Welcome to Saigon! City where scooters outnumber people it seems, where taxis are cheap, beer and food too, not to mention accommodation if not staying in the most luxurious ones. To us a short visit to this hot and almost unbearably humid city was at its best when hanging out with friend travellers.
We arrived to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, formerly known as Saigon and where the down town area District 1 is still referred to as Saigon) straight after visiting two other major SE Asian cities: Jakarta and Singapore. It surely was a city we were waiting to see, so definitely wanted to include it to our route of our round-the-world journey. At the time of our visit in May 2017, it was hot in 30’s, but humid as in a proper sauna. And honestly speaking, it felt a little chaotic after neat and clean Singapore.
Traffic in Saigon is something else. There are so many scooters in the city, which makes sense as it is a cheap and convenient mean of transportation. So there are scooters everywhere and coming from every direction you can possibly imagine. Crossing a street feels like you are a suicide candidate, since traffic lights going green does not mean there wouldn’t be any vehicle coming on the street or even on sidewalks behind you. And only a few street crossings have traffic lights for pedestrians anyway. So crossing the streets with a child felt horrifying at first. But when you are alert and cross slowly but steadily, they will give you way – mostly. So, even the most chaotic traffic actually flows quite smoothly.
French, Chinese and American influence
We all have an idea of the rough times Vietnam has had and even not too long ago. Vietnam war was quite recently and most older citizens are walking reminders of it, since they have lived through the war. Southern Vietnam rising against northern Vietnam’s communist party made the country divide into two again. A strange admiration of American way of life can be felt in the city. American support for South Vietnam is still appreciated in the south.
Independence Palace is a historical relic: a place where South Vietnam surrendered as Americans pulled back . War museum two blocks away tells the history in more details – apparently quite honestly, so we did not take our 8-year-old son there, though he would have wanted to go see war vehicles.
Even more so, incluence of French regime is more visible as Vietnam was part of French IndoChina territory since 1880s to the IndoChina war that broke just after the second World War, though it was Portuguese who originally landed in Hoi An as first Europeans. City hall, people’s court, Notre Dame cathedral and post central to mention a few are all French architecture and feel a bit strange in this city, but are however beautiful.
And going back in history to times long before French taking over, Vietnam used to be part of China, which can be seen for example in several Chinese Buddha pagodas around the city and country. Vietnam had a nearly thousand year period of independence between Chinese and French regimes.
Traveller friends unite
The single most fun thing in Saigon was to hang out with our traveller friends, Johanna & Jarkko from the Fin Nomads (www.finnomads.com). It was so great to exchange thoughts and experiences of long-term travelling. They have backpacked in Asia for 7 months (end of May 2017) and purely made art of budget travelling! A warm suggestion to follow if interested in with how little you can actually travel and manage in Asia if you make certain choises in the type of your travelling.
Bui Vien in the heart of Saigon local blocks is a street filled with restaurants, bars and street food cafes – and backpackers. We hang out here enjoying food & beer and just talking. On our second day we celebrated Johanna’s birthday at the hostel where they are volunteer working for food&room. At night we dined local dishes at a rooftop restaurant with a great view to the business city area.
Even if hot, humid and chaotic, Saigon was an interesting city to see. It may get to you at first, if arrive from a quieter and western city. But give it a day and you start getting used to the chaos. It may wear you out, but is definitely worth a visit if you are into city breaks.
It is perhaps not a place for serious shopping for global brands, if that’s what you are looking for. Nor a place for high class culture, but surely for Vietnamese local culture. A visit to Ben Thanh market in the center of District 1 is a must. There probably is nothing you couldn’t find here.
Getting around in the city is very cheap with taxis, if walking and especially crossing the streets intimidates you. Or you want to avoid one of the pouring rain falls that come daily at least at this time of the year. Another excellent alternative to taxis is GrabCar app, which is similar to Uber. Very cheap, convenient (if you have access to wifi) and reliable too.
A visit to Saigon is easy to combine with some a trip to some other destination “close by”. Flying within SE Asia is cheap as soap and HCMC is often a stopover destination to beaches in neighbouring countries in Cambodia, Phillippines or Vietnamese beach cities such as Hoi An, Na Trang or paradise island of Phu Quoc.
We wanted an easy escape to the coast from HCMC. So, strictly by looking at a map and searching for the closest beach areas reachable from the city by car, bus or boat, we chose to spend a week in beach town of Vung Tau, about 100 km from Saigon to the coast of South China Sea. We got the by a hydrofoil river boat, but that’s a whole other story! Stay tuned.