My third visit to Vietnam was a surprising mixture of unending delight and enlightenment. As I stepped foot onto the vibrant streets of Ho Chi Minh, a rush of nostalgia and anticipation enveloped me, igniting a profound sense of connection to this captivating country. Previously, the city seemed neglected for many years after the war, the buildings covered in soot with a general sense of decay.
Upon arrival, I was struck by the sense of novelty in the expansive modern airport. During the drive to the historic Park Hyatt Hotel, I couldn't help but be fascinated by the vibrant energy of the city, which indicated that its people have progressed and moved on. Thanks to the efforts of political leaders, this city has transformed into a bustling metropolis.
As I was on my way to the hotel, the chauffeur shared an exciting story about his life. He told me about his brother-in-law and friend who were refugees. Fleeing the harsh rule of the Viet Cong leaders, they joined hundreds of other boat people. The leaders had taken over the reins of power with direction from the Communists in the North after the war had ended. The refugees landed in Palawan at a time when 250,000 boat people perished in the ocean. Eventually, his friend settled in America while his brother-in-law moved to Tacloban. He went into the buy, sell, and credit business there and invited my chauffeur to join him. He and his family lived in Tacloban for seven years until Typhoon Haiyan devastated the city. Witnessing more deaths in a day than in the Vietnam War, his family was traumatized. They decided to move back to their renamed city, Ho Chi Minh. Now, he works as an employee of the Park Hyatt Saigon in a city that is rich in history and charms me.
His story made me reminisce about the war that lasted for 20 years. During my first visit to the city, most residents still referred to it as Saigon. I went to the War Remnants Museum, where exhibits showcased the atrocities committed during the war, particularly by the Americans. The US Air Force had dropped toxic herbicides, including Agent Orange, which destroyed the jungles and mangroves, as well as the people who lived there. Another memorable experience was going through a tunnel, a part of the Cu Chi network of tunnels built by the Viet Cong seeking shelter from bombings. The tunnels were tiny for me to crawl in with my oversized handbag, even if that one tunnel for tourists was enlarged for comfort.
Ho Chi Minh City has undergone a complete transformation. The colonial-era buildings, such as the Opera House and the Park Hyatt, have been renovated to their former glory. The Majestic Hotel, where I stayed during my first trip, has also been fully restored. In addition to these, the Mandarin Oriental and the Ritz Carlton are soon to open. However, what truly sets the city apart is its greenery and landscaping. Forest parks have been created in different districts, with designated spaces for pedestrians, motorcycles, and cars. The city also boasts a well-planned mass transit system.
Vietnam's tourism industry is not only because of its historical significance but also because of the government's efforts to diversify its products. One such effort is the upcoming Saigon River Cruise, which will take place on luxury yachts along the Saigon River.
During my visit, I had the chance to enjoy the local cuisine with some close friends, Ben Chan, Miguel Pastor, Ramon Antonio, and Philip Cuazon Jr. To add to the allure, some of the good restaurants are located in old, refurbished houses. Vietnamese cuisine celebrates the art of simplicity, combining nourishing flavors of vegetables and herbs with boiled, steamed, or stir-fried meats and seafood. And to start the day, I treated myself to a bowl of the iconic dish of pho. It left a lasting impression on my taste buds.
Leaving Ho Chi Minh made me want to return to Vietnam. My next destination is Hanoi. The beauty of Halong Bay, with its majestic rock formations jutting out from the sea, beckons me to return.