Sashaying Our Way Through Saigon
We didn’t enter Saigon with great expectations, but, if you can dial your filter correctly, you might have the fun time here that we did.
hot take: Saigon was our favorite of the two major Vietnamese cities as we loved the more modern and progressive take on development here. (3.0 stars)
pro tip: Download Grab before you get here or you will be at a loss to move about effectively
Saigon (now formally known as Hồ Chí Minh City since 1975…but still Saigon to the locals) was a layover connection that we needed to make to get us from Hanoi to Melbourne (Australia). We came with very low expectations, especially after being so thoroughly disappointed by Hanoi, but left with an appreciation of a people striving to rise out of the poverty of their past (and much of the rest of the region) to realize a more prosperous future. However, to get the most out of Saigon, we believe that you need to come in with the right expectations. This is not the opulence of Singapore, nor the stuck in neutral reality of Cambodia…Vietnam, full of contradictions and hope (not to mention over 90 million people crammed in to a land mass about the size of California), is careening towards the future. Hopefully our guide will help you hold on as you climb aboard for the ride.
Expectation 1: Traffic Chaos
We have seen some crazy traffic (from NYC to the Philippines), but nothing really prepared us for the insanity that is travel in Saigon, especially since most of it is done via scooter (they even have scooters that you order via Grab – which is UBER in SE Asia). With a 20:1 scooter to car ratio and traffic lights that seem completely voluntary, it is an adrenaline rush just to get around. Only Bangkok really compares in our minds (but Saigon traffic seems to move at higher speeds which only increases the danger). Steel your nerves or pop a Xanax to survive (you might even have little fun with it. Serious Note: a few of the locals we spoke with don’t drive scooters for fear of crashes, so this is NOT a good place to learn to ride a scooter in a foreign country.
Expectation 2: Ubiquitous Coffee Shops and Tea Shops
Coffee and tea culture borders on obsession in Saigon with more cafes per capita than any place we have ever been (and yes, sadly, they have many Starbucks outlets). However, unlike coffee shops in most Western countries, there are so many more options on the menu here: flavors too weird to be real, bobas of myriad varieties, foams made of cheese and egg, and countless other varieties (which is not really a hyperbole since the menus have like 50+ items that can each be customized in dozens of ways). We also went to a tea salon that had a menu of over 300 teas you could choose from - Kelly was in heaven and enjoyed the entire experience from the decor to the mini ginger candies. We recommend trying as much as you can for yourselves, but expect some hits (we loved the egg foam the cheese foam was good enough to try twice) and some misses (the green boba was disappointing). If there is one thing that's a must - it's trying the Vietnamese tea or taking some home.
Expectation 3: Market Chaos
Experiencing a local market is often a charming and quaint way to learn about a culture…in Saigon, you are just looking for survival. Now we have been to markets all over the world and know a think or two about how to maximize going to a market, but few places (Morocco probably comes closest) will prepare for the onslaught of noise, smells, and aggressive solicitation of Saigon. It is truly overwhelming, but know that many stalls will have the same goods, so aim for a 50% price break from the quoted price (and don’t be afraid to walk away to get it). However, the prices are crazy low on tourist things as well as 'fell-off-the-back-of-the-truck' items from global brands (North Face, Nike, etc) that are manufactured here, so expect to do some shopping.
Expectation 4: Great Food; Poor Sanitation
We love street food (especially Matt). In Vietnam, street food is dirt cheap, generally delicious, and prepared in appalling sanitary conditions that would make a Taco Bell look like a 5 star bistro. The number of rats and cockroaches we saw in and around Saigon were almost enough to lead us to fast. But we overcame our fears by taking the 'free' Saigon Street Food Tour from Saigon On Your Way (note: you will pay ~$10 for the food). Once you get past the ‘ick’ factor of your surroundings, the cuisine was delicious (note: our general observation is that former French colonies have excellent food). Hopefully we have helped you set your expectations appropriately (remember: luck favors the bold…and GI troubles generally only last a day or two).
Expectation 5: Pervasive Propaganda
Like many still Communist countries attempting to modernize in a world where liberal democracies have flourished, Vietnam struggles with reconciling its statist governance with the free market economy. Perhaps nowhere was cognitive dissonance better displayed than the red communist banner (note: banners were everywhere) non-ironically positioned right in front of a Starbucks (further note: Starbucks were everywhere). Similarly, Vietnamese schooling still teaches about how the West is full of evildoers, while simultaneously preparing students to work in support of Western manufacturing and tourism jobs. My guess is that when Communism finally dies here, it will be met with a shrug by most of the common people. So expect to see Communist and anti-Western iconography everywhere, but don’t expect anyone you meet to really care.