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Four days in Ho Chi Minh City were spectacular.

Living in Thailand, the thing that always amazes me is how different Vietnam is even though there are so many superficial similarities…Asian culture whose roots are Chinese, developing nation with a high poverty level, similar cultural customs, etc. But where Vietnam separates itself is with the people. This is a place where people have seen war, hunger and extreme communist regimes. This is a country where the work ethic approaches that of New York or Hong Kong and seems to be driven by a real feeling that they can advance and are not limited by their social status at birth. They are grateful for everything they have as they have worked hard to earn it. Ho Chi Minh city, formerly Saigon, is a prime example of this.

As the largest city in Vietnam it is the bustling commercial center for the country. And this is not lost on the Western world – many companies are moving their overseas manufacturing operations out of Thailand and China, not because the cost of operation is tremendously different, but because the commitment to quality and efficiency are vastly superior. Companies like North Face, Patagonia, some of Nike and running their global manufacturing facilities from HCMC.

And beyond the corporate world, there is a inspiring art scene with everything from serious painters to talented fashion designers. It really is unusual to see such original thought in SE Asia. This will sound jaded and no doubt will raise some eyebrows, but the region is not known for original thought….SE Asians are masters of copying and with clear instructions they are wonderful do-ers. But art and culture as we know it (original musicians, galleries with artists, fine arts museums, operas, symphonies) are simply absent in SE Asia. This is generally because of the government and resulting education systems which create followers rather than leaders. Original thought is squelched as that is the stuff of questioning minds and protests. But somehow, despite the current communist regime in Vietnam, there is a thriving art scene in HCMC. And while this certainly exists at a high brow level, it also exists on a more approachable scale – Vietnamese designers trained by french tailors during the colonial times turn out incredibly unique and inspired silk dresses in the most dazzling array of colors and patterns. This is just another example of how the Vietnamese persevere and create their own destinies.

Likely this is resulting from HCMC’s long history. It was actually part of Cambodia until it was annexed by the Vietnamese in the 17Th century. Colonized by the French in the 1800’s, the city became so Western and cosmopolitan that it was known as “Paris in the Orient.” Today, the city is still adorned with wide elegant boulevards , French colonial buildings and lovely little bistros and cafes making breads and pastries in the French tradition.

Au Parc was one such example. Easily the most delightful cafe I have had the pleasure of dining in, in all of SE Asia. A French cafe, it offers the standard fare (omelets, croque monsieur, pates, cheeses, cafe au lait) but also offers French North African fare (hummus, falafel, chicken tajine). What impressed us the most was the quality of the food – the freshest ingredients, prepared absolutely correctly. It was so good, we ate there twice! Sampling once from the French items and the second time from the North African menu. I will say that sometimes one stumbles upon gems in Asia – and typically these gems are qualified by the fact that they are “good” for Asia – meaning….well it is not NYC pizza, but not bad for Bangkok. Au Parc however, would have a welcome home in any major metropolitan city in Asia or the West. It was just that good.

So by day, aside from our visits to Au Parc, we explored the city on foot. It is actually quite small and completely manageable for a weekend trip. In one day we managed to see the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. Two must sees,for sure. But mainly we took in the city with long walks….popping in a lacquer-ware shop here, stopping for a Vietnamese coffee there. Funnily enough a large part of the one rainy afternoon was spent in Annam Gourmet Store. If you have lived or spent any time in Asia this place will blow your mind – the array of imported foods and wines is simply dazzling. Copolla Cabernet Sauvignon’s for $15, a wide selection of Belgian ales including Duvel and Chimay, organic flours and grains, imported cheeses and pates, imported chocolates and heavenly sweet treats. We emerged with a couple of bottles of Californian wine, organic buckwheat pancake mix and dried cranberries. Yum.

So back to Bangkok we go….with pancake mix, memories of a well spent weekend and a deeper appreciation for Vietnam.

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