As an expat with some Vietnamese language skills, we quickly forget the sheer confusion and wonder at waking up on your first morning in Saigon. The absolute fear of how you are going to achieve the most basic of functions, like buying food, without a guide usually crosses the minds of most first-time tourists to this great city.
And recently, I had the opportunity to welcome my cousin and his family to Saigon for the first time. They spent a few days exploring the city both with me as their guide and alone, checking out what they could do with no phone and no translator.
My cousin Gavin and his wife Natalie are from Adelaide in South Australia. They never considered Vietnam as a holiday destination until a discussion with their sister-in-law, who is from Vietnam but lives in Australia, raised the idea of a family holiday in her homeland. After six months of planning, the group of nine extended family members arrived in Vietnam for a three-week holiday across the country.
The first stop was Ho Chi Minh City. Having visited many other Asian locations over the years, Natalie was surprised by the combination of Western and Asian cultures in the middle of the city. With big shopping malls, Western bars, and other services that cater to English speakers, their first venture out of their hotel was not a bad experience, albeit very much in the center of the city.
Coming from a smaller city in Australia, when asked about her first impressions of Saigon she noted, "It felt like organized chaos driving from the hotel to the airport. We really enjoyed the vibrancy, the loudness and all of the different food stands and people that we were seeing along the way, and all of the bars."
|Gavin (second from left) and his family pose for a photo while visiting some of the exciting nightspots in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert|
Interestingly, Ho Chi Minh City was their choice as the preferred location to start their holiday because it gave them the opportunity to find their feet and get accustomed to the culture, environment and challenges they were to experience in less Westernized areas of Vietnam. And rightly so, because they were able to meet tour guides, including some of my old students, who helped them with a myriad of tours, transport, hotels and locations across the country. It was the right choice to start their holiday in Ho Chi Minh City.
Fortunately, for the family, having a cousin that lives in Vietnam and speaks some Vietnamese was also a big benefit. On Saturday, we did some wandering around the city and visited some local attractions less frequented by tourists. It was a fantastic experience for Nat and Gav to see little things that were not in the middle of the city, and not many tourists get to see. These places included local markets and small museums not on the tourist's must-see list.
My cousin also has a beautiful three-year-old daughter traveling with them. This added another layer of complexity. This had us exploring parks and playgrounds that I had never taken a second look at in all my time in this country. And it is clear that Ho Chi Minh City is much more equipped to cater to children than it was in the past. It is a growing and developing aspect that is making it a better place for families to visit.
Whilst watching Zoe play, I asked them what was the most surprising part of Ho Chi Minh City and they were quick to identify the local cuisine as the best part of their first few days in this city. But as they ventured farther afield with tours to Cu Chi Tunnels and seeing other parts of the city, it was clear to them that Ho Chi Minh City has a lot fewer English speakers than other big Asian cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Bali. So, this made their movements all the more challenging without a guide.
There is one thing that most tourists and newcomers to Vietnam experience and that is the confusion with the money in the country. For some reason, with so many zeros on the notes, the ability to really understand the value of things can really get confusing. But some simple advice and help from some locals got them through it and they managed to survive, especially because things are often so much cheaper than back in Australia.
|A supplied photo shows Ray Kuschert (right) and his wife taking his cousin's family on a day trip out of Ho Chi Minh City to nearby Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province.|
And now, Gavin and Natalie have had three weeks traveling across the country. They had the fortune to see such places as Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Da Nang, Hoi An and even a weekend in Vung Tau. I asked Natalie what advice she would give anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City in the future. And it was with a warm smile that she said, "My advice would be to come with an open mind, don't be too regimented on what you do. Trust in the process because there's the Vietnamese way which just tends to kind of work out.”
And I can’t agree more. Throughout my 10 years of travels across Vietnam, rarely does a plan come true. Often, I have to say that I am going to a place and allow the Vietnamese way to just work itself out, and it always does. I suppose that is one of the amazing things about Vietnam, if you just trust it, it will all work out ok in the end. But more so, you always walk away with a memory to last a lifetime.
As I bid farewell to my cousins, I find I have yet again learned just a little more about Vietnam. I appreciate the challenges of tourists better and I got to feel the wonder in the amazing experiences that just seem to happen when you let go just a little and go with the Vietnamese flow.
Ho Chi Minh City really is the gateway to a whole new world for foreigners, and the services and facilities that have developed over the past decade have made it the preferred location for holidaymakers from all over the world. I am so proud of my adopted hometown and look forward to welcoming many more family members to our country, and Saigon in the near future. Vietnam really is a place of timeless charm.