Saigon: the Streets
Our last stop in 'Nam--and yes, now that I've been there, I can call it that, thank you very much--was Ho Chi Minh City, ne Saigon, ne ... I have no idea, but something in Vietnamese, I suppose. Whatever. After seeing the rest of Vietnam and spending four days in Hoi An (which, as I said, is very pretty and quaint, but a little, well, Podunk after spending a year in Shanghai), I was excited to see what 'Nam's biggest city had to offer.
The answer, unfortunately, was not much. Well, that might be a little harsh, but I was a bit disappointed in Saigon. (And yes, everyone there calls it Saigon, and you still see the name Saigon everywhere around town, which is something I was curious about.) I guess I was expecting to find a BAMC (Big Asian Mega-City) like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, etc.), but--other than its size--it wasn't really that much like any other BAMC I had been to. Sure, it was kind of crowded, and traffic was kind of bad (although, like Hanoi, it was more scooter-based than car-based), there seemed to be a lot of boutiques and restaurants, but it just felt small compared to other BAMCs. And yes, it is a bit strange that a city of more than 6 million people can seem "small," but it's true.
I think part of it was that it hadn't been that built up yet, mostly, I suppose, because Vietnam was closed off for a fairly long time--I don't think relations with the US were normalized until the mid-90s, and possibly even later. As I said, it's a big city, but there's not a lot of big buildings, not a lot of density, and--as far as I could tell--not a lot of money, which also makes it very different from other BAMCs. For example, none of the old, famous hotels--the Continental, the Caravelle, and so on--were really very nice. (Well, famous if you read things like The Quiet American and Dispatches, anyway. And if you don't read things like that, what sort of crap do you read?) (Never mind--I don't want to know. Just say it's not John Grisham.) (I told you not to tell me!) On the contrary, they all seemed very, very rundown, like no one had really bothered fixing them up since the Americans were kicked out--excuse me, "left of our own accord"--in the mid-70s. Probably because no one had bothered fixing them up, I suppose. Although, for the record, there was one very nice hotel--the Park Hyatt Saigon--so maybe things are looking up.
There was also a decided lack of Western influence in the stores and shops--I think the only Western chain I saw was KFC, and I only saw one of those. And no, I'm obviously not saying that's a bad thing, although I wouldn't have minded the chance to add a Ho Chi Minh City mug to my Starbucks mug collection (have I admitted to collecting those yet? It's embarrassing, I know, the modern-day equivalent of Hard Rock t-shirts, but what can you do?), but it was just surprising, and something else I wasn't expecting.
But I wasn't turned off--or at least, not turned on--by the HCMC because of any of those reasons, although they obviously didn't increase my love of the place. No, the real problem was that we were there for four nights, and there wasn't four days worth of stuff to see. Yes, we took some interesting side trips--more about those in the future--but after wandering through some of the war-related stuff (the museum, the old palace, etc), there wasn't much else to do. Sure, we wandered around the city, took some recommended "walking tours" in our various guidebooks, but we didn't stumble upon anything too thrilling. Maybe at this point we had been on the road to long (we were both looking forward to our next stop--Thailand's beaches!), but who knows. Anyway, as with everywhere else, it's not like I'm saying don't go to Saigon--we did have some amazingly good French and Vietnamese food, which was totally worth it--but just don't, you know, stay for a week ...
At any rate, here's Saigon, from the roof-top of one of the rundown hotels, although I forget which one:
Proof that it is indeed still Saigon:
More proof down a random side street in what I'm assuming was downtown Saigon:
The Continental, where--from what I can tell--most of the Vietnam war reporters like to hang out and drink on the patio. Or something. Sadly, the hotel hasn't really done anything with this "fame," and the patio is a crappy little place on the side that sells overpriced beer (although you do get free peanuts, which is something) and has two big flat panel TVs showing the Star Network, of all things. Nothing like hanging out, having a beer, and trying to people-watch with some crappy Dennis Quaid movie blaring out of the TV right behind you:
The view down on the main streets:
Town hall. And yes, it was built by the French. How could you tell?
The Saigon River. Not quite as built up as, say, Shanghai, is it?
That noodle shop (the 2000 sign) is famous because Clinton stopped there to eat (in 2000, duh) when he visited Vietnam. Everyone in Vietnam--and Asia in general--loves Clinton, for the record. But as for me, I say curse those heady days of peace and prosperity! We're much better off now with a president who doesn't commit terrible outrages like feeling up interns! Aren't we?
Some random "flavor of life" street scenes:
The market. Pretty super, huh? And no, that doesn't make it a supermarket, but nice try:
Ah, the butcher. Here's a tip: when in Saigon, buy your meat EARLY in the day. I'm not sure (thankfully) what all that is, but if I had to guess the words stomach, brain, and intestine would probably come up ...
Me, being clever with my camera. The purple things are mangosteens, and are really, really good. Very sweet, but very good. The things in the back ... I forget what they are called. I think technically they are rambutans, but I forget. Ah, old age:
These are DEFINITELY bananas. I'm not that old, apparently. Although, unlike Hanoi, fruit sellers like this were a rare site:
Coconut sellers, however, were everywhere. As you can see, like Hanoi, the pajama look is very popular, although in Saigon they like to mix it up a little, change out the tops and bottoms, instead of wearing just one solid color. Very cosmopolitan and all:
I think in English their names are "Ponch" and "John." No, I'm not sure which is which, either:
Turns out, people like to ride bicycles in Saigon:
Wedding photos outside an old church:
Random local place we ate dinner. It was crowded, and there were not a lot of foreigners. Which was strange, since I think it was in a guidebook or magazine or something:
The actual food we ate at said restaurant. It was barbecue, and it was lovely, thanks:
Hanoi-style fruit sellers looking out of place in the big, bustling modern (well, modern circa 1977 or so) city of Saigon:
And with that bit of biting social commentary, I'm done for now. More from Saigon soon!
Previously, on my vacation:
- Hoi An: The River.
- Hoi An: My Son.
- Hoi An: the People.
- Hoi An: the Streets.
- Hue: Zoom, Zoom.
- Hue: the River.
- Hue: the Imperial Tombs.
- Hue: the Imperial Palace.
- Hue: the Streets.
- Halong Bay: the Videos.
- Halong Bay.
- Hanoi: the Random.
- Hanoi: Water Puppets.
- Hanoi: the "Hilton." '
- Hanoi: the People.
- Hanoi: Zoom, Zoom.
- Hanoi: the Streets.