Our final stop in Vietnam was Saigon, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City. After being officially welcomed to the city by a cab driver who wanted to rip us off for an extra $15, we settled into our room at the Suite Backpackers Inn on the main tourist drag in District 1.
View from our hotel room
Saigon is so hot that everyone seems to spend most of their time outside in the street trying to catch a breeze. Shopkeepers hang out in front of their stores, chatting and fanning their faces. Men take off their shirts and allow their bellies to flop freely, while women wear cotton pajamas, often with face masks and gloves to combat the sun and keep their skin pale. Old people lie in hammocks, gently rocking.
Everyone talks about how crazy the traffic is, but we found it no worse than Hanoi. The drivers seemed less murderous and more laid back – perhaps it was the heat. There are also loads of little alleyways filled with shops, bars and restaurants, which provide a good escape from the full onslaught of rush hour traffic. We spent an afternoon in the dimly lit Boston Sports Bar while an extremely high American guy in sunglasses played Tupac videos and shouted enthusiastically to no one in particular. Just like the real thing.
Saigon is way more vegetarian-friendly than Hanoi, and we easily found a restaurant – Quán Chay Yêu Thương – within a few blocks of our hotel. Hidden away at the end of an alleyway off Lê Loi, the restaurant seems more catered to vegetarians as we know them in the west, rather than people observing Buddhist holidays and skipping meat for a night or two. They serve alcohol, which is unusual in Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants as it’s generally assumed you don’t eat meat for religious reasons and therefore don’t drink either. But for those who love animals and ice cold beer this place is worth checking out.
Mushroom seaweed rolls – everything’s better deep-fried
We walked home through the park and watched a huge group of women energetically dancing in sync, following their teacher, while a techno beat thumped out of massive speakers.
The next day we decided to check out Saigon Zoo. Little did we know that we would be the most exotic attraction. As we walked in we noticed heads turning, fingers pointing, and young children staring. ‘Tây!’ they exclaimed, looking at us in bewilderment. A group of teenagers rushed up to us, giggling excitedly. ‘Take picture?’, a girl asked Brendon. Puzzled, he offered to take a picture of the group. ‘No, take picture with us!’ they laughed, pulling us in. We got about four more of these requests throughout the day. I guess Brendon is pretty funny looking.
Tâys’ day out
We checked out a pagoda and then spent the rest of the day looking for a few of ‘Saigon’s hidden coffee shops’ that were indeed extremely well-hidden – we didn’t find any of them. Instead we comforted ourselves with margaritas and bad nachos from a Mexican restaurant in the tourist stretch. After about four drinks our waiter came over and asked if we could correct his English – he was practicing his responses for a job interview the following day. We spent the next two hours delivering drunken career advice, explaining how sales commissions work and offering grammatical suggestions while he shirked the rest of his tables to hang out with us, joke around and listen to our ‘wisdom’. Eventually his manager told him he would be fired if he didn’t stop slacking off, but by this stage we were all sure he’d be a shoo-in for the job. Hope he’s out there selling furniture right now!
Maybe we’d adjusted after visiting Hanoi, or maybe it was because everyone had said that if we hated Hanoi we’d really hate Saigon, but we ended up kinda liking it. Perhaps it’s not as ‘pretty’, and there are less sites of historical interest, but the weather is nicer, the people are cooler, there’s better food and it’s generally easier to get around. We were only there for two nights but it has a certain charm that we didn’t find in Hanoi in two weeks.
All up we spent two months in Vietnam. We went from hating it to trying to accept it, to liking it, to hating it again, to loving it – sometimes all in the space of a day. At times it reminded us of the worst aspects of the US – the people could be loud and hard-headed and you constantly had to be on your guard to avoid being played for a sucker. We won’t miss the hawkers, the hustlers, the honking, the dog meat, the taxi drivers or the pointing and laughing. But we will definitely miss the food, the women cooking up amazing things in alleyways, the Vietnamese hipsters munching sunflower seeds, the sweet milk coffee for 70c, the girl from Muse Cafe who gave us friendship bracelets for being regulars, the cross-stitch obsession, the folk tales about awesome sword-wielding turtles, the super-kitschy names like ‘Miss Longlife’ and ‘City of Eternal Spring’, and everyone who helped us navigate the linguistic and cultural divide.