Ronan O'Connell gets out of bed early to take in the dizzying spectacle of this intriguing country's most populous city.
Humans have five senses. Right now, each one of mine is being stimulated in a pleasing manner. The sight before me is majestic, with the illuminated skyline of Ho Chi Minh City glowing in the night. The touch of a cold beer bottle is welcome in the sweltering tropical heat. The taste of freshly made shrimp and pork spring rolls is lingering pleasantly in my mouth. The smell of green lip mussels is wafting up from my plate, offering the promise of further culinary delight. All the while, the gentle sound of jazz music is soothing my soul as I sit having dinner at the Saigon Saigon rooftop bar of the historic Caravelle Hotel.
This bar barely has changed since 1959 when the Caravelle became the first large luxury hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.
Back then, this tall, modern structure was out of place in an otherwise low-rise and old-fashioned city. Now every direction I look from this 10th-storey bar I see clusters of towering skyscrapers, many of which have been built only in the past decade. In that time, I have watched Vietnam zoom into the future at an astonishing pace. While in Perth, we’re used to any significant changes to the cityscape taking many years, here in Vietnam they occur in a matter of months.
This rampant modernisation has had many drawbacks. It is a highly complicated issue. But what it has done, from the perspective of an Australian tourist, is create Vietnamese cities which have a wonderful balance between the old and the new, the exotic and the recognisable. My experience of dining at the Caravelle was a distinctly Western one. It was luxurious and refreshing after an exhausting day spent exploring the timeworn and chaotic neighbourhood of Cholon, the fascinating Chinese district of Ho Chi Minh City.
Ican barely breathe and there’s no room to move, yet I’m having a great time. Bedlam is the best word to describe what is taking place around me.
It is 7.:30am and the morning rush has besieged Binh Tay market, turning it into a heaving mass of humans, each of whom arrived perhaps optimistically believing they could traverse this monstrous bazaar at anything less than snail pace. Me? I don’t mind such a sedate speed of movement. I’ve been here before and was well aware what I was about to walk into — a literal heap of other people.
Binh Tay is one of the busiest markets I’ve ever come across, even at off-peak hours. This two-storey indoor market seems to attempt to sell literally every product that exists. The range of items for sale is extraordinary.
There are some lovely handmade wooden ornaments, and Vietnamese ceramics, but today I have no interest in buying anything. I’m just here to witness the spectacle.
Ho Chi Minh City is one giant spectacle. Many of the world’s greatest cities are just that. Paris stuns with its architectural splendour, Rome dazes with its history, Sydney astounds with its natural beauty, and New York flabbergasts with its immense scale. Ho Chi Minh City, meanwhile, always leaves me astonished by its dynamism. It is smothered in human activity, such that one of the few places within its bounds you will earn a skerrick of peace or solitude is in your hotel room.
I can understand how, to some people, that sounds like a waking nightmare. As would the scenario I encountered inside Binh Tay market. But for tourists who enjoy adventure, who seek out the exotic, then Ho Chi Minh City will leave you as invigorated as an Arctic swim. It starts the moment your taxi exits the gates of the city’s airport, only to be engulfed by a swarm of motorcycles. During this drive into the downtown area, you look out the window to notice there is hardly a square metre of space going to waste in this city. The streets are packed with vehicles, footpaths are cloaked in humans and alleys are populated by street-food vendors serving up delicious and cheap meals.
The food, the shopping, the history, the architecture, the sheer spectacle — all of what Ho Chi Minh offers is overwhelming. While Binh Tay may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, the more orderly Ben Thanh market is one of the best tourist bazaars in Asia. It offers a gigantic range of souvenirs as well as Western-style clothes, shoes, sunglasses, handbags and leather products.
The downtown area also has an ever-increasing number of modern shopping malls. The city’s history, meanwhile, is illuminated at several impressive museums. The ravages of armed conflict are outlined in great detail at the fascinating but confronting War Remnants Museum, an establishment which does not hold back with its grisly depictions of the Vietnam War.
The overlooked but brilliant Museum of Vietnamese History casts its net back to the prehistoric period. And the Museum of Fine Arts showcases the best paintings, sculptures and ceramic works from across the nation.
Yet you need not attend these museums to understand the impact of Western influences on the city — just look at its architecture. Ho Chi Minh City has some of the most majestic colonial European buildings in Asia. There’s the monumental Notre Dame Cathedral, the grand Municipal Theatre, the graceful Saigon Central Post Office, the French-villa style People’s Committee Building, and the weird but undeniably attractive pink church of Tan Dinh. Come to think of it, that latter description aptly sums up Ho Chi Minh City — weird but attractive.