What’s In A Name?
Ho Chi Minh City is such a mouthful of a name, and so bland compared with the exotic and evocative Saigon. Evidently, the locals agree. They routinely default to the old name, and that’s license enough for me to do the same. Besides, Uncle Ho expressly stated that he didn’t want anything named after him. Unlike the Hanoi government, I’m happy to respect his wishes.
Significantly, incidentally, the further north you go the more the modern name is used.
This is not a travel guide, so my treatment of Saigon is going to be limited to a few brief personal observations. How could it be otherwise, when I was there for only 6 days (longer than intended, actually).
The city is divided into districts. District 1 is the tourist area, where most travellers spend most of their time in Saigon. The guts of this area is packed with hotels, restaurants and bars, street vendors, the odd girlie joint, CD stores, beauty parlours, money changers, tour companies – you name it, and you can probably find it. It’s pretty crowded during the day, but come nightfall and it really starts to pump. There are people everywhere, thronging through the streets, eating, drinking. Tourists outnumber Vietnamese.
Our First Night
On the night we arrived, after establishing ourselves in our hotel we ventured outside, smack bang into the action. The cheapest al fresco beer locales were packed with Caucasians pissing on and looking oh so cool as they sat back appraising us newbies with mild scorn (or so we fancied), as we drifted along the street. We stared about like startled rabbits caught in a crossfire of headlights. It was all a bit intimidating.
(not quite what I’m referring to, but it’s the only pic I took)
We soon realised that no one is more than a day away from looking cool in the District 1 party zone. The turnover of tourists is huge. Next night, we were the veteran travellers sipping on Saigon Green at 50c a pop during ‘happy hour’ (which lasts 4 hours, or longer), watching bug-eyed newcomers lumping their backpacks along.
The dizzy array of restaurants in this area covers a wide variety of cuisines – Italian, Indian, Middle-Eastern, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, French, German… There are burgers, pizzas, kebabs, and the ubiquitous American fast food chains. You can get just about anything you want – except authentic Vietnamese food! That’s surprisingly hard to come by, although there are plenty of street vendors selling fried snacks, and many of the restaurants have a ‘Vietnamese’ section in their menus.
Once we’d had our fill of sweaty exploring of the main streets and dodging the constant stream of motor bikes, vendor carts and other sundry traffic coursing up and down the roads, we searched in vain for a restaurant or hawker stall offering appealing-looking Vietnamese food. In the end, we settled for a bowl of pho from a street stall near our hotel – what else? If there is a national dish of Vietnam, pho is it. Stuffed full of herbs and greens in an aromatic light stock with slices of beef or chicken and noodles, it was nice and fresh and filling, but similar to the pho we buy in Northbridge, in Perth. I expected it to be different, better.
I bought a nightcap can of local beer – 333, or ‘bah bah bah’ as the locals call it – for the princely sum of 15,000 dong (75c). In sensory overload we retreated to our hotel.
The Motorcycle Miracle of Saigon
With the exception of the expansive, bustling Ben Thanh Markets, the ‘sights’ were nothing much – mostly uninspiring remnants of the city’s French colonial period. The boulevards and coffee and cocktail haunts of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American were nowhere to be seen.
For me, by far the most remarkable aspect of Saigon is its motorbike traffic. At peak periods, it’s a swarming mass of humanity sandwiched between metal helmets and Hondas that somehow, miraculously, keeps flowing, despite an absence of traffic controls. Riders cut across each other, weave in and out, honk to let the guy in front know they’re at their elbow. Everyone gets where they’re going (which is in multiple directions), no one loses their temper, and there is never a jam. It’s truly a community on wheels, and it has to be. If the good folk of Saigon had the selfish and sometimes downright spiteful attitude of Perth drivers, the traffic would be constantly locked up.
The pictures above don’t come close to depicting the Saigon traffic phenomenon – some experiences are not recordable, whatever the media.
Parting the Red Sea
Crossing the road as a pedestrian is hair-raising (well, for people with hair…I was fine) – until you get to understand the system. It’s pretty simple, really. Just venture out into the fray and keep walking slowly to the other side. Don’t stop, and don’t change your pace. Motorbike riders are used to avoiding pedestrians, but you have to stay predictable in your movement. Oh, and give way to cars and other larger vehicles!
I got the knack quickly, but I did baulk at crossing during the crazy peak periods. One evening when the motorbike madness was in spectacular full bloom, a Brazilian guy asked us for directions (the fool!). We chatted a while, then he bade us farewell and set off into the maelstrom. Initially raising a hand like a traffic cop against the oncoming charge of bikes, he put his head down and just kept walking. I have no idea how the riders avoided him. They were shoulder to shoulder, but parted either side of him as he waded forward with the conviction of Moses. We stood looking after him slack-jawed until he made it to the other side and disappeared.
District 5 is the old Chinese area of Cholon. We took a taxi over there one morning in search of The Authentic. We never made it out of the enormous, hectic and hassley market area. Several times, sweating singleted workers carting or heaving produce through the narrow aisles between stalls shoved us bodily – and wordlessly – out of the way. No quarter given for silly gawping tourists here!
The diversity of foodstuffs was mind-boggling. Here’s a tiny sample. If only someone had been able to speak English and tell us what the hell half the stuff was.
The Other Districts
District 3 is the business and admin area, and the site of some of the tourist sights and locales, most notably the War Remnants Museum. I think it’s safe to say that few tourists make it to the other Districts, except on tour buses on the way through to destinations outside Saigon. I would have been interested in having a look at District 4, where the ex-pats live, but didn’t make it this time. Next trip, maybe.
One quick observation. We twice bussed through the outer suburbs of Saigon – once on the way to and from the Cu Chi tunnels and again when on tour to the Mekong Delta. Most notable for me was the organisation of the shops. There are long stretches of pavement lined with shop after shop selling garden sculptures. Then there is a garden plants area (bonsai is extremely popular). Another for baby clothes. White goods. Bikes. Entertainment units. Household furniture. Mechanical repairs. Religious icons. And so it goes, on and on. Curious, this apparent partition fetish. It’s as if the whole city was planned from a flow chart, beginning with the division of the city into Districts.
More posts in this series on Vietnam:
Travels in Vietnam 2011: Intro
Travels In Vietnam 2011: The Cu Chi Tunnels
Travels In Vietnam 2011: War Remnants Museum, Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Mekong Delta
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Dalat
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Nha Trang
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hoi An
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Sleeper Bus Nightmare!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hue
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Eating and Drinking!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hype vs Reality
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Reflections & Wrap-up