My travel companion Jane had been to Vietnam on a spontaneous whirl-wind trip a few years previously, but for me, stepping out of the airport into the hurly-burly of charming Saigon was the first time I set foot in the country. Absolute first impressions? If I had got around to forming a mental image of Vietnam in the weeks prior to my arrival, it would have pretty much exactly matched what I saw.
Sun, tropics, business and people everywhere, questionable road rules and scooters, scooters, scooters. Our taxi driver kindly dropped s off at the alley for our hostel and helped us cross the road – quite literally holding our hands. She clearly understood the needs of those recently arrived in the country, that is assistance to make sure we didn’t accidentally kill ourselves. However, it did not take me long to get a good grasp on Vietnamese road rules.
Rule 1: Scooters and motorcycles get right of way in every situation.
Rule 2: Cars and other motor vehicles get second right of way because they’re big.
Rule 3: If you’re a pedestrian, it’s your job to keep yourself out of the way of everyone else and make sure you don’t get run over.
At the hostel, our host gave us an excellent map tour of the city including the really important sights like where to get the best pho. Settled in to our excellent room, we took up his suggestion and went to get our first proper Vietnamese meal.
It was pho-tastic. A terrible photo of me, but this is pretty early morning and I have not yet had my healthy breakfast of pho and coca-cola.
After the pho (such good pho!) we headed to the Ben Thanh markets, Saigon’s largest markets, seemingly situated in the middle of a couple of highways. The challenge is to get there alive. Jane had been to Vietnam before, knew how to do it even if she was a little out of practise. All I knew about crossing the roads I got from watching Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam – you start crossing at any time, walk slowly but steadily and have your hand out ready to wave signals to bike riders who might be pretending not to see you.
The markets weren’t that large but were crowded with tiny stalls selling cloth, food, clothing, household items and of course souveniers. While locals probably still go, most of the buyers walking around had the distinct look of tourists about them. We were tempted by souveniers but restricted ourselves to fabric for the dozens of pieces of clothing we were to get hand made in Hoi An. For me this included ‘Armany’ wool/cotton blend for a suit.
Early morning Saigon
We had 2 days in Saigon and we spent it walking around, eating and planning for the next 10 days or so of our holiday.
The streets around De Tham where we were staying and where most hostels and bars are located.
Breakfast stand on the street.
Birds for sale. There were song birds in cages everywhere, on street corners and outside houses and shops.
Park, central Saigon
We went to the War Remnants Museum, which was every bit as harrowing as the guidebooks warn you. We were set upon just inside the gates by a man who had lost both forearms and a leg to landmines and was keen to sell us some photocopied books at ridiculously high prices. However, once you’ve shaken the stump of a victim of war, especially when surrounded by the tanks and rockets left behind from that war it’s pretty hard to say no. That wasn’t harrowing, just expensive. It did set the tone for the inside of the Museum with its very one-sided view of the war. Harrowing came with the exhibitions, particularly the one that focussed on the effects of Agent Orange – there were certainly some images there that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Planes in the courtyard of the War Remnants Museum.
Devices for torture and imprisonment.
“To the people of a United Vietnam. I was wrong. I am sorry.” – William Brown, Sgt.
In the lighter moments we enjoyed the Saigon night life. Our first stop in Vietnam was the famous rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel. During the American War (as it is rightly known in Vietnam) the Rex Hotel was where all the foreign reporters would gather to hear the dailies or ‘Five O’clock Follies’ from the US military on how the war was going. Sitting on the rooftop sipping cocktails was first and possibly best taste we had of the remains of South East Asian colonialism. We also frequented a few dive bars in and around our hotel, though many were too full of drunk tourist for our tastes.
Cocktails and Campari.
The infamous Allez Boo Bar
Saigon by night.
There were also some great cafes and meals, particularly at Nha Hnag Ngon – a restaurant that serves the speciality dishes from all the many regions of Vietnam. The photos aren’t great but the surrounds and the meal was delectable.
Our first set of dishes, washed down with Bia
Saigon was a fascinating city and a city that is expanding and changing rapidly. Money has been spent to preserve what remains of the French rule – the wide streets, the beautiful opera house and town hall. The French also left behind an appreciation of nice bread, cafe culture and Christianity. Designer boutiques are moving in to feed the city’s new rich and one assumes, the burgeoning top-end tourist trade. There was so much more to see and do than we managed. Saigon is a truly delightful city with a fascinating history.
Notre Dame Cathedral Saigon
Hotel de Ville, now home to the People’s Committee
Coloured and flavoured rice at the night markets
Lychees and durian at the Saigon night markets
The small shrine at the entrance to our hotel Alleyway.