Saigon, the city of surprises

An explosion of horns filled the air as we crossed the central square in district 1 on our last night. We looked to our right and saw a mob of mopeds waving Vietnam flags and chanting at the top of their lungs. At first I thought it was a mass protest, but the people riding the bikes seemed a little too happy. Joe stopped one and asked what was happening, to which the chirpy young man shouted ‘football!’

My first impressions of Saigon (also know as Ho Chi Minh) weren’t the greatest. Hundreds of high rise buildings, built for purpose not beauty, loom over the filthy streets, which are bombarded with thousands of motorists who still haven’t worked out how to use their damn mirrors. Hanoi was also busy, but had picturesque French colonial architecture to draw your attention away from the anarchy of modern-day city life.

Women dressed in hooker heels and skin tight dresses parade themselves back and forth outside “beauty parlours” with neon 24/7 opening times. It was hard not to stare as we walked passed at least four on our way to breakfast, and I often wondered if these girls chose this career because it was good money, or if it were chosen for them.

The seedy undertones of Saigon were clear as day when the sun set. The backpackers district became flooded with thirsty tourists eager to let a load off. Cringeworthy nightclubs like ‘The Ride of Your Life’ pump out top 40 hits until the early hours. They’d be better off with a name like ‘The Horny Westerners Watering Hole’.

During our 3 day stay we slept in an Air BnB in the centre of the city. Residential homes are tucked away behind hotels and shops in a labyrinth of alleyways. We got lost one evening after a few drinks, and even the location device on our phones couldn’t work out where we were! But with a little help from the locals we made it back safe.

I think my initial approach to Saigon was lazy. I’d heard so many wonderful things about the city that I assumed it would be easy to navigate around. But if you want to find the little gems hidden underneath the rocky surface, you need to dig a bit deeper.

We came across a beautiful French restaurant called Cocotte on our last evening, nestled in a alleyway opposite a night market. The food was spectacular, cheap, and it was an incredibly romantic meal.

If you want a good view of the city, then I suggest a few cocktails at The View Rooftop Bar, which describes itself as a mini Hoi An. Beautiful lanterns illuminate the Saigon skyline, which on a clear night is breathtaking.

What really made the trip for me though was when the city erupted into a frenzy of excitement after Vietnam made the quarter-finals in the Asian Cup. Tens of thousands of mopeds took to the streets to celebrate the victory, and I’ve never seen such an empowering sense of national pride, and I was in Chicago when the Cubs won the World Series!

Would I recommend a visit? It wouldn’t be my top choice of city, but if you’re in the area it’s worth stopping by.


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