Morningggggg Vietnammmmm!!" I screamed down the phone
at the break of dawn. Idris in the room next door picks up
and shoots off a barrage of choice abuses in Bangla and slams
the phone down, leaving me in splits ! I had to do that. This
was my first morning in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Waking
up early, I stood in front of the window and stared out into
the main boulevard overlooking the Saigon River. I have always
been fascinated with Vietnam. As a child in Manchester, I
would keenly follow the developments of the war and I can
never forget the BBC images of helicopters taking off with
the American Ambassador from the roof of the U.S. Embassy
during the last days of the fall of Saigon.
late ’70s and early ’80s movies like "Coming
Home", "Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now"
just added to the intrigue, but Robin William's portrayal
of DJ Adrian Kroanour in "Good Morning Vietnam"
had the biggest effect on me; so I couldn't resist rupturing
Idris' eardrums on our first day in Vietnam. My business partner
Idris Shakur and our good friend Le Viet Duyen (which means
"The Vietnamese" Duyen) and I were on a mission
to explore this country's prospect for holiday tours from
Bangladesh, as well as to savour the amazing culinary secrets
that makes Vietnamese food one of the most interesting and
healthiest cuisines in the world.
T an Son
Nath Airport (Ho Chi Minh City Airport) is small but efficient
and the first thing you notice is Vietnam's communist influence;
immigration officials wearing large green Peak Caps and green
uniforms that are so reminiscent of the "Cold War"
Era. After a swift check-out we leave the airport premises
and within seconds we are in the city. Idris and I are amazed
at the number of two-wheeled vehicles as compared to very
little cars on the streets. At any red light you can see half
a dozen cars and 200 bikes ready to move as the traffic signal
colours change. However, unlike the deafening roar that rips
the streets of Bangkok, Saigon's two-wheeler traffic seem
to hum their way around, reflective of the gentle nature of
the Vietnamese. No one is in a hurry and yet everyone is going
somewhere or the other. I asked Duyen whether there is something
on tonight in the city to explain the huge volume of traffic.
He said that the Vietnamese people have dinner by 6:30pm after
which almost everyone heads out to the city centre or the
river or the road side medians to generally "hang out".
in at "The Majestic", an 80 year-old boutique hotel
on 1 Dong Khoi Street connecting to the main city boulevard
and the Saigon River (a tributary of the Mekong River). This
beautifully restored French-styled property has so much history
in the corridors and lobby. I am sure the ghosts of the past
checked in on us every night. Saigon is a very safe city,
so safe that we hardly saw any police anywhere! We walked
from our hotel all the way down the boulevard by the river
to a Disco called "Apocalypse Now" without the slightest
concern and this too late in the evening. The avenues and
boulevards are so reflective of the European influence; you
can see what the French wanted to do was to turn Saigon into
an Asian "Paris". Art galleries, al fresco dining,
pavement coffee shops and bars abound the tree-lined avenues.
Duyen and I took a vantage point at the breakfast hall to
stare out at Saigon on a busy weekday. Energetic locals walking
to work or biking it. I watched Duyen start with Chao Canh,
a very clear soup with thin rice noodles, bean sprouts, mushrooms,
pieces of grilled beef floating on top, sprinkled with sprigs
of mint. This is a staple in every Vietnamese home and the
slightly sweet soup with the cool mint flavouring is a perfect
way to wake up the senses. I immediately avoided the fried
eggs, toast and hash browns for something more Saigonese.
Along with the soup I took Xio, pancake-like fried glutinous
rice stuffed with onions and dollops of French-Vietnamese
steamed Pate called Cha Dum. The combination of fried sticky
rice and the pate was, on an empty stomach, absolutely magnificent.
A brilliant breakfast treat for a person who skips the first
meal of the day.
visit was an official one to the largest tour operator in
Vietnam and we went through all the venues that the Bangladeshi
traveller, as well as expatriates in Bangladesh, would like
to visit. Vietnam is a long stretch of territory snaking up
around Cambodia, Laos and China. One side is landlocked with
these three countries and the other is entirely coastline.
The country has something for everyone, from mountains and
lakes and the chilly frost to the sun, sea and coral islands.
The Capital Hanoi is in Northern Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City
(Saigon) in the south and between the two cities is a distance
of two hours by air. Vietnam boasts some of the nicest beaches
and the difference between Thailand and Vietnam is that the
tourists haven't discovered the wonders of this country yet.
the afternoon we landed at "La Taverne", a wonderful
Vietnamese restaurant offering a blend of French-Vietnamese
food. The French Colonisation may have been an unbearable
period in the history of the country, which values its sovereignty
with a passion, but I must say it has made the food one of
the most distinctive in the region. This high-end restaurant
frequented by Europeans is simple and rustic with alcoves
and vases, French windows, etc. But the real magic is in the
kitchen, the reason why people queue up to get a table. Since
Madame Dai, the hostess, knew of our visit, she had a place
neatly tucked away for us. The first order was a plate of
deep fried pumpkin flowers stuffed with minced meat and lotus
seeds. The appetiser was crispy on the outside with a heavenly
mix of mince, garlic and the nutty flavour of lotus seeds.
Large mugs of Vietnamese Beer "333" were accompanied
by Banh Tom, large prawns and sweet potato cakes which was
definitely something different and unique. I had to taste
the beef for which Vietnam is famous and opted for the grilled
strips of beef wrapped around Gouda cheese. Duyen ordered
ca chien sot ca chua, a local fish with stir-fry vegetables
in a tomato-based sauce and to top off the meal, a special
lotus seed and seafood fried rice. The battle of the chopsticks
continued all through lunch, and not even a garnish was left
on the plates.
a wonderful meal like that I would have opted for a quick
siesta, but no, we had work to do and places to see; this
was no pleasure trip!! We had rented an air-conditioned car
for the entire trip and the driver acted as our guide. Duyen
being from Ha Noi was good with the overall visit presentation,
but the driver knew the places to take us. During the day
you will find the people of Saigon eating lunch as early as
11:30-12:30 and spending the day indoors or in the shade.
Women ride bikes with lampshade looking hats and faces covered
in scarves with just enough opening for sunglasses. This can't
be Vietnamese "purdah" can it? Duyen was quick to
tell us that Vietnamese women are extremely cautious about
two things. One being the protection of their complexion as
fairness is a guarded possession; and secondly their fierce
obsession with their waists and figures. This can be seen
in the traditional dresses that they wear. The dress is similar
to our shalwar-kameez except it is so narrow around
the waist; it's a wonder how Vietnamese women breathe at all?
The dress does look very elegant and suave indeed, but we
couldn't help but notice that tight jeans and short, short
skirts are just as popular as the traditional dresses. The
men wear boring trousers and shirts just like the rest of
us around the world!
at the City centre, a pretty roundabout with the Notre Dame
Cathedral on one side and the General Post Office on the other.
This place is a perfect "photo-op" venue. The GPO
looked like Grand Central Station with French ornamentation
on the building façade. By the side of the Cathedral
a young couple were getting married. With the groom dressed
in a black tuxedo, his bride in a white gown, the Notre Dame
and the green roundabout with flowers; this place looked like
Paris. For a moment we forgot we were in Saigon! Our next
visit was to the beautifully restored Re-unification Palace,
the seat of the President of Vietnam during the war ravaged
years. The Viet-Cong tanks that smashed through the gates
are still there.
are a fiercely nationalistic lot; the sense of belonging and
their patriotism is astonishing. One has to go to the War
Museum in downtown Sai gon to see the galleries of pictures,
dilapidated US military hardware and pieces of B-52 bombers
on display to see how the revolutionaries fought and won the
war. One case in particular, the Russians had given the Viet-Cong
army, surface-to-air-missiles but these weapons could not
shoot down the B-52s that were wreaking havoc around Hanoi
with high altitude carpet bombings. Vietnamese scientists
applied indigenous technology to the missiles and shot down
B-52s from the skies prompting Russian scientists to run to
Sai Gon to figure out how they did it. Over a drink Duyen
explained that many countries had tried to conquer the Vietnamese
and despite years of oppression, occupation and global sanctions;
Vietnam continues to grow into an Asian Giant with no looking
to "Vietnam House", the most happening restaurant
in Ho Chi Minh City. This is where the elite dined, the stars
and the rich and famous mingled. The place is just as I had
envisioned it to be - high ceilings with colonial-style fans,
French windows and beautiful Vietnamese art décor all
set in a cool and retro ambience. You get the feeling of the
Indo-China era and I did spot the odd European wearing his
panatela and crumpled white linen suit. The stars had all
left by then as we sat down to a refreshing crab and asparagus
soup, mild with a seafood flavour, the distinctive edge of
freshly ground pepper quite prominent. We took several starters,
Goi cuon , the famous fresh spring rolls that every newcomer
to the cuisine will definitely try and Chao Tom, barbecued
shrimp paste fried on sugar cane served with lots of lettuce,
basil and mint. Duyen suggested the 5-coloured beef stir fry,
which really dazzled the table with red peppers, yellow flat
midget squash, scallions, tomatoes, eggplant, green capsicum
and strips of beef on a light soy gravy. Lamb is a specialty
in Vietnam and Duyen took the liberty of ordering a delightful
lamb stew with hearty root vegetables, very popular in Northern
Vietnam where the weather can get chilly up in the hills.
day Idris graced us with his presence at breakfast, being
a person who is generally used to late room service orders.
The three of us had a long day ahead. We were going off to
see the Cu Chi tunnels which start about 60 Km from Saigon.
Once on the highway, you get to see the actual beauty of this
land, very similar to our terrain here. The serenity of cool
green paddies of rice attended to by rural farmers wearing
conical hats gave it a distinctive look. We were passing through
orchard country and trees adorned the road. The driver told
us that another 15 minutes of straight road would take us
to the Cambodian border and its Phnom Penh ahead as the crow
system of Cu Chi and Ben Dinh is a network of 250km of tunnels
dug deep into the ground from where the Vietnamese fought
an arduous and protracted freedom struggle. The tunnels were
actually used earlier during the resistance fight against
the French, but the use of the cobweb of underground passages
came into the limelight during the Vietnam War and it is a
model for modern guerrilla warfare. These tunnels - barely
wide enough for a body to pass through - are connected to
an extensive maze of passages with underground rooms for lodgings,
dining rooms, war meeting rooms, factories where local indigenous
weapons were made, and hospitals where many Vietnamese children
were born during the war. The complexity of the tunnels gives
you an insight as to the undaunted will, the intelligence
and the pride of the people of Cu Chi who fought one of the
hardest wars for freedom.
On the way
back from Cu Chi we took an off-road to a wayside restaurant
set right next to a river; this little highway resort called
Ben Nay was picture perfect. A beautiful building with no
walls, just railings and a pond with a pretty little bridge.
The waiter turned on the taps and water trickled from the
roof, turning the breeze outside into a cool wave of air.
In 10 minutes our table was cool. Duyen took charge of the
ordering and I must say he did a wonderful job. We wanted
to know what his wife cooks for him on a typical day back
home in Ha Noi. He started off with a tall glass of Lotus
tea (Lotus plant is big in Vietnam and it is used in cooking,
brewing and decorating homes too!) with lots of ice to beat
the heat and a clear mustard green soup with shrimp wafers.
This clear soup was moderately hot with strands of greens,
which can also be substituted with morning glory (kolmi
shak). The flavour was authentic and refreshing to say
the least. Steamed dumplings with shrimps followed with dipping
sauce and plates of morning glory stir fried in garlic. Duyen
ordered Ca Hap, a large river fish steamed on a hot plate
with shavings of pumpkin and other green shoots I was not
familiar with, but the heat sort of softened up these stalks
into tender morsels. Ca Kho To, a special river fish dish
very popular in the Cu Chi region came in an earthen pot.
Cut into round pieces it was simmering in thick brown gravy
made out of caramel/molasses, soy and sautéed onions,
giving it a rich mouth watering flavour. This particular fish
dish served with sticky rice was the last seduction for me;
I fell in love with Vietnamese cooking at that very moment.
It is really amazing how resourceful the Vietnamese are; we
just had a fantastic meal with ingredients that most households
would throw away. I am going to make sure that nothing is
wasted from the vegetable cooked at home, not even the stalk
left early the next morning. Idris and I decided to wake up
late since our flight was at 9pm and Saigon is a small place
to shop around. By mid-morning we started to cover Dong Khoi
Street. The first shop next to Majestic Hotel is Viet Silk
boutique; a lovely shop with bright colourful clothes for
women. We both wanted to get our wives some silk with Chinese
and Oriental motifs and, believe me, the fabrics are great
and cheap. The two of us walked out with bags of stuff that,
we hoped, would definitely bring us fame and glory in the
women's world when our wives showed off our shopping prowess.
Across from Majestic is an old boutique shop selling lifestyle
products; it is so charming with its candles and incense burning,
old wooden displays with silks strewn across them, table mats,
coasters, frames, shawls. The shop resembled something like
a grandmother's attic with old chests and black and white
pictures of Saigon. We went wild in these curio shops picking
up things for our homes. Vietnamese are experts in the art
of lacquer ware. Intricate works of this art form is everywhere
in the Vietnamese lifestyle. Our driver took us to the best
lacquer ware store and factory in town where you could get
lost and be spoilt for choice. Huge wall hangings on Vietnamese
rural life on lacquer, Chinese tables, contemporary art -
the place was amazing and the owner proudly showed us huge
portraits of visiting dignitaries who patronize the establishment
thus adding further credibility to the high prices she charges.
This was the only place we found expensive.
at the airport lounge, we pondered as to why we don't have
more Bangladeshis coming here. I know that Bangkok is "second
home" for the Bangladeshi traveller and Kuala Lumpur
is slowly becoming another such place; but when you compare
the three cities it is fair to say that Saigon, and the rest
of the country too, is at a crossroad, traditional South East
Asian culture infused with a European flair, a distinctive
character, that will appeal to the discerning holidaymaker.
I myself am a die-hard Thailand lover; there is no doubting
that. But after a while you want something unique, something
that leaves a lingering taste, which makes you want to come
back - and I have to confess that Saigon is such a destination.
Duyen said to me, "Farhan, the way you have taken to
Vietnam and are promoting it, I shall get the Government to
honour you with the title of "Viet Bhai!" Call me
"Viet Bhai" or as another friend said "Saigon
Sam"; I am completely sold on Vietnam.
Quddus is a Travel Consultant and Managing Director of Travel
(R) thedailystar.net 2004