For the years I have been visiting Vietnam, I witnessed the continued fast development of the country. From spanking new pavement tiles to soaring skyscrapers and endless hotels and luxurious beach resorts. But I had been silently walking on the shores, riding on the back of a Honda with music in my ears through the slow but energetic traffic and strolling through busy roisterous markets, taking a photo here and there. I had been doing it all with my cousin, Thuy.
As she discovered her homeland, I did too. She would only leave me sunbathing with a book, til I roast to a crisp then she would accompany me through the evening, leaving no moment in the spare of the world. Vietnamese people do not like to be on their lonesome, she says, and we would never leave anyone we love alone. Quietness is unheard of, she explains. Its boring and its sad, I never want you to be bored or sad. Family stick together. Family is everything to everyone. If a neighbour doesn’t have any family, they can be with our family. Family is so precious, she would keep reminding me and my family in London are my close friends.
Then Thuy got married and gave birth to a beautiful baby girl whom she named after me, Chou Chou. She said, you can’t keep coming back here on your own and sit alone on the beach. Bring friends, bring a lover, bring both, ok? So I did.We all went to Vietnam for Christmas in honour of my brother’s wedding. My brother married a wonderful and beautiful girl from a town called Gò Công, where they are known for making fresh vermicelli noodles. Her family makes tons of it every day to send out to traders, homes and restaurants. We went to visit it and discovered the whole process of noodle manufacturing in the discreet tiny streets in between beautiful lotus ponds and sage green gardens that bloomed with jack fruit, dragon fruit, lilies and orchids.
I imagined a smart little girl sitting on the tiled floor playing with her toys, somewhere in this sleepy quiet, hushed little town who grew up and did really well at school, went abroad to study and landed into our petite family in London. Fate is wonderful sometimes, it heals over, over time, making everything alright.This photograph above by Fatine Niami
And so, this time round, a new me, a even newer Saigon. I had a band of brothers and sisters circling and tailing trials through the wet markets, floating markets, through the swarming Honda traffic and seedy massage parlours; drinking stronger than usual long island ice teas and cà phê sữa đá.We raced around the breakfast buffets, we tried to gather sun lounges together and teamed up upon street food vendors seeking for that crunchy delicious and fresh bite of bánh mì with ham, fried egg and pork floss while sucking on a glass of fresh iced sugar cane juice. Quietness was unheard of, except when I introduced them to the best creme caramel in the world in a courtyard, filled with potted plants and mosquitoes in Phan Thiet, made by a poet and teacher of literature.Photograph above by Dominique Leonie Humphrys
I had fun giving my friends a heads up on the Vietnamese way, like, only one person pays the bill. Nobody splits the bill, especially not into six! In a restaurant the person who orders is the person who pays, thats why there is usually only one menu given. No one is forgotten either. If one person comes, they can bring their brothers, sisters and next door neighbour. And if someone can not make it, a food gift will be purchased as a take away. Its a signature of love and affection as well as an olive branch.
Here are some tips I gave to my friends on their first trip to Saigon
1. Keep the Vietnamese dong notes tidy and clean. People have respect for money and they do not scrunch it up or fold it. If money is torn it is usually not taken and if you want to change your currency, it will be valued less if it is dirty or torn. At first, it is difficult to get used to the currency as you’d have to deal with hundreds of thousands and into the millions, but once you learn the value of all the notes, its easy to establish if you’re paying tourist prices or local prices.
2. Vietnamese people are very fussy about the quality of their food so you can be too. Pick and choose vegetables and ask for more herbs or condiments if you require it.
3. Watch your street food vendor carefully with an eagle eye to ensure you get enough filling, herbs and spices in your banh mi.
4. It seems like there are more traffic laws on the streets of Saigon these days and people are stopping at red lights. Embrace the traffic and cross the road within good reason. Don’t wait, for no one will let you pass but if you cross, the traffic will avoid you or go around you.
5. Don’t bash your chopsticks around or use them as drumsticks on the table. It is disrespectful and rude. Chopsticks used to be made from ivory so the clinking of them sounded like bones and this symbolises a way of waking the dead.
6. Take shoes off when entering people’s homes.7. Don’t hang about! There is no such thing as queuing. If you leave your seat in a public place e.g. the bus, someone else is entitled to it.
This photograph above by Dominique Leonie Humphrys
8. At the dinner table, there isn’t such a thing as a starter or a main, food is usually placed all over the table for everyone to share. Do not load your rice bowl with half of the contents in the middle. Eat lots but a little at a time and gracefully come back for more. Share and offer food to others. Never take one dish and decide its yours.
9. Smiling, greeting and being kind will get you what you want. Sometimes, people will bend over backwards to accommodate. No one likes a moaner or a misery guts. If you need something, like the bus to stop because you desperately need the toilet, just ask politely with a smile. People aren’t rigid like they can be in the west, they are flexible, kind and easy going.
10. My favourite thing was to hail down xe ôm, a motorbike taxi which are available everywhere. It translates literally as hug vehicles, as that is what you should do, if you wish, at the back of the bike, hold onto the driver! Its a better way of experiencing towns and cities rather than taxis. They can wait for you or be of service for the whole day.But always agree your price first.
11. Ho Chi Minh City is only ever written or read. It is always verbalised as Saigon.