Finding peace amid the chaos of Vietnam

CRAIG TANSLEY
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014
ho chi minh landscape

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It's 5am and smog-filtered sunlight is already streaming through my hotel window. I silently curse the time lag between here and home that won't allow me to doze again.

Sounds of early morning activity already enter my living space, so I walk to my window and stare out. I'm in Vietnam's largest city by far, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly known as Saigon and home to more than nine million people who appear to have surrounded me in huge, rambling apartment blocks during the night.

On tiny balconies and rooftops, I spy an army of spritely residents - stretching, squatting, star-jumping, swinging their arms. I ride the elevator to street level. It's warm outside already, although pleasantly so.

The concierge tells me the best park in central HCMC is Cong Vien Van Hoa Park, a few blocks away. Also known as Cultural Park, it was created for the French elite (the former colonial rulers of HCMC). Now it's HCMC's most active gathering spot, and one of southeast Asia's best people-watching locations.

My watch has barely ticked over to 5.10am but the park is in a state of perpetual motion. Locals move vigorously without a hint of self-consciousness. A city of contortionists stretch their nimble bodies - some to music, others looking lost in silent meditation.

A group of about 100 residents, from supple 20-somethings to those on the downward slide from middle age, join in a frenetic, free jazzercise class - Vietnam's take on Jane Fonda - accompanied by awful, whiny songs on an old cassette deck I'd gladly silence.

I leave the park for HCMC's streets but the blur of movement barely abates. Shopkeepers on the city's pretty, tree-lined streets contort themselves into unlikely positions beside their simple stalls. I sit down, ordering myself a ca phe nong voi sua dac.

Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee (after Brazil), the French having introduced the crop in the 19th century. The Vietnamese drink their coffee strong - and sweet. I'm served a syrupy concoction in a single-cup brewer, and wait while the water drips from the filter into my cup. When it's full, I add teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk.

Around me, women in conical hats favoured by the country's farmers walk the streets with poles across their slender shoulders selling bread and exotic fruits. Food vendors on the footpath boil huge pots of coconut rice, but it's the pho merchants I'll soon seek.

Pho, Vietnam's national dish, is a simple, but delicious, noodle soup flavoured by meats, herbs, chillies and lime. I stroll past stores where women in bright green, yellow and purple silk gowns chop meat, onion, Asian basil, coriander, chilli peppers, limes and bean sprouts.

It's argued HCMC offers the world's best street food, so any pho will do. But I drag the buying process out all the same, leading my inspection by nose, while studying the freshness of the herbs and the tenderness of the meat.

I find it eventually, the perfect pho stall. A friendly octogenarian in a purple gown brings me a bowl. I add chilli peppers (too many), basil (never too much), bean sprouts and chilli paste (hardly necessary) and mix it all in.

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My mouth burns with the first taste. I can only imagine the sweat that will come when I finish my bowl.

Around me, four million motorbikes ply suicidal paths through a genuine colossus of a city (by 2025, it's estimated, HCMC will be home to 15 million residents), but there's a transcendental calm on offer here for those prepared to sacrifice a sleep-in.

The writer travelled courtesy of Vietnam Airlines.

- Sunday Star Times

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