Saigon is a city of slashes. Saigon slash Ho Chi Minh. Traditional/Modern. Communist/Capitalist. Friendly/Insistent. In true South East Asian style, the city’s main attractions are found on the streets for all to enjoy and few to avoid. Food stalls and clothing shops squat next to pavement coffee shops and behind street fumes while hawkers sell their smorgasbord of sunglasses, fans, lighters, bangles and tiger balm. So a bit like Joburg then.
Like the constant humidity that is both your diet’s best friend and your clothing’s worst enemy, the streets are saturated with a mixed blessing of colour and curse. There will be moments, when you would have walked the city to blistering point, and are so happy to hear the words “taxi? motorbike?”, and then there times when the words follow you down every side alley with all the welcome of Tinnitus. Oxymorons thrive in this city; impatient ones don’t. Understand this and you will start to enjoy this city which strikes a balance between 10 million people and 5 million motorbikes. Just about. So here’s a cheap and cheerful guide to enjoy this WiFi and people friendly city, no matter the season or reason.
The Adrenalin Junkie
If the extra strong condensed milk coffee doesn’t get your heart pumping, the traffic will. Crossing the street is an adrenalin sport that any iron man or lady would be proud to call a work out. “Walk slowly and keep moving”, a local guide advised me. Good advice from a man who also warned me that pedestrian crossings are meant as decoration. To this I would add that the little green man is not so much a guide as a threat. Don’t expect quite the chaos of Cairo or the impatience of central Paris but, if you don’t have conviction in your direction and consistency in your step, you can expect an Instagram of your life to flash before your eyes at some point.
You might find the black stovepipes a little constricting in Saigon’s 75% humidity but not so its abundance of good coffee and design-driven kulcha. Coffee is a national past time, and taken with condensed milk, so expect the skinnies to feel even more uncomfortable a few days in. Luckily you can always buy your way out of discomfort by purchasing stylish soft cotton vests sporting propaganda art and creative designs. Imagine how cool you will look holding your street coffee on your Asian-styled fixie? The obligatory pollution inspired facemasks might ruin the look, especially the floral ones that look like those three-pack woolies panties, but maybe you can work that one in conceptually. On the art side, there are plenty of propaganda posters (both current and past), colonial buildings and young contemporary galleries (Saigon Outcast, Zero Station, and Station 3A), to add to the digital cult collection. And if you happen to be cycling past the HCMC Labour and Culture Center on a Sunday, you could bust out some moves or just Leica the youngsters competing in their weekly hip hop “battles.”
The sports enthusiast
For all the above reasons, Saigon is best seen on foot, which means you can clock a few kilometres on your exercise app just seeing the main sights in the city center, like the Independence Palace, old Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and War Museum. One of the great beauties of this street clean city is that it is littered with parks and towering trees, from the economically productive rubber and coconut trees to the pod falling lucky bean trees. These make for cool breaks in your walking journey but also an opportunity to join the locals in their daily exercise. In social (ist) Saigon, parks serve as communal areas that come alive with any number of mass aerobics classes and badminton games every evening. Think aerobics classes circa 1985, where the aerobics teacher stands on a box shouting instructions over a blaring music system and you will understand how to fit in. And don’t worry about buying any fancy gear. There isn’t a movement that can’t be done in your work pants it seems. And if mass evening classes aren’t your thing, the parks also come equipped with basic exercise machines that allow you to twist, spin and pull your way into passable fitness.
The war enthusiast
If you are a GI Joe enthusiast who has been dreaming of leopard crawling through a Viet Cong tunnel or firing a machine gun with Rambo enthusiasm, then you’ve come to the right country in the right century. War is big business in Vietnam. The merely curious usually start with the War Museum – three floors of graphic images that lay bear the torture, horror and brutality of the Vietnam War, including the infamous Agent Orange – a lethal chemical that has caused a wide range of deformities and diseases in the local population, even two generations in. If you want your war experience a little more Disney and a little less Oliver Stone, you can do a half day “Good Morning Saigon by jeep” tour or take a guided bus tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, which offers a crouch and crawl viewing of the 250km tunnels and ends with a “pay per bullet” experience at the onsite firing range. They probably repurpose the shells and sell them at the war surplus market down town, known locally as the Dan Sinh market.
You can choose to visit the many colourful local markets or let the markets come to you. On any given day or meal you will be approached by the sunglass salesman and his merry band of fan waving, book selling, trinket bearing women. If you like your markets high on choice and low on quality, then the Ben Thanh Market and its sister Chinese market should be on your GPS. Around the backpacker area, you will be able to tick off any demanding your Christmas wish list with interesting gifts and souvenirs. One word of warning. Many signs promise that “looking is free”, but having seen the overweight baggage that is constantly shipped home, I can assure you it aint. Visa is going to be your best travel companion come end of days. And for the platinum/titanium spenders, there is a wealth of “tax refund” stores on Dong Khoi Street just waiting to turn your fashionable Dollar into Dong.
Or you can mix it up and enjoy a bit of everything, for almost nothing.
Musing on my next trip. Coming to a festive season near you