Spat out into the world once again; a new city to explore, a new culture to taste, a new language we can’t speak. There’s a mountain of history pouring down on us in Ho Chi Minh, the southern capital of Vietnam but for now the long stories of Vietnam and its place in the region are reflecting only in the gleaming facade of a modern asian city. A somewhat out of place cleanliness surrounds a more comforting sense of chaos as this polished commercial edifice makes no attempt to quell the no-nonsense irrepressibility of a nation borne on raw bravery more at home in a rice paddy than a skyscraper. A history that has shaped this nation is however never far away, there’s nothing passive, benign, disconnected or lethargic; this is not a culture on the lazy downslope of a generation born to expectation.
Market time again. The walk through the market is nothing short of an adventure itself as we dodge and fend off friendly insistent advances. Where Cambodian culture just makes you want to give it a cuddle, Vietnam is a splashing battle in the pool or the juvenile sleepover pillow fight, smiling yet on guard. Have we been travelling too long that sparring with street sellers is now truly a fun exercise? Victory is declared, victory over the vendors, victory over the lack of language and most importantly, victory over the need for breakfast. In truth the final battle here is a mock victory, I think we could ask the dude fixing motorbikes to whip us up some brekky and it would reduce our vocabulary to positive grunts and groans. From selling to eating, no venture great or small is adopted with lethargy or assumption; Vietnam you are winning already.We have admittedly been easy beats so far, Vietnamese food and cooking has no downside with us but the flighty evasive coffee snobs are about to descend, the crowd is hushed. On a tip from a guy in Phnom Penh we seek out Workshop, a cafe tucked on level two of an old French style industrial building that has seen better times. The chic industrial renovation takes us all the way back home, this is looking good but what’s in the cup is what this hike across town is all about. We have had good coffee along the way, Ristr8to in Chiang Mai, Wonderful in Santiago and LatteTe in Buenos Aires join warehouse in the heavy weight ring but none deserve defeat as warehouse stands tall among elite company. Vietnam is the worlds second larges producer of coffee beans but its reputation is all about volume, not quality; reputations can be so fickle. Vietnam, you can’t win all the time. Surely?
Lunch comes and goes in a flurry of sounds that would sit aptly on low-brow pornography than a local eatery but we’re coming to expect little else from this big city named after a little man. Ho Chi Minh, or uncle Ho as he’s known here, may have one of the most famous goatees in history but it’s a mere novelty to his impressive history of life achievements. His life spanned sojourns to the USA, France, Britain, Russia and China and after receiving his political education in France he returned home to Vietnam after a near 30 year absence to lead the liberation of his country. Ho remains the figurehead of modern Vietnam and largely skirts the stain of atrocity that seems to cling to communist leaders of his generation. Is his famous rift with China that solidified his positive story or was it his irrepressible story that forced the rift with China?The swirl of influences that is Ho Chi Minh city flies at us from all directions like the traffic tsunami that is a more of a mass migration of scooters, this first day is too much for one day, this city too much for one city. The world not only refines to a point, that world not only fits itself into one day, in Ho Chi Minh city it does it all better than the places in which it borrows inspiration from. Somewhere along the line of Chinese dynasties, French colonialism, Japanese occupation and American atrocity Vietnam not only kept its stride but now stands alone in the ring as an undisputed victor on so many fronts. The weight of the world has been burdened to the shoulders of the Vietnamese for centuries who don’t only bare that weight but stand tall with it rather than succumbing to its crushing burden.
Fittingly we aren’t pegged into a one trick pony of a place, not content to graft just a gritty local style, it’s off to the theatre in the glorious Ho Chi Minh opera house. The glamorous bit will start soon, for now we’re tripled on the back of a scooter and whizzing through the streets in the only manner scarier than walking them. We’re far too big for these bikes, I’m literally holding my legs off the ground with my fingers hooked into my jeans in a scene as absurd as it is funny. No one seems to even look at us. Arriving in style, a style at least, our world of patina so rapidly becomes ornate ceilings, plush chairs and demure silence. Just like the layered history of this nation the performance is a slice of dance, acrobatics, circus, lyric theatre, traditional storytelling and comedy. Of course it’s the best of everything in a town that seems to make the concept an afterthought, visually stunning with little more that a bunch of big pieces of bamboo.It’s a first impression, a giddily exciting travellers introduction but walking into a world that has had to fight for centuries just to call their lives their own fills us with a vim too unrelenting to discredit as a whim. It’s possible to say that laziness is the privilege of the comfortable, the comfort of the privileged; but neither of those elements exist here. Ho Chi Minh never lived to see the final unification of the nation he liberated but it’s southern capital Saigon now bears not only his name but his diverse world reach. Uncle Ho is the figurehead but Vietnam has fought off the worlds powers for centuries with a resolve and fortitude that is on show at every corner stall and whizzes past on every scooter.
The French cock, American eagle, British lion, Russian bear and Chinese sickle all take a back seat under the single star flag of Vietnam; influences true but nothing more. Few national personalities have shouted louder to us on this trip than Vietnamese resolve. In an overflowing day the world is on show in Vietnam and like the most recent slice of its tumultuous history, no other country has space to exist in a world already too full of a culture that won’t lie down or sit still. It’s too quick we say to ourselves, too early to declare such a bold and comprehensive critique, but as the world hustles by it’s equally undeniable. They’re friendly, polite and small of stature these people that have no knowledge of apathy and laziness; heaven help anyone that gets in the way of this nation that walks so proudly in no direction but forward.