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.
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.
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.
And ladies- get thee to the boutique shopping on Bui Ven street for some great bargains.
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.
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.
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
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.
Map of the telegraphic lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892
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.
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.
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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