There are three things you’ll notice when you first step onto the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. First, it is hot. Very hot. Second, there is a constant buzz from the hundreds of motorbikes whizzing past in a flurry of horns and engines. Third, thanks to a strict country-wide response, you have entered a COVID-controlled world where restaurants and shops are open and where there have been less than 1,200 cases in a country of 95 million people. After 14 days of quarantine, I’ve been eager to get out and explore!
The city is a maze of back streets. A narrow alley that at first appears to hold nothing but several stories worth of air conditioning units will actually contain a twisted path of hidden shops and cafes. So far, I’ve found a chocolate factory complete with tasting classes, a delicate paper and ink shop designed for someone much shorter than I, and a contemporary art gallery founded by a Vietnamese refugee who relocated to the United States following the Vietnam War.
The food here is incredible. Every brunch, lunch, and dinner has included an interesting combination of flavors both new and old. So far, my favorite meal is from a little alley cafe a short walk from work. A small fleet of Vietnamese women cook the same, single dish every day: bún thịt nướng. Noodles, pickled cucumbers, and pork are topped with fish sauce that you ladle into your bowl from a plastic bucket on the table. After you’ve been brought your dish, you sit on a small metal stool, grab a pair of chopsticks out of another plastic bin, and contentedly slurp your noodles. The current exchange rate is 23,000 Vietnamese đồng to $1 USD, so even though paying for your lunch involves math with many zeroes, the meal usually ends up costing just a few dollars.
And of course I’ve already gone to tea. Two, in fact! The first was a decadent 1940s travel-themed tea at Hotel Des Artes where mini spring rolls are served in a leather-bound suitcase and passionfruit mousse is nestled in a three-tiered birdcage. The second tea was at the Villa Royale Team Room, an Australian-owned tearoom and antique shop, in which you sip your tea amongst elaborate clocks, overstuffed satin couches, and dramatic paintings of women in feathered hats.
Because of the required two-week quarantine upon entry into Vietnam, international travel is not currently an option. But that just means that now is the time to plan in-country adventures. My first trip was to Hồ Tràm, a beach town a few hours away from Ho Chi Minh City. Two friends and I decided to use a long weekend to check out one of the city’s lovely hotels and spend a few days lounging in pools and soaking up the sun. The beaches in Hồ Tràm border the South China Sea, or as it’s known in Vietnam, the Biển Đông or Eastern Sea. Dozens of ships dot the horizon; a stark comparison to the horizon in Cabo Verde, where only the ferry to Fogo would occasionally drift in and out of view.
So far, Vietnam has been wonderful. The people are friendly, the food is delicious, and the work is interesting. I’m excited for the next two years.