Ho Chi Minh: City of Beautiful Madness

45,000 Dong – that’s just under a couple of British pounds – will buy you entry to the South Saigon Pools: a secluded oasis in hot suburban district 7.

Kids play in the sand-filled shallow water, and in the adult pool a middle-aged Australian is teaching his Vietnamese companion to swim.

She paddles with her head straining towards the sunny sky, just about avoiding death by drowning, whilst he towers at the end of the pool, his arms folded above his pot belly which – for the moment – is hidden under the clear blue surface. She hacks and splutters her way across to his laughter: “It’s ok – more practise and you be good.”

On the other side of the pool, a 30-something expat career type couple are relaxing with an older American man and his Vietnamese wife. The conversation is about apartments, curtains and trips to Dubai. The thin, quiet Vietnamese woman perches on the edge of her sun lounger, smiling occasionally but showing little engagement with the adult company. She prefers to keep an eye on the kids instead.

The older man gets up to answer his Blackberry, speaking now in the deep, authoritative and strangely dulcet tones of corporate America, where nothing is a problem and no-one is ever really at fault. His companions sit in awkward silence as the call drags on, finally deciding to order lunch in an attempt to fill the uncomfortable hiatus.

The American returns after about half an hour, by which time lunch arrives also, consumed now by four quietly contented adults sitting wide legged, pale and hunched on their loungers.

Beyond these walls

There’s more than enough gentrification to hide behind in Ho Chi Minh City – to marvel at the madness of the traffic from within your air-conditioned SUV or whilst sipping an extra large frappucino. But if you choose to, you can experience an infinitely more exciting Saigon outside of the carefully manicured, low-tax and unnervingly lascivious expat existence.

I was very lucky to be there visiting my friend Rennie, who lives outside of the compound; and I was even more pleased that I got to explore the city on the back of her little blue motorbike. Nerve-wrecking? Yes! But is there any better way to see the city? No way.

With every bump in the road comes a discovery: of roadside vendors selling breakfast baguettes filled with grilled meat, mint, carrot and chilli sauce; ancient woman making coffee whilst sat on tiny plastic chairs; toothless crouching men with dirty hair smoking by the roadside; colourful signs and crumbling buildings; rabid dogs and running toddlers; fresh produce and chunks of suspicious-looking meat. And the crazy honking sound of bikes. Motorbikes everywhere – a giant, flowing hoard racing along the dusty streets with a determination that refuses to stop at traffic junctions.

Another bump in the road announces a bridge, and to the right the rising sun illuminates the beginnings of a new city. An old soul gradually adorning new garb. But money – old or new – doesn’t buy taste. Pride, maybe. The kind that seeks to make powerful political statements resulting in beaming skyscrapers whilst rustic old colonial terraces with their colourful shutters are flattened to make way for Gucci and Armani and Louis Vuitton.

But all around this postage stamp of glass towers and air-conditioned department stores the old Asia still sprawls and heaves and hustles in loud staccato tones and impatient honking.