Things to do with your kids in Ho Chi Minh City...
1. Observe the transition to modernity
Vietnam is opening up its economy and this brings a sharp increase in foreign investment. And it's changing the landscape of the city at lightning speed. The Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches are like a type of breakfast staple, combining a mix of French baguette, pate and native Vietnamese ingredients, eg cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon and a drizzle of soy sauce. This trip, I saw a shift in trends - in December, two McDonald's were opened in downtown. I also saw a fast-growing trend from sidewalk stalls to the more upmarket lifestyle cafes.
2. French architecture in postcolonial HCMC.
You can walk anywhere in the city and noticed the influence of French in their buildings, food and culture. Most of these buildings were built in the late 19th century like the General Post Office, Notre Dame church, opera house and some hotels.
3. Soak in the music & art
The locals are very talented in both music and art. Most of them are self-taught or passed on from generations. Many are still producing paintings depicting the local scenes or copying certain popular art pieces. Slowly but surely, the new breed of artists are making their imprint in the art industry and many buyers came as far as America to source for these original and creative paintings. There's an interesting street at Nguyen Thien Thuat selling guitars and other instruments. We tried out many of the guitars and they're good and reasonably-priced too.
4. War impact
The Vietnamese have a long history of engaging in wars - with the Chinese, Khmer, French, Spanish, Russian and the most well-known, the war with the Americans. On Dec 20 when we're there, it was the 55th anniversary of the American invasion in certain parts of Vietnam. The War Remnants Museum is highly recommended to give the local perspective of the Vietnam War. It's a far better way to learn history about war here than reading it in textbooks. The boys were deeply moved when they saw the impact of the decade-long Agent Orange operations.
5. Sneek peek at the interiors
Mekong Delta is still a very value for money day tour (USD10 per pax) inclusive of all the boat rides, pony ride, lunch and tea-break. With visitors from the world pouring into the interior, it's gradually changing the livelihood and the backyard industries, mainly to cater to the tourists. But it's still a very good experience to see locals in the interior within a day.
6. The city came alive at night!
Opened in April, thousands throng the Nguyen Hue Flower Street every night as it's closed to traffic. Mostly locals, it's like a carnival with many street performances. Just like a typical square in other developed nations. There're many ongoing development around the area too, esp new subway stations and highrise commercial buildings. It won't be any different from Bangkok in the future.
7. Indulge in food and the local coffee
Food is the highlight of our visit. Whether it's the street food and snacks, traditional local cuisine, fusion, Italian, French, etc. We believe food is the Vietnamese heritage. The restaurants mostly run their business out of very small shops. A typical shophouse is only 3-4m in width but few times more in length. So the dining areas are usually located in the upper floors of the shophouse with very narrow and steep staircase. My boys have to be very careful to mind their heads whenever they go up or down the stairs or to use the restrooms cos ceiling is usually very low too. Their locals love their parks too, and most of the youngsters can play 'chapteh' really well (a traditional game). In fact chapteh is their national sport, like what football is to the West.
8. Every face tells a story
Our visit to HCMC was planned at the very last minute. We've mixed feelings about the city. For the two older boys, they fell in love with the place very fast. It's not Brandon's cup of tea though. Much worse, he got food poisoning on the 2nd last day. For me, it seemed like a big mistake especially the first few days. It's hot, dusty and not much to do in the city. Looking back, I think it's the best place to go at this point in time. This nation has been through a lot, colonialisation, a horrifying past with so many wars and the consequences of wars that affect the lives of people till this day and a rich culture. By just walking the streets, observing the people and the things they do, their homes, we could tell that every face tells a story. We met this uncle, who despite his physical disability, still earns a living making chopsticks from coconut timber. He reminded us of the brutal effect of Agent Orange operations, that every human is capable of evil behaviour even with legitimate intentions.