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Taking in the chaos of Saigon: Milling about in Vietnam’s capital

I have no idea what the Guinness World Record is for the most people to fit on a single motorcycle at one time but it’s a good bet it was set in Saigon.

Five passengers per bike seems par for the course in Vietnam’s capital. Once I even saw seven: an entire family, unhelmeted, with various babies draped over shoulders, zipping across town at warp speed.

 

Chaos reigns. Even on the city’s slowest day – and I was there during the Tet Festival when everything (allegedly) grinds to a halt – the energy on the streets is relentless.

Ho Chi Minh City, which I’m going to call by its old name, Saigon – not just because the locals do, but because I have a word limit – isn’t particularly loved by tourists. Most prefer “quaint” Hanoi or Halong Bay.

This is understandable: Saigon is busier, more commercial. But one factor often overlooked is the climate. Hanoi and Halong are in Vietnam’s far north. Don’t go in the winter months expecting a tropical retreat – Hanoi drops as low as 6 degrees Celsius.

Saigon, though, is hot all year round. It’s also “hot” in the other sense of the word. There’s a frisson of excitement about the place, a commercial dynamism shared by Shanghai and Dubai. It’s also a city of wide, tree-lined boulevards, French villas with swishing ceiling fans, crumbling pagodas, street-side noodle makers, and chic boutiques crammed with silks and ceramics.

From the airport
Despite boasting almost seven million inhabitants, the city feels relatively pint-sized; the airport is just 5 kilometres to the northwest of the business district, and you could walk into town. (A tip: don’t.)

As every guidebook suggests, taxi drivers waiting outside the arrivals gate may try to rip you off. Remember, though, you’re not getting ripped off in euros or pounds, but in dong, the local currency. And it doesn’t amount to much. Vietnam is cheap.

By the way, don’t get too excited if you suddenly find yourself with a million dong in your wallet. It’s S$80.

Orientation


Make for the Saigon River at Me Linh Square where a statue of Tran Hung Dao (military general, AD 1226-1300) watches over a busy roundabout. The city radiates westward from this section of the river, in a crisscross of boulevards and lanes. Look east across the water and you’ll see a tale of two cities. Here, where you stand, are towering international hotels and fancy French eateries. On the other bank is District 2, with dilapidated housing and warnings to tourists to avoid the place at night. Ferries ply the river and boatmen can be hired for private trips (around S$10 per hour).

Must-sees
Reunification Palace  : Anyone who enjoys Get Smart or old Bond films will love this bizarre museum, which essentially preserves the living, working palace of the South Vietnamese government prior to the Communist takeover of 1975. Weird lighting, vinyl couches, kitschy carpets, tunnels with map rooms and old switchboards. Awesome.

Museum of Ho Chi Minh City (not to be confused with the less interesting Ho Chi Minh Museum): Housed in a wonderful neoclassical palace full of long, tiled verandahs lined with wooden shutters, this museum includes a hodgepodge of artefacts from different periods of the city’s history, with an accessible network of concrete tunnels underneath.

Cholon : Saigon’s Chinatown is stuffed with great sights and smells: churches, pagodas, markets, mosques. Take the number 1 bus from Me Linh Square near the river (20 minutes; five cents).

Restaurants
Vietnamese, Quan An Ngon : I’m usually suspicious of recommendations in guidebooks, yet this eatery near the Reunification Palace – which appears first in the eating section of almost every one – delivers the goods every time. Set in an old villa, extremely popular, with well-priced and aesthetically pleasing food.

French, La Fourchette : A little more low-key than some of the other French bistros in town, the “little fork” offers beef dishes accompanied by glass pots filled to the brim with Dijon mustard, specials on a chalkboard, charming service, local beers, and carafes of decent French plonk. I ordered duck pie, one of the heartiest dishes I’ve eaten for some time.

International, The Refinery : This exquisite courtyard restaurant is tucked away in a side-alley near the Park Hyatt Hotel. It’s run by the owners of the popular Au Parc café. Reasonably priced and perfectly executed Mediterranean food.

Street Food


I had four bowls of pho, Vietnam’s famous noodle soup (pronounced a bit like “fur”): two were stunning, two were completely forgettable. Try eating at busy stalls, and make sure your pho comes with a side plate overflowing with fresh Thai basil or saw-leaf herb, and crisp bean sprouts. When it’s good, this stuff is … pho-nomenal.

Drinking
The Vietnamese don’t mind a tipple, and – like me – they’ve got no problem with starting early in the day. So, by all means enjoy a few beers with your lunch. Locals tend to drink it with chunks of ice. Avoid this, for more reasons than one. Try fresh beer (bia hoi), or labels like 333, Bia Saigon and Bière Larue. Mid-afternoon, head up to Saigon Saigon in the Caravelle Hotel. Tacky by night, the bar is still good for soaking up the city views as the sun starts to sink. When darkness settles, head to Q Bar near the Municipal Theatre, or Temple Club. If you dare, finish the night in the city’s den of iniquity, Lost in Saigon.

Sleeping
Saigon is blessed with every kind of accommodation under the sun, from the rows of backpacker lodges in Pham Ngu Lao, to historic hotels where journalists filed stories during the Vietnam War (the Rex, the Caravelle), to stately old colonial hotels in various states of disrepair (recent renovations have helped The Majestic and The Grand, to name just two). For luxury and location, however, you can’t beat the Park Hyatt.

Further Afield
Popular day-trip options abound. Try one of these.
Cu Chi Tunnels : A vast underground city of tunnels that allowed the Viet Cong to control a massive rural area during the Vietnam War. Later described as “the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated, and generally devastated area in the history of warfare”.

Mekong Delta : I chose this trip, which takes in some peaceful boat rides up muddy tributaries of the Mekong, as well as visits to island villages where the locals make coconut and honey products.

The beach : The coast is about 50 kilometres away. The nearest beach town of any note, Vung Tau, takes a few hours to drive to, or you can jump on a 75-minute express ferry from outside the Majestic Hotel in Saigon.

The Sinh Café in Pham Ngu Lao is the most popular place to organise a tour. You’ll feel a bit like a sheep, but it will cost as little as S$10 for all transport (buses, boats, horses), food (free lunch, snacks in some places), and entry fees. That’s for a full 10-hour day.

Getting There
A number of airlines ply the two-hour route between Singapore and Saigon. Note that most nationalities require visas for Vietnam. Application forms can be downloaded here (click on Consular Affairs and then Forms). The Vietnamese Embassy is at 10 Leedon Park. Call (+65) 6462 5938.

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