Visiting Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. About this time last year we were in Vietnam and spent a few days in and around Saigon. I know the map says Ho Chi Minh City but it seemed as if that name hasn’t really caught-on with the locals. Most people that we spoke with still call it Saigon.
The city is a study in contrasts but than so is Vietnam as a whole. Saigon still features mazes of streets thru neighborhoods packed with small merchants and thongs of people but there are also new upscale housing projects springing up everywhere. There is also a surprising number of new skyscrapers filling the skyline. A long time ago I remember a million bicycles filling this countries streets but they seem to have been replaced with mopeds and motorcycles.
Heavy moped traffic is everywhere and it wasn’t unusual to see two sometimes three people riding a moped carrying cartons stacked six feet high. On more than one occasion we say a mother, father and two or three children all on the same moped.
We were also puzzled to see a majority of the women riding mopeds wearing long sleeves, gloves and facemasks. Later we were told it is to protect them from the Sun. It seems that pale skin is important to women in Vietnam and they work at protecting themselves from the tanning rays.
In the city center near the Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral, you can hire a shinny new rickshaw that now peddles tourists around the central attractions.
The square next to the cathedral is dotted with American fast food outlets in case you need a fix of Dunkin Donuts or Carl’s. The old South Vietnamese Presidential Palace is now renamed the Reunification Palace and even with the numerous reminders of the war, most Vietnamese seem truly welcoming to visiting Americans (the official policy of the Vietnamese government is that America is now a valued ally and the people should welcome American visitors).
Vietnam is a bargain-hunters paradise and, at times, it is difficult to walk away from the bargains. One item that caught our attention in a number of places was the pop-up, laser-cut greeting cards. Vendors were all along Dong Khoi Street and these beautiful cards were being sold for the equivalent of a dollar or two each and we now wish we had bought more. Also the US dollar is widely accepted in Vietnam with the current exchange rate being about 23,000 Dong to the US dollar.
Dong Khoi is one of Saigon’s main shopping streets with many fashion clothing shops, galleries and furniture stores along with good hotels (Sheraton @ $150 a night) and really ood restaurants. Also on Dong Khoi is the famous Opera House, which often offers free operas. A block over is the notorious Rex Hotel with its rooftop bar that was a favorite hangout for war correspondents and military brass back in the day. They still have a great happy hour.
Ben Thanh Market. The cities central market and a must-visit it is Vietnam’s largest and most diverse shopping experience. In the early mornings locals are shopping for fresh meats and produce. Later fashion stalls take over for the rest of the day. Everything is there from silk outfits to bargain T-shirts. You can get printed T’s four as little as US$3 but we would recommend buying two or three sizes too big. I bought some large shirts that won’t fit over my head. The market is also famous for rows of coffee traders, selling an amazing selection of beans. Vietnam has become a major coffee producer with it being one of their major cash crops. Come nighttime a night market opens up alongside the main building, selling everything from clothing, to souvenirs until almost midnight.
Saigon is famous for Lacquer painting, known as sơn mài, made from the resin of the sơn tree. The art form was developed in Vietnam combining French styles with Oriental themes.
From Ho Chi Minh City you can also book a number of excursions and day tours. In the city is the Mariamman Hindu Temple, the Jade Emperor Pagoda and the War Remnants Museum. There are also a number of free guided walking tours sponsored by local schools to give students experience with English. Day tours include the technicoloured Cao Dai Temple, as well as trips to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta.
Planning a trip to Vietnam soon? We would recommend it but before you go you need a visa. While the government is friendly to Westerners that doesn’t mean they don’t need to know who you are and why you a visiting. Not too many years ago you needed an official guide to travel around the country but that has been mostly eliminated now. Getting a visa isn’t the easiest thing to do on your own we we would recommend a Visa Service to help . It might also be helpful to talk to a Tour Guide service to help you plan your visit.
Note To American Vietnam War Veterans: Before going back “in country” I had some real mixed emotions. I had experienced traveling in Europe in the early 60’s and witnessed some tense moments between Germans and people that had once been occupied. What would it be like in Vietnam? Don’t be concerned. I met more people that have bad feelings toward the current communist government than ex-American GI’s. We did run into one or two people that wanted to remind us of the war (mostly middle aged men with party affiliation) but usually we felt really welcome there.
Pictured is the Rex Hotel, a favorite hangout in Saigon for reporters, U.S. military and diplomats during the Vietnamese war. Still as popular as ever.