Oh Saigon. I wasn’t sure whether I would love it or hate it, since, in my experience, most people usually feel strongly one way or another when it comes to big cities while traveling third world countries – Bangkok, Saigon, Manila, etc. For that reason exactly I only booked one night at a hostel, so I can get a feel for the city and then decide what my next move would be. First thing I did when I arrived was walk around and eat a delicious pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and get a Vietnamese ice coffee – I was officially in love.
I spent my six days in Saigon exploring the city, eating delicious food and taking in the vibrant Vietnamese culture. What struck me about Saigon was that, although a bustling city, it still had a warmth to it, a certain je ne sais quoi. Less crazy than Bangkok (although I loved Bangkok), less concrete jungle than Manila, Saigon just felt awesome. Even though Western capitalism started creeping its way into the city (they had a red carpet event for the opening of the first McDonald’s a couple years ago), Saigon still had an authentic feel to it. It’s a city of contrasts where commerce and culture collide – from high end hotels to cheap guesthouses, classy restaurants to delicious street food, Saigon certainly has something for everyone.
Having said that, what I think I loved most about the city was wandering through the small alleys of the city, walking past local homes, restaurants and incense lit offerings, which all seemed to have almost stood still in time. Which seems weird, given the turmoil and destruction the city and its inhabitants experienced only one generation ago. The truth is, the Vietnamese people have experienced hard times but still remain genuine and unjaded towards tourists. Saigon’s real beauty lies within its seamless blend of these two worlds that are old and new, past and present.
One of the first sightseeing activities I got to visit were the tunnels of Cu Chi, a large network of connecting underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War (called the American War by the Vietnamese). The tunnels were used not only as hiding spots during combat, but also as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon storage and living quarters. To keep enemy forces out, the Viet Cong had camouflaged trap doors on the jungle floor leading to the tunnels that rendered them almost undetectable, and the tunnels were also often rigged with explosive booby traps or bamboo stake pits. We were also able to crawl inside a part of the tunnels, which although have been made slightly larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists, I was only able to crawl about 10 meters before taking the first exit out.
In the following days I was also able to visit the War Remnants Museum, where I witnessed a disturbing display of man’s cruelty during the Vietnam/American War. The museum includes halls full of gruesome photographs, a simulated “tiger cage” prison and jars of deformed foetuses attributed to contamination by Agent Orange, as well as a full floor dedicated to telling the story of the war journalists from all over the world who documented the war and often died or disappeared during the war. I also visited the Reunification Palace, formerly South Vietnam’s presidential palace, which feels a bit like a time warp to the 60s, as it was left largely untouched from the day before Saigon fell to the North. The war ended on April 30, 1975 when tank #843 crashed through the gate, and a replica of the tank sits on the lawn outside. Although a bit kitschy, it was cool to see the different rooms full of vintage 1960s phones, radios, office equipment, etc that were supposedly left exactly as they were found when the North took over. Although I have no pictures to share from the museum, I encourage you to read a letter written to President Obama by Agent Orange victim Tran Thi Hoan in 2009:
On my last day in Saigon I visited the Mekong Delta River, which looks almost like a water world, where boats, houses, restaurants and even markets float on the many rivers, canals and streams that flow through the region like arteries.
Next stop: beach time in Nha Trang!
Mellow Yellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛
Traveler’s tips: I stayed at a quiet hostel in the backpackers area in District 1 (Ngoc Thao Guesthouse) which was amazing, but if you’re looking for a more party hostel stay at Hideout. Most hostels will arrange tickets for you to Cu Chi, Mekong Delta River or any overnight bus to your next destination. There’s also a really excellent free walking tour every Saturday and Sunday that meets in front of the Crazy Buffalo (for more information about the tour you can check out http://www.trailstalessaigon.com/#_=_).