We love markets. So our stay in Saigon had to include a stroll around Ben Thanh, a covered market so enormous and densely packed it’s easy to lose your bearings and find yourself wandering in circles. “That dried fish stall looks familiar… ermm… weren’t we here ten minutes ago?”

Every inch of space is filled with stalls selling everything you could ever need. Different trades occupy different sections – textiles; fresh meat and fish, jewellry, fruit and vegetables, clothes, radios, bread, dried fish and condiments, buttons, shoes, coffee… ahhh, coffee. We walked into the market past fishmongers selling eels wriggling in plastic bowls, unfamiliar looking fish flipping idly in large tanks, prawns, squid…. past butchers, their stalls hung with chickens, duck, slabs of rib…past mountains of multi-coloured fruit and vegetables and made a beeline for the coffee stalls. It was that time of day.

From all sides, voices called out for our custom. “Buy here? Good quality! Good prices! You come buy here!”

We picked a particularly colourful stall and the coffee seller pulled out a couple of plastic stools for us to sit on while they ground up some “Chon” coffee beans to make a good, strong Vietnamese-French style coffee. “Chon” is weasel coffee. What, you may ask, is weasel coffee? Chon coffee beans are called thus once they have been eaten by weasels, digested and, shall we say, passed through to the other side. Sufficiently cleaned, the beans are thereafter supposed to have had an especially deep flavour imparted to them. I’d heard of something similar – civet coffee, or some such, which is sold at ridiculous prices in Europe, which has had a similar digestive process applied to it, but this was the first time I’d tried something like this. It was rich, dark, satisfying, lovely coffee with a good kick. In Vietnam they add condensed milk to espresso coffee, just in case. It was pretty good served this way; something about drinking it from little glasses perched on plastic stools as the bustle of the market went on around us made it taste particularly good.

We wandered around and around for another hour or so. We got a bit lost in the textile section – sometimes the spaces between stalls was so narrow you had to step sideways, arms coming out of nowhere to grab you – “You come, you buy, cheap!”. I tried on a skirt that made me look like an elephant. “This makes me look like an elephant” I say. “No, no, no nooooooooo!!! You slim, looks great!”. I felt the sale was more important than the truth at this point so I declined to buy, but further on we bought two Ao Dai – the elegant slimline Vietnamese outfits that women wear – one in bright turquoise, the other sunshine yellow, for our two nieces in Sydney, aged 5 and 3. They looked great in them, by the way….

I bought some water-buffalo-horn teascoops for omiage (the all-important gifts to take back to people in Tokyo) and some delicate, dark-wood, water-buffalo-horn-topped teaspoons for me, at a dollar for six. Water buffalos are everywhere… so I hoped this was a by-product.

Once we were all marketed-out – reaching our market-wandering saturation point – we staggered out into the heat and the sun to look for a taxi. Buzzed up with coffee, we were ready for some lunch. Destination Number Two – Ban Xeo 46A. It was another one of those times of day.

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May is the beginning of monsoon season for parts of Vietnam.  As Paul and I negotiated our way through the flowing traffic towards the vast train station (“ga” – in Vietnamese, as in “gâre” – a word left over from French colonialisation) the rain began to pour, a kind of massive condensation of the muggy humidity that pervaded the city.  In this kind of weather you need rubber flip flops or wellies.  We waded through puddles, observing the full colour of Vietnamese life splashing on all around us, and once at the station, booked our sleeper train journey to Nha Trang in two days’ time.

 

Our first taste of pho at a station café, a delicious steaming bowl of rice noodles in stock which you topped with fresh herbs, leaves, chillis, beansprouts and a squeeze of lime.  These noodles are eaten at breakfast, at lunch, as a snack.  I loved them. 

 

At tables nearby people lay stretched out on their seats for an afternoon nap beneath the waft of humming electric fans.  We sat at our table for a while, watching the station traffic come and go until the rain subsided.  This was how it would rain most days, especially in the south – an hour or two of heavy downpour before the sun came out and dried everything out.

 

We gave ourselves an introduction to the city by walking around some of the main sites – past the Reunification Palace, through the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park, around and into the late 19th century main post office, with its impressive French colonial architecture, and the neo-romanesque Dame Cathedral beside it.  Most museums closed by 4pm and we made a mental log of what we wanted to see next day.

 

 

Later that evening we sat on the roof terrace of our hotel and ate hotpot, the wind occasionally blowing out the flames on our table top cooker.  Someone somewhere was singing hideously bad karaoke below us and all around the city mopeds beeped and honked.  This was a huge, vibrant, energetic city and we were going to need all the sleep we could get to make the most of the next day’s explorations.  An early bedtime was in order.

 

 

 

Paul and I landed in the huge southern Vietnamese city of Saigon, officially known as Ho Chih Min, after a short flight from Siem Reap.  A hair-raising journey through mad traffic in a battered old taxi later and we got to our hotel, Saigon Star.

 

We freshened up ready to explore.  Our hotel faced a six-lane main road.  There were no pedestrian crossings.  No traffic lights.  And there was a constant, heavy stream of mopeds and bicycles, honking and beeping as the flowed past us.  We stood at the edge of the pavement waiting for a suitable gap in this river of motors.

 

After ten minutes Paul says – shall we try a little further down the road?

 

We walk along for some distance and find traffic lights.  But mopeds and cycles are still flowing through, unpredictably.  We wait again.

 

How does anyone cross the road here or get anywhere?  I said.

 

We stuck to our side of the road for a while, then managed to scoot across the traffic where there were some traffic lights which maybe 80% of the moped and cycle riders obeyed.  It was a mad, jerking dash across the road and raised the blood pressure a few points.  A cacophony of horns beeped as us.

 

 

I wondered how the hell we were ever going to get around the city.  Later, we watched with wonder as a man pushed a bicycle – just visible, peeping through a five foot high mountain of baskets, straw hats and boxes – into the road just as the traffic lights turned green and a thousand mopeds surged across.  He walked steadily, looking straight ahead, and like water around a boulder in a river, the mopeds parted and flowed around him.

This was a handy learning experience that served us well for the rest of our time in Vietnam.  It took some courage first time.

Here is the street-crossing method:

 

  1. Check that nothing is immediately heading your way nearest to the pavement where you are standing.
  2. Take a deep breath
  3. Step out into the road, even if you have 100 motorbikes surging towards you
  4. Do NOT look to your left, as this will only freak you out
  5. Carry on walking across the road, slowly, calmly, steadily
  6. Do NOT stop, hestitate, backtrrack or panic
  7. You will find the traffic flows around you and yourself safely on the other side of the road.

 I was euphoric the first time I managed this, and got quite a kick from it.  Learn this and you will get far in any Vietnamese town or city.