Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 6 Issue 34 | August 31, 2007 |

   Straight Talk
   Cover Story
   Writing the Wrong
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review

   SWM Home



Farhan Quddus

Bar Saigon

When it comes to travel destinations, breaking the bond with Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong (though HK is a headache now with its visa regulations) is hard as we are too familiar and accustomed to these countries. They are like second homes for most of us, but holidays become predictable, routine and a time comes when one expects something more out of a vacation; new places, the thirst for new sights to see and the urge to unravel hidden secrets of a new destination. You want a place that becomes the main topic of discussion at the next dinner party, and believe me, Asia has plenty of places to offer. South Asia is going through a renaissance period where countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are hidden secrets waiting to be explored. That was my sales pitch to my wife and friends; they fell for it and the trip to Ho Chi Minh City was set for mid-April, 2007.

I must admit I was a little nervous arriving back in Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City). Having been to Hanoi on my last trip to Vietnam with my partners and the trip before that to Saigon in 2004 with a partner & a Vietnamese diplomat, I wasn't sure what this merry band of nine friends had in mind. After all this was not a trip to some coral-infested island in Thailand or Malaysia, or big mall shopping spree in Singapore, Dubai or Hong Kong. I knew that by the end of the first evening, this group of friends would make their unbiased decision and I was somewhat confident that they would approve.

A close common friend, Sandip Rakhit, the former CEO of Grey Advertising in Bangladesh has been posted to Saigon as the CEO of Grey Vietnam, and that was the vital factor in the decision-making process to head down there. Sandip having settled down in Saigon was a huge bonus for us because it's always great to have a strong anchor in any city, a person who can show you the right places and guide you around town, a person who is lively, exciting and unpredictable. Sandip is all that and more. He and I had pretty much planned out this tour keeping everyone's preferences in mind; dining out, clubs, bars, sightseeing, shopping, golf etc.

Ho Chi Minh City

Tan Son Nhat International Airport is in the middle of Saigon and you come out of the parking lot instantly into the heart of the city, surrounded by thousands of motorbikes. Sitting in the van I look back to see the group all staring out of the window, watching the evening life of old Saigon pass by. Now I must mention that the road from the airport to the new tourist area of District 1 may remind you of some parts of Dhaka. The first impression is confusing as the landscape and the buildings are like our Dhaka and Calcutta, not like Singapore or Bangkok. I keep them reassured that we are only passing through the non-tourist areas and that Saigon is not a city of skyscrapers yet. Then 20 minutes into the drive to the hotel, the entire surrounding changes to a happening cosmopolitan city with lights, boulevards, billboards branding telecoms, bars, clubs, hotels and beautiful avenues. A sea of motor bikes with cute young ladies were all around us. Suddenly the van is a “happy bus” again, all busy taking in the Saigon ambience. My first preference in hotel was the Majestic on 1 Dong Khoi Street or the Caravelle, but since it was peak tourist season there were no rooms available. We opted for the Grand Hotel on 8 Dong Khoi Street, a 1900s old French Colonial Style hotel pretty much like the Majestic but without the gorgeous view that the Majestic has of the Saigon river.

As we reach the hotel, two other Indian friends of ours jump us! Archana &and Sudhakar Raj were casually shopping around Dong Khoi since they are staying at the Majestic Hotel. I had arranged the trip for them, and booked their holiday package around the same time as ours, but meeting them on the street the very minute we got down from the van at the hotel was purely coincidental. Sandip had a night of frenzied dancing and early morning dining all arranged. “This place is going to be great,” my brother Joy said. The moment we all assembled at the hotel lobby taking in the heat, noise and bustle of a Friday night in Saigon.

Grand Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City

We started at Pham Ngu Lao district, a series of narrow roads revered by the back packers, clubbers and bar flies. The Volcano located in the centre of Pham Ngu Lao is a trendy, pulsating dance hall frequented by the city's fashionistas, the new generation Vietnamese who are all college educated with American accents. Inside it is a sound proof bunker here the pulsating sound of trance music throws you from speaker to speaker and everyone nods their heads to the rhythm and beat. “What sound huh?“ Sandip asks. All I see are lips moving like in a cheap Kung Fu Movie. Sandip Babu is a celebrity in the club as every cool person in Saigon comes up and hugs him; at least we are with VIPS, which is important in trendy clubs. 67% of the Vietnamese population is under 27 so that is why you see such a vibrant lot of young people, smart and professional, the drivers of the New Viet Economy. The great thing about the Vietnamese is that they are very friendly. I have never seen such friendly bouncers in clubs that usher you in, guide you through the hordes of party revelers, open your bottle and pour you a drink and garnish it. They even help you choose your morsel of fruit from ice platters, join you for drinks, or even a dance. All my experiences with bouncers in the past have been their muscular arms barring me to enter or seeing them throwing people out, so this was a refreshing change.

As an observant 'tour leader' I watch the faces of my posse to see if I can gauge any reaction, and I sit back on a comfy sofa and smile with what I see. We have a winner with Ho Chi Minh City! It's 12:30 a.m. and the group has grown to 12 people with Sudhakar and Archana joining

us at the Volcano. Sandip is on a roller coaster ride as he wants to show all of Vietnam in one night to his Bangladeshi friends. The streets of Saigon are sleeping except for the night owls and taxis that are whizzing around from one club to another. Our next stop, Lush, a Lounge Bar with not-so-ear-splitting music, had a nice mix of local and international clientele. It is there my wife and my brother met a Nigerian who plays on and off for Abahani; he feels nostalgic seeing so many Bangladeshis in one place. By now we are famished and Sandip takes us to the next phase of the evening's agenda, a terrific all-Vietnamese diner bustling at 3 a.m. The ABC Restaurant is huge and we take a round table with a lazy susan where Sandip and I order dishes like Pho Hai san (Seafood fried rice), dim sum, fish in tamarind sauce, greens, soups, plenty of spring rolls and sliced beef in sesame seeds. There are no words to express how good the food is especially at such an ungodly hour.

Dong Khoi Street is the equivalent of Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, Orchard Road in Singapore and Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur. The street is pretty with its sidewalks, green trees lining the road and all the small boutique shops, restaurants and hotels leading all the way up to the river Saigon. A walk up and down this street is a must. Unlike in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, Dong Khoi Street houses some of the oldest buildings in Saigon, all colonial style. Looking around you suddenly feel like you're in Paris. The true test for me started after breakfast as I advise everyone to do their own thing and not wait for the late risers. The ladies all want to know what mall to go to, not to disappoint them I tell them about Lucky Diamond Plaza, Parkson Mall and the Saigon centre (I remember from my first visit); however, I tell them to walk the streets first before crossing over to Nguyen Hue Boulevard, the avenue parallel to Dong Khoi. I languish in the cool waters of the hotel swimming pool with an iced watermelon shake, happy with a job well done and celebrating "Bangla Nobo Borsho."

The secret is to stay within District 1 and 2 if you are a first timer in Ho Chi Minh City. The Grand Hotel is decent; the superior rooms are small and carpeted which makes them too stuffy and the new wing with its deluxe rooms and suites are much better. The breakfast is a good selection of Continental, Chinese and Vietnamese is not bad. Sheraton Saigon is a luxury hotel and the best if you prefer safe brand hotels and it is located close to the Grand. It is also one of the most expensive. The Renaissance, Legend, New world Hotel, Sofitel Plaza and the Hyatt Regency are all within the city centre area and all ideally located with great views. All are five star properties and over the US $120 bracket. If you want something more affordable try the Palace Hotel, The Duxton, Oscar Hotel and the Rex Hotel on the wide Nguyen Hue Avenue.

The Caravelle Hotel is a personal favourite of mine because it's a five star property that houses the famous Saigon Saigon bar. With a panoramic view of the city, this bar is known for being the last watering hole for the international journalists covering the end of the Vietnam War. As the Communists advanced to the city of Saigon in 1975, it was here that the telex machines and phones were constantly churning out news about the end of Saigon. It was also within these walls that the world's most seasoned reporters met daily to exchange news and watch the city in siege, it was from here that photos of helicopters hovering above the US Chancery were taken and photos of the daring attack on the presidential palace were shot. This is an iconic landmark and is kept in the very same décor as it was back then.

Saigon and Hanoi are not all about shopping. There are malls being built as you read, but the real charm of shopping in these cities is the interesting little establishments that are scattered all over the city boulevards and avenues. Most are individual family owned stores that have been standing for generations. From the tourist souvenirs on Dong Khoi to shops selling lacquer artifacts, jewellery, silks, art and antiques. Each item is authentic and some so pretty you feel guilty if you don't buy anything. It's like your living room is going to miss something priceless if you don't give in to temptation. What really catches my eye is the classic Vietnam War propaganda art, from poster prints of the icon of communism, the sickle and hammer, workers charging to the songs of the revolution, Uncle Ho's busts in ceramics, Viet Cong Green helmets, t-shirts with CCCP, Cuba, Castro, Che Guevara, posters of tanks rolling and defeating the US. It's all interesting and retro, so I buy a lot of them for my restaurant in Dhaka.

to be continued...



Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007