We arrived in Saigon (formally Ho Chi Minh City, but most everyone unofficially still calls it Saigon) on a Saturday night, after 20+ hours of travel. We rode to our apartment with our faces glued to the windows of our taxi, soaking in as much as our exhausted minds could take: chaotic crowds of motorbikes, neon signs, knots of people in every park and outside every street food vendor. The air heavy and humid, still carrying a lot of heat considering the sun went down hours ago, and the palm trees and dark green vegetation between the buildings signified our presence in the tropics. So much new exploration to be done, but not before a good night’s sleep and recovery.
On the heels of our arrival was another guest of the region…a tropical storm. We woke to our first day in Saigon with grey skies getting darker, and a light mist evolving to a heavy rain. As the wind picked up to serious levels, we quickly determined this was going to be an inside day - call it a recovery day from our travels. By nightfall, the wind outside our 18th floor studio apartment was rattling our windows, and we could see rain being whipped around, sometimes actually traveling upwards. We lost power a half dozen times, but thankfully never for longer than a minute.
The next morning we emerged from the storm, along with the rest of the city. Though it was fairly windy and still overcast, the worst of the storm was over. While the city started to clean up, we ventured out to explore our neighborhood.
Our apartment building, “The Manor II”, is a mix of foreigners and wealthier Vietnamese. Combined with “The Manor I”, the complex is fairly self sufficient, with its own grocery store, banks, restaurants, a travel agency, and laundry services. All very convenient for two oblivious Americans who speak little to no Vietnamese, but also pretty sterile. We wanted to see the neighborhood from more than our apartment window.
From here we can see the tightly packed tin roofed homes surrounding our building, with the big buildings of District 1 off in the distance to the left. Unlike District 1, where hotels abound and most businesses cater to tourists and their fat wallets, The Manor is in a regular Vietnamese residential neighborhood. We wake up every morning to the sound of roosters crowing from random yards.
From our window we could see a large green park not that far away, and decided it was as good a destination as any. As we walked through the neighborhood, we started to soak in all the new and interesting sights. We see racks of laundry drying on the side of the road. The air is rich with exotic aromas coming from the countless food vendors cooking over open coals. We’ll try one of these spots a little later and get filling plates of rice and tasty chicken, with traditional greens, soup, and beers, all for about $3!
Many women in traditional conical rice hats are using whisk brooms to sweep up the tree debris scattered everywhere from the storm. It seems that perhaps not a lot of white faces walk down these streets as we see many a head turn to stare at us. But these turned faces immediately break into smiles upon eye contact, making us feel welcome.
After walking about a kilometer from our building, we found Vinh Thanh Tourist Park. Despite the name, we are surrounded mostly by locals here too. This park is a popular destination for Saigon families looking to get a bit of fresh air and quiet from the noise of the bustling city. As we enter the park, we find ourselves at a small pond, ringed by lush vegetation and stilted open air seating areas for the resident buffet restaurant.
Looking back the way we came, we can see the behemoth buildings of The Manor rising in the distance.
We wandered around the pond for a bit, taking in the strange and beautiful flowering plants, giant fish, and distinct decorations of the buffet area. This odd flower in particular caught our attention. As it lay on the ground beneath the tree on which it bloomed, it looked about ready to take a bit out of anything that got too close!
We walked past the heavily used tennis courts and a sparsely populated pool, all available to the public for a small fee (at least by our standards.) Across from this is a large open grassy area covered with sculptures of various size and style. On one side there are shaded BBQ pits, with Vietnamese families and friends congregating for lunch preparations. The most striking feature of this side of the park is a giant dragon statue, covered in wicker wrapping. We could actually see this from our apartment window, and I was excited to find it.
On our way back to the apartment we took a different route, bypassing the main road with the shops and going deeper into the residential area. In some parts, we found nicer homes, with cute colorful balconies. While the style of these buildings point to their construction during the French occupation here, the overwhelming presence of Vietnamese flags makes clear the current allegiance.
In another part of the neighborhood, we found decidedly poorer accommodations. These stilted shacks, made of corrugated metal on all sides, are rarely connected to the electrical grid, and the polluted river beneath them serves as a sewer system.
But no matter where we went, we were still met by the smiles of the residents who line the streets, escaping the heat of indoors. Our first exploration of our neighborhood was a great introduction to the city, and we were excited to learn and see more.
So, I think after spending five days exploring Saigon, I can safely call us experts on Vietnam. :-) OK, so we haven’t been here very long, but already we’ve come to understand a few things about the people and culture at least of this city. Time will tell if these trends extend to the rest of the country. But for now, I wanted to share a few of the things we’ve noticed.
Motorbikes. They’re everywhere. This is most definitely a motor bike culture. I’ve read some statistics that state 95% of road vehicles in Vietnam are motorbikes, and I believe it. There are probably a few more cars here in Saigon than in the rest of the country, but motorbikes still rule the road here. And it’s a good thing, if all these bikes were cars, traffic would be gridlock and there would be no place to park.
For Westerners like ourselves, it’s fascinating to watch the street dance executed by these bikes. Road rules? They don’t need no stinking road rules. We’ve seen bikes ignore lights, ride on sidewalks, go against traffic, and cut across busy roads completely ignoring oncoming traffic. The simple rule seems to be, just keep honking and everything will be OK.
But everything is not always OK. From what we’ve read, there are about 30 road fatalities a day across the country. Officials have been more insistent upon helmets recently, so that has helped. But all other adherence to traffic laws appears to be voluntary.
This does not stop anyone from packing their loved ones and possessions onto a bike and throwing caution to the wind. We’ve seen whole families of four on one bike, drivers transporting everything from baskets of chicken carcasses to stacks of propane tanks, multiple dogs, a pre-teen passenger eating dinner out of a take out container, and people riding side saddle. And I’m guessing if you travel like this everyday, the fumes probably get to you, as we see many people, especially women and children, wearing surgical masks when they’re on their bikes.
And the bikes serve as more than just transportation. They are furniture as well. Getting tired, take a nap perched on the seat of your bike on the sidewalk! Bike seats are commonly used as chairs, with people balanced in ways that look challenging to me, but look effortless to the average Vietnamese.
And if you’re perched on your bike seat, you’re probably barefoot. Which brings me to shoes. They seem only moderately tolerated here. (I can totally relate to this!) It seems that if your feet are not in direct contact with the ground, the shoes are left behind.
We see very few people walking around barefoot (except inside temples or homes), but shoes always stay in contact with the ground. Crossing your legs? The shoe drops off the airborne foot and lies in wait until that foot needs to come back down. I don’t know if this is a comfort thing or a cleanliness thing - I just noticed how common it is. The streets are surprisingly clean hear, at least in terms of litter. People seem to take a lot of pride in keeping their home or business tidy, no matter how humble. From fancy hotel fronts to public parks to tiny shack homes, it’s common to see someone out with a whisk broom picking up leaves, dirt, and any litter that may have strayed into their area of oversight.
Sidewalks are definitely common gathering spots. If you’re not sitting on your motorbike on the sidewalk, then you’re probably perched on a small plastic stool while you eat a bowl of Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), sip a soda, have a smoke, or play games.
I wish I had been ready to snap this photo just a second earlier. I approached this group of men and, pantomiming with my camera, asked if I could take their picture. There were nods of permission and plenty of smiles offered. The man in the photo with the glasses turned to me, stuck his tongue out, and made a silly face. By the time I snapped, he had stopped and just broken out in to laughter. This simple moment of goofiness tore down language and cultural barriers in one swift motion. Under all the superficial differences, it turns out we’re all just silly goofballs.
On one of our trips into the heart of Ho Chi Minh City to do some sightseeing, we planned to go to the Reunification (Independence) Palace. However, there were some mixed messages on when the ticket office would be open, and it was closed when we got there. Boo! So we pulled out our tourist map and tried to figure out what to do instead. We were propositioned, several times, by a driver of a cyclo - one of the bicycle taxis seen all over this part of the city. After his third or fourth attempt to talk to us, we finally let him make his pitch. He and his partner would pedal us around the city and take us to two or three famous Buddhist pagodas. We did want to check out some temples, and his price was good - only 250,000 Vietnamese Dong, or about $12. So we jumped on the bikes and off we rode.
A cyclo is a bit like a reverse rickshaw, since the passenger rides in the front instead of being pulled by the bike.
Our drivers were strong and tireless despite the heat, and navigated the tricky street traffic like pros. Exploring the city on a cyclo is an interesting experience. You’re in an open bike, moving along, but not so quickly as to miss all that’s going on around you. And the best part is you don’t have to worry about where you are going or how to navigate the streets and traffic - someone else is worrying about that for you.
Leaving your driver in control, you can take a deep breath, try to ignore the seemingly deadly traffic, and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the Saigon neighborhoods. It was on this trip that I noticed that shops here come in clusters. You don’t get one area with a bunch of different services, you get a bunch of options for the same service in one area. Like this block, which must be where you come to buy a bicycle.
An odd way to do things, in my opinion. Must give lots of negotiating power to the buyer and none to the seller.
And of course, riding around on the cyclo, you get to experience the motorbike masses up close!
With 80% of Vietnamese identifying as Buddhist, there are no shortage of temples in the country. On this little tour, we would visit three, all quite different from one another. Short of lots of incense and taking your shoes off outside, there were not many common elements. Our drivers were just that, drivers, and did not have very good English skills, so they could not act as guides at the temples. Our experience was one of pure observation.
The first temple we visited was Chua Phuoc Hai, or the Jade Emperor Pagoda.
Built over 100 years ago, it is one of the oldest in the city. It is fairly small, with multiple dark rooms. The most obvious features are the multiple ornate wooden carvings. From the doors to wall inlays to statues throughout the temple, intricate carvings filled every corner.
A quick online search after our visit informed me that the imagery we saw in this temple is taken from both Buddhism and Taoism, and deals with the decision of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. This was the most crowded of the temples we visited, with both tourists and worshipers alike. Most of the worshipers would burn incense or candles, pour a bottle of oil into the candle dishes to keep them burning, kneel before the central figure and bow and pray. In the thick haze of incense, with the occasional banging of a large gong-bell, it was an intense environment.
The second temple we visited was Tran Hung Dao Temple. Here is where it really hit home how little I know about Buddhism. Tran Hung Dao was a political and military leader credited with repelling Mongol invaders in the 1200s. How does that tie in to getting a Buddhist temple? Not sure…but here we are with his statue. He does have a head, our driver just didn’t get it in the picture. :)
This temple had less religious imagery and more art for art’s sake: vases, wall hangings, beautiful lanterns, and gorgeous flowers.
There was a monk chanting some prayers.
There were also more offerings here than any of the other places we visited. Fruit, money, meat, eggs, flowers, candles, and of course, incense.
And again, many worshipers on their knees, this time in front of an alter filled with offerings.
Our third stop was the Temple of the Buddha’s Relic, or Xa Loi Pagoda. This is the most spacious temple in the city, and has a large bell tower visible from the street.
In the central room, we found very few worshipers, but since this is the headquarters of Buddism in Southern Vietnam, it’s probably not always this quiet. We also found the largest statue of Buddha we had seen so far.
As usual, there was incense, but the cavernous hall swallowed up the smoke, leaving the air still fairly clear.
After the three pagodas, our drivers brought us back to the riverfront for the end of our trip. And here’s where they got sneaky. Far from the agreed upon 250,000 dong, they pulled out a piece of paper with a written price list…in English no less! No set prices, but instead hourly charges, per person! Arguing ensued, and the demanded 8x price increase was negotiated down to 6 times the agreed price. We had been scammed, and were not pleased. But there was little we could do. In all honesty, with a little reflection time, we would have walked away at the real price, and would have missed a great experience. So, (now) I’m choosing to see the silver lining here, and thank the scheming entrepeneurs for tricking us into this great afternoon.
Throughout our stay in Ho Chi Minh City thus far, we have spent a good deal of time wandering through District 1, the most touristy area, soaking in the sights. There are a few standard destinations on any self respecting tourist’s list, and we’re slowly getting to all of them. Thanks to our cyclo tour, we hit several of the main pagodas. But for the rest, we’ve taken a cab into the district and just walked around.
There are several key buildings worth seeing, most from the French colonial years. The mini-Notre Dame, for example, is pretty clearly from this time period.
The Opera House (Municipal Theater) falls into that category as well.
Even with the statue of “Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Minh) outside, you can’t hide the fact that city hall is also in the French Colonial architectural style.
City Hall is not open to the public, and Notre Dame and the Opera House were closed when we visited, so all we had to go on was the outside. Right next to Notre Dame is the Saigon Central Post Office, another dominant French Colonial building. But this was open, and once inside, Uncle Ho was there to greet us again, reminding us that despite the style, this was most definitely Vietnam.
After the chaos of the postal system in Argentina, the open, calm, organized functionality of this post office was awe inspiring!
One part of the tourist route that clearly has NO western feel to it is the Binh Tay Market, an enormous Chinese-Vietnamese market. Once inside the walls, it is easy to get lost in the narrow alleys between the hundreds of crowded stalls selling clothing, spices, fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, meats, coffee, luggage, jewelry, appliances, purses, suits sewn to order in under 24 hours, and just about anything else you can think of, not to mention the stands selling prepared food for lunch. Since it’s a big tourist draw, the stall owners are aggressive and you can’t walk more than a meter or so without hearing “Madame! Madame! Come buy! Come look! Do you need X?” ”Mine is cheapest - you need!” Along with the dense smell of bizarre foods and compact humanity, it’s an overwhelming place.
This was one of the only places in the city where I was refused when I asked if I could take pictures. Many vendors turned me away, except for this trinket stall.
And I have to be honest, I sort of snuck this picture of snake/scorpion “wine”. I wasn’t told no, but I didn’t ask either. How could I pass this up?? OK, easy to pass up trying it, that will NOT be happening, but I just couldn’t resist snapping a photo of these deadly creatures trapped in something you’re supposed to drink!
The most common tourist spot in the city is the Independence (or Reunification) Palace. This “Historical Relic” is the anchor point to the tourist part of town. The original palace was built of western style in 1871, during the French rule here. In 1954, when the French left Vietnam, new Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem and his family moved into the Palace, making it their home in addition to its political role.
In 1962, during a Coup d’Etat, the Palace was bombed and an entire wing destroyed. Diem, still a year before his assassination, ordered the western style building destroyed and had a new palace built. The new building, designed by a Vietnamese architect, is what now stands in Ho Chi Minh City, and was built to resemble several Chinese characters symbolizing, among other things, good fortune, sovereignty, education, and prosperity.
I don’t want to turn this post into a lesson on Vietnamese history, so I’ll keep this brief. Diem makes some seriously unpopular leadership decisions, gets assassinated in ‘63, chaos ensues, war, and general yickiness follow. The Palace served as the center of the administration in Saigon throughout the war. In 1975 North Vietnamese tanks broke down the exterior gates, leading to the surrender of current president Duong Van Minh and ending the war. Now the building is used for political meeting and receptions, and as a historical relic for visitors.
Many parts of the Palace and grounds have been preserved in the state they were in over 35 years ago. While the gate has been repaired, those two tanks that broke into the compound still sit off to the side in front of the Palace.
The basement in particular still reflects its prior use as war headquarters and bunker. Strategy maps cover the walls in planning rooms.
The technology used for critical communications looked different back then.
Several rooms were filled with radios, both for use in the Palace as well as replacement parts for mobile devices used in the fields. Many of these units were from the US, and stamped as such.
And as we made our way to the roof, there stands a replica of the US helicopter used for evacuations at the end of the war.
We have heard it is much better than it used to be, but propaganda still reigns in this monument to the “unification of the Vietnamese people”. We stuck our heads in on a video about Vietnamese History, narrated in English. It was very uncomfortable to hear the overtly biased recounting of the “liberation of South Vietnam from the American Imperialists”, not the mention the outright lies. For example, referring to the American protests of the war, they said that self-immolation was a common occurrence (there were five, which was more than I thought, but not nearly the frequency that was suggested in the video). The video also claimed that 80% of US colleges closed in protest of the war.
Luckily, the blatant propaganda we found in this government run memorial seems to be contained, and does not reflect the attitude of the average citizen here. Whatever people here think they know or believe, it does not change the way the interact with us. We have encountered no ill will, no mention of war or our shared violent past outside of museums. We are just travelers, just another tourist with a wallet and a story, and warm smiles come our way.