For many people, Vietnam seems to fall into the LOVE IT or the HATE IT category. For us, it wasn’t love at first sight, but it crept up on us and captured our hearts.

words & images: Loretta Ellis

Landing in Ho Chi Minh City (frequently referred to as Saigon by both locals and foreigners), was a complete thrill and scary-as-hell for a couple of country bumpkins. Just getting to our hotel was a mission. The traffic was relentless. I’ve since learned that there are more than 45 million registered motorbikes in the country, with more than 7.5 million in this city alone. It was way busier than we could have imagined, dusty and hot – so hot!  We were very glad we’d pre-booked a car to collect us, with an English (basic) speaking driver.

Day One was just a full-on sensory shock. Deciding to explore the district around our hotel, we emerged into chaos – motorbikes, bumper to bumper, horns blaring, weaving and wobbling, even mounting the footpaths in a bid to avoid one-way streets, to  park, or simply get ahead of the next bike! Riders all completely ignoring common sense and safety, but somehow managing (presumably) to get to where they were going, unscathed.

Crossing the street was our first hurdle, but after a few false starts we quickly realised that following a local seemed like a good idea. It worked! The traffic weaved and wobbled around us until we magically reach the other side. We were later advised that the best strategy is to raise your hand and to walk slowly into the path of the vehicles, but with one hand gripping my handbag and the other one clinging to Doug, it wouldn’t have worked anyway.

It didn’t take us long to adjust, and the noise, heat, dust and chaos became exciting rather than overwhelming. Armed with a map, we walked for miles around the city, discovering unexpected off-the-beaten-track museums, restaurants and cafes, and everywhere we went, smiling, helpful people.

We’d been warned about pickpockets and hiked-up prices at the famous Ben Thanh Market, so we chose instead to visit Binh Tay Market which was closer and was recommended by locals. Everything is negotiable – bargaining is a way of a life, especially in the markets. We weren’t intending to shop, but we did dip our toes in the water – haggling over the price of some slippers, which we managed to get for almost half the ticketed price! A bargain, surely!

Tip: It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the currency. Back in our hotel, we realised we had been short-changed – a lot of the notes look very similar!  Perhaps not such a bargain, but a lesson learned, and a great story.

On advice, we waited until we reached Hoi An before we did any real shopping. Compared to Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An is a breath of fresh air with its historic architecture, Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples and ancient tea warehouses. It’s also world renowned for its multitude of talented tailors – we could easily have ordered an entire wardrobe of tailor-made clothes. Suffice to say that we’ll be better prepared next time. Yes, next time!

Food is a big deal in Vietnam and we discovered wonderful, inexpensive street food 9 and busy restaurants) around every corner; noodles, Banh Mi sandwiches, spring rolls, sizzling Banh Xeo pancakes. and, of course, Pho – my new, forever-favourite dish.

From Hué to Halong Bay to the Mekong Delta, everywhere we went, we fell in love. The countryside is unbelievably beautiful, the people so welcoming, school children waved “hello” and wanted to practise their English, and we were often invited inside out of the heat for a cool drink.

Vietnam stole our hearts – we will return!

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.