Anna Velas-Suarin

Birthday in Vietnam

This is the second time in my life that I didn’t spend my birthday in the Philippines. The first one was when I spent it in Dhaka, Bangladesh when I was posted there to help organize an international conference. This time, it’s in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and purely for personal reason.

I took the bus that leaves Phnom Penh at 1:15 in the afternoon of June 19. It was an interesting bus ride for me because it was the first time that I am crossing an international border simply by land! When one comes from an island country, it always feels a bit ‘strange’ that you can actually reach another country by bus! Hehe! The ride was also made pleasant because I got to know my seatmate, Teang, a pretty Cambodian woman, who was so kind enough to offer me one of her SIM cards in Vietnam, which later on proved to be very useful and practical! She’s an angel!

Despite its rapid modernization, Ho Chi Minh City continues to respect and nurture its centuries-old trees.

The trip to Ho Chi Minh City (used to be called ‘Saigon’) takes about 6 hours. There is one ferry boat ride to cross a river at Neak Loeung, which is about 2 hours from Phnom Penh. You can expect to reach the Cambodia-Vietnam border again after about two hours (or 4 hours from Phnom, Penh). The immigration procedure was very simply and fast. Usually, the bus conductor just takes everyone’s passports and hands them over to the Immigration Officers. We were, of course, requested to leave the bus upon entering Vietnam territory because the bags and the bus had to be checked for security reasons. We also had to go through the usual x-ray machine routine. I think all these took 20 minutes only (or even lesser). By about 7:00 p.m., I was already in Ho Chi Minh City.

Mien, my ever-lovely and sweet Vietnamese friend fetched me from the bus station…on a…surprise…motorcyle! I must tell you all that I am not a fan of motorcycle rides simply because it’s like riding on a piece of metal that can fly everywhere! 😉 But I trust Mien to be an excellent driver (and I have tested it while she navigated quite effortlessly through Ho Chi Minh’s tricky streets!) and I just prayed that our guardian angels would not fall asleep during those exciting rides as we criss-crossed through hundreds of motorcycles, taxis, buses and cars. 😉

After checking in, Mien and I went to dinner where we were also joined by her fiance, Tuan, and Tuan’s friend, Dung. It was a fantastic dinner of seafood and Vietnamese spring rolls. Mien gave me a good orientation on how to eat a small seashell delicacy which was really yummy. We were laughing all the way because I told her that after eating these small seashells, I would already be an expert in French kissing (wink!)…but seriously, it was quite challenging because you have to keep on sucking on both ends of the small shell until the meat inside becomes lose enough and easier to ‘dislodge’ from inside the shell. Get the picture? 😉 However, it was worth the efforts because the meat was really delicious. The dish is also cooked in rich coconut sauce (similar to “ginataang” dishes in the Philippines) and it was really glorious, for lack of a better word. There was also another seashell which was easier to eat because it looks like our own “tahong.” The dish was also excellent!

It was an evening of warm friendship and exquisite and delicious Vietnamese cuisine.

After dinner, we went to a hip club/bar called “Lush” and we just sat in the bar watching people and listening to the lively music. Soon enough, people were already dancing all around us. I was so tempted to dance also but I think I was already happy enough just to sit there and watch people from many nations dancing to the groove, eating and drinking, and probably even discussing major business decisions. On my left, a Korean woman chatted up with me for a while. She can’t stop saying how much she loved Manila when she was there a few months ago. Suddenly, I missed home. The Korean woman was a little drunk but I knew that what she said about Manila could only come from someone who must have really enjoyed her stay. Thumbs up for Manila! And thumbs up for Ho Chi Minh City that is also raring to tell the world that it is alive, throbbing with excitement and waiting to be rediscovered.

The next day, I decided to join a full-day city tour so I can cover many areas given that my time in Vietnam was very limited (I had to go back to Phnom Penh the next day because I need to catch my Finnish friend Tuomo before he leaves for his vacation…this will be another blog entry!). Our tour group was composed of Sri Lankans (who are now based in Sydney) and a Singaporean couple. We had a Vietnamese tour guide who was friendly and helpful. Together, we explored the War Museum, Independence Palace, Chinatown market, a handicrafts factory where all workers are handicapped, and a couple of temples and religious shrines.

The visit to the War Museum was very moving. In fact, I almost cried but I just stopped myself because it was a public place. There, I was again reminded of the horrors of wars and when one sees those photos of death, destruction, and human sufferings, one can’t still figure out how can humanity allow such violence. It will always be a big puzzle to me. How can men and nations just decide to kill each other like that? Can wars ever be justified? Those questions lingered in my mind as our van exited the Museum grounds.

The Independence Palace reminded me of our very own Malacanang Palace. We were walked through the rooms and conference areas where I was also fascinated with exquisite Vietnamese furnitures, arts, crafts, and ornaments. There is one large mural on the wall that must have taken months or even years to create! Please visit the Gallery in so you can see the inside of the Palace as well as other photos.

I think the best part of our tour guide was when we visited a Chinese temple. Here, our tour guide taught me how to do a prayer offering/ritual. He instructed me to write the name of my family members on a red paper with Chinese inscriptions. Then he directed me to a center table where temple staff are seen assisting visitors in burning one end of a coil incense (it’s an incense that is ‘spiraling’ upwards, in a shape of a cone). With the help of a staff, I burned one end of my incense, silently prayed, and then another staff helped me hang it from the ceiling. I looked up and there I saw my incense, burning slowly, along with the prayers of so many believers from all over the world. God, I said, this is a beautiful day.

After the tiring but meaningful day, I went back to my hotel, took a shower, and collapsed in bed (I only had about 4 hours of sleep the previous night). It was already past dinner time when I woke up. On my way out, I realized it was raining and my soul was a bit dampened too because I had planned to walk around the city and take some more pictures. But then again, I thought, perhaps it was meant to be that it was raining that night so I can sleep earlier. I needed to catch up with Mien again for beakfast the next day and my body was really craving for a decent sleep. And so I chose a nice restaurant near my hotel and quietly enjoyed a pasta dinner in an outdoor table. I also ordered an avocado smoothie and it was again delicious. One begins to think how Vietnamese people can manage to stay fit and slim.

I thought I will sleep early that night but when I went to the hotel lobby to check my emails, I was so saddened by an email from one of my best friends…she is in deep pain because of a marital crisis. Gosh. I felt really sad for her. My heart ached so much that I also cried when I reached the 2nd paragraph of her long, sad email…I felt so sad that I am not there by her side. I so badly wanted to hug her tight and assure her that this phase will pass. This is the saddest thing about being away from people that matter most to us. We cannot be there to physically hold their hands or listen to them as they cry their whole hearts out. I felt really sad. But yes, I also believe that distance shouldn’t be a hindrance in making our friends and families feel that “we are there” with them. That we are embracing them across the oceans and they will always be in our prayers.

Anyway, that night was a bit lonely. I so badly wanted to be with my friend who was grieving at that very moment! But I know she knows how much I love her and how much I am wishing her well. So yes, if she gets to read this, I want her to be reminded again that she’s a strong woman, a beautiful woman, who will, one day, smile again.

The next day, Mien fetched me from the hotel and we shared another yummy meal with Tuan. Next stop was Highlands Coffee where Mien treated me for a nice cold Vietnamese coffee. It was also delicious. I decided to buy a pack of 200 grams and was pleasantly surprised by it’s cheap price! 🙂 Oh, I forgot to mention that the day before, I also bought 500 grams of another locally-grown coffee. I intend to taste different varieties of coffee so I can prepare myself to that day in the future when I will already be selling and exporting coffees all over the world. 🙂 Besides, having talks with friends over nice mugs of coffee (and tea!) are one of this life’s simply joyful moments, right?

By 11:00 a.m. Mien and Tuan were already bringing me to the bus terminal where another bus will take me back to Phnom Penh, my ‘foster’ country at this time in my life. Mien and Tuan bid me goodbye and as usual, I felt a little tug of sadness in my heart beause I am again leaving another good friend and a city that I have already fallen in love with.

It was a beautiful birthday trip. Ho Chi Minh City, I will be back.

[Re-post of a blog dated June 23, 2007 (from my previous site).]


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