I didn’t set my expectations very high. Being a socialist country with a deep war history, I figured the development would be about the same as Jakarta, or perhaps less. I was in for a big surprise when I landed at Tan Son Nhat International Airport (HCMC’s international airport). Their airport is modern, clean, efficient, and they really captured my heart with the “ASEAN” lane. Their airport is miles ahead of Jakarta’s sleazy and dirty airport!
We checked into Caravelle Hotel, which is right smack in the middle of District 1. We had a nice view of the city. One smart thing that I did in this trip (which I should have done for the Jakarta trip) was that I got myself a travel guide book. I highly recommend getting a travel guide book to everyone as it helps you to plan your trips better and so that you know what are the key attractions of your destination.
As all of us were hungry, we went to explore the nearby areas for restaurants. Mum smsed her friend to see if there are any halal restaurants in the area. Surprisingly, our hotel is quite near to the Muslim quarter in the city. We reached the Muslim area less than 10 minutes. We had lunch at a restaurant called Halal at Saigon. The food was awesome and reasonably priced. I was surprised to find the staff there speaking Malay! Later I found out the owner is a Malaysian lady, so perhaps they learnt from each other?
There was a mosque in front of Halal @ Saigon hence we decided to stop-by. The description reads that it was built by Indian Muslim traders in the early of 20th century, but they fled the country during world war 2. We spoke to the local imam and muezzin and I was gobsmacked that they speak Malay as well! I asked them where and why did they learn Malay. The imam said generally the Kampuchean Viets are Muslims, and they learn Malay because it benefits them in business, as well as it makes it easier for them to further Islamic studies in Malaysia and Indonesia. Since Malays is easy to learn, they teach each other informally. I never truely understood the 15th century statement that “the Malay language being the lingua-franca of the region” till I reached Vietnam. Gobsmacked, totally gobsmacked.
After that, we went to a well known coffee shop that happened to have a new branch right in front of our hotel. We went to Highland Coffee. It was suggested by a friend (who frequents HCMC) and by the travel book. All of us ordered something different and I was very pleased with the quality of the drinks. Some were even better than your usual Starbucks or Coffee Bean. I was highly impressed that Vietnam has a thriving cafe culture. Apart from Highland Coffee, I saw a few others in District 1.
In the evening, I accompanied mom to Hong Anh boutique, well known among Malaysians for their baju kurung and kebaya (in Vietnam, yes, I know, it’s surprising). They had a photo of Tun Siti Hasmah and a previous Queen of Malaysia in the shop. It’s that famous! I was there for about an hour, and I saw a few Malaysian ladies coming into the shop. All of them bought the baju kurung in bulk, from what I observed, each of them would purchase around 15-20 pieces each. These baju kurung and kebayas are around US15-US20 and apparently that’s a cheap price, because, they bring these baju kurungs to Malaysia and they sell it for a whopping RM400 (~USD135)! Damn that’s good business! It’s no surprise that the Vietnamese staff here speak Malay, quite fluently too, looking at the number of Malaysians that shop here throughout the year. Why Hong Anh? I guess it must be the quality and the price.
The location of Hong Anh Boutique is shown in the map below (marked in a red X). Notice how near it is to Ben Thanh Market.
The next day was our city tour day. Our tour guide was quite the character. He introduced himself as Charlie. He said he was part of the Vietnam war, but he was a translator for the Americans in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) (which means he fought against Viet Cong). He also fancied himself as having an American accent, in which, to me, he sounded like any other Vietnamese guy you meet on the street. Not too sure who gave him the idea he has an American accent though.
Our first stop was the War Remnants Museum. Charlie didn’t went in with us. He stayed outside. He said the museum was used by the ruling communist party as a propaganda tool. I only understood what he meant when I went inside and saw the photos (below):
Check out the description or the caption of the photos above and you’ll agree with Charlie. But I guess as victors of the Vietnam War, the socialist government has every right to display whatever news they want to the world.
Ben Thanh Market is a massive place. They sell all sorts of goods from raw meat to housing accessories, souvenirs, clothing materials etc. What is shocking to me is that the workers at certain sections in the market, especially the clothing materials section, speak Malay! The reason they give is the same as the workers at Hong Anh Boutique. Most of their customers are from Malaysia, therefore knowing basic Malay is good for business! They even know the length of the material you need for a baju kurung, kebaya, and baju melayu (all these are traditional Malay dresses). I’m impressed!
The next day was our flight back to Malaysia, but I managed to squeeze some time in the morning to visit the National Museum. I enjoyed my visit to the museum as Vietnam has a rich history and they have lots of artifacts to show the world.
All in all, I was very impressed with Ho Chi Minh. Since they opened up their economy in the 90s (after the fall of the Soviet Union), they have been developing rapidly, putting countries like Indonesia to shame. I believe in about 10-20 years, they might be at par with Malaysia, or even Singapore.