Monday 18 September 2017


If Hanoi is quaint and decrepitly charming, Saigon is fast and layered, rebuilt from rubble on a huge scale with seams of Western influence vividly running through its core. Between the streets of rushing cars are blocks of buildings that act as facades to the true labyrinth of lanes that run between buildings like veins filled with the flowing blood of the city. Thousands of people seem to live down one alleyway, microcosms of the city itself, but hidden and properly Vietnamese with cafes and food stalls and shops occupying nearly every other house font. Cockerels crowing at dawn in the centre of the city isn't odd here.

A few minutes into walking around Saigon we wondered why we'd heard so much about road crossing safety in Hanoi: Saigon's roads are wide boulevards streaming with a constant river of traffic dominated by hordes of scooters who take over the streets and pavements. Eventually we concluded that if you were to adopt the tactic of walking slowly and steadily across the road you could probably cross blindfolded. However, there is more to the city than its city-scale traffic. Without even thinking about trying to navigate the city on wheels, we walked: foot-power is as almost always the most interesting mode of transport in a city. You get up close to things and breathe it in. We strolled around the main sights from the Opera House to the colonial French Post Office, which is still very much in use, though also occupied by a continuous crowd of tourists snapping at the elegant interior with smartphones. Next to the post office is the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, modelled as many are, on the original Notre-Dame. This slice of the city feels a bit like a little Paris, even some new buildings slotted in are almost like replicas. Another place that feels very French, probably because it was established by them, is the National Museum of Vietnamese History which details Vietnam from its prehistory to its modern history with various displays of stone tools, Khmer statues, just enough information to read in its entirety, plus a century-old mummy to gawp at. And then there's Independence Palace which in its current form, after being rebuilt in the 1960s, is a geometric dream of simplicity and solid lines, a bastion of modernism with a well trimmed garden from the French era. The palace is more than worth the entrance fee of 40,000 dong (£1.30). The basement, a base of communications doubling as an emergency bunker, was especially interesting with its classic '60s decor and office furniture and technology like broadcasting equipment and word processors on show in well dusted situ. The kitchen, grand meeting rooms and private quarters are all open to the public, the art and regal furniture in stark majestic contrast to the minimalist design of the building. If you like photography and design you will want your camera with you when you visit.

Outside on the grass next to the grand turning circle is a replica of the tank that famously smashed though the gates on 30th April 1975, when apparently, according to an Australia man we met outside, the guards were about to open the middle gate anyway.

Away from passive sightseeing you can engage in active haggling at the Ben Thanh Market. It's packed with food, toiletries, electricals, souvenirs, all manner of items for daily life. Housed inside a big building on a grid system the market is easily navigated and enjoyed. We bargained with a stall owner for some coffee and drip filter because we just couldn't enough of Vietnamese coffee. Westerners are well catered for in Saigon. The expat and tourist scene culminates in a long raucous strip of restaurants and bars all out to get your business with confusing happy hours and blaring music, all contending with each other for your money. Pick a bar, take seat out the front and watch the madness unfold: fire breathers perform for money up and down the road getting much too close for comfort so you can feel the searing heat of the flames--we saw one guy get the back of his shirt singed as he was working at a bar. Local food vendors sell Vietnamese tidbits like dried squid and sugar rolls, portable karaoke is wailed into and as the night goes on the raucous atmosphere of young Vietnamese and tourists culminates in a drunken debauchery that eventually slips away into the side streets in search of dancing and darker pasttimes.

We joined one such foray which led us to an empty bar where a man rolled one joint for us for 10000 dong whilst his maybe-girlfriend sliced a pill in half with a giant carving knife and then tried to give the halves to us. We weren't into it and declined. But she got pretty angry and combined with the blade she was holding and her unhinged demeanour we were happy to just hand over the money for the joint and go get high. A seedy undercurrent runs close to the surface of the southern Vietnamese city. Warnings about keeping your phone and belongings glued to you are not unfounded, since drive-by purse snatchings are frequent and drugs are but a question away from any nocturnal situation. The day we arrived, as we walked down an alley searching for our hotel using google maps, a woman motioned urgently for us to put our iPad away and we never took out it again.

In such recent history Saigon has transitioned from being a friend to foe. Tactfully positioned by the USA as a stronghold for their fight against Viet Cong's communist ideology, the city was bombarded and destroyed, then accepted like a wayward family member as Vietnam unified after the long war. Saigon is no doubt the underdog city that's grown very big very rapidly. The rusted layers of history and modern day struggles converge and combine in the buzzing urban heat of a real-life half-dystopia. Edgy and hard but well-ordered and still unfolding as it flows into the future.


  • Saigon Inn, £13.50 (40,0000 Dong) a night for a basic double room with en suite, including breakfast.
    Tucked down one of the many labyrinths of alleyways in Saigon is the Saigon Inn. The guesthouse was a little hard to find at first but we were really glad to have stayed here. We arrived at around 7am and were exhausted after getting off the night train from Hue, the staff greeted us extremely warmly with smiles. It was too early for us to check into our room but that didn't matter: the guy and girl running this place happily offered us breakfast for free in their cosy kitchen which was more than we expected. We chose breakfast from an immense menu of around 50 options and it came served with a plentiful platter of fruits. Our room was ready early and it was clean and neat; even though we chose the cheapest room option we were happy. At the end of our stay we were sad to leave our new friends who made our stay so comfortable and made us feel so welcome even though they must have hundreds of travellers pass through their doors every month. We would stay here again.

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