Day 40. Sài Gòn. Ho-Chi-Minh-City. The metropolis by the Mekong Delta. Pollution-Town. Motorbike-City. The Vietnamese dream. Call it whatever you want, it’s time for some serious business.
I arrived at Saigon after an exhausting 24-hours bus ride from Hoi An and was more than looking forward to a bed. But I met up with a friend who already stayed here for a couple of days and we immediately hit the streets for “a beer” and he showed me around. That one beer turned into a dinner fest, which then led to more beers in different parts of the city. I really needed some sleep, but I think in the end I went to bed at around 2am in the morning with my eyes pointing to different directions. I’d say “Saigon happened” (this used to be the line I was using when something really weird happened to someone in the city).
The day after, I was ready to explore Vietnam’s business-focused metropolis. At first, I was quite overwhelmed, because it was super noisy, dirty and stinky. The traffic was insane, to say the least. But after a few days, I got along pretty well here, I’ll give you some of my insights and tell you how Saigon compares to Hanoi.
How is Saigon?
Saigon is different from Hanoi in pretty much any regard. Generally speaking, Saigon is very very western! And changes a lot, day after day. It’s currently supposed to be one of the most booming cities in South-East-Asia (if not around the world).
Streets and Vibe
The streets are wider and the roads are organized into car and bike lanes, thus there’s a lot less honking. There are even big sidewalks where you are able to actually walk.
Hanoi is dead after midnight. In Saigon you could easily walk out of your house at 3am to find a club for some drinks or get some food… Be careful about pickpocketers at night in the center though, there are quite a few cases of people having their phone stolen (even ripped out of their hands).
There are a lot fewer art stores, the stools are higher, you get a free tea together with your coffee (or if you don’t order any drinks with your food). In Hanoi, you usually get some sunflower seeds instead. To everyone his taste.
Heck, even the Phở is different here. In Hanoi, the bowl they cook you is ready to eat and has everything needed inside. In Saigon, they usually give you a base bowl and add a plate with lots of herbs and some veggies, so that you can mix it according to your taste. They say, Phở is a Hanoi dish, so you might argue that that’s the way it should be made, but quite a lot of people prefer the dynamic southern style. Tastes are different I guess.
Different to Hanoi, sex-tourism is pretty common here. However, it’s not as big of a thing as in other countries (*cough* Thailand *cough*), but you will still see a lot of foreigners just being here to have a quick one. Although officially illegal, it’s actually socially quite accepted. And it’s not all bad, as you can read in some stories of Vietnamese hookers here.
I got top grades in English thanks to all the practice I got with clients. You can study quietly in a library, or you can study while having sex and getting paid for it. Seemed like a better deal to me.
I didn’t know about any of those things before I arrived though, as I just wanted to explore and be open to anything.
The city is considered Vietnam’s business-hub, so there’s actually a lot fewer sights than in Hanoi and the city feels far less traditional. But don’t fear, there are still quite a few things you can do here other than just getting drunk and hooking up with locals.
Among others, these are some of the things I would highly recommend visiting when you are in Saigon.
As Vietnam was split into North Vietnam and South Vietnam, this government building served as presidential home and workplace. Today, the palace is remembered vividly as a marked end to the war, just like the fall of Berlin Wall, as the North Vietnamese tank crashed its gates on April 30th, 1975.
It’s stunning to walk around and explore the various rooms in this building, or like a friend I met in Vietnam used to put it: “Had a sudden and rather unexpected urge to hold a meeting and discuss important affairs after seeing those rooms”.
Probably the sadest museum I’ve ever visited. It contains exhibits related to Vietnam war and shows you quite directly the war’s consequences through brutal photos. Seriously, I had to leave after about half an hour because all the pictures just made me cry. I won’t spoil you with photos here, you’ll have to see for yourself!
Even though the museum is pretty one-sided and shows the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese, it’s a welcoming change to the common picture we have in mind through various movies that only show the other side through the eyes of the Americans.
Definitely worth a visit!
Also known as foreigner-street, this road is packed with nightclubs, hookers and “massage spa’s”. Exciting on the first day, it gets pretty boring and exhausting to have a night out here. It’s super loud, as every club is pumping out its music with their door wide open. And it’s overcrowded, mainly by westerners. The beer prices are generally more expensive here too. Also be prepared to get scammed if you look too drunk (I met people paying 5$ for a beer).
Cool, however, is that, as there is so much competition going on and everyone wants to get you into their club, you can negotiate with the club promoters. For example, they usually offer you a free shot if you come in for a drink (for example a beer for about 1.5$), which you can easily have them increase to three if you keep negotiating. Finish your drink, leave and repeat. Easy life.
So even if it is a bit of an overwhelming place, you definitely have to have a fun night out here. Even if you’re staying sober, to make fun of all the drunkards around.
Bui Vien during the day.
It’s a building located at Nguyen Hue walking street. No. 42 to be precise (surprising, huh?). And it used to be just a regular apartment with normal flats, but at some point in time though, someone decided to fill it with cafes, bars, restaurants and concept stores. It’s a huge building that goes all the way to the 9th floor.
Highly recommended for people who don’t like the Bui Vien feeling too much, or need a break from the heavy partying there. It’s very cool to explore the various hip spots that are inside.
Located in the Bitexco Financial Tower, this is probably the best view over the city you can get. You’ll have two options: Pay an entrance fee for the elevator bringing you to the Skydeck, or go for free a few floors higher to a bar (prices are very expensive though).
I think it depends on whether you prefer taking photos out in the open, or you rather enjoy having a chill beer during sunset with an awesome view. Your call!
Bến Thành Market
Nothing too fancy, it’s basically just a large marketplace in the center of the city. It’s a good place to go shopping if you fancy some custom tailored clothes or other handicrafts though. And awesome for food as there are plenty of mini-restaurants within the market-hall.
Granny slicing Mango in Bến Thành Market.
Cao Dai Temple
The Cao Dai Temple, about 3 hours by bus away from Saigon, is the largest church devoted to Caodaism.
Caodaism is quite a complex and small religion that was established in Southern Vietnam in 1926. Read more about it on Wikipedia.
There are ceremonies every day and it’s very interesting to observe the hundreds of followers participate in the ritual.
Although not really in Saigon, I think it’s worth mentioning it here. The Mekong Delta is a region west of Saigon, mostly known for its floating markets and the scenic Tra Su Forest. You can read more about it soon, as I’m just about to book a tour to the delta.
I’ll leave you with some impressions of Saigon, time for me to move on to Đà Lạt.