The air is thick with the smell of gasoline, garbage, and urine. The streets are loud with the hustle and bustle like any major metropolis. As I’m attempting to cross the street, bikes weave around me at all speeds, honking to make me aware of their presence. I’ve been in Vietnam over a week and I’m now in Saigon… I don’t know what I expected but this wasn’t quite what I had in mind.
Ho Chi Minh City is big, really big. With over 13 million people and close to 8 million motorbikes, its the largest city in Vietnam. Originally settled by Khmer people, it was slowly taken over as the Vietnamese people headed south. In the 18th century, the French arrived and brought with them their architecture, food, and religion. The French ruled for 90 years and left a very big mark on the region, which can been seen in the city and street design, the buildings, and the food. During this time, the city’s name was changed to Saigon as it was easier to pronounce than Gia Dinh. The term Saigon is now interchangeable but is mostly referring to the city centre area.
After the French lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu, South Vietnam gained its independence. The country was split into two, the north being communist backed by the Soviet Union and China, and South Vietnam being non-communist. The south at the time was led by a corrupt government, which led to small gorilla armies to emerge throughout the region. The USA remained supporting the government in the south but it wasn’t long before the two regions went into war that lasted 20 years.
The Vietnam war wasn’t something that I was very familiar with. In high school, and throughout my entire education, a huge emphasis was placed on teaching the two World Wars, leaving little room to educate on both the Korean and Vietnamese wars. It might be because Canada’s independence was so closely tied to events in the WWs. So I could be brought up to speed, B and I visited both the War Remnants Museum in the city, and took a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. Both experiences gave me the history lesson that I was craving and opened my eyes to how long-term damaging this war was, remnants that can still be seen today…
HCMC wears you down. Whether it’s the humidity, the honking, or the constant “you buys something” in the markets, it’s a draining experience. Having said that, there are moments of quiet tranquility that makes the city special in a way. Nôi Quy park near our hotel allowed for this gentle reprieve. In the morning, you can find locals enjoying the little bit of nature practising Tai Chi, exercising in the free outdoor gym, playing a game of Jianzi (like badminton but with your feet), or just relaxing or even napping on a bench. Outside of the park, you can always find people taking a break on the back of their parked motorbike or seated on a stool under an awning or umbrella. It doesn’t matter where they are, the Saigonese know how to relax. In my opinion, you have to in order to enjoy the city.
The way I enjoy a city is through their food. I had high hopes for the south as I had been told that most of what us Canadians know as Vietnamese is the food that comes from the southern region. What I quickly came to find is that HCMC is largely a city of chains. Here you’ll find Starbucks, Burger King, Popeyes Chicken, and a shocking number of Sushi and Korean restaurants. Sure there are sidewalk stalls serving up HCMC’s finest but there’s barely any room to sit as the sidewalks double as motorbike parking. Our first meal was Banh Mi (likely everywhere else we’ve visited) but to be honest, it left a lot to be desired.
Saigon does do a few things well – the markets. If you want souvenirs, cheap clothes, or even a Samsonite suitcase for cheap (like I did!), head over to Ben Thành Market. Do not pay the price given unless you’re in the no haggling area. My new suitcase cost me $50 CAD whereas back home it would be closer to $150. If you want Adidas, Nike, or Underarmour, go to the Russian Market. They also have extras from shops like Zara, Banana Republic, and Mango! Some are knock offs, but there’s a good amount that’s just excess from the factories all in Vietnam. Lastly, there’s a food stall market which was quite possibly my favourite thing to do in Saigon aside from the museums. It’s just around the corner from the Ben Thanh Market and bares its name. Here you can find most Vietnamese dishes like Banh Mi, Pho, Bun Chai, and of course, my favourite, Banh Xeo.
While Saigon/Ho Chi Minh isn’t the prettiest, cleanest, or calmest city ever and despite its faults, I’m forever grateful for the chance to have visited and experienced all that makes it special.