You sense it the moment you arrive in this city with two names. Ho Chi Minh City pulsates, its arteries flowing with the choreographed chaos of its streets, streaming with motorbikes who flow without hesitation through every free space, even if that’s the sidewalks.
Saigon is in constant motion, a hive of activity. The air filled with beeps, bells and horns from bikes, cars, buses and carts that say “look out or get flattened”.
Crossing this city may seem impossible – crossing the street is daunting enough, but it is possible. In a ballet, everyone has their space, their moves, and Saigon is Swan Lake at high speed.
Stand at the side of the road, waiting for that hair’s breadth of an opening, and step out into the dance, confidently. Choose your line and stay on track. Walk forward, looking in all directions. Don’t stop, don’t hesitate, pause only for the nanosecond you must. The bikes will weave their way around you. The buses won’t.
Crossing the street in HCMC was easier than I thought it would be, but I’m pretty sure Austin now has a few broken bones in his hand from me squeezing it so hard across every street crossing! We had a near miss with a bus where I heroically saved the lives of my husband and son as they nonchalantly crossed the street as though it were a school crossing protected by a crossing guard. Later, I narrowly missed a head on bike-on-woman collision after daring to look to the side for just a moment – while walking down the middle of a sidewalk!
At rush hour, the streets and sidewalks are filled wall to wall with motorbikes. You truly aren’t safe anywhere on foot. If they can’t get there on the road, they will mount the pavement and take a line. Don’t want to cross traffic on your bike? No problem, just cut across to the sidewalk and travel the wrong way down that. The constant awareness, constant vigilance, constant terror raises your cortisol levels bit by bit, until you just cannot take another day, another step. That’s when you know it’s time to leave Saigon.
But not before you’ve taken in what you can of what Saigon has to offer. It’s more than you could do in a lifetime, let alone your first week in Vietnam. We made the absolute most of our time in Ho Chi Minh City – from it’s fabulous street food, to its expansive parks, thought provoking museums and impressive architecture, Saigon is an endless treasure trove of experience in every single nook and alley.
The locals still call it by the name they grew up with, Saigon. But make no mistake, this is a city whose side lost the civil war, and has lived with the name of the victor ever since. Ho Chi Minh City has deep roots and sweats personality. It’s 12 million inhabitants each come together to create the unique city that is still known by two names.
Saigon’s architecture comes packaged in neat little containers that so perfectly define their era, that a history of design could be written just in this city alone.
Beautifully decorated French Colonial buildings, with detailed scrollwork, symmetry, balance, and soaring design sit next to the tasteful brutalist post war structures of the 1970’s. Chinese style temples are dotted around, and ugly concrete cubes fill in the spaces.
Narrow terraces make better use of vertical space than the limited horizontal spaces, and span the decades from colonial to modern. As you leave HCMC, you see high rise blocks of flats clustered together, with one enormous building in the centre under construction, rising twice as high as the buildings around it.
Austin is fixated on becoming an architect, so we worked that into our walks around the city. More worldschooling in action. There is the Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the late 19th century, an updated replica of its namesake in Paris. Austin noticed immediately the absence of any flying buttresses, and we discussed how they had learned how to strengthen walls with different materials and methods by then, and didn’t need the outdoor supports.
The Post Office is French Colonial perfection. It’s buttercream exterior, with ornate white plasterwork, and rows of windows stretching out in either direction from a central archway pretty much define this era. Inside, the ceiling soared in to a long high archway with wooden pillars that arched down to the tiled floor. The shining wooden phone booths have been taken over by ATMs, but they still don’t take away from the beauty of the building.
We noticed the ironworks that formed the arches – how the building reminded us of train stations in London, and started noticing other similarities in materials, patterns and Victorian design from our home city. We compared the two, Victorian and French Colonial, and realised that it was the same time period. Austin noted the differences in style (the french are a bit more romantic about their architecture than the Brits), but the similarities in construction and overall aesthetic. He was thrilled to have made the connection, and was the first time he felt like he had learned something useful in his life!
Finally, the Reunification Palace in all of its 1970’s glory of order, balance, concrete and boxy simplicity. This building is adorned with a repeating oval pattern over its windows – much like textiles from the time.
The architecture of this city alone shows you that there’s more to HCMC than helicopters whisking frantic people away as the enemy rolled in. Saigon has been an important city since the 17th century – long before larger nations wanted a say in their future. And they’ve taken it back for their own with a style that is distinctly Siagonese.
Vietnamese food: yes please!
Having grown up in/around Houston, I was well acquainted with Vietnamese food. Tens of thousands of refugees landed here during the war, and the Vietnamese community is prominent in the city. There are parts of town where the street signs are only in Vietnamese, and by law, we even vote in three languages in Houston: English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
They brought their culture with them, and its the Vietnamese community that helps give Houston yet another side to its rich foodie culture.
I adore Vietnamese food. The fresh ingredients speak for themselves. Perfectly balanced flavours, and light seasoning make it some of the most wonderfully healthy and fragrant food on Earth. I was curious to know if the food we’ve been served in Houston had been westernised for our palates, or if our neighbours had held true to their roots. There was only one way to know…go to Vietnam.
After three days in hospital in Cambodia just before travelling to Vietnam, my stomach wasn’t feeling very adventurous. But that was cured by a couple of fresh spring rolls, and my very favourite dish in the world, BunThit Nu Rong – vermicelli noodles topped with shredded lettuce, herbs, peanuts, spring rolls, grilled pork, and a vinegary spicy dressing that pulls it all together. It is heaven at the end of a chopstick, and my deepest respect goes to Houston’s Vietnamese for staying true to their flavours. Hollywood, I’m looking at you. Mai, you too. Thank you, from the bottom of my stomach.
Something for the kids in HCMC
We’re always in search of things to do that will interest Austin, and the water puppet show was top of the list in Ho Chi Minh City.
What are water puppets? We were not entirely sure, but had imagined some sort of water filled stage. There are nightly shows at 17:00 and 18:30, near the cultural heart of HCMC. We went on our first day to buy tickets to the show, only to find that the performances were halted for two days during a state funeral. We had noticed the flags at half mast, tied up with black sashes. We found out later that it was a former PM of Vietnam who had died, and was lying in state at the Reunification Palace, just across the shady park.
So, we waited. We weren’t sure when the two days started, so the lovely girl at our hotel called to find out if it was on the next day. It wasn’t. Strike two.
On our last night in HCMC, we made our way across town again, only to hear an Englishman say “well that’s disappointing” as we passed through the gates to the theatre.
The show was sold out. Austin was devastated. I was devastated. Mark was devastated. We had promised for three days to go see the water puppets, and Austin is a boy who takes promises very seriously.
With nothing to lose, we decided to wait it out. Try our luck and maybe a seat would become available. We hung around until showtime, and as luck would have it, we got the last two seats on the last row – and Austin had to sit on our laps. It also meant we only had to pay for two seats instead of three, which is a bonus, given he probably would have been sitting on our laps anyway!
The water puppet show was fantastic! The setting on the stage was a Chinese styled river village, with a pool of murky water in front. Musicians in traditional dress, playing traditional instruments were sat along either side of the stage. The puppets were brightly painted wooden puppets, controlled by long poles that stayed underwater, and were controlled from behind the set.
Of course it was all in Vietnamese, but that didn’t matter. The lively and funny stories of river life spoke for themselves.
There were scenes of children swimming, people being outwitted by fish, dragons, a dramatic boat race and elaborate dances. Totally enthralled for the entire hour long show, Austin declared the water puppets his very favourite thing of the trip so far — by a LOT.
The puppets seemed larger than life on the stage, filling your senses as they used the water to tell the stories. It was only when you glanced over to the musicians at the side that you realised just how small the set and the puppets were.
It was a brilliant way to spend our last evening in Ho Chi Minh City, and we felt full of the city when we set out on a bus the next day, bound for Da Lat, a mountain town in the central highlands of Vietnam.
After stocking up on supplies (deodorant! Shaving cream!) at the USA Store, it was time to head out into the country to find out what has the travel guides waxing lyrical about this skinny nation on the eastern edge of SE Asia.
Note: There aren’t as many photos in this post due to a photo card switch — I’ll update as soon as I figure out where I put it!