Thursday, June 10, 2010

Vietnam: Surviving Saigon

Saigon is fast, energetic, confusing, chaotic, colorful and very much an in-your-face kind of city. This was the first time I left the comforts and familiarity of my own country and I dove right in. The first thing I noticed about Saigon, or as it is now known, Ho Chi Minh City, is that every inch of every street is riddled with motorcycles. They own them. They rent them. They hire them. And they are good drivers, too. On a busy roundabout, cross the street and notice how each motorcycle will avoid you.

Saigon Chaos

Interesting, really, how different this city is, and we are literally one sea apart. What is more interesting, downright bizarre, is how even though Vietnamese and Filipinos are both Southeast Asians, you can clearly distinguish one from the other. We were walking on one side of the road and each and every motorcycle driver and passenger were eerily looking at us. They clearly knew we were not one of them.

And then, there's the food. If only for the food, I would return to Saigon many times over. Their version of fast food is one delicious, healthy and soothing bowl of pho (pronounced fah, not foe, stupid foreigner). No kidding. I think their version of Jollibee or McDonalds is Pho 24. It's pho fast food style. And it's good. Every other street corner has Pho 24. No wonder the Vietnamese are smaller and learner. They eat healthier.

Pho in Saigon

There is one other thing you will notice about Ho Chi Minh City. Coffee is a way of life. What is even more noticeable is that they prefer their coffee iced. Ca phe sua da, they call it. Iced milk coffee. Even in the morning, they want their iced coffee fix. We saw business men sitting down on a local café and discussing matters over cold glasses of their sweet and strong coffee.

Ca Phe Sua Da (Iced Milk Coffee)

One café I would definitely recommend is one right by the Saigon River. Café Park Bach Dang is how I found out about it on the Internet. It had a different name, however, when we got there. No matter. It is the only café on the dock. The best part about it is that the café is locals only. We were the only tourists there, which the staff and the patrons found quite unusual. Try to come around five or six in the evening. Ships, junks and floating restaurants with all their glittering lights will lazily pass by you.

By the Saigon River

The hotel we stayed in, as recommended by Lonely Planet, of course, is An An 2. The hotel, or kach san, is right in the heart of Saigon's backpacker district, Pham Ngu Lao. We came in at around 2 a.m. on a weekday and our area was still full of people, mostly foreigners. Music was playing loudly and lights flashing brightly. It is energizing to say the least.

Saigon Beer

To live in Saigon is to shop in Saigon. Be warned street-smart shopper, though. The Saigonese will loathe you for haggling. Ben Thanh Market, and its surrounding streets, in the center of town was where we primarily went. The stall vendors are aggressive and unforgiving. Be ready to buy if you want to browse through their merchandise. Either one of two things will happen. One, they will drive you away as you no longer mean business for them. Or two, they will claw at your arms and keep you prisoner unless you take out your wallet.

Snake Wine in Saigon

There are good finds, though. A lot of them. Mostly backpacks, shoulder bags, purses, etc. Things that will sell for 4,000 pesos here would cost around 1,500 pesos there. Factory rejects and overruns, of course. But unless people look closer, nobody will know the difference, won't they?

Made in Indochin Shirts

Made in Indochin Art

With a city as vibrant and vivid as Saigon, one could expect art to be just as lively. Fortunately, it is. We found one shop right along busy Bui Vien Street in the backpacker district. Mad in Indosin: Papaya T-Shirt is the name of the store. Yes, they sell t-shirts, too. The owner and his friend, the artist, are both French expats. The work, I think, does justice to the city. The art there, like Saigon, is like drawings in a comic book, brilliant and colorful.

Cheers to Saigon

Saigon will not be for the faint-hearted. Its streets are chaotic. Life is energetic. You will not expect soft-spoken and down-to-earth people to live here. And they don’t. Rightfully so. The Saigonese are not the politest people on Earth, I can tell you that much. You will have to learn their ways and mannerisms before you can appreciate them. Make no mistake about it. They will stress you out. With their loud voices and vigorous gestures, they will get to you. But that is just what makes their city as alive as it is. I will not want Saigon to be any different.

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