Welcome to Saigon – a tireless city!
Like many big cities in South East Asia, all your senses are fully accosted when you first arrive in this loud city. But unlike other cities, Saigon exudes a sultry magnetism, which entices me to return, I can’t explain why…
The constant noise from traffic that never sleeps. Wonderful cooking aromas wafting tirelessly almost 24/7, forcing your stomach to ache with hunger pangs although you’ve just feasted. The endless shouting and conversations on all street corners; meals cooked on broken pavements; roadside food sellers; bric-a-brac stalls, shop owners, and general businesses making money, are just some of the alluring aspects of this intense city.
Our comfortable bus left Can Tho at 10:30hrs and took about 6 hours to reach Saigon. However, in true Asian style, the bus still stopped along the way to pick-up and drop-off passengers. I often wonder if these extra stops mean extra cash for the bus driver and conductor. Luckily, when we arrived at the outskirts of Saigon, we were told to swap to another bus for District 1. Otherwise, it would have been a nightmare to get to the hotel from the Ben Xe Mien Tay (southern bus station) in peak hour traffic.
Saigon – better known as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)
I refer to HCMC as Saigon. For me, Saigon sounds much more romantic and passionate, conjuring up exotic images from days gone by; perhaps this stems from its tumultuous history. So, I’ve stuck to Saigon throughout my Vietnam posts.
Apart from the chaotic madness of Saigon’s roads, this city of around 7.5 million inhabitants is vibrant and always awake, it seems. Rest assured, as a pedestrian, you are not really safe on roads anywhere in this city. Just when you think you’re safe on a footpath or down a tiny alleyway, a scooter comes screaming past from behind you honking its horn for you to move and move you must. The only road “rule” everywhere here is the bigger your are, the more right of way you have. You will be run over unless you move out-of-the-way; it’s as easy as that! As a westerner that comes from a country with very stringent road rules and with heavy fines applied for breaking these rules, the extreme lack of road rules here is a foreign concept.
Also, the traffic police here are very corrupt and stop any type of vehicle randomly for anything minor; they love to stop foreigners. So if you’re on a scooter, be aware of this scam. If stopped, you will have to part with some cash otherwise you won’t be allowed to continue. Apparently, if you smile and make light of the situation, you can barter the bribe down to a few US dollars. Sit at one of the many cafes or restaurants facing a major road and witness the corruption first-hand…I saw this happening many times throughout Vietnam, but especially in Saigon.
Having spent 12 days in Saigon over the Christmas/New Year period in 2010/2011, I had seen the main sights. So on this visit, I was just happy to experience this great city on foot, soaking up the local culture, madness, and delights. Having walked all over Saigon taking many photos and stopping along the way for coffees, drinks, and food breaks, it’s always important to take in the local delights on offer but also to people watch.
- Saigon Central Post Office (next to the Notre Dam Basilica) – Try to visit this gorgeous building, which was built in the late 19th century; very busy with many tourist buses stopping here. This is a working post office and at the back of the building is where you can pick up your mail or parcels from Poste Restante.
- Market – Cho Ben Thanh Market (Intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao Avenues and Le Lai Street) – Better in 2010/11! This market has changed a lot since my first visit. The main difference is that it’s much more touristy now with more badgering from stall sellers than previously. Before, there was a lot more Vietnamese handmade goods and souvenirs, but sadly now there’s a lot more Chinese-made stuff (and rubbish); still popular in the guide books though.
For shopaholics, you won’t be disappointed in this city. Many opulent shopping malls (Parkson, Birkenstock Vincom Center) boasting the latest Designer brands at designer prices (if you have the cash) but also the markets, stalls, and much more will keep even the most discerning shopaholic satisfied. As it’s close to Christmas, the sparkling Christmas lights adorn many street trees, shops, and almost anything, make wondering around this city at night even more magical!
Saigon Cosy Hotel (120/6 Le Lai Street, Ben Thanh Ward) – Hein (owner) and her staff are so genuinely friendly and warm that when you leave; it’s like saying goodbye to family! Hein is even happy to teach you Vietnamese, if you’re interested. Each day we learnt 2 new words and at night we were tested! The accommodation is clean, serviced daily, and comfy bed. Bathroom includes lovely hot water and toiletries; room includes a TV and fridge. Hein whips up a delicious homemade breakfast of your choice of eggs or the traditional egg noodle dish (tea/coffee and fruit provided). Good wi-fi in room and reception area. Laundry is 30,000VND/Kilo.
This hotel is down an alleyway away from the main street so much quieter than other hotels. About a 10-minute walk to the city centre, restaurants, markets, and shops – everything is very handy.
You don’t need to stumble far before you run into a roadside food stall or makeshift restaurant, cafe, mobile food bike, or other. You’re spoilt with a plethora of choices here and you will never go hungry…it’s amazing. You must try Phở (known as Pho); breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it’s scrumptious! Served everywhere in Saigon and throughout Vietnam, this wonderful noodle broth soup consists of rice noodles, herbs, and meat (mainly beef or chicken), and will fill any ravenous belly but at a budget price.
- Tous les jours (44, Duong le Loi) – You can’t go past this cafe for excellent pastries – try everything! The coffee is good, reasonable prices, ambiance is cool, and so much to choose from – will keep you going back every day.
- Une Journee a Paris (234 Le Thanh Ton St. Dist. 1) – Four years’ later and it’s still excellent! First stumbled on this little cafe on our last day in Saigon back in 2011; so impressed with the quality and service that this time, we avidly looked for this place again. Couldn’t remember the name and vaguely remembered the street but with a little persistence, we found it and not disappointed. It is just as good and delicious for coffee, pastries, and service as it was 4 years’ ago – it must be good as it’s still here. Prices are reasonable for Saigon and this type of cafe.
- Passio coffee (112 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai) – The best coffee we tried in Saigon although it’s impossible to try every cafe in this city unless you have a spare year or two. Coffee here is consistently very good and the cheapest Cappuccino we found in Saigon. Cakes are also yummy.
- Buzza Pizza (5-7-9 Nguyen Trung Truc Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1) – For an excellent pizza that won’t break the bank, this has to be the cheapest pizza place in Saigon. Large wood-fired ovens work furiously non-stop and the pizzas are excellent! The salads are delicious and a good price. Service is excellent but don’t expect a romantic candle lit restaurant, as it’s very busy and frequented by mostly locals.
- Chuck’s Burgers (196 Le Lai, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1) – Although in TripAdvisor and guide books (bibles), I wasn’t overly impressed with this place as it’s overpriced. Although the burger is tasty, it’s quite small and the serving of chips is stingy – an average-size serving would be fair and especially as prices start at 80,000dVND for a standard burger. Drinks are also expensive but if you’re itching for a burger, then this is OK – didn’t see any locals here.
Leaving Saigon for Dalat
Decided to continue north and inland a little to Dalat. The Sinh Tourist bus (159,000VND) leaves Saigon at 07:30hrs and the journey takes about 8.5 hours, so I’m told. You have to make your own way to the Sinh office, as there isn’t a hotel pickup by a minibus. The Saigon bus office is very efficient and runs like a mini airport; complete with very helpful staff and a printed bus ticket that resembles a boarding pass.
As you can imagine, there are many food street hawkers up at the crack of dawn selling coffee, baguettes, snacks, and cakes. So if you miss breakfast, pick up a relatively cheap eat from these guys (there’s one right opposite the road from the Sinh office). I particularly love the Vietnamese freshly baked baguette with pate, a little salad mix, and some sort of meat – very tasty.