The country of Vietnam, a North-South-oriented landmass that plays home to nearly 80 million people, hosts it’s two major metropolises at either end of its meandering shape. Being a “South-bounder,” one who started my exploration in the Northern capital of Hanoi and continued my journey South, I had already formed a mental image of what I would likely see upon reaching the Southern anchor and most populous city of Saigon — which has technically been renamed Ho Chi Minh City, though the majority of folks haven’t given in to the change just yet. The ancient alleyways and low-rise skyline of Hanoi, a gritty destination of street vendors and smog, was the muse that colored my expectations of what I’d find in Saigon. This pre-formed bias, however, couldn’t have been any more off-target from the modern city that I ventured into. The labyrinthine residential districts are replaced with towering glass skyscrapers, the street-side bia hoi sellers have disappeared in favor of flashy nightclubs, and the romantic images of bike-filled lanes and children playing in the street have been supplanted by posh clothing boutiques plied by wealthy shoppers sporting the latest fashion trends.
This isn’t to say that Saigon has lost sight of what it used to be or that its heart has been replaced by a modern, capitalistic drive. If you venture outside of the city-center that is Districts 1 and 3, you’ll still be able to find the jovial old ladies selling delicious bowls of noodles, mangy dogs trolling for a friendly soul to throw them a few scraps, the colorful montage of Buddhist, Hindu, and Catholic influences juxtaposed together, and the sense of a local community that looks out for its own. And oh yeah, the motorbike traffic is still there and still just as intimidating, if not more so, than anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
The crowded streets of the Bui Vien area of town (where many of the foreign visitors find accomodation)
Notre Dame Cathedral
The sprawling Ben Thanh Market
I’m not sure how the Main Post Office became a tourist attraction, but the interior is pretty cool
The Quac Tu Pagoda
The streets lit up at night
The People’s Community Hall
The traffic in Saigon is legendary, and for good reason
A Vietnamese tank on display outside of the Reunification Palace
The facade of the Opera House
Given that the rainy season is fast approaching, one has to make sure to bring along an umbrella when wandering the streets
If you’ve been following my adventure for a while, I’m sure you’re well aware of my penchant to hike, climb, scale, or otherwise ascend to the highest point within eye-shot in an attempt to gain a better view of the surrounding lands. Unfortunately, Saigon is almost entirely devoid of pleasant hillsides or scenic mountains, but fortunately, they do have one gigantic tower that stands out against the skyline . The Bitexco Financial Tower allows visitors to gain a bird’s-eye view of the city from the observation deck 50-some stories up, all for about a $10 admission charge. Behold, the city of Saigon as seen from above:
The Bitexco Financial Tower from street level
Once you’ve strolled down the former Rue Catinat, wandered the backpacker hangouts, shopped to your heart’s content (or your’s wallet’s dismay) around the Lam Son Park, and viewed the city from above, another great option to explore the culture of Saigon is to grab a cab (preferably a motorbike taxi) and head for the neighborhood of Cholon, the Chinatown area of Ho Chi Minh City. All the charms of a normal Chinatown are present — a bustling market filled with vegetables and animal parts you previously didn’t know existed, cramped alleyways snaking to who knows where, dozens of restaurants serving up mouth-watering dishes, and more dialects being spoken than you can count — but the highlight is a trio of Chinese-style temples that all lie within a block of each other:
The entrance to Thien Hau Pagoda
Candles surrounding a small image of Buddha
Neon pink prayer scrolls line the walls
The somewhat overwhelming, chaotic interior of the Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda
The haze and aroma from incense spirals hung along the ceiling help to create a mystical atmosphere inside the temples
The interior of the Quan Am Pagoda
Throughout my tour of Vietnam so far, I’ve largely avoided the topic of the American War here, given the myriad of political and theological beliefs that surround it. One sight, however, that I knew I had to include on my itinerary was that of the Cu Chi Tunnels, a system of underground passageways that ran nearly 200 km, connecting Saigon with sights as far west as the Cambodian Border, and allowed the Viet Cong forces to move around in stealth and attack with little warning. Given the poor lighting conditions and the extremely cramped quarters (honestly, I couldn’t fit in all but the largest openings), I don’t have too many pictures of the tunnels themselves, but I did snag a few quick picks of me descending into one of the many hidden entrances that litter the forest floor:
And lastly, although Hanoi likely edges out Saigon when is comes to the culinary side of things (thanks to Hanoi’s Street Food Scene), Saigon isn’t without its own merits. I wasn’t originally going to post any more food pics, as I thought I was already over-doing it with my previous Vietnam posts, but given the comments and emails I received after my last post, I’ve brought out a few more for good measure. Enjoy:
Pho Bo — yep, I know I’ve already showed you this, but I enjoy dish enough (and enjoyed it enough times) that I felt a second picture was in order
Hen Xuc Banh Da – Mussels with a pancake/cracker type thing
Bun Dau Ran Mam Tom – Vermicelli noodles and fried tofu to be dipped in a sour-and-bitter shrimp paste
Banh Beo Bot Loc Nem Nuong – Small, gelatinous rice cakes steamed with meatballs and served with a mildly spicy dipping sauce
Com Tam Bi Suon – A grilled pork chop and shredded pork skin served over broken rice
Xoi Vo Cha Que – Sticky Rice and Pate served with Cinnamon Pork Sausage
Banh Canh Cua – Vermicelli noodle soup with crab meat and pork
Given that Saigon seems significantly warmer and more humid than the rest of the Vietnamese cities I visited (largely due to it closer proximity to the equator), Che vendor set up everywhere, selling cups or bowls or cool and refreshing sweet treats, grasses, jellies, and coconut mixtures. I had to sample a few to make sure I caught the broad spectrum of what was available:
Che Khoai Mon – hunks of taro stewed in a sugary sweet sauce and mixed with coconut milk
Che Troi Nuoc – Glutinous rice balls in a ginger syrup with coconut milk
And there will be no forgetting of beer here either, as Saigon has their own brand, which comes in a basic green and a slightly stronger red (as shown here)
And no culinary journey through Saigon would be complete without a visit to the Lunch Lady, a street vendor whose reputation originally grew online through the blogging community and was later boosted through an appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations television show. She wakes up early every morning to purchase her ingredients and to start the slower, simmering process that characterizes each of the different soups she makes, one for each day of the week. She opens around 10:30am and closes as soon as she runs out, which happens every day. Between those working within walking distance, the local foodies, and those expats and travelers on a Bourdain-inspired pilgrimage, you have to come early to find a seat as the place get crowded quickly:
I was a bit worried about the crowd, so I showed up around 10:30am — which turned out to be a bit early. By the time I was leaving, however, there was hardly a seat left
And here is the bowl of goodness that she served up for me. It was certainly one of the best (and cheapest) meals I had during my stay in this modern city
Post-script: With a fully stomach and a memory card stocked with pictures, Saigon marks the end of my Vietnamese adventure. Further, whereas I had originally planned on continuing my Southeast Asian journey with trips to the Philippines and Indonesia, I’ve decided that after 9 months of traveling, I was in need of another quiet respite from the trials and tribulations of the road and that it would be best to cut this portion of my trip short. Much like a did over the Christmas holiday, I’m planning on heading back to the United States for a few weeks to rest up, relax, and recharge my batteries before setting back out again.
Interestingly enough, however, this break from my Round-the-World Trip wasn’t inspired by fatigue or travel burnout (as it was when I finished the European leg back in December), but was more due to the fact that the act of traveling was becoming commonplace, the thrill of entering a new city wasn’t what it was when I started, and it was beginning to worry me that the extraordinary experiences one has on the road were becoming “normal and routine” for me. Given that I want to experience each new destination with as much energy and excitement as possible, I felt as though it was best to re-set my “normal” at home before I reached the point at which I was having to drag myself through new cities, merely going through the motions of travel.
So, needless to say, I won’t have any new travel posts for the next few weeks at least. I do, however, have a few other ideas for essays and side projects bouncing around in my head (maybe even a second installment of my Life on the Road series), so hopefully I’ll be able to put those into words and have some new material out in the interim before I start traveling again. As of now, my next destination is going to be a safari in Tanzania in July, followed by another 4-5 months leg of my voyage, this time through Eastern Asia (Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan). Past that, my future travel wish list still includes the likes of Nepal, India, Australia, New Zealand, much of South America, and South Africa — with the Philippines and Indonesia now being thrown back on that list, too. I still have a long journey to go ahead of me, but if it turns out to be anything like what I’ve experienced so far, I’m in for a real treat. Cheers from Saigon!
Post-Post-Script: In case you were curious about the title of this post, I had the unique pleasure of turning 30 years old while staying in Saigon (and my birthday present was a nice 9-hour busride from Da Lat to Saigon…augh). Supposedly it is one of those “milestone birthdays,” but honestly, I don’t feel any different from how I did when I was 29. I did enjoy the fact, however, that I got to experience this milestone while doing what I love: seeing and experiencing the world. Hopefully I’ll still be traveling for many birthdays to come!