Satisfy your 5 senses with the Essence of Vietnam !
On my flight to “Uncle Ho’s Country” I take a close look at the world map and Vietnam S-shaped has the same silhouette as… a dragon ! A mythical creature trapped between mountains & seas. An immortal god that would have crossed History suffering a thousand deaths and a thousand resurrections. Above its tumultuous and complex History and despite a rapid industrialization, a booming economy & big social changes, the Great Dragon protects its soul & traditions. Beyond the cliché of crazy & dramatic landscapes, its epic gastronomy and a warm people, Vietnam is a must-see destination ! This multifaceted country should be on the top 10 of everyone’s travel list Q.E.D
Intro. “Goooooooood Morning Vietnam!”
As soon as I wait for my luggage in Tân Sơn Nhất airport I remember this memorable phrase said by the great & unforgettable Robin Williams. If the actor has tried to save this poor / disappointing movie, it’s not the point here. Indeed, even though it has been over 44 years, many people around the world still snap to images of wars when they think about Vietnam but the country has bandaged its wounds & undertook its moral rising since 1975 ! It’s about time to close this book! About “books”…I read all works of Marguerite Duras through my literary studies -she lived in Indochina & gave a harsh picture of the French colonies- we can approve or reject her accusations but the purpose of this new article is not related to this part of History. (And I refuse to comment such complicated historical facts!) On an other hand, I discovered Vietnam by her detailed novels; through her books, I mentally projected myself in the country ! I felt the sun in the middle of rice paddies; I smelled the green papaya offered by locals; I walked through Hanoi & Saigon maze; I’ve made gastronomic supper on traditional junk just to contemplate Ha Long Bay; I daydreamed in temples & pagodas and… like a mist, the dream faded away. Vietnam described by Marguerite Duras has changed and more than ever since Hồ Chí Minh (chairman of the Worker’s Party)
Like all booming countries, it would have been miraculous if it had been spared from an exponential tourism ! If some of my acquaintances came back disappointed, I met a lot of people ready to go again! As I’ve been witness of radical changes in some Asian regions where I lived -landscapes disfigured by tourism & urbanism (Indonesia, Thailand & Malaysia) I’m just cautious & circumspect by now!
So I’ll judge…In Situ !
To avoid any mistake I previously questioned my friend Lian and her honesty was precious! (She’s half French & half Vietnamese – and by sharing six months in Paris and the rest in Hanoi she knows her country perfectly !) She gave me her secret spots and the places I could erase of my list! According to her: “Ha Long Bay is far from the touristic image, it’s crowed with people! The pollution is much worse than Paris and the traffic is a mess!” …Cornelian choice!
After careful consideration, I’ve decided to visit a small part of the Mekong Delta, Côn Sơn island in Côn Dao archipelago and Saigon against all odds! As I’m going back from Hanoi, I’m thinking to jump to Dalat mountains, make a stop at the Imperial city of Hué & finish in Tam Coc which is considered as the “Inland Ha Long”. Considering Asian weather is cyclothymic I need to wait before to book. Now I’m ready to meet…
The Water goddess… in the Mekong Delta & Côn Dao archipelago !
Saigon, I’m not running away from you, no ! I want to discover your secrets under the best conditions ! Having regards to all my trips, follow my advice & don’t visit a city as soon as U land. The flight combined with the jet lag …might be fatal ! You must be in good shape to discover Ho Chi Minh City / HCMC / “Pearl of the Far East” (nickname of the colonial times). That’s why I’ve decided to start my trip in the Mekong delta where I booked a lovely room in a guesthouse suggested by my friend Lian. It takes a hour’s drive from the city and despite the traffic I feel tired but serene. The suburbs are gradually disappearing to offer a beautiful panorama of rice paddies with locals dressed in bright colors.The Mekong Delta is a vast maze of rivers that give you amazing insight into what life may be like in the Vietnamese countryside. Each bend to my destination is a succession of lovely scenes magnifying the “painting”! Women dressed with the traditional “Ao Daï”, men with the “Ao Bà Ba” (tunic) + the famous conical hat; schoolchildren in uniforms, street shoppers & fishermen ready to sell their goods on floating markets….and the blue, green, emerald Water, this so precious element offered by a generous goddess! This water that provides rice, vegetables & fruits to the whole country…and abroad! I admire these pastoral scenes and I suddenly remember Hokusai paintings (He’s Japanese, I know… so what?! 😉 When I reach my guesthouse near Vinh Thanh town I’m received by an old woman with this familiar look – I’ve seen that look a thousand times in Asia- Her face has no expression…but her eyes are filled with wisdom, an ancestral knowledge ! If Asians can be difficult to understand at first sight, don’t stay on outer appearance….forget all rules & codes! My hostess leads me to a stilt house and the charm of the place leaves no doubt about the “Retreat” philosophy ! No buildings are disrupting Mother Nature’s curves! Only the green of trees & hundreds pink & white lotus flower. My friend Lian was right ! It’s definitively the place to get the Essence of Vietnam ! I spend 3 days in that peaceful retreat, at the local rhythm. Bike rides, naps, visits of a charming floating market, and a crazy local recipes tasting! (Vietnam would not be Vietnam without its famous gastronomy! 😉 I’ll never forget my first “Bánh Xèo” (crispy pancakes stuffed with vegetables, meat or shrimps) and a real “Bún Thịt Nướng” (rice & noodles, vegetables, grilled meat + nems) The freshness of all ingredients & the taste of each spices is unlimited and each Vietnamese has his secrets to sublimate a “simple” Phô soup!
(3 days after) It’s about time to go back to Saïgon airport to reach Côn Son island / Côn Dao archipelago.
From my window, the Water Goddess welcomes me …with an emerald sea ! Under the guidance of Lian, I’ve booked at “Villa Maison Con Dao Boutique Hotel”. It’s quite expensive for the country (80 euros) but the place deserves a stay ! It’s a beautiful property, elegant & perfectly located. As I’m here just for 2 days I won’t lose my time so I drop off my suitcase and try to find a rental bikes. While I’m drinking a carambola juice with some “Banh Chuoi” (banana donuts) the owner of the company starts an endless bargaining! It’s always the same in Asia and I’m used to it ! There’s a double pricing, one for locals & another for tourists – in the most extreme situation, prices are multiplied by 3! So I Refuse with a smile, that’s it! And It works, always! 😉
During my stroll I’m sincerely happy to discover a lovely island still preserved & off the tourist trail ! If you are usually enchanted by long sandy beaches with clear blue water, white sand, and colorful coral reefs, Con Dao is definitely a good option! In addition to the captivating beaches, the island offering some beautiful primary forests. Côn Son is a perfect getaway, an “antidote” to escape the city! My only concern is the longevity of this state. Indeed, I’ve seen a “Six Senses hotel” …and It’s bad ominous for Côn Son island! :S So…Go! Go as soon as you can – sooner would be better! 😉 In short, don’t miss this blue & green jewel!
Suggestions & Advices:
*Visiting a floating market is a “Must-To-Do” in the Mekong Delta. It’s not necessary to go to “Cai Rang” which is crowded ! You’ll find some smaller & more authentic markets along the Mekong river.
*Avoid tours proposed by tourist agencies (all prices are scams !) Rent a scooter or a bike ! #Freedom!
*About souvenirs, local crafts… bargain / deal with persistence but kindness ! 🙂
*Tea, beer, “Sinh To” (milkshake) coffee are the main Vietnamese drinks but cocoa grows in the Delta, you must taste it. I was surprised by its spicy notes !
*Clams, shrimps & rock fish are typical of this region. Cooked by steaming, grilling, or the “Kho” traditional way (in a clay pot that combines sweet and sour + “Nuoc Mam” sauce)
*Gastronomy of the south is very spicy ! Even if you are an expert of spicy flavors, be warned! 😉
*In the village of Con Dao, try the “Phien Khuc Coffee” : excellent fruit juices.
*As I said previously, forget the classic travel guides! Don’t be afraid to lose yourself! It’s only at this “price” that we are pleasantly & truly charmed ! You’ll see dozen, hundreds temples, pagodas; be seduced by a tiny detail: a monk dressed with a bright « ca-sa » (traditional fabric) a smiling Buddha …or an old man with “this look”- guardian of all secrets 😉
The Great Dragon Saigon!
Boosted by these 6 restful days I’m ready to meet the dragon-Saigon! Under the advice of Reva Dreams Travel agency, I’ve booked an apartment located in the heart of the city. In my taxi I’m totally attacked by the traffic & the heat! I’m not drunk (it’s 8am;) but the dragon is whispering : “Manon, come back to reality, please! I keep 9 million inhabitants in my heart so it’s quite normal! Give me a chance. Believe me, You won’t regret it! “
The taxi brings me in Da Kao – first district – and drops me facing a small and lovely dead end. With delight, I discover a flowery building and a splendid & spacious apartment, decorated by a clever mix of Indochinese craftsmanship in harmony with contemporary furniture. The flat is all air-conditioned with a big bathroom, a large bedroom, a fully equipped kitchen & a lovely balcony (that’s perfect for breakfast!) To end on a high note, my rental has the unexpected quality of being spared from noise! That’s an appropriate “haven of peace” in the city…for the “expensive” amount of 40 euros per night !! 😉 What more do you expect?! I’m just overwhelmed with joy & I e-mail my thanks to Reva Dreams Travel for this 5 stars rental!
After a regenerating shower, I decide to go to the “Jade Emperor Pagoda” -renowned for its fantastic architecture. Apart its facades, let’s talk about the captivating atmosphere! The monks are singing in echo with locals, the fragrances of incenses & offerings. The colors, statues & religious representations. Despite the crowd we can feel the “Spiritual Power” in the air! 2 hours after I decide to have a walk through alleys & avenues of Saigon… There would be so much to say about this Dragon! A modern metropolis with its colonial charm as well. It effortlessly blends the old with the new through historical attractions, museums, markets, cafes & restaurants … It would be impossible to give an adjective to this giant dragon, it’s the purpose of all superlatives! The youngest, the most dynamic, most modern, most mixed, and all medal has its reverse… the most polluted & chaotic! Despite these 2 points, Saigon has a real power of seduction! And let’s talk about the real kindness of inhabitants! Taxi-drivers, street vendors, shopkeepers, young and old…everyone show me a sincere enthusiasm to talk about the culture & traditions. Some question me about differences between France & Asia. As far as I can judge, the 3 fundamental values of Vietnamese confucianism are the Religion, the Family and the State …and despite all social changes ! Saigon is a cultural mosaic shaped from the wisdom of the Ancients to the vitality of the youngs! Above the fact the city tends to internationalize, its soul is Vietnamese …and It will never change!
Under the spell of the dragon, I decide to extend my stay ! My rental is a “decompression chamber” and it provides me all the rest I need after a long day of discoveries & tours. The Fine Arts Museum dedicated to Vietnamese and Cham art -in a splendid colonial style villa- deserves a stop! Chinatown & Ben Thanh markets are 2 must-see places ! a simple “Banh Mi” sandwich takes all its flavor !
The last day, as I’m waiting for my train to Dalat, I have these last words for my Big Dragon: “Saigon, you can be loved or hated, but you leave nobody…indifferent! You deserve a visit again. Hen Gap Lai !” (See you soon!)
Addresses & Advices :
*Call Olivier at Reva Dreams Travel agency. He lives in Saigon He will do his best to satisfy all your desires !
*If the cultural legacy must to be seen – such as the Municipal Theatre, the City Hall, the Post Office (designed by Gustave Eiffel), Notre-Dame Cathedral / Basilica of Saigon, the Independence Palace – also known as Reunification Palace- I prefer Asian & architecture spots… I suggest you Cholon / Chinatown for its unique atmosphere and the “Thien Hau” & “Quan Am” pagodas.
*To find your “Chi” (breath of life!;) go to the “Jade Emperor Pagoda” (73 Đường May Thị Lựu, St, Quận 1) or the “Chua Van Phat” – Temple of Ten Thousand Buddha (66/14 Nghĩa Thục Thục, Phường 5, Quận 5)
*Bà Chiểu market is much more authentic than Ben Thạnh (But that’s my opinion!)
*Taste the asian gastronomy in “Nguyen Hue” street! and…Don’t’ miss the “Banh Chuoi” (banana and coconut milk pudding) or all amazing ice-creams, like the Dragon fruit, of course!;)
*My 3 favorites restaurants: The “Secret Garden Restaurant” (158 Pasteur, Bến Nghé, Quận 1) for the charm of its terrace & the flavour of its dishes! The “HOA TUC” in an old opium refinery (74/7 Hai Ba Trung, District 1) and the “Temple Club” (29-31 Thon That Thiep street)
*An iced coffee in the “Continental Saigon Hotel” is a must! (Hey, by the way…Did you know Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world!? 😀
*Have a drink before / after dinner facing the Dragon who never sleeps! My 2 best bars with magical terraces: The “Saigon Saigon Rooftop Bar” (19 Công Trường Lam Sơn, P, Quận 1) and the “Social Club Saigon” (MGallery Saigon, 76-78 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, Phường 6, Quận 3)