I was inspired by a post about Saigon that I read on another travel blog recently. So here is my very own tribute to the place that I once called home. These are some of the things that I loved, and miss, about Saigon.
1. Saigon is a city that bustles with life and colour
Teeming traffic streams along roads and pavements, boats trawl their heavy burdens down the river amongst a flotilla of flora and fauna, and pavements provide the perfect place for cooking pho, playing Chinese chess or sleeping in a hammock, forcing bemused tourists to risk life and limb walking in the road. Visit a park early in the morning and you will see hundreds of people performing their daily walk around the circuit, go before sundown and they will be practising aerobics en-masse. And after dark the parks become a haunt for young lovers snatching a rare moment together, kissing over a sleek Honda Wave. On every corner a modern glass-fronted coffee shop offers a cool air-conditioned respite – for those who can afford it – from the steamy heat, noise, and pollution of the pot-holed streets.
For those who can’t afford it the street is home, office and social space: cute children charm tourists with their chocolate-brown eyes whilst their mothers sit over steaming soups and men wait by their motorcycles offering their services as a Xe Ôm (motorcycle taxi). When business is slow a makeshift hammock, or even the bike itself, provides a comfortable resting place for an afternoon siesta.
2. Saigon is a city forgetting a tragic past and heading for a bright future
Say Vietnam and the majority of people will think of war. The Vietnam War was the event that dominated the latter half of the last century and Vietnam’s tragic history will not be easily forgotten, and nor should it be. But Vietnam is currently progressing at the speed of an express train. Both local and foreign investors are flooding in, shopping malls spring up overnight and even in the last few years the number of International schools has doubled. Work has started on a metro system which, when complete, will transform the face of Saigon, putting it alongside South-East Asian favourites Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. And proposals to redevelop the riverside areas could see areas similar to the Bund in Shanghai.
The Vietnamese are not work-shy and they are ambitious. After centuries of occupation by foreign forces – not just the Americans but the French and the Chinese amongst others – has given them a thirst for their own identity and a longing for a place on the world stage. Saigon is an exciting place to live as it constantly changes, you can never get bored.
3. Saigon enjoys perpetual summer
Vietnam has two seasons: wet and dry and the temperature rarely dips below 30°. Even during rainy season it is possible to have a few weeks where the rain is minimal and the days are bright and sunny. When the temperatures soar you can head to one of the city’s outdoor parks, such as Van Thanh, and lie by the pool for a mere 30,000vnd (about 30p) or head to one of the aforementioned coffee shops for an iced-juice.
Saigon is in the perfect location for a quick getaway. A flight to beautiful beaches at Nha Trang or Danang is inexpensive and short—you could be drinking cocktails on the beach before sundown after work on a Friday evening if you want! If you want to go further afield then Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are all only a few hours away. We managed to get return flights to Bali for $100 each thanks to low-cost carrier AirAsia. If you don’t mind a bus ride you can get to Mui Ne, one of Vietnam’s most beautiful beaches in only 5 hours – a bus will cost around 60,000vnd or you could splash out and take a taxi there for around 1,500,000vnd. You can get to stunning beaches in Cambodia in 11 hours and it will set you back a mere $17. In short, if you live in Vietnam you can have a genuine South-East Asian suntan for a fraction of the price of FakeBake!
4. Saigon is a great place for luxury and pampering
You don’t have to have a lot of money to get a taste of luxury in Saigon. With Vietnam’s rapid expansion has come a wave of new five-star hotels and complexes, with the Intercontinental Hotel on Le Duan being amongst the most recent. The Intercontinental, Sheraton and Park Hyatt hotels stand alongside former giants the Rex, Caravelle and Majestic all competing to offer Saigon tourists and residents the very best in luxury dining experiences. If you are in Saigon for a short time and have a little cash to spare it is well worth visiting one of these hotels for a Sunday brunch or an evening buffet where you can eat and drink like a king without breaking the bank. At the very least you should visit the bar for a cocktail with a view.
If spa treatments are your thing then Saigon will not disappoint. You can get anything for any price if you look around. All of the big hotels have spa facilities and there are a few other boutiques in town – try L’Apothequaire in District 1 if you want five star treatment. YKC in district 3 is a good mid-range option. If you are on more of a budget then you can get some excellent value spa treatments in Saigon but without the worry of having to go to a disreputable establishment to get it, although these establishments do, of course, also exist! Jasmin Spa or Quynh in District 2 offer quality massages and treatments for less than 100,000vnd, the perfect way to wind-down after a busy day.
5. Saigon has an active and varied nightlife
When the sun has gone down the city really comes to life. Brightly lit neon signs flood the streets with light and music pumps out of every doorway. The Saigon music scene is changing rapidly as Vietnam becomes a player on the South-East Asian scene. It has been slow progress and it is still not comparable to Bangkok, KL or Singapore but things are progressing. New bars and clubs open daily and push the boundaries of a previously heavily restricted night scene. Dingy bar Apocalypse Now has long been the centre stage of Saigon nightlife and continues to be a main attraction for tourists, expats and residents of the city alike, although it faces stronger competition every passing year.
If bursting-to-the-seams clubs that have a questionable taste in music aren’t quite your thing you can head down to backpacker district Pham Ngu Lao where you can sit out on the streets with likeminded travellers to chew the fat and drink very cheap beer. This is also the area to be for cheap Vietnamese and Western cuisine (although the quality of the food can vary) Pham Ngu Lao is a great place to start but don’t fall in to the habit of many travellers by staying solely within the confines of the backpacker district. Saigon has so much more to offer!
Why not try a more localised scene by visiting a Bia Hoi (no, not the one in Pham Ngu Lao!) where you can sit outside on too-small plastic chairs much to the delight of the regulars and taste locally brewed beer for 3,000vnd. Yes, it smells and tastes like sweaty feet but you are there for the experience, right?! One evening at the local Bia Hoi we were offered a free beer by a particularly rowdy group of Vietnamese every time one of our party headed to the toilet. Or you could head down to Acoustic Café, a funky bar where you can hear local bands playing every night of the week. If you have bags of excess energy to spare you could book yourself into a karaoke room for a few hours and act out your X-Factor dreams.
If you keep an eye on local expat rags AsiaLife or The Word you may even find a theme evening with the offer of free drinks. And girls, Wednesday night is Ladies’ Night so head to Lush or La Habana (amongst others) for free cocktails.
One thing is for sure – Saigon is a great place to live. Check out the video that I made.