Sunday, 9 December 2012

Hello Ho Chi Minh City

There will be pictures when I can upload them!

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in the early evening, and in an attempt to fight the impending jet lag, I dived into the nearest coffee shop I could find to fend off the desire to fall asleep for a few more hours. It worked. Vietnamese coffee is unbelievably strong. I asked the waitress to recommend me a blend, and was presented with a metal filtering device in which coffee dripped through into a bed of gloriously gloopy, sticky condensed milk. I later found out that this particular blend, called 'weasel coffee', is considered a gourmet specialty in Vietnam: coffee beans are fed to weasels and then harvested from their droppings. Delicious...

My hostel is located down a small alleyway just off the bustling main road of Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker district. I stepped out early the next morning to find the street bustling with sellers of banh mi (like French baguettes, only filled with a meat pate far, far different from the sort you'd find in France...), fruit and vegetables, and all manner of meat and fish - including rat. It was all a bit much for me at 7am, so I took refuge in a cute little cake shop, where I opted for animals in chocolate cake form instead.

Ready to face the sea (no exaggeration) of motorbikes that perpetually runs through the streets - and often, if the drivers are feeling particularly impatient, the pavement too - I headed towards Ben Thanh market, where the choice of bags, shoes, clothing, trinkets and jewellery is overwhelming even for a professional shopper like me. In the end I gave up and consoled myself with a succession of exotic fruit juices from the food area, before heading to the Fine Arts museum.

Housed in a pretty building, the exhibits spanned many eras, and what I found particularly interesting was the Vietnamese angle on movements that I've previously only encountered in a western context. Battles from the Vietnam War were depicted in a Cubist style, or reverence for Communist leaders took on an abstract form. While there weren't the masterpieces of the grand European museums, it was nonetheless fascinating to see the Vietnamese take on these different styles.

My next stop was the Reunification Palace, which is a slightly bizarre mix of a tourist attraction and a still-functioning building for important meetings. The grand rooms are all closed off for tourists to peek in, yet some are still used for political occasions, when the palace is closed. These include grand banquets, and we were shown the kitchen where the food for these events is produced. The scale of the machinery is colossal, including a food mixer so large that I would probably be able to feed an army with just one batch of cupcakes...

Speaking of which, it was time for some refreshment - I found a quiet little cafe called Pacey Cupcakes and sipped ginger iced tea and a yogurt and raspberry cupcake. A hopelessly western indulgence, but nevertheless a haven from the chaos of the streets outside. I later restored the eat-west food balance in the form of spring rolls and noodles, a steaming bowl of beef pho, and rice paper prawn rolls with a ridiculously sweet, sticky caramel sauce for dipping.

Stepping back out into the sweltering sunshine, it felt a little strange to see Christmas decorations being put up and hear Christmas songs played in every shop. Not that I'm missing the cold weather of Britain. I'm more than happy to deal with fake icicles and polystyrene snow sculptures for a while longer yet.

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