vietnam, saigon :: scooters, sights and streetfood

I can’t even tell you how excited I am to be sharing the highlights of our recent trip to Vietnam. For me, these memories will only live on with more colour and vivacity through documenting the snapshots on this blog, so I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.

Firstly, our holiday was made infinitely better, more comfortable, more fun and memorable by the fact that we spent time with my sister-in-law (who I’ll refer to as BB) and her family. We stayed in their beautiful (BB is an interior/decor/furniture designer, so when I say beautiful, I mean it) house, and BB was such a fantastic guide – we only had to utter a request of something we wanted to see or do, and she would know exactly where to take us. We know that without their help, it would have been a lot more tiring and challenging to navigate our way through the city, so we are forever grateful! Most importantly, it was incredibly special to be able to spend time with the whole family, because as you can imagine, reunions don’t happen all that often.

Before we get stuck in, let me also just mention why I’ve chosen to refer to the city as Saigon rather than Ho Chi Minh City, which it is now officially called (but Saigon is still widely used). Speaking to a trusted and intelligent native (BB’s driver, who was so great and a huge help for us during our visit), he told us that the locals generally still prefer Saigon – in fact, he seemed to imply that they dislike calling it HCMC. The reasons are fairly self-explanatory (it was renamed HCMC after the reunification of the North and the South post-war, after their communist leader) and of course, it’s a generalisation, but I’m sticking to Saigon for a number of reasons.

My last little disclaimer is more of a warning – there is a serious overload of photos in this post (and probably all my other Vietnam ones). I debated whether to split them into “categories”, like I did with the New York posts, but ultimately decided that I wanted to present them in more of a photo diary format. It also enables me to relive the days as we spent them!

On our first day, we started off at the famous Ben Thanh market, which is more of a tourist attraction than anything else, but still a lot of fun to walk around. I did do some shopping here on our last day, when we returned, but only with BB by our side to haggle like a pro! When they saw our foreign faces (I don’t think I quite passed as Vietnamese…), we could basically see the dollar signs lighting up their eyes, so we definitely needed BB’s expertise. We sipped on fresh coconut water and marvelled at the activity, especially in the “wet food” section! 

We wandered around the streets, popped into some shops (there was an incredible embroidery shop where ladies were embroidering huge canvases by hand – amazing) – some of them trendy and contemporary, some selling local handmade goods. We walked past the Opera House, crowds of workmen having their lunch break and hanging out on the pavement, the endless scooters and motorbikes, and rundown buildings amongst sparkling new skyscrapers.

This was also the first time we experienced the terrifying ordeal of crossing the street in Saigon. There is this strange technique of walking slowly, and creating a seemingly impossible path for yourself amidst the bikers who, surely, are not going to run you over?! There was a lot of clutching of hands for me and E! 

And then came lunchtime. The thing is, I don’t even know if lunchtime exists in Saigon, because people seem to be eating every hour of every day. The streets are constantly lined with street food vendors, people sitting on low plastic chairs and having a bowl of noodles at 10am, ladies selling snacks you can only buy by the huge sackful, and men resting on their motorbikes with a Banh Mi in one hand, iced coffee in the other. The roads are constantly filled with the scent of herbs, soup and spices, and I’ve just never been in a place where there was always a person eating something or other, anywhere you looked.

For our lunch (actually, our first lunch – E and I had a big snack to save for later on), we grabbed a bite at a canteen that BB took us to, which was jam packed with locals – always a sure sign. We had the classic fried Vietnamese spring rolls which were pretty much perfect, not at all greasy, crispy and delicious. 

{Goi :: 87 Nguyen du, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City 01234}

We went for a walk in the sweltering heat to visit the famous Central Post Office, a typically French colonial building that has become one of the landmarks of the city. Inside, tourists were taking shelter from the sun, people actually posting things (I don’t know why that surprised me…), with a portrait of Ho Chi Minh front and centre. We also went past the Notre Dame Cathedral, but there seemed to be a wedding going on so we didn’t dare go in.

This may be a good time to talk about the unavoidable presence of communism that I felt in Saigon. It was odd to see the propaganda posters all over the streets and buildings, not because they were unexpected, but because it felt almost… cartoonish. And I noticed that much of the past propaganda artwork are actually being used in textile, homeware and souvenir designs, which is quite funny to see. 

I also saw a bride and groom getting photos taken outside the post office, and I watched on in awe of her make up, which was somehow not melting off in 36 degrees weather.

Lunch number two! Colin of SIN had told us that we absolutely must try the best Banh Mi in the world, at Banh Mi Hunyh Hoa. In fact, we found out during our trip that this is widely known as the best in town, so having been left to our own devices with BB off to collect her kids, we somehow made it there sans GPS and past a particularly perilous “roundabout” (with no lanes or anything). 

For a mere pound or so, and in the blink of an eye, our huge sandwiches were ready and we trekked along the busy streets until we found a nice park to sit in, and see what all this banh mi fuss was about.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was one epic sandwich. I actually had to take out some of the meat in there as a) there was a bit too much of it and b) what I really loved was the sauce, paté, the herbs and the pickles. It’s quite hard to describe banh mi if you’ve never tried one, but it’s basically an Asian baguette sandwich on steroids. Just take my word for it and try it. 

{Banh Mi Huynh Hoa :: 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, 1, Hồ Chí Minh}

After chilling out in the park for a while, people watching, and laughing at E for almost getting tricked into getting his shoes cleaned (Northern European boy’s first time in SE Asia. Enough said.), we headed home to play with our niece and nephews, and spend some time with BB.

There is so much more to say about Saigon, but I’m aware this post is pretty meaty already, so I’ll leave it for another time – there’s a lot more Vietnam to come. But suffice to say, we loved our first day there and couldn’t wait to wake up the next day for more. 

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