Ben and I flew into Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) and quickly realized this was going to be an interesting stay. Our first interaction with Vietnam, right here, in this traffic-crazy-no-rules city.
Saigon is a city of motorbikes, alleyways, coffee, and street food. It can be a challenging city. For those who have never been there it is impossible to fully grasp the insanity of the traffic – you have to see it to believe it! This makes crossing the street a nerve-wracking experience. Also, the combination of heat, humidity, and air pollution means that there is only so long you can walk around before you need a rest.
Despite the challenges, Saigon was nice to explore with its many parks and the perfect introduction to Vietnam. We stayed at Ms Yang’s Homestay and her family are among the kindest, most welcoming people we have met. Somehow, Vietnam got a reputation for being rife with scams (some have even dubbed it “Vietscam”), but that certainly wasn’t our experience. In fact, Ms Yang didn’t even bother to ask us to pay for our room; she just trusted that we would. Her home is located on one of Ho Chi Minh City’s many alleyways, and on our first morning there her sister introduced us to Vietnamese breakfast – pho and iced coffee with condensed milk.
The alleyways run between every major street in the city and are full of cafes and local street restaurants serving ridiculously cheap (and delicious) food. If you stick to the basics (pho and Vietnamese sandwiches) you could probably feed yourself for just a dollar or two per day! The coffee is really good too. Coffee is a relatively new drink in Southeast Asia (compared to tea which has been brewed there for thousands of years), but it has become an essential part of the culture in Vietnam. Though Europeans introduced coffee throughout the region, and it caught on to varying degrees just about everywhere, it was the Vietnamese in particular who really embraced this caffeinated beverage. In fact, many people (my coffee-addicted husband included) feel that the Vietnamese roasts are actually better than any of the coffee created in Europe – or anywhere. Throughout the day men sit on little, red plastic chairs in the alleyways talking and drinking coffee (in Nha Trang we would find out where the women do this – stay tuned for the next blog post).
You will never be hungry in between meals in Saigon. The street snacks in this city are just as good – and they’re everywhere! Some street vendors also sell Vietnamese sandwiches (without a doubt the most delicious sandwiches we have ever had), usually for only about 7,000 – 10,000 dong (that’s less than $0.50 US).
The city also has excellence parks and museums, and what’s left of the colonial architecture (a lot was destroyed during the war) is very beautiful. The War Remnants Museum (formerly the Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes) was certainly one of the most moving experiences on our trip, though obviously very one-sided (but can a museum truly be unbiased?); and the old post office puts any other post office we have ever seen to shame. Local university students are happy to show visitors around the city without expecting anything in return – other than an opportunity to practice speaking English.
So despite the heat, humidity, traffic, and pollution, there was no doubt that Ho Chi Minh City was one of our top experiences in Southeast Asia. And it turns out that crossing the street really isn’t so dangerous after all…. the motorcyclists are really good at dodging pedestrians. 🙂