It was suggested I was not going to like Ho Chi Minh City, or rather Saigon to everyone except the Vietnamese Communist government. “Oh, it’s riddled with scooters and very brash” was the reason given when I asked why this might be. “So it will be just like any other major Asian city I’ve been to then” I had wanted to but refrained from replying.
As my mum and I landed in Saigon early one recent morning, I tried to remove the above negative review. There were indeed many scooters on the road, even on this given Sunday at 07.30 but they all seemed to know their place, signalled their intended direction considerately and obeyed traffic orders like dutiful Viet Cong soldiers, what is more, it was done with style. Admittedly not mine, but the men and ladies were neatly pressed and dressed. This is noteworthy on two counts: one, in other Asian countries, such as China, many ladies cover their arms and even protect themselves from the sun’s rays with preposterous lace umbrellas to maintain the pearliest skin possible. Two, in the West, during down time it is almost de rigeur to adopt loose fitting or stretchy sports apparel in a bid for freedom from the suited armour worn during the working week. In Saigon, female scooter drivers balance on heeled shoes which are hard to totter the streets in let alone drive, and men pose in crisp shirts or designer-inspired i.e. fake t-shirts. The rising sun burnt the little morning cool that remained bit by bit, and with it too it took the derogatory impression that had been marked on my imagination.
It was too early to check-in to the hotel room, while we waited, all Mum and I could do was acquaint ourselves with the immediate surroundings. From my only Vietnamese friend-who I met whilst studying in China-I had learnt that Vietnamese coffee was something to relish. This only meant we “simply had” to grab a morning glass at our local coffee shop. Coffee is mostly drunk in Vietnam from tall glasses poured over condensed milk and mountains of ice, it is simply too hot to drink it the way we do back home, hot in mugs or cups. Fang (the afore mentioned friend), you are right, Vietnamese coffee is delectable.
With our caffeine and sugar, but not sartorial, levels boosted we girls went exploring…
On the same street as the coffee shop, a little black board with ‘Shin’ written in chalk drew my eye to a door adorned with a lamp and petite windows displaying dainty tops and accessories. Immediately, I could sense Mum and I were having the same feeling that this was a unique store in Saigon. “Fancy going in?” Mum suggested. Unsure, I replied “Maybe on the way back.” In fact, I felt too hot and dirty to try on pretty clothes en route back to claim our hotel room and said maybe it was better we went in another time. I was also concerned that I might buy something for the sake of having something to do and regretting it later.
It was not until our final day in Saigon, having ventured into a number of Saigon’s fashion outlets, that I realised Shin had a special element not possessed by other shops in the city: Western clothes with Asian daintiness. During my time in China I occasionally encountered shops which had Western-style clothes that catered to Chinese tastes, meaning there was far too much lace, teddy bears or sequins for my sensibilities. Shin is the apposite, it takes clothes of Western taste but subtly adds Vietnamese daintiness to make garments different to those found in occidental shops.
Inside, the shop was decorated with little candles and flower pots, giving the feel that we were in a tea house or your gran’s living room; a little twee but comforting all the same. The shop assistants were enthusiastic, encouraging both Mum and me to try things on, but avoided being pushy. I tried and bought two items, the first a chiffon shirt printed with tiny birds, topped with a pastel yellow cotton collar, the second a bright yellow dress with brightly coloured zebras. Normally I would not reckon yellow a suitable colour for someone of my fair skin and the latter garment was perhaps a wee bit big but I loved the prints so much that I waved these facts away. Even with Shin’s 30% off offer, my purchase resembled what I would have paid at home, but it was worth it because I would not be finding these in London. Another imaginative touch to my shopping experience was the bag my new garments were packed into. I was presented with a brown paper bag similar those offered at US grocery stores but this one was folded neatly at the top and held together with a loop of off-cut material.
Clutching my fruits from Shin, I skipped back to my hotel. They were wrong, I found a comforting familiarity but intriguing novelty in Saigon, and I liked it.
53A – Nguyễn Du Street, Dist 1, HCMC, Vietnam