 2013, I bought a one-way ticket to Siem Reap and travelled to various places for 5 months. I returned home in September and decided to blog all the memorable stories and photos. I believe it’s the best way to conserve these memories and also to share them with my friends. All posts are tagged to the category 2013 Travels, should you need to browse the entire series.
I was in Vietnam from March 20 to April 9. Most of the shots were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5, with either the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or the original Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. They were shot in RAW and processed, edited in Adobe Lightroom. Others shots were taken with my HTC Desire HD smartphone.