UnPHOgettable Saigon

Saigon what a city! It’s got everything for everyone, and I don’t exaggerate when I say it’s fast becoming the New York City of the East. However I mean this in terms of the cultural richness and the atmosphere of a city that never sleeps (probably cos everyones always hopped up on Vietnamese iced coffee). I visited Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) briefly when I was a child over 10 years ago and so much has changed – skyrise apartments and towers have gone up, the standard of living looks much better, the roads cleaner and not many places selling dog meat (at least I didn’t see any). The city skyline at night says it all.

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I spent nearly a week in HCMC and it wasn’t nearly enough, even keeping busy everyday doing different things I barely explored outside District 1 (out of 17?). But even then I got to experience so much! I’ll try to recount as much as I can but there are many things I will leave out just because of how routine they became (you know just like an everyday thing that you wouldn’t think too much of) but still quintessentially a true Vietnamese experience like sipping Ca Phe Sua Da on the street or being in the midst of the chaotic Saigon traffic on a motorbike.

I got into HCMC from Phnom Penh via bus and arrived right in the middle of District 1 at Pham Ngu Lao, kind of like a Central/Hyde park of the city. There were people doing their afternoon jogs, playing hacky-sack, badminton, using the outdoor exercise machines – may I remark at this point that it is extremely rare to see any fat vietnamese people. I got picked up by my cousins by motorbike in the middle of rush hour at around 5pm. It was fucking nuts – you truly feel like a tiny fish in this big sea with everyone trying to compete and get ahead, like commuting on public transport there was hardly any personal space as swarming bikes come within inches of your body. Eventually you get used to the craziness, I was clenching on to the handrails pretty hard the first time I got onto a bike, but you can actually just put your hands on your knees and relax. Also crazy is trying to cross the road – there are no traffic lights, even if there are they don’t mean shit and neither do the pedestrian crossing markings. You just have to start walking and let all the bikes swerve around you – organized chaos?

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I met up with my friend Sue who had been in Saigon for nearly quite a few days already and first things first, coffee! You can get decent coffee at any of the 3 big ones – Highlands, Phuc Long or Trung Nguyen; and even the local cafes are really good. It’s the quality of the beans and the way it is prepared – ground coffee beans in a drip filter makes for a very smooth and rich flavour. After we head out to to the Chinatown markets. It’s okay but nothing too special, markets are really just a normal thing in Asia and they are all starting to seem the same. We also visit the Ben Thanh market back in District 1 which is more tourist-fare with the beers singlets and such. Also not too far from there is the OMG! rooftop bar which is where the two previous photos were taken.

For dinner we met with one of Sue’s friends from the US who has been living in Saigon for the last 2 years – its more of a local experiences as we try some wacky seafood which is surprisingly good. We also get answers to our cultural questions regarding Vietnam such as the dating scene and some of the odd clothing choices (PJs) we see around the city.

The next day we visit the War Remnants museum with my auntie and cousins, it is interesting to see the difference in local admissions (2000 VND) versus foreigner tickets (15000 VND) – also have been noticing that I am now tan enough to pass as a local and get spoken to in Vietnamese all the time on the street; it has its perks I guess: I get the local prices at the markets instead of the inflated tourist scams, I am ignored by all the touts asking if I want to buy some lottery tickets or want a motorbike ride, and overall just not feel at like a tourist.

Back to the War Remnants museum though, what is very clear is that history is written by the victor – some facts taught in history class did not match what was being said here in the museum, testament to that is the fact that the museum was previously known as ‘Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression.’ It is also however very heartbreaking to see the devastation of the war and the scarring effects of the use of Agent Orange in generations of Vietnamese still living today. It seems the museum is packed to the rafters with lots of school groups on excursions/field trips which I think is a good thing to see – they however like myself are a little more interested in playing around with the outdoor exhibit.

That night I was invited to come along to a wedding by my auntie (one of her colleagues was the bride); she thought it would be good for me to experience a Vietnamese wedding! We got to the wedding reception/function centre and it was huge, there were at least a dozen other weddings going on at the same time. I am told later that in fact around 150 guests is considered a small-ish wedding and that a typical size was more than 400…jfc… We were at the small-ish wedding but it still seemed like so many people, lots of kids running around, many beers being had, songs being sung by members of the audience, etc etc. Overall its a great night for everyone involved who get to binge on as much food and drink as they can handle (lots of red faces in the crowd) and the bride and groom are kept busy taking photos with all the honoured guests.

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My next few days was spent meandering around different cafes – I had maybe around 4 or 5 coffees each day (no regrets, they are delicious). Also visited quite a few different local restaurants to sample the local cuisine; vietnamese food is so diverse and there is always something for everyone. Also had at least 1 Banh Mi (*thanks for the edit Thalia) a day, (french baguette with various fillings like egg, pate, pork, etc. – look it up) and just a quick remark that each city in Vietnam has there own distinct take on the fillings so its a different taste each time!

I feel like this is a long-ish post so I will just end on a thought that I had a few times while walking around the city – I would be completely open to the option to live here for a little while; The place has everything! Great coffee, pretty decent nightlife, the hustle and bustle of a busy city, diverse and interesting food and all for a pretty cheap price. Here’s a few loose photos from around the streets while sightseeing to cap this off.

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