In Love with Saigon
Navigating the traffic of Ho Chi Minh city, Yeoh Siew Hoon explores the beauty of Saigon.
For first-time visitors to Saigon, crossing the road can be scary, but after a while, you get used to it and you do what the locals do. Cross. Do not stop.
One evening in Saigon, after a lovely dinner in a rooftop garden, we stopped on a sidewalk to have a brief chat about where to go next. Ice cream? Beer? Wine? The choices were endless. Suddenly, a bunch of taxis just stopped by us, the drivers looking at us in anticipation of a fare.
Simon Christy, founder and CEO of travel website Alehap.vn and our local host for the evening, laughed.
“Guys, we are confusing them. No one stops at sidewalks here. Here, you just cross the road, you don’t pause. We’ve just done a cultural no-no”, he said.
Anyone who’s been to Saigon knows the rule of crossing the road. You don’t look. You just step out in front of hundreds of cars, motorcycles and bicycles and hope for the best. Drivers are trained to swerve and avoid us. The worst pedestrians are those who hesitate, Simon tells us. For first-time visitors to Saigon, crossing the road can be scary, but after a while, you get used to it and you do what the locals do. Cross. Do not stop.
The honking of vehicles also takes some getting used to and some quarters in the city are calling for heavier fines on unnecessary honking. Apparently, there have been accidents where startled drivers lost control of their vehicles.
Other than the traffic and the honking, everything else seems to have changed in the 18 months since my last visit. There are now more high-rises, more traffic, more shopping malls, more of everything. They’re building an underground train network in the middle of the city which, in a few years, will ease congestion, but for now, is an eyesore in the most historic part of the city.
The main city square in District 1 has been turned into a pedestrian zone, which is great. Now you can walk the wide boulevards without fear of being run over. From the rooftop garden where we ate, we soaked in the energy and chaos of a city on the move.
Saigon, in recent years, has become a favourite for quick getaways for travellers from Asia, thanks to low-cost airlines that have made the city affordable and accessible. The city in particular is popular with women. My tour operator friend from Japan says Saigon is their number one destination for joshi-tabi (women-only) tours.
It’s not difficult to see why. The shopping is great. You can go to Ben Thanh Market; although it has become a bit of a tourist trap of late, it is the one place where you can get almost everything local under one roof. Vietnamese coffee, nuts and handicrafts are good buys here. Be prepared to bargain, though, and some of the shopkeepers can be a tad aggressive. If you like going local, then you should eat at the market.
On this trip, I discovered speciality boutiques that cater to Muslim women and even accept Malaysian ringgit. Their silk dresses are of good quality and well-designed. My friend walked away with enough clothes to last a year, I reckon. With modernisation, you can also shop at swanky malls, but I still prefer the independent boutiques and art–and-craft stores.
Saigon is also known for its spas and massages. I tried a hair wash at my friend’s cajoling – a bit sceptical at the time – but after 10 minutes of someone massaging my scalp, I got it. Unlike any hair wash I’ve experienced, it was complete bliss. It sends you to sleep, and you walk out feeling so relaxed and, not to mention, clean.
The other reason why women love Saigon is obviously its food – light, healthy and flavourful. I love the Vietnamese salads, which is less spicy than the Thai versions. The Young Coconut Salad is extremely delicious. Of course, there’s the famous Pho (beef noodle) Soup, although I have to admit that the best Pho I’ve ever had was in Sydney. I think it’s the quality of the beef that makes the difference.
I discovered a little café called Chi Hoa, which served the best Grilled Eggplant in a light lemon chilli sauce and Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) ever. Downstairs is the café, but if you walk up a flight of stairs, you'll find a delightful little space where you can sip coffee and watch the world go by. Saigon is full of little discoveries like that if you walk the length of it.
The other thing you must do is eat at a street-side stall. Sitting on little chairs and slurping your noodles while traffic rolls by and music blasts from a nearby club’s loudspeakers – that’s the stuff that makes Saigon such an experience to remember.
Note: Many cities around the world, especially in Southeast Asia, look and feel completely different if you get off the taxi and tour bus and brave the streets on foot. Friendly locals will point you in the right direction or if you are feeling lucky, trust your instincts and go where your feet take you. Every trip is an adventure and we hope you find new experiences wherever you go.
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everything about crossing the road is correct but the additional hazard is the biker who decides to go the wrong way down a one way street and is followed by one riding on the sidewalk
best to learn to jump in the air and often