Ho Chi Minh – Of Sounds & Smells

Streets of Ho Chi Minh 1
A traffic warden controlling the busy traffic

Ho Chi Minh Youth Union 1 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.

Traffic 2 A busy traffic junction along the streets of Ho Chi Minh

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!

Binh Tay Market 1 The stream of motorbikes and people flowing in and out of the narrow lanes outside Binh Tay Market

Binh Tay Market 2 Where cars, motorbikes and people meet for the same reasons

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.

Hawkers negotiating prices at the preserved food section in the market

Dried Food
A huge variety of preserved shrimps among other dried condiments

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.

Fatal Snake Wine 1 Big jars of potent snake wines with blood-red lid covers

Barber 1
A barber shop along the streets with an old-fashioned set-up and a worn-out flush-red cushioned seat

Quan Am Pagoda 1
Ruby-red rooftop with spiral incense hangings in a temple

Ong Pagoda 1
The red coloured motorbikes, baskets, helmets, T-shirts, signages…

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).

Reunification Palace 1
The red flags standing in line at the Ho Chi Minh Reunification Palace

Children 1
The bright red coloured ties of energetic school children on a field trip

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.

Notre Dame 2
The landmark attraction in Ho Chi Minh – Notre Dame Cathedral against the clear blue sky

Notre Dame 3
Virgin Mary in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral under a clear blue sky

Cha Tam Church
A blissfully shielded Virgin Mary at the Cha Tam Church

Dragon 1
A rising dragon basking in the hot sun in a pool at a city center park

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!

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