First Impressions of Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon
I’m well into my second week of living in Vietnam, and I’m still trying to get my bearings. When you land in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon and still called that by most, it doesn’t take you long to realize that everything is coming at you fast and furious…motorbikes, people, and life in general. Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest and most populated city, with 10+ million inhabitants.
Saigon is dizzying, in the best sense of the word. I feel as if I’m caught in the middle of a colorful turnstile that doesn’t stop spinning, lights flashing, bikes honking, construction rigs drilling 24/7. It has a totally unique feel reminiscent of the frenzy of India but without the chaos. It’s a city with an intense pulse, pushed and pulled by the throngs of motorbikes rushing through the city. When you’re ready to jump in, it will be there for the taking. Until you’re ready, however, it’s best if you just walk at a gentle pace – not too slow, not too fast.
Free Daily Laundry Service & Housekeeping
Upon landing, my fellow Remote Year participants and I were greeted by our city hosts, Skye and Peter, with banh mi (a traditional and delicious pork sandwich on french bread) and whisked to our new homes for the month. The majority of the group is living in Saigon Mansion, located in District 3 – a fantastic walking area close to supermarkets, cafés, and the major city attractions located just a short walk away in neighboring District 1. While not as large as the apartment in Kuala Lumpur, the apartment is brand new with upscale appliances. Best part? Daily, free laundry service and housekeeping. Here’s a quick tour of my (and my two roommates’) apartment!
We end up spending the majority of our time at the kitchen table, working, making breakfast or just bonding over good old girl talk! Our second favorite place is the balcony, when the construction noise isn’t too loud across the street.
Remote Year Workspace + Vietnamese Cafes
Our office space is located a ten minute walk from the apartment and is located in a converted mansion, offering inexpensive cooked lunches, a swimming pool, and good wifi.
As cute as the office is, I find myself working out of one of the adorable Vietnamese cafés around the city more often than not. There is nothing better than a delicious Vietnamese iced coffee on a hot day in Saigon.
Dongs, $0.25 Beers, Rooftop Gardens, and Lunch Lady Phở
Vietnam is incredibly affordable by Western standards. One US dollar is equivalent to ~23,000 Vietnamese Dong. The jokes about how many Dongs people owe one another are endless, as are the ones about being millionaires. On our first night in Saigon, the group went out to Bui Vien Street, also known as Bar Street – the spill-onto-the-street kind of bar scene full of backpackers, tourists, street food vendors (like fried rehydrated squid) and night market hawkers.
This was my first introduction to Bia Hoi – $0.25 beers, or Vietnam’s version of Bud Light- a light lager with a low alcohol content.
The food in Vietnam is phenomenal, and I haven’t had a single bad meal yet. The variety of fruits and spices used in ever dish is astounding, and it has been refreshing to incorporate more greens back into my diet after Malaysia. Saigon has some of the most famous food in the world, including phở (pronounced ‘fa-uh’)- a delicious broth-based noodle, meat and herb soup prepared in different manners throughout the country. A few Remote Years and I ate lunch at The Lunch Lady, made famous by Anthony Bourdain. She supposedly serves one of the best phởs in the country – creating a different variation each day. We enjoyed fried spring rolls and her famous phở while sitting on small, red plastic chairs on the street – a typical way of gathering for meals in Vietnam. I also had the pleasure of joining a friend for phở at a vegan restaurant, which served equally, if not better, tofu phở!
Similar to Kuala Lumpur, Saigon has a thriving rooftop nightlife scene. Warm nights lend themselves to the perfect excuse to be outside. Rooftop bars like Chill Skybar and Broma, as well as restaurants like Secret Garden and Mountain Retreat serve as an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the street noise below.
French Influenced Architecture
Prior to arriving in Saigon, I did not have a clear picture of the city in my head. I was pleasantly surprised that the city is very well laid out. The neighborhoods are split into Districts, similar to Paris’ Arondisements, and the streets tend to be wide boulevards with well paved roads. Much of the city’s architecture was inspired by the French, who conquered Vietnam in 1859. A number of classical Western-style buildings and French villas remain in the city and reflect this era of Vietnam’s history. As part of my Remote Year city ‘track,’ I toured a few of the French inspired buildings around Saigon, including the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica, the Saigon Opera House and the Central Post Office, which was supposedly designed by Gustave Eiffel – the same architect as the Eiffel Tower.
Finding Headspace in Saigon: $0.50 Uber Moto Rides
Overall, my first impression of Vietnam is excellent. I’m starting to clear a bit of headspace to make sense of it all. The best thing about Saigon thus far? Uber Moto, by far. It is hands down the best way to get around the city and, surprisingly, the few times I have felt the most calm I have been since my arrival. Aside from being incredibly cheap – I haven’t spend more than $2 USD going quite far on an Uber Moto bike – the service is excellent. The driver picks you up wearing an Uber vest and helmet, with a helmet for you to wear as well. I was a bit nervous taking my first ride, but I quickly found that being on the back of a motorbike is just about the best thing ever. Instead of feeling like you’re drowning in a sea of bikes, you are riding a current. From the outside looking in, it appears crazy, scary, frenetic. But once in it, you start to see and understand there is a whole language and art to moving through the city on a motorbike. A honk is not just a honk – it’s a way of talking to other motorbikes. More on motorbiking in Vietnam in a later post but, for now, welcome to Vietnam!
Five Ways to Experience Vietnam in Your Own City
- Buy yourself a Bia Hoi at your local beverage retailer
- Find an excellent Vietnamese restaurant in your area and try the phở soup
- Try a banh mi sandwich.I guarantee there is a banh mi sandwich shop near you; it’s worth trying and will not disappoint.
- Take motorbike lessons in your city or sign up for a service like Scoot, a Zip-car like service for motorbikes
- Seek out a rooftop garden or restaurant for a calming oasis
What are your favorite things to see and do in Saigon?