Falling Hard for Saigon

They say Vietnam is a love it or hate it country- and its largest city, Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, depending on whom you ask), is a city that falls into the same dichotomy.

Well after a month in Vietnam, and nearly two weeks spent in Saigon alone, I firmly fall onto the “love” side.

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After a horrendous bus journey from Phnom Penh, I collapsed into a bowl of beef phở which I garnished Saigon-style with chili peppers, onions, bean sprouts, Mexican coriander, Thai basil, lime, chili sauce, hoisin sauce and fish sauce, all to my personal tastes (lots of chili sauce). Yum.

Sitting down at a metal table in a napkin-littered restaurant, hunched over a bowl of steaming broth, was a ritual I would repeat daily- and quite happily- during my time in Vietnam.

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The first thing I noticed about Saigon was the green- it was the greenest, most open city I had seen in Asia. There were people even working out and dancing in the spacious park by my hostel!

But greenery aside, it’s true- there’s nothing quite like Saigon traffic: countless motorbikes contesting for space on the congested roads, made-up young girls sitting side-saddle on the back of bikes, hanging on to their boyfriends, entire families crammed onto one bike-seat- and nary a car in sight.

It’s truly a frenzy- see this beautifully made video.

But when I started to find Saigon overwhelming, I simply retreated indoors for a Vietnamese iced coffee- an addictive blend of ox-strong black coffee and sweetened condensed milk I indulged in two or three times a day. Whoops.

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And ladies- get thee to the boutique shopping on Bui Ven street for some great bargains.

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Oh and ahem, I swear I did some sightseeing- it wasn’t all just coffee and shopping.

Cu Chi Tunnels

A half-day tour from Saigon, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a network of underground tunnels used by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War (or as it is called in Vietnam, the American War).

Our first stop on the Cu Chi Tunnels was a the art studio of those who are handicapped and suffering from Agent Orange- and here is where the guilt began to set in.

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Next we arrived at the tunnels themselves. Our guide, Jackie, was once a soldier, and hearing his personal story while viewing the tunnels enriched the visit.IMG_9217

It was an emotional experience- I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of my country’s actions as our guide showed us the black flecks of shrapnel in his hands and told us about falling into a trap and calling his friend for help, who then fell to his death.

IMG_9222Descending into the tunnels which have been enlarged more than 50% for tourists.

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The War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum, once known as the American War Crimes Museum, is Saigon’s most popular museum. While many say the museum is one-sided, I think it’s all relative- after all, there are many in Vietnam who see the Vietnam War as a series of war crimes.

But still, it was hard to stomach the depiction of American soldiers as sadistic killers. And the museum displayed none of the opposition to the war on the American side-  after all, there are two sides to every story.

Overall the War Remnants Museum was well worth a visit- just be prepared to see lots of gore and propaganda.

Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office

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On a lighter note, I also headed to two French-built buildings, the Notre Dame and the Central Post Office. While the Notre Dame was nice, it was inside the Central Post Office I found the Indochine of my dreams.

Still a working post office, the Central Post Office was designed by Gustave Eiffel and constructed between 1886-1891. I felt like I had stumbled into the Vietnam of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American; I could’ve spent all day staring up at the vaulted ceiling and glass canopy, imagining the Vietnam of a different era.

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Map of the telegraphic lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892

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And let’s not forget about Saigon’s incredible food scene. Thanks to the recommendations of Ruth Elisabeth Thảo of More Vietnamese (thanks, Ruth!), I discovered Cục Gạch Quán.

Walking in, I felt more like I was in a tastefully decorated private home than a restaurant. My dining companion of the evening, Swedish journalist Andreas Mattson, and I were blown away by the food: deep-fried soft shell crabs, succulent beef stew and the Best. Tofu. Ever.

Saigon

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Though Saigon wasn’t all French post offices and beef noodles- we were scammed the first second we stepped foot in Vietnam.

After arriving exhausted from Phnom Penh, we hailed a taxi to get to our hostel. After handing over $10 each, we realized the driver had essentially driven us in circles and the ride should’ve cost only a dollar or two.

Also Saigon isn’t the safest place- during my time there I heard many horror stories of bag slashing and people on motorbikes grabbing pedestrians’ bags. While luckily nothing happened to me, the lack of photos in this post attests to how I didn’t feel too comfortable using my dSLR in public.

Practical info:

Where I stayed: I spent the bulk of my time at VietNam Inn Saigon, a hostel located in the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker district. It was okay- while there was a social bar area and a rooftop deck, it wasn’t the cleanest hostel by any means. When I splurged for a few nights I headed to the lovely Liberty Central Hotel– a bargain for a lovely staff, included breakfast and great location.

Sozo and L’usine are great two great, wifi-friendly cafés for digital nomads.

Have you ever visited Saigon? Did you love it or hate it?

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

29 thoughts on “Falling Hard for Saigon”

    • You call Ho Chi Minh City when you’re in government offices. Locals call it Saigon. It’s something imitated Russian revolution 1917 renamed Saint Peterburg to Leningrad. “Grad” in Russian means “city”. When you go to Hanoi you’ll see why Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a replica of Lenin mausoleum in Red Square. You can guess an explication for this, quite easy though.

  1. Saigon was my absolute favorite city in Southeast Asia. The food, the coffee, the motorbikes…I loved it all. It was one of the few places I went where I could see myself potentially living.

    And my Vietnamese friend took me to that same restaurant! Random.

  2. I t is a little difficult for me to realize that Saigon was one of
    your favorites. You have experienced so many other seemingly interesting
    cities. I guess you have to be there to love it. I think I might vote for Bali. Love, Gamma

  3. Amazing…you had the same guide as us around the tunnels!! Amazing isnt he! I recall him talking ALOT about how much the vietnamese love babies and how he fought in the war. I love saigon and i thought the coffee was beautiful even though i dont drink it in the UK. I dont like north vietnam though – the people arent very friendly and are more likely to rip you off!

    • That’s so funny! He was such a great guide. I also remember he showed us how Vietnamese people can comfortable squat for hours while Westerners can’t, haha. I haven’t been to the north of Vietnam but I’ve heard that a lot!

  4. Such terrific scribe about it all! From fantastic Pho, to your wonderful PHOTOS too; it always feels as if one is right there, after reading your wonderful posts! Great job!!!! Such fabulous stuff!!! Cheers!

  5. I’ve never been to Saigon, but I’m looking forward to visiting when my partner and I finally make it to Asia together. I was surprised that you say it’s so green; I’d never imagined a South East Asian city with many green spaces, so that’s nice to hear!

  6. I’m craving a bowl of steamy pho right now. I think everybody will be taken advantage sooner or later. Best to get it out of the way early and learn from it. Fortunate that it’s only a tiny group of people as that the rest are super nice. Looking forward to going back again soon

    • I felt the people were super nice, and scams are just a part of travel. The robberies I heard of did worry me though- even locals kept warning me to be careful with my bags and not walk too close to the road.

  7. I really enjoyed Saigon too, although I was so so sick when I first arrived I didn’t get as much time there as I would have liked. You’re right about the war museum being one-sided, but you’re also right about it being relative. Visit a similar tribute in America and there’s no mention of any of the other countries that fought along side them. My dad was one of 7000 Australian soldiers who fought in Vietnam, although my guide at the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC had no idea the Aussies where even there.
    If you’re back in Saigon again, have drinks at the rooftop bar at the Rex. It’s where the journalists hung out during the war and there’s a great view over the city.

    • Wow that’s so interesting, I had read about the Australian soldiers before and was very interested in learning more. And I saw the Rex hotel but never went up, I’ll have to check it out the next time I’m there! :)

  8. By the time we made it to Saigon, we were exhausted having spent 6 weeks traveling through the rest of the country on motorcycle, so I barely had the energy to explore. And yet I immediately liked it… probably because of how amazing the food is here. Although I think Hanoi has more character than Saigon, the food is, hands down, superior in the south. Having traveled through most of SEA at this point, I don’t think there’s a country where you get such good food for so little money.

    Anyway, obviously Tony & I fell hard for Vietnam because just under 1 year after our first visit, we’re back and planning to spend 3 months based in HCMC, eating our way through the city as best we can. We’ve been back for 3 weeks and are so happy we made this decision!

  9. Glad you enjoyed the restaurant! There’s such a wide variety of dishes there and also more like home-cooking. Seeing a claypot in your photos has given me a craving for cá lóc! Though most anything in a claypot is a winner.

  10. I’m neither on the love nor hate side, but I did experience food bliss in Saigon as well; INCREDIBLE! Oh and the “white Vietnamese coffee”… Mee too, 2-3 times a day! :D

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