Saigon...my first love in SE Asia (Bangkok is the second)
Saigon was renamed to Ho Chi Minh city on the day of the Fall of Saigon but still affectionately called Saigon by the locals and to this day it's an amazing and wondeful flux of seemingly contradicting ideas. Thriving international business center, strong communist heritage, food lovers paradise, keeper of French colonial architecture, expats nest, dirty and glamorous at the same time, buzzing and busy city where cars are third to motorbikes and bicycles and where tiny smelly lanes full of local indecipherable businesses running are mingling together with global brands and skyscrappers - I love this place!
The city is full of life - bicycles, motorbikes, street vendors, kids playing shuttlecock with their feet, glamorous ladies, green taxis, people drinking vietnamese tea or coffee on the sidewalk everywhere, hobbit house + french + chinese architecture - all makes this city simply ALIVE. All screaming "if you're alive, live here!!!" Oh, did I already say how much I love this city?
Getting around Saigon is very easy - the city is divided into districts numbered from 1 to I think 12, and everyone knows them, you can easily take taxis and pay around $2-4 to get anywhere or if you're adventurous - ride on the back of a motorcycle ($1-3), the traffic is so crazy that a dose of adrenaline is guaranteed.
You can buy almost anything on the street. Vietnamese are hard to bargain with, but they enjoy persistance if you have one, they enjoy doing business with someone who is willing to bargain hard. Vietnamese hats are very useful as it gets painfully hot and sunny during the day.
We stayed at Ly Loan's house located in a small lane in the Pham Ngu Lau district - Ly Loan is the best host ever. She is a 60 years old (or should I say young) Chinese lady who looks like she is 38 - super active, super caring, speaking almost no English, but enjoying to really and thoroughly take care of you. For $ 15/night it was also one of the cleanest places we ever stayed at - Ly Loan was obsessive about keeping our room as clean as possible. At first you get thrown out of your comfort zone when she appears at your door with cleaning kit and starts cleaning without much attention to you sitting bewildered on your bed watching her. She won't hesitate to command you to get off your bed so that she can change the sheets either. We tried to tell Ly Loan several times that we don't need cleaning, clean towels and new bedsheets so often, but after a while we just submitted to her half Chinese, half Vietnamese, half English commands :) She was owesome!
Food in Saigon is amazing - favorites are fresh spring rolls and Pho Bo, Vietnamese pancakes are awesome too. Best spring rolls option is Roll It Yourself - they bring you rice paper, rice noodles, cucumbers, carrots, shrimp, salad leaves, sauce and you just practise to do it. We arrived to Saigon from the Philippines and for us the variety of food and vegetables was overwhelming after Philippines. One of the best places to eat in the travellers district is Cafe Lam (serves cheap, delicious, huge portions of Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese dishes) and the restaurants in the small lanes along Tran Hung Dao street. Some interesting things to try is different color rice near markets.
Special attention - Vietnamese coffee - one of the most delicious coffees I tried, the secret is in the way they brew it (special coffee pots) and in the condensed milk. Addition to the secret is the Vietnamese coffee itself, they are big coffee growers and they like to make flavored ones - moccha, chocolate, vanilla, etc. Here is our first try of it - spilt it, but in the end got it right!
Shopping in Saigon is great as well (not as humangous as in Bangkok though) - they sell very fashionable stuff both in the malls and at the street bazaars. You can also dive into communist vintage relics - posters and clothing.
One of the coolest things about Saigon is that the city is full of French style cafes - very cute, very French-like, serving good bakery and having wifi - if you're remote freelancer, you can really enjoy working in Saigon's cafes.
The downside of Saigon is that is it's really polluted even though it's very green. In general the city is quite clean, but if you go in smaller streets you may end up with looking at this:
One day walking through the city can get you coughing a lot or in my case can get you pneumonia for a month. I was lucky enough Ly Loan took care of bringing me to the hospital and getting me prescriptions.
About the Vietnamese: some highlights:
- Vietnamese English is the English I bet you never heard before. The way Vietnamese speak English is just frankly, destroying the point of speaking English :) In Vietnamese they swallow a lot of the endings of the words, they do the same with English. In addition, Vietnamese is tone based language, so they are used to attach certain sounds to the syllables in English. To an unexperienced traveller Vietnamese English will sound like half coughing half singing. Sometimes it's quite hilarious to try to understand a Vietnamese person.
- Vietnam is probably the only place of Earth where most women walk around in pajamas and most men dress Michael Jackson style. Quite literally the every day dress for women is pajama like 2 piece dress - colorful top and pants in ridiculous patterns (old school flowers, baby bears, lolly pops, etc.), and there is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing that anywhere they go. Men very often dress in communist style suits with (!) white socks and dark pants & dark shoes.
- The Vietnamese are generally very different from other SE Asians. Some may say they are rude. It's true that sometimes Vietnamese can be quite upfront and quite straightforward, and politeness in the Western sense may not be the first priority. In Saigon, however, people are much nicer than in the North of Vietnam. Not sure if this can be explained with explicit communism in the North and more open mindedness to the West in the South, but the difference is very obvious.
However, in general we felt that Vietnamese are nice, smiling, sincere and fun loving people, even though their history is not one of those nicest ones.
Next story - Vietnamese seaside, very close to Saigon by bus. Btw, Vietnamese sleeper buses are the best, the bus literally has beds instead of seats :)