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 barrage of noise from hectic traffic that never sleeps. Arousing cooking aromas wafting tirelessly 24/7, forcing your already-feasted stomach to ache with hunger pangs. The endless shouting and high-pitched conversations on all street corners. Delicious creations cooked on broken side pavements. Quirky roadside food sellers. Quaint bric-a-brac stalls. Pesky shop owners. Shrewd businesses bartering and making their daily income. All these aspects paint Saigon as an alluring and wonderfully intense city.
Our comfortable bus left Can Tho at 10:30hrs and took about 6 hours to reach Saigon.
In true Asian style, the bus still stops continually and anywhere along the road to pick-up and drop-off passengers.
I often wonder if these extra stops mean extra cash for the bus driver and conductor.
Luckily, on arriving at the outskirts of Saigon, we were instructed 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) and during 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 view 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 you 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 for breaking rules, the extreme lack of road rules here is a foreign concept.
Also, the traffic police in Saigon 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, delights, and trying not to get run-over.
Walking all over Saigon taking many photos and stopping along the way for coffees, drinks, and food breaks, is always important to absorb the local culture and 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. The post office is 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.
Cho Ben Thanh Market
Cho Ben Thanh Market (Chợ Bến Thành) on the intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao Avenues and Le Lai Street, was much better when I was here in 2010/11.
This market has changed a lot.
The main difference is that it’s much more touristy now with more badgering than previously, from stall sellers. Also, before, there was a lot more Vietnamese handmade goods and souvenirs, but sadly now, there’s a lot more Chinese mass-produced stuff (rubbish). This market is still popular in many of the guide books though.
The market is still a great place for street photography.
For all you shopaholics out there, you definitely will not 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 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 everything, which makes wondering around this city at night even more magical.
Saigon Cosy Hotel
On 120/6 Le Lai Street, Ben Thanh Ward, this hotel is handy to everything and about a 10-minute walk to the city centre, restaurants, markets, and shops.
Hein (owner) and her staff are so genuinely friendly and warm that when you leave, it is 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.
This accommodation is clean, serviced daily, and has a comfy bed. Bathroom includes lovely hot water and toiletries. The room has a TV and fridge.
Hein whips up a delicious homemade breakfast of your choice of eggs or the traditional egg noodle dish each morning (tea/coffee and fruit provided). Good wi-fi in the room and reception area. Laundry is 30,000VND/Kilo.
This hotel is down an alleyway and away from the main street, so much quieter than other hotels.
You don’t need to stumble far before you run into a roadside food stall or makeshift restaurant, cafe, mobile food bike, or other in Saigon.
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) for breakfast, lunch, or dinner as it’s scrumptious and a signatory dish! 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
On 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
Four years’ later and this cafe on 234 Le Thanh Ton St. Dist. 1, is still excellent!
First stumbled on this little cafe on our last day in Saigon back in 2011. So impressed with the quality and service at that time, we avidly looked for cafe again. Not remembering the name but vaguely remembering the street, with a little persistence we found the cafe 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.
Arguably, 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. The cafe is on 112 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai and the coffee here is consistently very good but also the cheapest Cappuccino we found in Saigon. Cakes are also yummy.
For an excellent pizza that won’t break the bank wander to 5-7-9 Nguyen Trung Truc Street, Ben Thanh Ward in District 1. 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 at 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.
Although in TripAdvisor and guide books (bibles), I wasn’t overly impressed with this place on 196 Le Lai, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, as it’s overpriced.
The burger is tasty but it’s quite small and the serving of chips is stingy. Just 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 street hawkers up at the crack of dawn around this area selling coffee, baguettes, snacks, and cakes. So if you miss breakfast at your hotel, then pick up a relatively cheap and delicious eat from these guys – there is one right opposite the road from the Sinh office that is very good.
I particularly love the Bánh mì, which is Vietnamese freshly baked baguette (introduced by the French during Vietnam’s colonial period), containing pate, a little fresh salad mix, and some sort of meat – very tasty.