Arriving and departing are two entirely separate events with their own set of emotions.
Vietnam - this small, bustling little country is where I’ve spent most of my childhood and where my fondest memories were made. It’s where I got to be a child, where I sleep the best, laugh the hardest and cry the most. Its warmth and typical 90% humidity is the reason why I’m constantly chasing the tropics.
This visit is a little different than the last few. Billy and I are here for Vietnamese New Year, also known as Tết. It has been 17 years since I got to experience these joyous and beautiful festivities. For Billy, it’s his first time.
19+ hours of traveling left everyone feeling exhausted but that was quickly replaced with excitement as the stewardess came on the intercom to announce that the airplane will start its descent shortly. I watched in anticipation as the plane dipped lower, the clouds float past me, and the ground become closer.
My first glimpse of those colorful, vertical buildings sent butterflies soaring through my stomach. Closer... closer…. I can see the ground now. Closer.
Touched down. We are home.
Vietnamese believe that everything you possess, experience and consume on the first few days of New Year will percolate through the rest of the year. So people dress their best, have the most fun, do the least and eat abundantly. Anything less than that is considered bad luck.
Think Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year combined. That’s pretty much what Tết is. Being here around this time you’ll be surrounded by the classic red and gold decorations. There’s no shortage of displays of ancient dragon imagery, Buddha statues and other symbols of luck and prosperity. Certain areas of the city were turned into somewhat of a fairground with artist galleries, festival games and shows. The energy was infectious. The whole city was in a celebratory mood.
The plan for this trip was to start from Saigon and make our way toward Da Nang. Since we arrived a week before the first day of New Year, we started exploring the town immediately. I made sure my camera was fully charged and stomach, you can be sure, very empty.
We spent most of our time walking through the city to soak in all the festivities, which in hindsight, it was a great decision considering all the food we ate.
Easily one of the best bánh xèo (Vietnamese crepe) I’ve ever had. Crispy beyond words. Bursting with a generous filling of pork and shrimp. And they’re the size of my face. Why 62A? I have no clue and I was too busy inhaling everything on the table to ask. Make sure you get their imperial egg rolls as well, you’ll thank me.
Good lord, these bánh mì. We were stumbling down the streets of Saigon (not drunk, just dodging potholes) when we came across this sandwich megahouse. We were on a quest to find a Pho restaurant but were so desperately lost we decided to buy a couple bánh mì to hold us over. The Pho idea went out the window immediately after the first bite. Everything from the warm fluffy baguette to the deep pâté flavor, to the tender ham and meat were perfect! It was everything you want in a Vietnamese bánh mì and more. We ordered 10 more bánh mì and a few desserts, you know, to hold us over.
Our hotel is located in District 1, which is the fancier part of town with lots of shopping options, though after several attempts, proved to be a little difficult to find a good phở joint. We decided to venture a little further out on our last morning there and found this gem. Tiny plastic red stools on the side of the street, local men eating with their morning coffee, some with their cigarettes, some with a newspaper, all inside a small restaurant which I’m certain the family of the owner lives upstairs. All signs of a great restaurant in Vietnam. And I was right. Clear, flavorful beef broth decorated with a few slices of rare steak and topped with fresh herbs. So simple. Too delicious.
One of Saigon’s landmarks. A huge, very well-known marketplace with hundreds of stalls selling anything from clothing to household appliances to local cuisine. What I love most is their food court which holds an array of different kinds of food, drinks and desserts. They even sell fresh fruits so you can pretty much scooch over to the next stall after your bun bo hue for some fresh durian or chè ba màu. Whatever your heart desires, Bến Thành has it.
We took a break from the festivities to visit Thiên Hậu Temple, a Chinese-style Buddhist temple located in District 5. It’s quite small but quaint and very tranquil.
The biggest theme park in Saigon, if not the whole country. This place still trumps all others when it comes to the level of excitement that it can impose on its attendants. We didn't have time to go but I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you're there during the summer.
Other Places Worth Visiting
Our nights in Saigon were spent strolling the streets, wandering through countless dessert places and cafes. Three days felt too short and there was plenty left to see. But we were now 2 days from New Year, there were a lot of preparations left to be done and we had a long drive home ahead of us.