After a handful of days in Ho Ch Minh City (Saigon), I’m exhausted, overwhelmed and entranced by this melting pot of a city. There’s something really absorbing about it.
What a bustling, old world yet new world, hybrid mash up this place is!
French architecture, 5 million motorbikes and scooters, and purse grabbers abound. Everything is everywhere and nothing is easy to find. It would probably help if I spoke some Vietnamese.
Here’s my breakdown of the things that caught my eye. Probably like they catch the eye of every other traveller ever, but whatever.
The motorbikes and scooters
Crossing the road (even at a zebra crossing) in Saigon makes my heart stop. It’s the kind of experience that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up straight. Despite the certain knowledge that your stepping into the traffic will lead to your death, you miraculously emerge at the other side every single time. Eventually, you learn to enjoy the near death experience.
The motorbike traffic seems to be a single organism, which would explain why they never collide with each other. It’s like all the riders and drivers have this amorphous hive mind, which protects both them and unwitting pedestrians from meeting an untimely end.
I had the (mis)fortune of being a passenger on a scooter a couple of times. I booked an event and it included hotel pick up, which turned out to be by bike. I was freaked at first but when I got into it it turned out to be super fun! Just hold on for dear life on the roundabouts. I realised after having been on a bike that it’s a lot safer to be on one (and therefore part of the hive mind organism) than to be a pedestrian trying not to get hit by one.
The food – OMG
The street food in Saigon is beyond awesome. It’s cheap, there’s plenty of it and it’s incredibly fresh. Often, it is made right in front of you. That’s the beauty of street food and market food – you can really see what it is. The cooking process is very transparent.
Every time I come to Asia and eat things I also eat in Melbourne, I always think back to how much I’ve paid for said things at home and I cringe. Then upon my return, I can’t buy those things any more because I can’t pay $10 for something I got in Asia for $1. It happened to me with pad thai in Thailand, and now it’s happening to me with pho in Vietnam. I won’t be able to pay $12 for second rate pho when I get home.
And boy, the pho here is beyond. I’m vegetarian, so obviously my pho choices are limited to only one flavour. However, each pho I’ve had here manages to be a bit different. Some use tofu meatballs. Some use those crispy cubes of tofu that I like. Some have only one type of mushroom, some have three.
I decided last minute to do a vegetarian Vietnamese cooking class and I’m really glad I did. Best experience I had in Ho Chi Minh! I went with Mai Home, which was a bit on the pricier end, but worth every single cent. Their ingredients were superb and varied, the recipes and instruction were top notch. I’m glad I paid more for this class over others, as I loved it and can’t rate it more highly.
It’s definitely related to the time of year, but hello – the rain! I got completely drenched on numerous occasions. For the most part, it’s that kind of rain that doesn’t really get you wet. More of a drizzle. But, at around 3 or 4pm like clockwork, the heavens open and it pours. I personally love the rain so it doesn’t bother me too much, but I’ve seen a few backpackers pretty unhappy when their thongs flick up mud onto the back of their legs repeatedly.
I have been extremely impressed that nobody here gets bothered by the rain. The locals on their scooters literally just pull over, whip out a poncho, and keep going. Nothing changes – the rain isn’t a big deal and nor is getting a bit wet.
The reminders of war
Vietnam is a country that went through hell on Earth at the hands of the United States (and its allies such as Australia) in the 1960s and 1970s. A foul, morally bankrupt war to service American interests has left its mark on this country, even 40 years on.
The most visceral reminder of these atrocities is the War Remnants Museum. It’s only about $1 to get in, and it’s a hell of a place. Upon entering you pass and can inspect many battle tanks and American Air Force planes, as well as machine guns and other weapons. Inside the building is a series of walls with photos you can follow which outline the story of the Vietnam war from start to end. Upstairs are other collections of photographs, many of which are extremely disturbing. It is quiet as a tomb in there, as people struggle with viewing the burned victims of napalm and the demented and malformed babies of Agent Orange. The brutality of the American soldiers is also captured in a series of photos of them torturing and killing Vietnamese, and parading their decapitated bodies around.
One exhibit that particularly struck me was the donated uniforms of American ex-soldiers, who donated their Vietnam relics as a protest against the war in which they took part. One ex-soldier has donated all his combat medals in protest, which are with a plaque that says “I am sorry, I was wrong.”
I left feeling quite overwhelmed and emotional.
Another popular war tourist spot is the Cu Chi Tunnels, which honestly I found extremely overrated. It’s a site of extreme significance to understand the history of the Vietnam War – and I really appreciated this part of it. But what really killed it for me was the firing range at the end, where visitors are charged 400,000 Dong to fire 10 bullets out of an AK-47. I thought after seeing the tunnels and learning about this element of the war, having the option to fire the guns that killed thousands of Vietnamese for an inflated price seemed really inappropriate. I didn’t partake.
The kindness of the locals
Vietnamese people have got to be some of the kindest and most helpful people around. I’ve never felt unsafe here, even walking around alone. Everyone is nice and helpful. I stupidly and accidentally left my credit card at the post office 20 minutes away yesterday, and they brought it back to my hostel for me before I even realised it was gone! Saved me a hell of a lot of strife.
Saigon is definitely worth a visit. I’d recommend three nights – gives you enough time to soak it all up and do things, but not so much that you get sick of the hustle and bustle. Check it out 🙂