Some quick impressions from my five days in Saigon before I take off for the island paradise of Phu Quoc today. I’m in Ho Chi Min City (its official name, although nearly everyone still calls it Saigon) as the guest of my Canadian friend Mark, who’s working here on a two-year contract related to education. Mark lives on the outskirts, which has been its own kind of blessing: Saigon is dirty, noisy and intensely frenetic, so to have a respite from the chaos is most welcome.
This is my view every morning as I sip tea on Mark’s balcony, steeling myself for the marvelous melee of District 1 (downtown). Because the river feeds into the ocean — HCMC is a major shipping port — the water level rises and falls twice daily with the tides, exposing muddy flats that fishermen scour for clams or snails or God knows what else since the Vietnamese appear to eat just about anything.
A trip through Mark’s local market, which was far too gritty for my taste, revealed cages, flats and bowls of live fish, eels, frogs, chickens, all of which the seller kills and/or skins in front of her customer. If it’s not fresh, the Vietnamese don’t want it, which probably explains why the food here is so delicious. The country boasts more than 2,000 km of coastline and seafood is the staple, in addition to liberal use of fresh herbs and vegetables. Delicious, if also a bit confusing for an English-speaker trying to decipher a Vietnamese menu. But I have managed just fine.
On my first night in town we connected with Mark’s friend Phong and we ate street side at a BBQ stand, one of the thousands of street stalls that keep Saigoners sated. I’m dubious of eating street food, having been warned against it so vehemently in India, but Mark has been here for nearly a year and says he hasn’t been sick yet. So we dove into skewers of vegetables, chicken, beef, pork short ribs and massive king prawns, all of it scrumptious beyond words.
The street scene was just as enjoyable as what was on our plates. Tourists and locals mingled in the tight alleys laughing, carousing and dodging motorbikes.
Saigon is a city of motorbikes, it’s the way nearly everyone gets around. My taxi driver from the airport said HCMC has a population of 9 million people and 7 million motorbikes. Apparently, there’s a very high tax on cars so the motorbike is the only affordable mode of mass transport.
Unfortunately, this torrent of bikes runs on leaded fuel, so riding and even walking in streets is sometimes enough to choke you. Consequently many, if not most people wear face masks.
You can’t imagine the chaos of all those bikes navigating intersections and roundabouts, it is MADNESS! Drivers frequently ignore traffic signals and just as frequently drive directly into oncoming traffic if that’s the quickest route from A to B. It’s hair-raising and thrilling and I loved every minute of my time on the back of Phong’s bike or on one of the many xe om (say ome) drivers who seem to be everywhere, ready to make a quick buck by chauffeuring you here or there. If Saigon is defined by any singular feature, the motorbike is it.
I have been diligently collecting images to accompany a design-related post (stay tuned) but Saigon has not made it easy. This is not a beautiful city. There are some gorgeous buildings and parks, many reflecting the country’s colonial past, but more often the streetscape is weathered and grey as you might expect in a communist country that has struggled against multifarious foes over centuries of turmoil.
And yet there are moments of beauty and charm sprinkled like diamonds in the dirt.
The Vietnamese love birds and you often see caged songbirds enjoying the shade outside a shop. In Tao Dan Park there’s a “bird cafe” where bird lovers bring their feathered friends and sit and admire and talk birds, usually during the morning hours before the heat of the day becomes too oppressive.
My time in Saigon has been unlike any other city vacation. I haven’t toured a single museum or gallery, although I did make my way to the Jade Pagoda, below, built in 1909 in honour of the supreme Taoist god, the Jade Emperor.
For me, Saigon has mostly been about shopping and eating and getting around, all of which have been far too entertaining to bother with touring musty buildings or pondering the grim remnants of the American War. Saigon is a young, vibrant city where 40 per cent of the population is under the age of 24 and the median age is 29! All that youth and vigor translates into a city that thrums like no other place I’ve ever been.
After a too-brief sojourn on Phu Quoc I’ll be off to Cambodia to tour the world-famous temples around Siem Reap and then on to Hanoi, Halong Bay and the ancient coastal city of Hoi An; please join me on my journey.
I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to Mark, below, for hosting me and kicking off this wonderful adventure; thank you, thank you, thank you, Mark!
If you’re traveling to Saigon and require a guide I highly recommend Tran Thanh Phong: +84 (0) 908 50 88 11 or email@example.com.