Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh, January the 7th, 2017
We’re about to leave for Vietnam. We didn’t plan it, we will stay there 50 days: 50 very intense days. Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An and then Ho Chi Minh and Mekong Delta.
Right now we’re on the 10th floor of a tall tall building on Saigon river. It’s evening here and the darkness of the night is interrupted by the giant neon signs on the skyscrapers, by the lights from the windows and by the lights of the long queue of cars and scooters down in the streets. Ho Chi Minh never sleeps and when it does it gets up very early and starts the days on two wheels.
We’ve been to Ho Chi Minh 5 times already: twice during our first trip on the road three years ago, and three times during the last month. Landed in Hoi An coming back from Mui Ne after experiencing Mekong Delta, and back again to Hoi An, where we spent the Christmas holiday with our families.
We know by heart the way from the airport to the city center, Notre Dame of Saigon Cathedral both at night (showing its wonderful light) and during the day (surrounded by the scaffold that makes it even more charming), the lady who sells fruit at the third stand at the Lê Thánh Tôn del Ben Thanh Market (she smiles at us every time she sees us), the girls from the pizzeria next to the market (they know we don’t want ice in our water).
It’s been so intense and simple that we haven’t really realized we would’ve left this place someday until that evening of December 20th, when I lost my thoughts while staring outside the window of the restaurant, while eating a pizza margherita in front of a glass of water (rigorously without ice). It was 10PM, we were having dinner so late because we stayed a bit longer in the airport to surprise Tonton Alex, aka Uncle Alex (Julien’s brother). The first family member who arrived in Vietnam to join our Christmas celebration. The Vietnam borders are quite strict and he’s been held for a long time at the controls, we were almost heading back to the hotel but luckily we managed to wait and give that big surprising hug.
We were talking about our experience. And in the meantime the lights were fading, the carts of the Night Market were being carried down on Thủ Khoa Huân, producing that sound which is typical of a day that’s coming to an end, that gets lost in the silence of a city that never truly goes to sleep. The laughs of a bunch of guys, the unfailing scooter horns. The gates of the shops are rolling down, the sellers go back to their homes from the backrooms. A strange light from the building in front of us and a stranger light from the building next door. Buildings are so different here. The skyline of Ho Chi Minh is a rollercoaster: high narrow buildings, short large houses, shops full of neon signs and then skyscrapers, the balance of the balconies. In that moment I realized this was not just simply beautiful, but so chaotic to become poetic, so hectic to become magical and most of all: so real.
If you’re travelling to Vietnam is going to be a dry trip: no decoration, no frills. Red words on white signs. No form of courtesy if not the most beautiful one: real smiles, authentic people. Good, open, careful people. Proud, very proud.
Vietnam is real, no illusion or promises. The women wearing the pointy hats don’t do it for fashion, they cross the street balancing the fruit and their hot Pho soups. They get up at 5 in the morning and spend their days sitting in the streets. They are genuine and all they do carries that beauty of things that must be done without questioning.
The days start early, the curtains are up, the scooters are parked - waiting to be switched on again for the afternoon siesta. The hardware store never misses a cathode-ray tube television on the umpteenth soap opera - the voice acting is so terrible it becomes wonderful (sometimes women, men and children all have the same voice). The sidewalks are full of holes and faults or scooters. When they see us walking down the street with a stroller they laugh at us (comprehensible, after all). Children are sacred.
Ho Chi Minh is immense and includes 22 districts. You realize how vaste it is after 20 minutes by car, when you think you crossed the whole city but you didn’t even reach the next neighborhood. District 1 is the central one, where you can find the tallest building of the city (Bitexco Tower) and Ben Thanh Market, the Opera, the big statue in front of the municipality dedicated to Ho Chi Minh, the great politician who gave his name to the city in 1975 (former name is Saigon, nowadays to be found on vintage postcards only).
Notre Dame de Saigon, the building of the post service. Everything remembers of Indochina and you can smell the history of this great country everywhere, especially regarding the war. A war they won.
It’s from Ho Chi Minh that we say goodbye to Vietnam. Exactly from where it started, three years ago. Memories in our heads.
The view from the small window in our room’s bath, on the 6th floor. The smell of durian when you cross the streets on the Eastern side of Ben Thanh Market, where shoemakers are working. And then Cholon. Oh, Cholon! The chinese neighborhood! Here confusion fills the streets to the point where you wonder if you’ll ever be able to walk. The high skyscrapers next to the tiny houses where they sleep in 7 in the same room. The green taxi. The constant sound of the scooters. The crunchy nem, the perfume of Pho and the taste of Bo Bun. The women with the pointy hats cross the streets with their balances full of fruit, trying to pass through the huge amount of people who fill the streets.
Ho Chi Minh is a black swan. Hanoi looks at Ho Chi Minh wrong, the rest of Vietnam bullies it: too much traffic, too much pollution, too much people, too much confusion. But Ho Chi Minh is magical, you need to be able to see it through. To see through history, appreciate its future, love it for what it has to offer today. You need to defend its cultural melting pot. You have to fall in love with the view from the buildings and the life down in the streets. That’s the only way to get used to it, to become addicted to a city you’d never say goodbye to.
It’s 9AM when we get on a taxi to the airport. We greet our family and fill our suitcases again, those suitcases that became our home by now. We sit on the leather seats in the back of the taxi. We ask the driver to put on some music, turn the radio on! Traditional vietnamese music fills the air. Lia is on my lap, Teo is on Julien’s lap. We hold our hands in the middle.
Our farewell to Vietnam is not a funny moment, we’re so afraid to cry that we end up crying. Our driver takes care of us: he switches off the traditional vietnamese music in favour of a super kitch and vintage 80s sound. Modern Talking becomes the soundtrack of those nostalgic images of a Vietnam that runs away through the car’s windows. And then, we can’t help but laughing.
He looks at us from the rearview mirror. “International departure?”. “Yes, international departure, please”.
Ciao Vietnam. Stay wise.
With a Lot of Love - #miljiansgotovietnam