What Is Saigon Really Like?

When you hear the names “Vietnam” or “Saigon”, what comes to your mind? A popular catchy phrase like “goooood morning Vietnam!”, or maybe a scene from a famous war movie like Full Metal Jacket, Forrest Gump, or famous comedy like The Big Lebowski where Walter goes on and on about the men he lost “back in ‘Nam”, or maybe even a friend or family member that served in the Vietnam war. How about when you hear “Ho Chi Minh City”?

Ho Chi Minh City Hall

What is one of the fastest growing countries on Earth right now? Believe it or not, Vietnam! At the end of the Vietnam war when the fall of Saigon took place, the city was rebuilt under a new regime and under a new name; Ho Chi Minh City, named after Vietnams very first president Ho Chi Minh. And if you’ve ever seen any Vietnamese currency known as đong, it’s his face that’s on every bill. Since then the country has been recovering constantly; it’s growth started to pick up in the 80’s, and since 2000 the rate of growth has been incredible. If you’ve ever wanted to visit a developing country, Vietnam is a great choice. And at this very moment as I type this, Vietnam is literally in the best shape it’s ever been. Don’t be mistaken though, it is still developing, and it is nothing at all like any first world country I’ve explored so far.

Also, to my readers in the western world; I know many people that believe most asian countries are alike, this could not be further from the truth. After spending a month in Japan I came here to Vietnam and the difference between the two is even bigger than the difference between the US and Japan. No joke! Also, despite popular opinion, I believe the Vietnamese language is even tougher than Japanese; though the langauge of Vietnam is much simpler, it’s the pronounciation that’s the big difficulty for me. I started getting the grasp of Japanese exceptionally faster than Vietnamese due to Japanese basically being “you pronounce what you see”, and with Vietnamese…well…the name “Nguyen” (take a moment to pronounce that the way you think) is actually usually pronounced like “nwin”.

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Now that we’re caught up a bit, what is Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) known for now? Well, one of the biggest things is coffee! Not growing coffee though, but brewing it! The coffee here is some of the best you will ever have, but it’s not for the light weights. This coffee is extremely good, but it is also extremely strong. In fact; even Starbucks was hesitant to expand here because the coffee scene is so massive and the competition here is among the roughest in the world. And once you hit enough coffee shops, you’re sure to find a favorite! My favorite coffee shop happens to be one of the cheapest I found, but we’ll swing back to coffee shortly.

Random Fact: It’s a common misbelief that Ho Chi Minh City is the capital of Vietnam, it’s actually Hanoi.

So what else is there to do in Ho Chi Minh City? Eat of course! All that strong delicious coffee will get your hunger going at full speed, so you’re going to need to refill your tank! Through my travels so far I’ve enjoyed some amazing foods, I had the best breakfast ever in Nashville, TN and my favorite dessert I found in my hometown of Cleveland, OH, and of course Chicago for the greatest hotdog, and the ice cream in Japan is blissful! But if I had to pick a favorite style food at this point, Vietnamese food would be the winner! Some of the best meals I’ve had in my life have taken place in the month I spent in Ho Chi Minh City! Pho is probably the most well-known Vietnamese food in the world, but forget any Vietnamese meal you’ve had elsewhere, it doesn’t compare to the authentic food here at all. I posted on Facebook that if you come here for only one reason, make sure it’s the food!

Bò né

A serving of Bò né (aka: Heaven!)

My personal favorite dish is Bò né (pictured above); it’s a beef based dish that’s served on a hot iron skillet (whatever you do, DON’T touch the skillet, during my visit it averaged around 97 degrees during the day outside and more heat is NOT what you want) that comes with sliced onion, fried egg, a cube of pate, sliced green pepper, ground pepper, a French loaf, and a small plate of salad (not included in the meal shown). And for an extra kick, the spicy red sauce that is usually already on the table or is brought out with the meal adds yet another layer of flavor! It’s kind of like the Vietnamese equivalent to Steak & Eggs without a sky high price tag, but somehow with better taste! On average it will cost around 30,000 to 80,000 dong ($1.50 – $4 USD), depending on whether you get it on the street or in a restaurant. I’ve had both and it’s truly amazing and mouthwatering either way! It left me wanting an entire additional serving every time. Though I did get a bit bigger serving in the restaurant, just make sure it’s an actual Vietnamese owned restaurant, if the place looks like an American style restaurant with silverware wrapped in a napkin, air conditioning, or even an actual door to walk through, you’re in the wrong place to taste the good Bò né.

Hot Pot in Saigon

Delicious Hot Pot in Saigon!

Random Fact: More than 3 million tourists visit Ho Chi Minh City each year!

Pho in Saigon, Vietnam

The famous Vietnamese dish in all its glory: Phở

This leads to the big question many people have about eating in Vietnam; is it safe to eat or even drink the water here? Well, yes and no. Cleanliness standards in Vietnam aren’t the same as places like the US, Canada, or Japan. While it’s actually safe to eat almost raw chicken in Japan, you wouldn’t do it in the US, and you don’t want to do it in Vietnam either. In Vietnam you really just need to take some extra precaution; make sure your own hands are clean, make sure your meat (if you ordered any) is nice and hot, it’s usually (but not always) better if you actually see the food being cooked or on display as this will help you inspect it to see if any bugs have easy access to it and what hygienic methods the employees are taking while cooking, and most importantly if the place is packed with locals it’s probably not only pretty safe but probably really good too!

Boats in Saigon

Scooters and Lamborghinis

You have your lower class citizens and your upper class citizens in ‘Nam, but that’s it, there really isn’t a middle class and this leads to you seeing a mix of scooters (which are relatively cheap) owning the roads and the random Lamborghini trying to get through them. The majority of the people seem to live in apartments throughout the city and if you venture around enough you’ll end up finding really run-down areas littered with shacks. Most of the shacks are made from, well, just about anything someone can find from what I could tell. If you’re a traveler on a budget, this is the best area to buy stuff; and I think it’s good for 2 reasons, you’re helping those who need help financially and it helps you stay on budget longer! At first it might be scary going into these kinds of areas, you’re extremely likely to be the only non-native person around, but it’s an amazing cultural experience! You’ll also come across the rich area which sometimes is practically right next door to the shack ridden areas; the rich area will consist of beautiful high-rise apartments, luxurious condos, and townhouses! In these driveways is where you’ll see the Lamborghinis, Audis, and BMWs parked.

A not-so-pretty side of Saigon.

A not-so-pretty side of Saigon.

Random Fact: The body of the first president Ho Chi Minh (or “Uncle Ho”)
was embalmed and is on display.

The more upper-class area.

The more advanced area of Saigon

 

Scooter, scooter, scooter, scooter, Ferrari, scooter, scooter, McClaren, scooter, scooter......

Scooter, scooter, scooter, scooter, Ferrari, scooter, scooter, McLaren, scooter, scooter, scooter……

As far as riding around on a scooter, it can be a lot of fun! The traffic can be pretty terrifying sometimes, but the views of the city you get riding on the back of a scooter are amazing! I never did end up renting one for myself, but luckily my hostess was nice enough let me hop on the back of hers rather often to show me around. You WILL need a surgical mask unless you enjoy choking on exhaust fumes (scooters spew 16 times more pollutants than your average car), it’ll also help you look less out-of-place since almost every person on a scooter is wearing one. Sunglasses help as well, since your eyes are exposed to the wind as you ride by and there is a good chance you’ll end up with either a lot of dust, or a bug, or both in your eyes.

While renting a scooter without an international license isn’t exactly legal, you can still rent one at many places, though there are some that have a legal reputation and are law abiding and will deny you straight out. And also when it comes to scooters, there’s a fun activity you’ll get to enjoy on a daily basis; crossing the street! Crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City and most other cities in Vietnam is not like in the US or Canada, it’s more of an art form almost. Traffic lights aren’t there to tell drivers to stop and go (along with stop signs or speed limits), they’re more like suggestions. Every traffic light I saw had a countdown timer for the drivers until the light turned green, and usually for the people that didn’t go through the red light already, end up starting to go with 5 seconds still remaining, in fact many people honk their horns if the vehicle in front of them aren’t already going even if cross traffic hasn’t stopped. This brings me to my next point.

The Sound of Saigon

On average, you will probably hear one beeping horn every 5-7 seconds during the day. Drivers are beeping their horns almost non-stop, and most of the time there doesn’t even appear to be a reason behind it. This is why the highest rated Vietnam listings on lodging sites like Airbnb, Couchsurfing, and others will be located away from major streets. This is something you should make sure to take into consideration when planning your trip. If you pick a place close to a major street and you’re a light sleeper, you may find yourself waking up rather often; personally though I’m a heavy sleeper, so unless the building I’m in is collapsing around me, I usually won’t wake up until morning.

Random Fact: You will find the largest cave passage in the world here in Vietnam; Hang Sơn Đoòng.

When staying in Ho Chi Minh City you also probably won’t need an international power converter either, as most of the plugs have US/Japan style slots built in to the 2 round sockets that Vietnam uses, so you can plug in your North American and Japanese devices almost everywhere (unless it’s a North American device with the 3rd prong (ground)). However, make sure to plug your sensitive devices in only when needed as power outages can occur rather often in certain parts of the city. I never experienced this in District 10, however I did twice in District 2 and many times in the beach town of Nha Trang.

That Looks Familiar!

Copywrite and trademark laws are pretty stiff in many parts of the world, you can’t even upload a video to Youtube anymore if it contains a bit of a song without getting slapped with infringement messages. The same restrictions don’t really seem to apply in Vietnam; if you want to make a roller coaster and slap the logo and artwork from RollerCoaster Tycoon all over it, have fun!

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You’ll see this kind of thing happen rather frequently throughout Saigon, everything from games to James Bond films to even Mickey Mouse! Some logos and icons though that are a bit closer in physical location you won’t end up seeing. For example; I didn’t see anything from Japan copied here. Family Mart is a Japan owned convenient store chain and has several stores in Saigon, though you won’t see Family Mart copied or any Japanese anime copied either.

However, if you plan to cash in on someone else’s work in Vietnam, you should probably do it soon. Several countries have recently been placed on a watch list, among those include China, India, Indonesia, Russia, and of course Vietnam. Though I wouldn’t personally recommend it because if you do get caught doing something like this, we all know the US doesn’t take kindly to this sort of thing. Just do a search for Kim Dotcom!

Even though the image above is an exact reproduction of the logo and artwork of RollerCoaster Tycoon, there were some instances where the copyrighted replica was less-than-exact. I saw a person running around waving at kids and making people happy and was dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume, though the costume was not quite the same quality as the ones at Disney Land. But when you see it you know who it’s supposed to be representing. There was also the occasional ice cream stall and small store trying to lure kids in using easily recognizable cartoon characters usually either Disney or Looney Tunes. I did take a picture of the phony Mickey Mouse, but since it’s Disney and they’ve been known to crash kids birthday parties just because someone drew a picture of Mickey Mouse for the kid having the birthday; I’d prefer to not even post the picture.

Coffee and More Food

Easily my 2 favorite things in Vietnam are the coffee and the food! I already covered my favorite dish, but here’s some more delicious food that I got to enjoy! There were only a couple things I tried that weren’t to my taste, and one of them was a dessert which I didn’t end up photographing as it wasn’t much to look at anyways. You may notice from the above images and this first one below that soup-based meals are rather common here.

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My hostess in Ho Chi Minh City taught me the art of eating peanuts with chopsticks... It takes some practice.

My hostess in Ho Chi Minh City taught me the art of eating peanuts with chopsticks… It takes some practice.

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Random Fact: Enjoy cashews? Thank Vietnam; they are the world’s largest exporter of the famous nut.

If soup isn’t your thing, you’ll also find a lot of seafood dishes that can be very hard to come by in many parts of North America. It took a bit of courage on my part to try some of these, but it was worth the taste bud experience! And if all else fails you can even go for a Vietnamese sub sandwich, which can be completely mind blowing on flavor! Though in order to find some of these places you’ll need to wander down some pretty random alleyways to find, which can also lead to some very colorful neighborhood discoveries as well! There’s mainly 2 types of alleyways, the more residential based and the more commercial based.

Alley in District 10, Ho Chi Minh City

Alley in Saigon

A common looking alley in Saigon.

During my first day in Ho Chi Minh City I set out to find some coffee, but was pretty disappointed to find countless cafes that not only didn’t serve coffee, but some seemed to be more of just giant bedrooms where everyone was literally laying around sleeping. So when you first arrive you have to be patient as you may not find amazing food and drinks right away, let yourself explore around a bit and eventually you’ll find many goldmines!

Vietnamese Coffee

Vietnamese Coffee

I like to think of this as iced liquid gold!

Coffee will range in price as reasonably cheap to completely absurd. One of my favorite places which was Cafe Goòng in District 10 charged 20,000 đong per serving and served iced tea with your coffee (though there are some really good places that don’t do this, but price is still reasonable), however, in the touristy areas you can pay upwards of 120,000 đong and it won’t be nearly as good, plus, you probably won’t get a side of iced tea either as many of these places are aware that westerners don’t usually have tea with their coffee and are accustomed to paying at least $5 at Starbucks.

Vietnamese coffee in District 10 of Ho Chi Minh City

Real Vietnamese coffee comes affordable, strong, tasty, and often with a side of iced tea!

You can always order your coffee to drink hot (some places serve it hot with a glass of ice, they do this with a “mix it yourself to taste” method as seen in the one picture up above), but not only will you probably get a funny look if you choose to drink it hot, you may also need to have your brain checked as it averages around 95 degrees here with high humidity. You’ll also have the choice to have white or black coffee, while I usually drink my coffee black, I often preferred white here in Vietnam as they use condensed sweetened milk which is very good and seems to be the preferred way; “when in Rome!”

Architecture; “Thin Like Vietnamese Women”

During my stay I noticed that it’s rather common for buildings in Vietnam to be very thin and upon inquiring on this the response I received from someone was “thin like Vietnamese women”. If you decide to lodge on Airbnb, don’t be surprised upon arrival to find that the apartment you’re staying in is about as wide as Hummer H2, some of the buildings here are extremely thin, though most that are this style aren’t built more than 7 floors.

Apartments in Saigon

Apartments in Saigon

Even though they are very thin, you can see they’re usually built right up against one another, so you don’t have to worry about them tipping over due to the high tropical winds that you’ll occasionally experience during a storm here. In the apartments in the picture above you can see that usually they are just wide enough for a single door and 2 side by side windows, that’s it! The big corporate buildings are of course built a bit wider, but most still follow this “thin” form, even the tallest building in southern Vietnam; the Bitexco Financial Tower is also built relatively thin, you can see that even the helicopter pad had to be built out a bit further than the building supported to be wide enough. I will admit that the view from this building is absolutely amazing at night!

Bitexco Financial Tower in Ho Chi Minh City

View over Saigon at night from Bitexco Financial Tower

View over Saigon at night from Bitexco Financial Tower

 

Warnings:

While I enjoyed my stay in Ho Chi Minh City a lot and enjoyed the food even more, there’s a few cautionary things that I learned. Aside from being a bit more observant with food preparation, there is something a bit more likely to happen before food poisoning will ever affect you; and that’s scams. Many people trying desperately to make money here tend to see tourists as potential lottery tickets and they will try their hardest to get your money. I had several people start cleaning my shoes when I would stop for all of 10 seconds to take a picture of a landmark, then after only a second or two (long enough to look down and react) I would pull away and they would start demanding money. Don’t try to argue in these situations, just walk away, they will eventually stop following and begging/demanding, especially if they see another tourist/traveler.

You will also get countless “tour guides” on scooters coming up to you trying to get your attention, they offer you a “good time” on the back of their scooter as they will supposedly take you around the city. They’ll whip out a small journal and say things like “look what this American from Brooklyn said about me” (Brooklyn is used as a starter city almost every time, I think when these probably phony comments were written the only American city these scammers could think of was Brooklyn), and it’ll be some random comments from a “customer” they had. I never did this because I’ve read on too many bathrooms stalls about a “good time” (you probably know what bathroom stall scribbles I mean) and these supposed “tour guides” reeked of B.S., so I can’t claim that it’s a scam since I never said yes, but I’d be willing to gamble on it.

Many restaurants will have someone standing outside trying to lure you in “sir, sir, hey sir, you want some food?” and this can happen immediately after you walk out of the restaurant right next door; “look buddy, I JUST FREAKIN’ ATE NEXT DOOR!” Cigarette women will approach you as well trying to sell you packs of cigarettes, regardless of whether or not you’re currently puffing away on one at the moment or not. You’ll also find yourself sitting at a table outside eating, be in the middle of a conversation, and BAM! you’re interrupted “sunglasses? You want sunglasses, yes?”, “um, no, I never asked for sunglasses, I never approached you for sunglasses, I’m currently not in a store looking for sunglasses, GO AWAY”. After a while all these beggars will be drowned out as you learn to ignore them; and yes, while they aren’t technically “beggars” I basically considered them no different than a random person begging me for money, which will also happens here. I’m not sure why they do this; I can only imagine that in some weird way they think this works. Someone begging me to come into their place of business has never ever worked, it’s extremely annoying and offensive, since most of the time they seem to find the need to tell you they are a restaurant and that they have food like you don’t know any better; like “really? you have food? I never would’ve guessed! especially with all those pictures of food you have plastered all around the doorway!”

It’s also all very suspicious when you suddenly notice they target foreigners 90% of the time, I rarely saw these people approach natives. If you spend enough time in a certain area, the same people will see you and will stop asking, you’ve ignored them so far and they probably think you know better, so they start to skip over you as if you are a native, it’s actually a very interesting experience to notice and feel yourself begin to blend in! It also tells you that targeting tourists/travelers is exactly what they do.

Well, that’s enough of my rant against the beggars of the city (and let’s be honest, how many cities don’t have beggars of some kind?). Aside from these occasional annoyances, Ho Chi Minh City is a great place to explore and experience the strong Vietnamese culture that’s here! If you keep your head on and keep your cool, you’ll have a great time venturing through this part of the world. And if you befriend a local and they’re willing to show you around to where the hidden gems are, you’ll absolutely love it! I’m thankful I made a friend almost immediately upon arriving and learned so much, and one of the best ways to do this is by staying with a local! And aside from my rant, Vietnam is filled with friendly people who are excited just to meet you! There were so many times when a local would just simply want to high-five or clink glasses with me. Children will smile and wave and those who know even a little English will attempt to say “hello”. And if you look like you’re lost, there’s a very good chance someone will come up to help; though I never did get lost, there were times when I simply got turned around for a moment (went into a building from one direction and came out another) and would look around for a moment to find a familiar landmark and someone would come up and ask where I was going to see if they could help. The majority of people are very friendly and helpful, so don’t let my warning discourage you from visiting here!

I hope you enjoyed reading and stay tuned for 2 more articles on Vietnam; including my visit to the beach town of Nha Trang and another on a crazy adventure I went on just outside of Saigon right before I left for Singapore!

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