there are many thoughts and images that come to mind when one thinks of vietnam. it is a country that has weathered many occupations, wars and calamities. for many, it is synonymous with a failed war, befittingly called the american war here. before that the french occupied the area and going back before that the chinese left their legacy of rule. the influence of america’s war, french colonial rule and chinese control can be seen in the architecture, food, religion and the population itself. though i am familiar with south east asia, this was my first trip to vietnam and i was not disappointed. many travel writers have compared saigon of present to bangkok 10 to 15 years ago. and while there can be many parallels drawn between the two, saigon and bangkok are unique gems in their own rights. in these writers’ defense saigon is, as bangkok was (or in a more limited capacity is), still a city that has many draws for the ‘backpack in one hand, lonely planet in the other’ crowd of travelers that help open the world of travel to the masses. i however, travelled to saigon with luggage on wheels, my laptop, several cameras and lenses sans a lonely planet guide under my arm – and still managed.
visiting saigon was prompted by my friend s who is living in vietnam for one year in order to adopt her second child. s, who i have know since high school, already has her beautiful 3 year old daughter m, who she adopted from china several years ago, and together they are living outside the tourist zones of saigon in quận 8. having lived in the city since january, s was a tour guide that could help navigate such a whirlwind of a city as well as offer some sound advice on the idiosyncrasies that make saigon both unique and possibly treacherous.
the first thing one might notice after leaving the airport in the relative comfort of a taxi, other than the heat and humidity of course, is the sheer number of motorbikes on the road. as our taxi weaves through the sea of literally thousands of motorbikes, each using their horns as a type of echo location device, it dawns on me that this might be as close to controlled chaos as i have ever been. i am reminded of traveling through india many years ago – but it is only a glimmer – as the city unfolding before me takes centre stage in my mind’s eye. as i had landed after 10 pm, traffic was actually light and we made it south from the airport to s’s place in less than half-an-hour. as saigon, and vietnam as a whole, continues to develop, the middle class continues to grow as evidenced by the relatively new homes that have been built throughout the city’s many districts or quận(s). as we pull up the house s shares with a couple who is also living in vietnam to adopt two children (3 and 12), i am struck by the difference in architecture compared to an average home in vancouver or toronto. as with most newer homes in saigon, s’s home is a row house with 4 floors. the front of the house literally opens up completely, both to act as a front door and a garage door. it seems that if you are lucky enough to afford an automobile in saigon, you must also park it in your living room. with no cars at the house, the living room merely had to cope with two motorbikes.
ah, the motorbikes. i was quickly initiated into saigon’s motorcycle culture the next morning when s, along with m strapped in, and i head out into the blurry streets in search of breakfast that didn’t include noodles. heading further from the city centre, towards a newer enclave of homes and shops being built for the booming expat populations that have begun descending on this relatively undiscovered south east asian gem, we stop at vietnam’s answer to starbucks – highland’s coffee and have a delicious breakfast of eggs, french bread, fruits and yogurt. the french’s lasting influence on the cuisine in vietnam cannot be ignored.
after fueling up on breakfast (and espresso) we get back on the donorcycle and head into the thick of saigon’s quận 1, the central business, tourist and shopping district. the roar of the traffic, the echoing horns and palpable energy pulsing through the air, continue to rise as we move closer to the heart of the city. while the average resident of saigon is not unaccustomed to seeing foreigners throughout the city, two europeans with a chinese toddler (often sleeping!) riding through the crowded city streets on a motorbike still draws it’s fair share of smiles, add to that that it is the woman driving and you have the perfect recipe for some outright laughter. as the throngs of motorcycles squeeze through the streets, jockeying for space amongst the buses, cars and taxis you are reminded of just how fragile we as humans really are.
for me, traveling is often about meeting people, eating and shopping – with my fair share of lazing by a pool thrown in – and less about sightseeing. i hate to schedule every moment of a trip as much of the more interesting days seem to unfold all on their own. district 1 offers plenty of distractions for everyone, from the backpacker in the group to the gucci girl of the pack. shopping is a pastime that can easily engulf an entire week in saigon – from the comfort of the air conditioned plazas to the dozens upon dozens of shops lining every street throughout district 1 – there is no end to shopping, at any price point.
for the foodie in the group, stumbling upon saigon – with it’s thousands of street vendors and hundreds of restaurants offering local specialities, and specialties from throughout the country – it is easy to immerse yourself into vietnamese food on a grand scale. with its history of french occupation saigon is also home to many french restaurants and bistros… for those craving a baguette and a glass of wine for lunch the refinery, located near the park hyatt, is a perfect place to stop while exploring the city. saigon is also home to a few 5 star hotels, each with their own way to eat, and experience the city. firstly, the rex hotel – the choice of foreign journalists during the war – with its sparkling, almost kitchy, rooftop restaurant brings you just far enough up from one of the district’s main intersections without disconnecting you from the pulsating rhythm. it is worth a dinner on a friday or saturday night before exploring the nightlife. Secondly, bringing you up much further – the 23rd floor to be exact – is the bar/restaurant of sheraton saigon towers. the view is stunning and brings you far above the crowded city streets, and if you happen upon here at dusk you’ll be able to see the bats swooping and performing aerial acrobatics in search of the evening’s meal. the sheraton also offers two towers for guests and is the hotel that i spend my last night in before heading to bangkok. lastly, for the 5 star afternoon tea break, i suggest the hotel majestic’s street level restaurant. one cannot discuss food in saigon without mentioning the famous quan an ngon, located near reunification palace. this restaurant, popular with locals and expats alike is an open air oasis allowing you to dine on some of saigon’s best street food under the rustle of banana leaves and palm trees. despite all this, sharing phở, rice noodles and beef strips in a beef broth, with locals, late at night at a street vendor’s seating area on the sidewalk, remains a highlight of my trip.
a week anywhere would be hard without seeing some of the sites. throughout the city there is evidence of the french occupation. wide streets, lined with beautiful examples of french architecture are prominent throughout district 1. the central post office exemplifies this and is a popular tourist destination. perhaps one of the most disappointing tourist spots is the reunification palace – which looks less like a a palace and more like a university designed in the 70s. the park located across from it however, is a lovely expanse of grass and trees and provides a quiet refuge during a hot day. though hard to find, the emperor jade pagoda provided a glimpse into some of the chinese influence on vietnam and gave me a chance to take some pictures with my new lens.
with the world economy in its present uncertain state, it is hard to say if saigon will continue to change at its present pace, but regardless, like many other times in its history saigon seems to be at a pivotal moment and is sure to continue to draw more and more tourists eager to see and experience its charms.