My first visit to Vietnam was in 2007, with a trip to the commercial capital: Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC. The city’s erstwhile name was Saigon, which got renamed after the revolutionary leader and the first president of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. North Vietnam merged with South Vietnam in 1976, forming today’s the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I had traveled to HCMC a few times, subsequently, with the last being in 2017.
Vietnam is bit of a puzzle for me that I could not see any significant signs of inflation in a period of 10 years — the period of my visits — in the country. In 2007, Dong, the local currency, had an exchange rate of around 22,000 against USD, and it was hovering around 22,500 in 2017. Food prices, hotel tariffs, taxi rates, etc. were all clocking almost the same numbers during a decade-time. Dong is not a freely convertible currency but loosely pegged to USD through a mechanism called crawling peg thereby bringing stability to the currency. Such currency stability, along with supply-demand equilibrium in proportion to population growth, prudent monetary and fiscal policies etc., must be the reason for the taming of the inflation.
HCMC is the main commercial city as well as a hustle and bustle tourist destination. The city comes under different districts, with the district 1 being the “happening place” for tourists — plenty of eateries dishing out traditional Vietnamese delicacies, pubs, clubs, etc. And the night is awake till wee hours at this place.
The most common mode of transport is two-wheelers. Among all the countries I visited, the highest motorbike-density that I saw was in HCMC. It is a visual treat for a visitor to witness the temporary mushrooming of motorbikers at the traffic signals, then, of them moving as waves of mechanised-humans in either direction when signal changes. This is also the city I had seen with the maximum density of Toyota Fortuners.
One relishable attraction in HCMC is the roadside fruit-stalls that make tasty, yummy fresh fruit juices. It costs only a Dollar or 1.50 USD to have a big-glassful of fresh fruit juice of single or multi flavor. I made it a habit to have at least a juice a day whenever I was there. I met a girl at a fruit-juice shop who did part-time job at the shop after a regular office job, in order to learn English by talking to the customers who were mainly tourists. She could not afford to attend the English-language centers, and the motivating factor behind such a step from her was to get a better job at an American or European company in Vietnam. Inspiring! These are the little heroes who are determined to find a way to make their lives bigger and better. I admire them!
Once you are in HCMC and have free time, you can go for one-day or two-day trips. There are many tour agents arranging such trips — they are not expensive, will cost less than 50 USD for a day’s trip. I made a couple of trips — one 1-day and one 2-day trip. Two tourist spots that you can visit in a day’s trip are The Great Holy See Temple and Cu Chi Tunnel — I visited both. The temple, built in 1926, practices Caodaism, a unique religion practiced in the South of Vietnam, that combines Confucianism , Taoism, Christianity, Islam and Vietnamese spiritualism. The temple is adorned with colorful scriptural paintings of animals like dragons and lions, besides, has paintings depicting Vietnamese arts. I witnessed their holy mass which was led by a male-priest attired in yellow and white robes, assisted by two female-priests. The mass lasted for 40 minutes, punctuated with chimes and songs, and had similarities with Christian holy mass.
Cu Chi tunnels were built during the America-Vietnam War, and these were used to house soldiers as well as people during the war. Some are 200 km long!. I had passed through a 40-meter tunnel which had exits at multiple places at varying lengths — had to bend-walk through the tunnel as it was short in height and breadth. Arguably, the Vietnamese are the best and the most efficient fighters in Asia as they defeated the French Army, which colonized Vietnam for a few decades in 1800, and the French had to leave Vietnam after this defeat. And even the mighty Americans, too, had to leave Vietnam without a victory.
In a 2-day trip, I had the opportunity to travel to the interior villages as well as a few towns. The highlights of the village visit were a musical program by the elders using only traditional, indigenous instruments; and visit to a floating market, traditional apiculture sites, and visit to a noodles-making factory.
There are many public parks in Ho Chi Minh City, where locals as well as tourists flock. These parks are venues for festivities, drills of school children, workouts and for playing the most popular game in Vietnam, “Da Cau” — it is like badminton, but instead of racquets, players use their legs. Another interesting thing that happens in the parks is groups of youngsters and students approaching foreigners to speak in and learn English. Education here is mostly in Vietnamese language — Tieng Viet — and attending English-language centres are costly. I met a few youngsters and students, and they were very enthusiastic, uninhibited in their quest to learn. This kind of forthcoming attitude to learn something that looks difficult is really commendable. I remember my college days when attempts to learn English were mocked at — an unfailing attitude shown by many Indians. Talking to these youngsters also helps one to learn their culture and systems. During one such conversation, I learnt this from them: if any government employee has more than two kids, his/her chances of promotion in the job is very bleak — a feature of “Applied Socialism.”
Another attraction in HCMC is the Mariamman Temple, a Hindu temple with entry to one and all. The temple is adorned with paintings and statues of the Hindu gods, and the priest is an Indian. A landmark in HCMC is the War Museum that I visited. My eyes were welling up with tears as I proceeded through the museum. A pall of gloom was palpable among everyone around. I felt sad that such brutal and inhuman things could be done by humans to humans!
Many of the things that I explained above had been captured by my mobile camera, and you could view them by going to the following links: