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     Volume 4 Issue 4 | July 16, 2004 |

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Good Morning Vietnam!

Farhan Quddus

"Gooooood 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.

In the 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".

We checked 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.

Our first 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.

In 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.

After 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!

We stopped 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.

The Vietnamese 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 back!

We headed 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.

The next 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 flies...

The tunnel 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 and rind!!

Duyen 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.

Sitting 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.

Farhan Quddus is a Travel Consultant and Managing Director of Travel House Limited.






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