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What you need in Saigon is a friend who’s a local

‘A good tour guide should be a guide and a friend,’ Mai, my tour guide (and subsequent Facebook friend) told me. She’s right. When I visit a new place I want to learn, but I want to learn the things that make the city glorious and gritty, a place to be and see. My guide book tells me the highlights in terms of tourist provenance, the most striking sights or places of historical significance, but it is nice to know the relevance of these sights to the city and the city dwellers of 2013.

Ho Chi Minh post office, lit up at nightOver my three hours with Mai I visit not only the main sights but her favourite local bars. We start at Sai On with a delicious and potent cocktail combo of chocolate, coffee and rum. Fuelled on caffeine and liquor we head on down to the old quarter, where the  lit up Post Office, Centre du Ville and Notre Dame are a reminder of the past influence of the French, the colonial architecture beautiful and bold. It’s Sunday evening and so we go against the flow of worshippers spilling out to view the offerings, and at the Post Office marvel at the grand facade, determined to revisit the next day.

It’s not only history that sees the French influence. On the corner of every street you will find a seller of bah mi, soft sweet French bread filled with creamy cheese (usually Laughing Cow), pork meat and vegetables. Despite being officially names Ho Chi Minh city by the authorities most people, of all generations, still call their home Saigon. I am surprised by the exuberance and enthusiasm for Uncle Ho as the statue in front of the town hall refers to him, as a bright and bubbly girl sits on his knee. ‘He freed us’ I am told, ‘but some older people may think too much of him. In Ho Chi Minh everyone has the chance to free themselves.’

Mai is particularly effervescent when we visit the Bixteco tower, the tallest building in the city and the financial centre. As lights spill out beneath us she tells me why so many people come to the city, lured from the countryside by opportunity and education, a place where dreams are not just held aloft as a tantalising but unreachable goals but real chances that are seized and succeeded.

Ho Chi Minh marketDabbling in tastes and flavours at the night market is always a highlight, and local pal to barter with the sellers and explain to me makes the whole experience more thrilling. Smokey smells and vibrant herbs merge and mingle, the flavours in our food fuelling our constant conversation.

More than anything, a local guide and friend reminds you that whatever the space and place, distance and differences, there are some universal truths that link us all. Earlier in the evening Mai asks me if I would rather a shirt or a heart. Feeding right into the emotive and existential crisis part of my brain I answer a heart. As we leave she hands me am origami heart, folded out of the thousand dong note that she has been fiddling with as we wander. True pal indeed.

I explored the city with Mai from and

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