Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon) is a member of my ‘Three Days or Three Years’ club. They’re those cities that you can kinda squeeze into three days, but you know that if you spent even three years walking its streets, you still won’t see everything.
They’re not the cities you can get the gist of; a couple of days in Venice, Kyoto and Munich have always felt enough for me, whereas even a week in others such as Tokyo, Seville and Berlin feel like an injustice. They’re the expat paradises; full of culture, street life and delicious food. I hate it when people say they have ‘done’ a place (as in ‘oh yeah, I did Europe last year’) and particularly when it’s directed at these places, I want to morph into what Paul calls my dragon lady.
I kind of knew that I was going to like Saigon. On our first trip to Vietnam back in 2009, Paul and I opted to explore solely a bit of the north, swayed by the location of the stunning Ha Long Bay. Plenty of friends had been to Vietnam, so I questioned them incessantly. ‘Hanoi or Saigon? Hanoi or Saigon?’
I liked Hanoi, even in the dreary winter, but our incident with a dodgy taxi meter soured our experience somewhat. I haven’t been one of those people whose eyes light up when Vietnam is mentioned. I do that for Cambodia. Still, I wanted to give Vietnam a second chance, and we had the luxury to do that after our time with my family in Thailand.
Asia has the biggest, and the densest population in the world and to truly experience this mass of people, look no further than the arrivals hall at Saigon Airport. It was the first airport I’ve visited where the arrivals hall was outdoors. You always feel like a bit of a celebrity when you walk out of customs in a new country, what with all the ‘Welcome Home’ signs, touts and people holding little pieces of paper marked with a Western surname. In Saigon, it was like this but on steroids. It was humid, dazzlingly bright and noisy as a footy match. It was the type of chaos that you expect of Asia, but you don’t really get in Thailand. I’d missed it, I realised.
We had booked a guesthouse right in the middle of the backpacker district. Our room was tiny but had industrial-strength air conditioning (I’ve reached the point in my life where I’ll pay the extra $5 to upgrade from a fan) and deathly quiet amongst the hullabaloo outside. We ventured out, joining the hippie pant and beer tshirt crowd on plastic chairs along Bui Vien.
We’d sip our Saigon Reds and observe the crowd; unlike on Khao San Road in Bangkok, here there was at least a (small) local presence. We didn’t stay for long – we’d begun the day two flights, two ferries, a minvan and a taxi ride away in Thailand – but I enjoyed the setup. I always have a bit of a soft sport for cities that have people on the streets at night.
We didn’t spend much of the daytime in the backpacker district, venturing out each morning after a decent breakfast of banh mi. These Vietnamese-style baguettes (topped with pate, cold cuts and pickled vegetables) were a lunchtime staple of mine in Melbourne; I’d be seen at the N Lee Bakery on Little Collins Street a couple of times a week, plus To’s in Footscray and Baba at the South Melbourne Market on the weekend. Banh mi are few and far between in Europe, so I was due.
The centre of Saigon is quite compact and the major sights are within what would constitute normal walking distance in perhaps any other country. Footpaths, if they existed, would be full of parked motorbikes, food stalls and men sitting in circles drinking beer. On our last day I dodged a large garbage bag only slightly; I came away with a long gash down my leg. Poking out of the garbage bag was a very sharp, very ominous piece of broken glass.
Despite the injury (hey, I have one on every trip) I loved walking Saigon’s streets. The architecture is unique; buildings are thinner than Amsterdam’s canal houses and painted in every hue. Land prices are sky-high in a relatively small country of almost 90 million, just like in the Dutch Golden Age.
Sorry, getting my history nerd on there a bit. Forgive me.
Usually we’d walk along the curb, on the far side of the road. Motorbikes would zip past perhaps thirty centimetres away, but weirdly enough I grew to trust them. Cars not so much, but those on motorbikes were generally well-aware of their surroundings. Crossing roads was also easier this second time around, and I was delighted to see Saigon had employed uniformed officers whose job it was to solely help people cross the road.
Nevertheless, walks that would take fifteen minutes back home would take upwards of an hour.
Not all roads were like this. In the very centre, Saigon could often pass for Paris. European-style buildings such as the Hotel de Ville and the post office are stately and impressive, and cemented in my mind that although the French were probably the worst colonisers, they definitely brought with them the best food and architecture.
Paul and I fell into a bit of a rhythm in Saigon; after our banh mi we’d walk to a new area, visit a museum or other attraction, find some pho, wander some more, visit a rooftop bar and watch the sun go down, grab some more food and meander back. I wasn’t particularly in the mood to shop, but I bartered for Paul at the Ben Thanh Market. Ever since I was taught in Beijing, I have learnt to enjoy the ritual of bargaining; the compliments, the giggles, the bringing out of the calculator and the faux shock at offers from both sides.
I of course loved the rooftop bars – we visited the Sofitel and the Rex – despite knowing perfectly well that they were reserved solely for tourists. I’m a sucker for views though, particularly at sunset. Cocktails also help.
I think it was the cocktail bars that summed up the difference between Hanoi and Saigon, at least to me. The cocktail bars are flashy, Western and confident and even though I’m sure some exist in Hanoi that I didn’t come across, it gave the city a different attitude. Hanoi felt more traditional. Saigon, in comparison, does not. All of the things that felt Vietnamese were relatively new; the motorbikes, the food stalls, the electricity poles and the density. In Hanoi, you’d often see women carrying goods on bamboo poles, wearing the iconic conical hat. in Saigon, you’d only really see the hats in the Ben Thanh Market.
I could have spent more time in Saigon. I didn’t get to see all of the museums on my list, didn’t get to visit Chinatown or really ever venture outside District 1. But that’s the thing about these cities. I’d need three years, not three days.