Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Backpacking Itinerary: Saigon in One Day

Of all the cities in Asia, Saigon is the one place I seem to come back to over and over. Four times now I have been to Saigon. The first time I was here was actually the first time I traveled outside of my country. Not that I intended any of my return visits to happen. It's just a convenient stopover in mainland Southeast Asia to and from Manila. Needless to say, I have covered the basics of this city a few times now. Doing an DIY tour of Saigon's main sights is pretty easy anyway. Saigon isn't the kind of place you travel slowly in. It's chaotic. It's fast. And you'll want to get with the city's frenetic pace to experience it the right way. So which sights to see in Saigon? Here's a one-day Saigon itinerary. Yes, Saigon can be done in one day!

Saigon Chaos
Chaos on Saigon streets? Nah. Just good ol' Saigon rush hour.


FIRST STOP IN THE SAIGON ITINERARY
Backpacker District Pham Ngu Lao

Backpacker District, Saigon, Vietnam
Saigon backpacker district in the morning. Heck yes, people are still asleep.

Start early. Maybe around 8am? No? You're on vacation, you say? Alright, I'll allow 8:05am. Assuming you are staying in Saigon's backpacker district along and around Pham Ngu Lao Street, grab a banh mi from any street-side stall in the area. That's a baguette filled with cured meats, liver paté, and a lot of vegetables. While you're at it, grab a tall glass of ca phe sua da. That's coffee prepared and served in a very Vietnamese way. It's cold, very sweet, very milky and very strong. Once done, make sure you have your comfortable shoes on. This will be a long day.


SECOND STOP IN THE SAIGON ITINERARY
Reunification Palace

Reunification Palace, Saigon, Vietnam
Ooooh la la. Communist chic.

This former presidential palace is nothing architecturally spectacular, apart from its very unabashed throwback to communist aesthetics. Historically speaking, however, it does pack a lot of punch. The storming of the gates of the Reunification Palace on April 30, 1975 by a large North Vietnam tank signified the end of the Vietnam War. The American-backed south finally fell to the communist north under the command of Uncle Ho Chi Minh. It is for this reason that the southern capital of Saigon was renamed after Vietnam's revered leader. Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City.

Reunification Palace, Saigon, Vietnam
Wonder what historic decisions
were made in this historic room?
Reunification Palace, Saigon, Vietnam
Hey, Ho, Uncle Ho!


THIRD STOP IN THE SAIGON ITINERARY
War Remnants Museum


Photo by Prenn | CC BY-SA

Very close to the Reunification Palace is the very heavy and very graphic War Remnants Museum. Apart from the disused military equipment and machines, there are graphic photographs, showing among other things the vile effects of the chemical warfare that went on during the Vietnam War. While the museum does expose some real ugly scenes from the war, it must be remembered that the museum is a propaganda institution for what was a northern Vietnamese government which constructed the museum right after it subjugated the south. Most of the displays are about the atrocities of the south. Nothing about the massacres and land mines courtesy of the north.


FOURTH STOP IN THE SAIGON ITINERARY
Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon, Vietnam
Très française. Oui ?

From the War Remnants Museum, head back to the Reunification Palace. The architecturally stunning Notre Dame Cathedral lies a few blocks away just across the beautiful tree-lined park in front of the palace gates. I'm used to seeing churches and cathedrals, coming from the very Catholic Philippines and all. The old quarter of my city Intramuros in Manila has a UNESCO World Heritage church in fact. The Notre Dame Cathedral still impresses though with its very clear French design. No wonder. The original building materials were imported from France.


FIFTH STOP IN THE SAIGON ITINERARY
Saigon Central Post Office

Central Post Office, Saigon, Vietnam
Designed by Gustav Eiffel. Yes, same French dude.

Another architecturally stunning structure can be found right beside Notre Dame Cathedral. The Saigon Central Post Office also exudes very French characteristics. It should. The very famous Gustav Eiffel (the same guy that constructed what is arguably the most famous landmark in the world, that steel tower in the French capital city) designed this post office. Head inside and you will see that not only is this a post office, it is a veritable tourist attraction. Lots of tourist knick knacks on sale here. Just for the heck of it. Buy a postcard and a stamp. Send it to somebody back home. A landmark post office like this deserves to be used the way it should.


SIXTH STOP IN THE SAIGON ITINERARY
Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon

Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon, Vietnam
Achieve noodle Nirvana in one bowl of soup!

At this point, I'm sure you are a bit knackered and quite ready for lunch. Hang on a little bit longer. I know the perfect spot. It's a little far off from the trail but very much worth the visit. I'm am talking about Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon, of course. The Saigon Lunch Lady is becoming a Saigon institution ever since famous chef Anthony Bourdain had a taste of her delicious soup and noodles. I have had a bowl of said noodles. And yes, you will reach noodle Nirvana after one sip.


SEVENTH STOP IN THE SAIGON ITINERARY
Jade Emperor Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda, Saigon, Vietnam
Oasis of calm in a fast-paced city and all that shiz

Once you've had a full bowl of tasty soup and noodles form Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon, you will want to take it easy. Head to the nearby Jade Emperor Pagoda to quietly take in the heady incense smoke, the array of religious figures and wall carvings, and the tortoises (live tortoises in the pond outside). This a Taoist temple built by Saigon's Chinese community in 1909. Inside the temple, things remarkably slow down, a huge contrast to the very fast pace of the city outside.

Jade Emperor Pagoda, Saigon, Vietnam
Joss Sticks
Jade Emperor Pagoda, Saigon, Vietnam
Joss Stone?


EIGHT STOP IN THE SAIGON ITINERARY
Café Vuon Kieng

By the Saigon River
Coffee by the Saigon River. Yes, please.

Slow down a bit further by sipping your second cup of ca phe sua da in Café Vuon Kieng, a café close to the Bach Dang Pier right by the Saigon River. Lazily watch ferries and boats pass by. I know. You are coming from the Jade Emperor Pagoda. It's a very long walk to the pier. Now, this is where your courage will come in. Right outside the pagoda will be a number of motorcycle taxis. Hire one. A ride to the pier should cost around 2 to 3 US dollars (40,000 to 60,000 VND), cheaper if you can bargain well. Get on the motorcycle and truly feel Saigon's energy by being one with the river of motorcycles speeding through the city's streets.


NINTH STOP IN THE SAIGON ITINERARY
Ben Thanh Market

Coffee, Saigon, Vietnam
Coffee madness at Ben Thanh Market. I wanted them all.

From Café Vuon Kieng, head back to Ben Than Market to do some shopping, of course. How ever can you exclude shopping from your Saigon experience? Ben Thanh Market closes as 6pm but if you don't make it before closing time, the streets right beside the market explodes into a flea market cum food market at night. Buy your clothes, your coffee and all your souvies. Then, plop on over one of the food stalls and maybe have a banh xeo for dinner. That's omelet Vietnamese style. By that, I mean omelet with lots of fresh vegetables and spicy fish sauce as condiment.


Cheers to Saigon
Cheers to Saigon!

From Ben Thanh, make your way back to the nearby backpacker district along Pham Ngu Lao. Maybe cap off the night with a beer or two. It's a congratulatory drink. At this point, you have basically covered all of Saigon's main attractions in one day. Saigon in one day! Doable, right? Your legs and feet may be killing you at the end of this one day in Saigon, but it is doable. Sleep it off. Time to explore the rest of Vietnam tomorrow.



Follow this map for your DIY tour of Saigon in one day.


Have you done a similar tour of Saigon? What are your recommendations? Did your legs and feet also file a complaint against you?


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