This is a tough gig, I muse, as I tuck into a banh mi baguette in the street in Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve visited the city several times but I’ve not tried one of these before and it is yummy. Part French (the baguette) but given an Asian twist with a generous filling of grilled pork, pickles and salad. To my right the Central Port Office, a grand colonial-style building and beyond that, Notre-Dame Cathedral, nowhere near as large as its namesake in Paris but imposing nonetheless.
I’ve been fascinated by Vietnam ever since studying the war with the US for my history degree at university. The course focused on the switch from America’s advisory role in Vietnam after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 to the build-up of military personnel and troops under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson but you can’t do that without also studying the French period, the partition and why the US got involved.
We all know the ending. The fall of Saigon in April 1975, the images of Americans and South Vietnamese trying to flee the country on helicopters as the North Vietnamese tanks rolled in, the reunification of Vietnam under a Communist dictatorship, the boat people who risked all for a new life away from reeducation camps, food shortages, starvation. Fast forward 40 years and wow, have things changed! It’s still a communist state but the late 1980s ushered in a unique ‘Vietconomy’ that allowed free enterprise to coexist with the five-year plans and opened the door to tourism. It’s been a huge success. Millions of tourists visit Vietnam each year, either touring on land, staying in beach resorts or spending a day or two in the city as part of a cruise through the South China Sea or voyage along the Mekong River that pairs Ho Chi Minh City with Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Ever since university, I’d wanted to go to Vietnam and finally, I made it! Surprise, surprise, on a cruise (it’s probably no surprise either that all my visits have been on either ocean or river cruises). It was superb; a day in Nha Trang, where I have fond memories of getting lost in a vast indoor market selling everything from t-shirts and jewellery to dried fish and vegetables and two fabulous days in Ho Chi Minh City.
What an exciting place! Millions of people buzzing around on millions of motorbikes, many piled so high with vegetables and wicker baskets you can’t see the driver. They were even transporting entire families. Dad driving, mum on the back holding the baby, a kid on the front. It is all a bit of a culture shock if you’ve never been to Asia, especially when it comes to doing something as simple as crossing the road. The trick is to step out into the traffic and walk slowly, allowing the bikes and cars to go around you. That first step takes courage but I am living proof that it works.
Top of my sightseeing list was the Củ Chi Tunnels, a 200km network of underground passageways from where the Viet Cong launched deadly attacks on the American GIs during the war. The tunnels are small and claustrophobic but one has been enlarged for visitors. You still have to crawl to go inside and several in my group took one look and turned back but I made it, all the time reminding myself that people lived here. It was an extraordinary experience I’ll never forget.
Seabourn has tours to the tunnels on a variety of cruises between Hong Kong and Singapore, along with free flights. If the flights aren’t tempting enough, the itinerary certainly will be. Ha Long Bay with its beautiful limestone karsts, Sihanoukville in Cambodia, bustling Bangkok and two magical days in Ho Chi Minh City. Ben Thanh Market is a shoppers dream, with stalls piled high with everything you could ever want, from shoes and clothes to flowers, jewellery, spices and exotic foods. The aromas are mouth-watering and it is tempting to taste a few things as you wander around but I’d advise joining a tour if you fancy trying street food (our western stomachs tend to be a bit delicate!)
You can watch water puppet shows (great fun!), visit Hindu and Buddhist temples and learn to make Vietnamese dishes in Grain, a cookery school owned by Chef Luke Nguyen. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s APT’s ambassador. I highly recommend a pit stop at this restaurant Vietnam House for lunch - and be sure to stop for a drink at the rooftop bar of the colonial Rex Hotel, where the US government held military press briefings during the war. It’s not as chichi as some but you’ll be part of history. On second thoughts, you might want to have that drink after a brilliant city tour by motorbike. Talk about exciting! There are bikes cutting across roundabouts, swerving in and out of lanes and coming within inches of you (don’t worry, you won’t be driving) but never touching. I promise you’ll never want to do a coach sightseeing tour again.