It’s hard to put into words, but something about Vietnam got under my skin. I never thought I’d feel such a connection to a country I’d never visited before. Especially one with customs I wasn’t used to, food I’d never seen in my life, a language I couldn’t speak, and a climate that was perpetually like being in Disney World on 100 degree day in July. Hoi An and Da Nang had their own beachy charm, but Saigon was simply magnificent. Even when looking out across the city from the top of the tallest skyscraper, there was no end in sight – just buildings upon buildings stretching into the distance (and viewing it from the plane was an even more astounding). The amount of family-owned businesses is also staggering, and I was constantly wondering how any of them were able to make a profit with the insane level of competition literally right next door. Mini-marts, street food vendors, pharmacies, hostels, restaurants, tiny shops selling anything you could ever imagine for dirt cheap, on every single street, EVERYWHERE, all the time. Add the gorgeous, exclusively high-end shopping malls and fancy restaurants all over District 1 and it just becomes an absolute conundrum of a city. It’s so easy to take one look and distinguish exactly where and how tourism has impacted every aspect of local life.
My final weekend in the city was spent frantically trying to catch up on everything I’d missed from being sick, but it turned into an even more of an adventure than I bargained for. One of my friends from the States, Lito, wound up traveling to HCMC at the same time so I suddenly had a travel companion for three days – and it was awesome! Since I was staying in District 1 this time, it was cool to be so centrally located despite it being a much different experience with all of the familiar faces (backpackers) meandering around. We kicked off the weekend by meeting for coffee at Cafe Vy, a little open-air cafe where we sat on tiny chairs facing the sidewalk and enjoyed iced Vietnamese coffee with the locals chattering all around us. We then went on a search for an unnamed bbq joint that we were only told “was next to a KFC,” which wasn’t exactly helpful considering there’s one of those on almost every corner. A few wrong turns and an Uber later we were able to find it by spotting the delicious-smelling bbq pit right outside the front door. Another completely local hangout, this place, whatever it was called, became our standard for judging everything we ate afterwards. Oh god. Best. Pork. EVER.
From there we checked out Saigon Square, a huge indoor market with local stalls selling primarily knockoffs of brand name clothing, shoes, backpacks, etc. It’s in interesting market since it’s got a decent amount of tourists and locals intermingling, which meant prices were jacked up a bit but it seemed easy enough to haggle them down. I almost bought a pair of “Ray Bans” (“Fay Bans” as we’ve now dubbed them) but decided against it. True story, I bought some Fay Bans in Phnom Penh yesterday and they disintegrated in my hands in less than 7 hours. So dear everyone: learn from my mistake and haggle lower than $5 for counterfeit sunglasses.
In the spirit of that weird economic contrast I mentioned, Saigon Centre was just one street away. I had already spent some time exploring in there previously, and I say “exploring” because it’s 6 stories of high-end fashion and jewelry stores that I’d never be able to afford in my life. That didn’t seem to deter everyone else there though, especially the large groups of Asian tourists we watched pose for awkward group photos in front of nothing repeatedly (I had some fun replicating that in the photo below). I guess the mall had just undergone an overhaul and had re-opened the week before, and it definitely showed. The interior design was as stunning as I’ve come to expect from pretty much everywhere in the city, especially in all of the themed restaurants on the ground and top floors.
I had been wanting to go to the top of Bitexco Tower, the tallest building in Vietnam, ever since I arrived. They have a Skydeck that you can get a ticket to visit, but thanks to some online sleuthing I discovered that there is also a restaurant and bar up near the top as well. So rather than pay $9 each to walk around and leave, we ended up just visiting the restaurant and ordering some drinks instead, which worked out in the end because we learned that the restaurant is higher than the Skydeck anyway (the ticket clerk reluctantly admitted that fact when we questioned him about it). We had a 360 view of the entire city and it was fantastic to say the least.
The next day we booked a daytime motorbike tour with Saigon Adventure since I wanted to get a little more insight into the various monuments and architecture around the city. Our guides, two sweet girls named Nga and Ha, were so friendly and had a great sense of humor – it felt like we were just hanging out with friends for the day. As always I will never, ever get tired of whizzing around on the back of a motorbike. It’s an experience unlike any other I’ve had in a city, and nothing compares to zipping around through the crazy, packed, virtually lawless streets with a cool breeze in your face to offset the scalding sun.
Our first stop was the Saigon Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral, which are situated across the street from each other right in the middle of District 1. Built between 1860-1890 during French the colonization of Vietnam, both are beautiful examples of traditional Gothic architecture. The post office is the busiest one in the country and is constantly credited as being designed by Gustave Eiffel, though I found conflicting information online claiming the true designers to be Auguste Henri Vildieu and Alfred Foulhoux. So I’m not 100% on that one, but in any case it’s a beautiful building. From what we were told the locals were not happy with the bright yellow paint job it received in 2015. It did look much more…subtle previously, I’ll give them that. The cathedral almost looks a bit strange next to it, since you can tell from one look that it hasn’t been altered in 136 years. There was a wedding photo shoot happening outside (I can only guess it’s a really popular spot for that), and our guides told us that because the 6 bronze bells weigh a total of 30 tons and need to be rung by hand, all six are only rung during the annual New Years celebration. Pretty cool!
We hopped on the motorbikes and continued to the corner of busy intersection, were a beautiful statue of Thich Quang Duc, famously known as the Burning Monk, sat peacefully surrounded by a lush garden and grand stone stairs. I had been looking forward to seeing this monument ever since arriving in the city since the famous photograph (warning, graphic images) by Malcolm Browne has always fascinated me. People tend to think that Duc set himself on fire to protest America’s involvement in Vietnam, which is false – the actual reason was to protest the persecution of the Buddhist religion by the South Vietnamese government. Shortly before Duc’s demonstration, the government had opened fire and killed 9 Buddhist protesters for flying the Buddhist flag on Vesak (Buddha’s birthday) during a citywide flag ban. There’s a really good interview with Browne that I recommend reading if you have time, as it describes the scene through his eyes – the chaos in the crowd, the other 350 Buddhist monks openly mourning as their friend burned before them, and Duc’s stoic, calm, and unchanging features and posture throughout the whole horrifying ordeal. After Duc died his corpse was formally cremated but his heart would not burn, and to this day it is considered holy and is kept preserved in a glass chalice.
As we sped away from that peaceful retreat, we zipped through some narrow alleys to visit the massive flower market. I had seen it at night already but the arrangements are even more stunning during the day, and the best part is the flowers are fresh, beautiful and dirt cheap. We theorized that having a fight with your significant other in Vietnam must be pretty convenient, since you could then just fill up their apartment with like 9000 apology roses for $10.
We then had a quick stop at a cafe for some delicious Vietnamese drip coffee. This was the first time I had actually made it myself; the coffee grounds sit in an aluminum container on top of a mug of condensed milk, and you add hot water and press them yourself. It takes a few minutes to drip into the mug, then you just mix the coffee and milk together. The result is the mug being maybe only 1/3 full of liquid. I’ve found that I have to add ice not only because it’s super delicious, but because otherwise you get jacked up crazy fast if you drink it straight. Which I would normally be fine with, but yo this coffee is some serious business. The super talented Ha even found a ukelele and played us a song!
Built in 1760, our last visit was to the oldest and largest Chinese temple in Saigon: Ba Thien Hau. It’s massive and the carvings along every inch are so intricate and full of history. We learned a great deal about both Chinese and Vietnamese folklore, including that the temple is dedicated to the Lady of the Sea and that there is an animal symbolizing each compass direction of Vietnam. There was a beautiful alter featuring golden statues of the goddess and a ceiling filled with spires of incense that people can attach wishes to (written on a piece of paper). So lovely.
After the temple we said our farewells to our lovely guides, and went back to our respective homestays for much, much needed showers before the next activity: seeing a cultural show at the Saigon Opera House. The A O Show (pronounced “ahh ooo”) was another one of my previously cancelled activities due to being sick, so I was super stoked to finally see it. And it also gave me an excuse to wear the sweet dress I had made in Hoi An. The show was great; it was sort of a smaller, more intimate Cirque De Solei-esque adventure through Vietnam’s past and present featuring beautiful music and impressive acrobatics. Another wonder of French architecture, the Opera House itself is small but still very grand, and it looks beautiful from District 1’s central walking street.
The next day I had plans in the evening, but met Lito for a few hours before his onward flight the next day. We went to Cong Caphe, which had hands-down the best coffee of all the places I tried in Vietnam and one of the coolest atmospheres to boot. It was too small and crowded for working, but I’m so glad we stopped in – the funky decor coupled with the retro communism theme was unique and so much fun.
While I was uber sad to say goodbye to my travel buddy, I was super pumped to hang out with Son again (my university student tour guide from the previous week). He lives in District 7 and invited me to check it out. It turned out to be one of the most magical nights of my trip so far! District 7 is a crazy place because it’s the most wealthy district in the city, but despite the towering glass apartment buildings and office complexes you immediately see when you enter the vicinity, there are normal neighborhoods and middle-class homes in the surrounding area as well. Son assured me that even though he does not live in one of the skyscraper apartments on his student/intern salary, he still knew some pretty awesome local hangouts in the area.
After motorbiking through a long underground tunnel that goes beneath the highway (presumably to help alleviate traffic), we wound up on the opposite side of the river. This meant that from where we parked we could see the entire city skyline! Son told me that this was a local spot that foreigners rarely find, and there were tons of Vietnamese enjoying the view and having picnics in the grass. We stopped at one of the food stalls and got a dish that I now forget the name of, but it was essentially bread cut up into strips and flavored with various sauces. Apparently it’s newer fare that hasn’t been around too long, but it was absolutely delicious. From there we made our way into the heart of D7, stopping again for bahn mi that we ate inside of a local Circle K (this one had tables inside?). At this point I had to inform Son that despite my undying love for bread and bahn mi I wasn’t going to be able to keep stuffing my face for the entire night. But really…who was I kidding?
At this point the sun was setting so I was treated to one of the prettiest sunsets I’d seen in the city thus far. As it got darker we headed over to the very modern and urban Crescent Mall, which is a sight in itself. Somehow it managed to make all of the other malls I’d visited look like chump change both in size and in beauty. Son told me it was his goal in life to be able to afford to shop there one day, which is when I got all Preachy McPreach on him and gave him a lecture about how there was more to life than money. Poor kid, haha. The parking garages under the mall were just packed with motorbikes across every square inch, and I really wasn’t sure why until we exited out the back of the building and onto a glittering, crescent-shaped riverside boardwalk filled with upscale clothing stores, bars and restaurants. What made it especially awesome was that it was all walking traffic only, even once we left what I guess was the “official” boardwalk area and got to the park-lined street. Locals just hanging out, cycling, rollerblading, hoverboarding, playing sports, eating dinner, all by streetlight in the middle of the road. I instantly fell in love!
To get to the street from the boardwalk we had to cross the Starlight Bridge, aptly named because of the sparkling LED “stars” that light up the ground as you walk by. And as if that wasn’t cool enough, the bridge also functions as a 154-meter long waterfall that is illuminated with the changing colors of the rainbow. I’m not sure what I was expecting from District 7 despite all of Son’s assurances that it was a rad place, but it was definitely much more than I bargained for. On the way back to my Airbnb we drove past the floating market, where I was told that each boat has a dog to guard the wares at night while the residents are sleeping. Such a fun way to end an equally fun night! Thanks so much for the awesome night (again), Son!
Bonus spots in District 1
After that completely epic weekend, I only had a few days left in the country so I spent some time exploring every nook and cranny of District 1 after work. Two of my favorite places included:
– Công Viên Tao Đàn, a huge, sprawling, GORGEOUS park filled with beautiful statues, a Buddhist temple, walkways covered with flowers and leafy arches, a playground, and much more. This was located only steps from my Airbnb, so I went there quite often…especially since it was also completely full of Pokestops. At that point Pokemon Go had only been out for about a week in Vietnam, so it was insane to see the place packed to the brim with people on their phones!
– Ben Thanh Street Food Market, an alcove of modern stalls selling street food directly across from Ben Thanh market. It was obviously built up for the tourists, but it was still such a fun concept and the sleek urban atmosphere made it a pretty neat place to get some cheap dinner. Picnic benches encourage socializing, and there is also live music every evening. Ben Than market was also my favorite place for doing some random shopping as the prices were reasonable (though I still needed to haggle a good bit) and the vendors weren’t super aggressive or pushy.
5 weeks in Vietnam wasn’t close to being enough time. I didn’t get up north to Hanoi for one thing, so I missed out on Halong Bay…but gosh was it hard to pick up and leave Saigon. I could happily live in that wonderful city for a long, long time. But alas, a new country was calling and I was more than happy to answer. Cambodia has been a dream so far and I can’t wait to finally explore the Angkor temples this weekend!
I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse into the country that stole my heart – catch you all on the flipside!
Ho Chi Mihn City: 7.31 – 8.19, 2016