Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), more commonly known as Saigon, is Vietnam’s coolest city. The biggest city of Vietnam in its size and population, this one’s quite an experience. Be it its vein-like alleyways that you can’t navigate through without a map in hand or the really-fun foot badminton that keeps you engaged for hours, Saigon is a crazily fun place to be.
A lot of western influence everywhere, it’s not really hard to find a French building one after the other when roaming across the city. But the thing about this city that particularly stayed with us even today (at the time we write about it) is it’s warmest people.
You can find the swankiest of the hotels in Saigon and even really dirt-cheap guesthouses too (for that matter). Still, nothing in the slightest of imagination can make up for what it is like staying with a local, listening to their stories, and telling them your most treasured adventures.
How did it happen?
After staying for three nights in Ho Chi Minh City, we were amazed by the architecture. The Notre Dame Cathedral, and iconic Saigon’s Central Post Office, from tasting local cuisines to spending pleasant evenings sipping Coffee, everything was fantastic. Still, something was missing, as the local connection was not there. Our homestay owner happened to be from our hometown, Jaipur (Could you believe that?), and apart from Cafe & restaurant owners, we didn’t meet anyone local. So we planned to send a request on Couchsurfing.
The Couchsurfing request
We have hosted many people from different countries, that we count as friends, at our home in Jaipur, but rarely we used the Couchsurfing app. This time, it began with a super-lucky Couchsurfing session where we placed a request to stay. And by the time we could decide a place for lunch, we received a notification, and our request was promptly accepted.
The plan was to stay with Thinh for a day. Thinh is a third-year university student who is very fluent in English. From his profile, he sounded like a long lost friend. Though he didn’t believe that you can know a person well in a one-day stay, he still accepted our request as our plans were open too. The almost-electric response took us aback, it’s rare.
Thinh’s abode in Saigon
The next day we reached Thinh’s house. He lives in a humble single-storeyed home with a very loving and caring family. Thinh and his entire family smiled upon receiving us, which we could connect to, and not long before we arrived, we already felt like a family member.
Thinh’s mother, especially, made a place in our hearts with her typical-motherly gestures. For beginners, she welcomed us with a refreshing ice tea, the moment we had a seat in her home, and from then on, every time she saw us, she’d come in with a handful of nuts, or chocolates or some very exotic fruits for us to eat. We tried life-sized orange, watermelon, mangoes, and sometimes fruits were enough to skip our dinner.
Thinh’s grandmother lives in the adjacent house with her aunt, and she came to meet us too. Thinh is the only English speaking member of his family, and he took the massive task of translating every question coming to our way and then translating our answers. Sometimes, he would take a deep breath in between translations. The plan was to stay here for a day and then move towards the north of Vietnam, but the family insisted so warmly, we couldn’t have left any earlier than the three days.
Thinh is an extraordinarily smart teenager, who can speak multiple languages, is keen about learning a lot, and is figuring out about his career.
Meeting Thinh’s Cousins
On our first day, Thinh and his cousin Roman took us out to his aunt’s home, where we met his other cousin Phom, former army personnel, his zest was unimaginable. He tells us how he got a leg injury during training and couldn’t travel without a wheelchair for now. But that doesn’t stop him from being a total mood-lifter for everybody around him. He’s fond of bikes and owns one too.
The little English that he speaks and good use of Google Translate, was enough for Jai to understand that he wishes and would love visiting India soon, if possible, even ride across the country on a bike.
Vietnamese Coffee and a sleepless night later!
Right before we were planning to leave, Phom asked us out for a coffee and tried at the signature beverage of Vietnam; it’s Coffee. We agreed and saw him get into his room quickly and get into fresh clothes; he even wore his modish watch and a unique granite ring.
We walked 20 meters to reach the Cafe, and once there, we were surprised to see that everyone ordered anything but Coffee. The service was quick, and the order was on the table in no time, from shakes to juices, and ignoring Thinh’s advice, we went for a Cold Coffee and a Vietnamese Coffee for Jai. While enjoying the strong flavorsome Coffee, little did we know that it would leave Jai sleepless for the whole night.
Thinh’s other home and cruising through the night streets
When we reached home, Thinh’s mother and her two sisters were ready on their scooters to take us to Thinh’s other house, where we were going to sleep. I can vouch for the driving skills of these lovely ladies, they were amazingly steering their way through traffic-ridden roads, and with a backpack and a daypack in my hand, they balanced the scooter very well.
Thinh’s second home is a fairly modern house, and his brother’s family also stays here. After reaching there, we insisted on sleeping in the living room, but Thinh didn’t want us to and took us to his room instead. It’s so warm that strangers (like us) meet a host in Vietnam, and these people are willing to do so much; it’s pure emotion.
Now we had a room, a comfortable mattress, and we were dead tired of walking around, but Jai couldn’t sleep, not for a minute. Remember the Coffee we had in the evening, that was doing its magic. At midnight three, we took a vow not to put our hands on those strong shots of Vietnamese Coffee post-lunch.
An Indian meal for the lovely Vietnamese family
We’ve had several meals together with Thinh’s family, and we did have good bonding, but cuisine-wise, neither of us knew much about each other. And thus, on our last day, we thought of cooking something for the family, something that’d introduce India to Thinh’s family, some signature dish everybody loves back home.
It was a classic Indian meal of Rajma-Chawal (Kidney beans in gravy and rice), a serving of Raita (a yogurt preparation with cucumber and tomato), and for the dessert some Kheer (sweetened milk made with rice and nuts). We all set cross-legged on the floor to eat together, and what happened to a meal for five people ended up like a food tasting party, when Thinh’s brother and his Uncle’s families also joined us.
The stomach-butterflies quickly vanished when we realized that they finally loved what we had prepared for dinner tonight. One hearty meal, another round of jokes and gossip, and we had a fantastic time at Thinh’s home on our last night here in Saigon.
We left but what stayed with us is a lovely memory, of Thinh, who went out of the way to do so much for a stranger couple from India, of his mother for just being a typical mother and giving so much love, of Phom, whose perspective on life was something we can always count on as a lovely lesson and of the family who at last had said ‘It’s so much fun to host people!’