A traffic warden controlling the busy traffic
The Ho Chi Minh Youth Union in the city center
Vietnam – or more accurately ‘Viet Nam’ – refers to ‘the people’ (Viet) of the South (Nam). There are altogether 54 different ethnicities living in the country, making it a culturally diverse land to explore and a marveling place for the sights and taste buds. Other than that, the persistent sounds from the hawkers, motorbikes, car horns and idle banters of the chatty security guards and shophouse owners were never-ending and almost always closing in on us from all directions. This was perhaps the first country I travelled to where I had to get a room in the hotel which faced away from the streets – just so I could get a wink at night.
We were in a land that never stops working. I could always hear things happening before I see them, well, not in a scary way of course.
At the Binh Tay Market, for example, we were forced to squeeze into narrow aisles between rows of stalls selling a wide variety of almost everything, from food stuff to clothes and accessories, crockery and utensils as well as furniture and tools. This was where real, everyday transactions took place in Ho Chi Minh. We saw how hawkers procured goods from the wholesalers and the basic necessities that the heartland Vietnamese purchased for themselves. There were a few times when seething deliverymen carrying heavy rucksacks (that looked like they were bursting at their seams) berated us for blocking their pathways along the choking aisles. They would come at us fiercely and shove us aside with their huge bags of goods if we did not get out of the way in time. I must confess – I did find them a lot more dangerous than the traffic out in the streets!
Upon entering the food sections in the market, our nostrils were suddenly flooded by the smell of everything wet and dried, preserved and fresh, fishy and meaty – all at the same time. Because there was no distinctly identifiable whiff within this hotchpotch of smells, it was therefore nauseating at first and hence took us some getting used to. But other than this initial discomfort, it was a good chance for us to immerse in an authentically typical day in the life of a city-dwelling Vietnamese.
The vibrancy of life in Ho Chi Minh continued to prevail beyond the market environs. Walking along the busy streets, I could not help but notice the preponderance of the colour red in many different aspects of Vietnamese life. This brightly flushed hue seemed to jump at us at every chance, in every object and action that I observed.
Red stands out eminently as the national colour of the Vietnamese flag too, symbolising revolution and blood amidst the five classes in Vietnamese society – the intellectuals, farmers, workers, businessmen and militaries (each class being represented by one point of the gold star).
The colours and fevours in Vietnam would have been more digestible had the heat and humidity been a little bit more forgiving on us. The torrid weather was indescribable; a few steps out of the room was all it took for our perspiration to start dripping. Given that we were both from an almost equally humid and hot country like Singapore, this unpleasantness took us completely by surprise.
It would definitely be advisable to slap on lots of sun-screen before you go out there. Make sure you take in plenty of water throughout the day too. Most importantly, look out for the ever-tempting ice-cold beverages served at the road-side stalls, usually with a huge bag of ice from which you could scoop the ice out!