Food Feature: Strolling the Ho Chi Minh trail

Forget tours of duty, Vietnam is now about tourism

I wasn't thrilled to see the ancient Vietnam Airways propeller plane waiting for me on the monsoon-drenched tarmac in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We had an evening flight to Ho Chi Minh City. It was a mere 35 minutes.

But a lot can happen in 35 minutes.

We bused over to the plane, where the wind blew me into the door as the flight attendant welcomed me aboard. I didn't want to risk checking my luggage, so I was loaded down with carry-ons. The attendant stuffed my things into an enormous cavern already overflowing with traveler's backpacks, duffel bags and boxes. My palms started to sweat. I took my seat and tried to calm myself by reading the in-flight magazine's article about how Vietnam Airways recently had replaced all of its Soviet-made aircraft with Boeings and Fokkers. The propellers started to whir, and after some unintelligible English instructions about flotation devices, we were off.

I asked my fearless friend if the plane seemed a bit old to him.

"Uhh, yeah," he responded before returning to his Tom Clancy novel.

As we took off into the gray, cloudy sky, I counted the minutes until landing. When I saw the lights of Ho Chi Minh, I was confident I was not going the way of Tom Hanks in Castaway.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect Vietnam. I'd heard it was cosmopolitan, fast-paced. On the 7-kilometer drive into town, we were one of the few cars in an endless sea of scooters and motorcycles. Entire families on bikes. Young women wearing beautiful ao dai dresses, silk fluttering in the wind, drove motos. Young guys on bikes, old guys on bikes. It was 11 p.m., and it seemed like the entire city of 7 million was out on motorcycles. We drove past karaoke bars, fine restaurants, inviting street food stalls, impressive clothing shops.

We stayed in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, known unofficially as Saigon. Our taxi, blasting the Vietnamese equivalent of 'N Sync, dropped us off in the tourist ghetto of Pham Ngu Lao. Dinner was waiting for us there, and as we took our seats at a streetside table, we were approached about every two minutes by different vendors.

"Mister you want lighter? Hey lady, you want book? You want massage? You want CD?"

Some of them had great stuff. Without so much as a passing concern for international copyright laws, any CD you could imagine was on sale for 75 cents. DVDs for $2. Recent New York Times best sellers copied and bound for a few bills.

The next morning, the heat hit me as much as the noise. It was 6 a.m., and there was a traffic jam in front of my hotel. It was almost 90 degrees. We didn't let that keep us from wandering down the street and stopping every few minutes to buy amazing food: cold coffee, pork and pickled-cucumber-stuffed baguettes, grilled snails, steamed dumplings, pho noodle soup, fresh soy milk, sticky rice in various flavors and colors. "Almost as good as Thailand," I thought to myself as I bit into some fresh dragonfruit.

But the streets of Ho Chi Minh City weren't enough, so we took our lust for decadence indoors. At Mandarin Restaurant (11A Ngo Van Nam, Saigon Tel 822 9783) a few nights later, we had a five-course meal complete with silver dining ware, a string quartet, two table attendants and divine food. Feeling like I'd stumbled into a scene from Indochine, I consumed shrimp crepes, roast duck, crab soup, chocolate mousse and banana flambe. Our bill came to $15 a person — with drinks.

The Mandarin is in the ultra chic Dong Khoi, which houses many beautiful jewelry and silk shops, and fashionable Western restaurants. Strolling the streets after dinner, I took mental notes for a shopping expedition the next day.

A few days later, as I sat in Ho Chi Minh's international terminal waiting to board the same ancient plane back to Phnom Penh, I wondered how I was going to fit all of my new purchases — books, CDs, paintings, silk clothes, gifts for friends — in the passenger cabin. I thought of all the Vietnamese restaurants along Buford Highway I'd now be brave enough to try. But mostly I pondered the 35 minutes of airborne fear that lay ahead.



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