The first thing that struck me about Saigon – and it’s the same for everyone I guess – is all the fucking scooters. The city’s main streets are perpetually packed curb-to-curb with a never-ending torrent of cheap, low-powered step through motorbikes. They rule the road in Vietnam like nowhere else I’ve ever been. More than Taiwan. More than Malaysia. More than Thailand even.
It was a Monday night about 10pm when we arrived in the city and the streets were still humming. The growling murmur of a million 125cc engines and tinny, beeping horns filled the air. The motorbikes surrounded our taxi on all sides, zooming in front and behind when we went through intersections.
I never saw people crowding the footpaths Vietnam – unless they were sitting drinking beer or coffee in little plastic chairs – because no one walks anywhere. Ever. The footpaths (when they exist) are used as ad hoc parking for the scooters. What else would they be for? When you tell the ubiquitous xe om (motorcycle taxi) riders you’re walking somewhere the looks of confusion and incomprehension are real. They just can’t understand why you wouldn’t prefer to ride like everyone else.
The big intersections are like some impossible physics experiment with a solid masses of bikes moving towards, around and through each other. As if directed by a collective intelligence, they flow this way and that – akin to schools of fish or flocks of birds – around busses, trucks, the rare car and the odd hapless tourist on foot.
Vietnam’s scooters don’t obey “road rules” as such – although people generally drive on the right and usually stop at traffic lights. They simply have an understanding that they’re all in it together, they all want to get where they’re going and so they’ll try not to kill each other in the process. Luckily, the roads are so crowded no one can go very fast which gives everyone plenty of time to react to unexpected hazards.
Crossing the street is intimidating at first but becomes easier once you just surrender your fate. The secret is just to keep moving at a steady, predictable pace and let the traffic go around you. Eye contact helps and maybe a quiet prayer while you’re at it.
A bit like life really.
Pham Gnu Lao: Saigon’s backpacker ghetto
While I was in Saigon I stayed in the backpacker ghetto known as Pham Ngu Lao in District 1. The area – like backpacker areas all over the world – is wall-to-wall hotels, travel agents, restaurants and bars. It’s a good place to stay to meet other travellers and find reasonably cheap accommodation with hosts who speak English. But the restaurants are generally either expensive or crap or both and every trip down the street is a gauntlet of restaurant and travel agent touts and xe om drivers offering lifts, drugs and women. And it’s full of backpackers.
The night I arrived I checked into the cheap Long Hostel – $8 for a bed in a big air-con dorm room with tiled floors and fluro lights – in an alley full of similar joints just off Pham Ngu Lao Street. The owner Mrs Long, a retired teacher and total sweetheart of a woman, offers all guests a cup of iced tea, a photocopied map of the city and a couple of coconut sweets on arrival. I also had stints in a couple of other hostels in the alley that were pretty similar, but none had the same welcoming and helpful attitude of Mr Long’s.
Running parallel with the main Pham Ngu Lao Street is Bui Vien Street which is kind of like HCMC’s take on Khao San Road. I imagine it’s probably a bit like Khao San was a few years ago. It’s lined with bars populated by nasty-eyed hookers, hotels, gift shops and restaurants but still hasn’t reached the level of manic insanity of the notorious Bangkok strip.
Every night hundreds of twenty-something backpackers gather there to sit on small plastic green and red chairs and drink Saigon Red and Green beers for D12,000 ($A0.60) a bottle. On one side of the street the beers are sold by an enterprising minimart and on the other a hotel.
Attracted by the crowds of drunk, cashed-up foreigners, hawkers wander through selling sunglasses, cigarettes, dried squid and other tasty snacks.
I also saw little boy – probably about eight years old – who was having a go at busking. He opened by lighting the ends of a couple of small fire sticks then putting them out in his mouth. Then he pulled out a barely moving green snake about a foot long, tilted his head back and fed it down his throat. After pulling it back out he went around with a hat asking for small notes.
Saigon’s CBD stretches west from the Saigon River with a few old elegant old French colonial buildings – mostly renovated into high end hotels and department stores – amongst the boxy Chinese terraces and towers. Above them soars the 262m Bitexco Financial Tower, the city’s only true skyscraper.
My temporary companions for the first couple of days were an Australian named Phil and a Spanish seniorita Marina who I’d met while we were all getting our visas on arrival. Me and Phil joked about being doppelgängers because our names rhymed, we had similar beards and the same backpacks (40Lt Mountain Design Escapes – though mine was my main pack and his was only his daypack) and we were on the same flights to Vietnam after both having had a break from travelling to attend weddings in Australia. Marina’s dusky eyes and fetching smile inspired my first crush of Vietnam, before I even left the airport.
Phil was a vagabond who’d worked in various jobs including as a didgeridoo maker in the Northern Territory, a tour guide at Uluru and as a yoga instructor on a cruise ship. His English/Burmese girlfriend – who he had met while they were working as tour guides in New Zealand – was due to arrive in a week from the UK and the meantime he was planning to buy a motorbike to ride up to Hanoi.
Marina was a primary school teacher from a little town in the Catalonia region of Spain on an extended career break. She had just spent a year in Australia – mainly in Perth – had just been to Indonesia and was on her way home via Vietnam, Cambodia and India. A mate from Spain was due to arrive the next day.
None of us were all that desperate to check out the “sights” – the Notre Dame Cathedral, Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum and so on – so we just wandered around, eating noodle soup and bahn mi when we were hungry, drinking iced coffee and fresh juices when we were thirsty and resting in the city’s parks when we were sweaty and tired of walking.
Bad idea: Yoga in the park
Every evening hundreds of Vietnamese head to the kilometre-long Park Twenty Three September that runs along Pham Ngu Lao Street to jog, walk, do outdoor aerobics classes, play volleyball and badminton and kick around shuttlecocks.
On our second night in town Phil, Marina and I decided to join them and do a bit of yoga. The spot we found wasn’t the best – we got kicked off the grass again and had to do it on bath towels on concrete – but it was good to have a bit of a stretch.
As Phil ran us through some poses we attracted an audience of curious onlookers. I’m not sure what was the bigger attractions: the two big bearded white dudes flouncing about or Marina in tight yoga pants. People were coming and going and – even though we were in a bit a cul-de-sac next to an artificial lake – sometimes walking right near us.
I’d left all my valuables at home but as we were packing up to go, Marina realised her bum bag containing about $50 worth of US dollars and Vietnamese dong that had been on the ground beside her was gone. While we were distracted, someone had walked up and snatched it.
There was nothing we could do. The spectators were all gone and we didn’t know enough Vietnamese to even ask if there were any witnesses. It was just lucky Marina had taken her credit cards and most of her money out of the bag before she had left the hostel.
She wasn’t the only person I knew who was robbed just in those few days I spent in Saigon.
A British guy had had his iPhone stolen out of his bag while drinking in the street, a girl had her handbag snatched by a motorbike rider as she walked home from a night out and Phil had his mobile phone stolen in somewhat amusing circumstances that I’ll talk about later.
The worst case was a guy who grabbed on to and was dragged along by a motorbike after he had his camera stolen. He suffered cuts and scrapes all over his arms legs and face.
Even with all that, it seemed like most of the crime was petty. Unlike in Quito, Ecuador, where people were getting robbed with knives, I never felt physically threatened while in Ho Chi Minh City, even while walking around late at night.
I also I suspect that you would have fewer issues with thieves outside the tourist areas.
Awesome banh mi ladies
I’ve already done a post about eating noodle soup, rice paper rolls and banh mi but I wanted to show you this video of a lady making the best banh mi I had in Saigon.
A big crowd of people were waiting outside when we got there – always a good sign – with two bahn mi making stations in the shop both smashing out sandwiches at pace.
A night out in Saigon
Most backpackers seem content to hang out in Pha Ngu Lao and drink Saigon beer in the street but there are some decent clubs in Ho Chi Minh City.
The first Saturday night I was in HCMC I went with Phil out to a slick three-room place called Lush which had house playing in the main room and “bass heavy” tunes, mainly drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep, in the front room hosted by The Beats Saigon.
It was free entry and the music was good though the drinks were expensive i.e. about $3 for a beer.
I met a group of ex-pats who made me welcome by handing me a bottle of vodka which was almost immediately snatched off me by one of the bar staff.
“Oh shit, I’m sorry,” I said to the guy, who had a smashing beard of his own.
“No problem man. It’s cool. It was nearly finished. And it only cost $2,” he said.
I was surprised by the number of pretty Vietnamese girls at the club. When out in public during the day Vietnamese girls generally wear face masks – serving the dual purposes of blocking out pollution and keeping their skin pale – so you hardly ever see their faces. It’s like half the city’s population are colouful ninjas.
I guess the girls that go to clubs are all uniformly young, rich and covered in makeup so that might have had something to do with it as well.
I tried to chat up a couple but they all seemed genuinely terrified and/or disgusted by my face mane.
When the club finally shut up shop Phil and I went off in search of more fun but the only bar we found open was full of white guys crowding a few Vietnamese girls and had a weird skeezy vibe. Now, normally I like places with weird skeezy vibes, but for some reason this place turned me off, so we didn’t stick around.
Eventually we found ourselves sitting on a curb looking out across one of the city’s huge roundabouts, waiting for the sun to rise.
We sat in silence for a few moments enjoying the relative peace and quiet (there were still plenty of scooters buzzing by) until two older women on a rolled up.
“Hey, what you doing? You want blow job?” said the one on the front, making a motion with her hand in front of her face.
“Ah, no thanks. We’re OK,” I said.
This was a dodgy situation. Well, of course it was dodgy. It was 5.30am, we were drunk in the middle of Saigon and two middle-aged women were offering us oral sex. But we knew there was something more going on.
I was looking over my shoulder to see if there was anyone else around as the second woman was getting off the bike and sitting down to the right of Phil.
“Good blow job,” said the first woman, still on the bike. “Cheap blow job. You want?”
Abruptly, Phil stood up as the second woman put her hand on his thigh.
“Hey, no. We’re fine!”
“Ok, ok,” the first woman said, her mate jumped back on the bike and they rode off.
Phil sat back down, patted the pocket on his left side, stood back up and moved as if to run after the women.
“Ah, shit! They got my phone. How the fuck did she do that?”
I felt sorry for Phil but also sort of impressed. The woman had managed to pick his pocket from the wrong side despite both of us on our guard. The touch on the thigh must have been to distract him.
Phil was annoyed at losing his phone, but philosophical.
“I wonder if they just drive around all morning looking for drunk foreigners to rip off,” he mused as we walked back to the hostel.
I ended up staying about 10 days in Saigon – in two stints broken up by a visit to the Mekong Delta region – and I feel like could have happily stayed there for a good long time more. Months. Maybe even a year or so. The place has good food, booze and music – what else do you really need?
Apparently you can make good money teaching English, so that’s always an option.
But, you know, I’m not ready to stop just yet.