Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

In August 2010, I took my wife Na to see Vietnam. I'd already been once, in 2006, to Hanoi which I chose to see the more core Vietnam culture and because I prefer more relaxed, laid back places, but I didn't want to go to the same place again so we opted to see Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City when the Communists took over in 1975 but as we found upon arrival, most locals still refer to it as Saigon.

What strikes you most when you enter a Vietnamese city is the apparent chaos of the traffic, though it's not chaos to the Vietnamese. Most intersections have no lights but all the motorcycles and cars just flow thru from all directions continuously and miraculously not broadsiding each other, the traffic always moving albeit slowly, and horns constantly and habitually tooting. Amidst that are pedestrians crossing the road and some bicycles. The horns are a constant assault on the ears, something which still stands out most in the mind of my wife -- Vietnam = horns tooting all the time.

Saigon is actually a lot more like Hanoi than I expected, in that the people are nice, gentle, and accommodating. In the south, they are much more businesslike and have a moderately fast paced demeanor, but are still pleasant. They all hustle for their money, and you don't see people kicked back. Very industrious.

Grabbing a guide book on the way to the airport, I saw that the best location and place for expats to set foot to look for an economical hotel was Bui Vien Road, and we eventually settled upon what I think is the best hotel of all, the new Seventy Hotel, a shophouse hotel, at $22 per night, where we got a very big and comfortable bed with thick comforter, good hot water shower, 30 inch LCD TV with several foreign channels, and free WiFi. We were able to get a center room with no windows, buffered by rooms on both sides, so we heard absolutely no traffic.

There really isn't a lot to say about Saigon which I didn't already write about in my article on Hanoi, except that Saigon has far more expat tourists, is a much busier city with a lot more traffic, and you can find a few more people who speak good English.

There are some small parks which are nice. They attract a lot of people and get crowded at night. Everybody is nice and pleasant. Many of them play a game kicking a feather on a spring with a couple of flat weights on it. I've never seen anything like that before. It seems to be a friendly group activity, with females joining in. The simple athleticism is amazing, especially how they let the object fly over their head so they can kick it from behind their back using the sole of their shoe, obviously not able to see their own foot.

The main market is in the center of the city just about a 20 minute walk away. However, you don't see many core Vietnamese products. The main unusual things are lacquerware, items made from seashells, and items made from buffalo horns. I didn't want to buy the latter since I didn't want to encourage the cutting off of buffalo horns.

As for the wartime museum and all that, I declined to go there simply to avoid the depressing issue. It's amazing to me that the US engaged in a war in this kind of place, as a part of post-colonialism, against the imagined communist menace. In fact, the Vietnamese despised the Chinese due to hundreds of years of Chinese conquest. There were so many misunderstandings and missteps in that war, largely because the US government mistakenly and very simplistically saw an imagined battle for control of the world by monolithic communism vs. capitalism. Anytime you introduce soldiers and guns, you can expect some abuses and atrocities. Of course, we also outright bombed Hanoi heavily... there was Agent Orange... and lots more. The images of modern warfare hitting country people and communities is just too painful. Imagining myself in their shoes, I just feel so sorry for those people ... and it is so remarkable how well they have left the past to be the past without holding any significant grudges, a big credit to their people, both in Hanoi and Saigon.

A big frustration is that on our second day, internet and all phones were cut. Looking in front of the building, the telephone people were simply cutting down dozens of phone wires en masse. They were apparently installing new phones, but instead of installing the new lines first, they simply cut off everybody for at least a few days before laying the new cable. Internet and phones were out down the street, the main tourist center of Saigon and where so many hotels and other places depended upon communications for their business. Something like this is not uncommon in a "socialist" country where you don't have a free press where anybody can complain about government ineptitude.

Traveling to places like Vietnam make you really appreciate Thailand.

Anywhere you go, you must eat local food. Nobody in Vietnam understood "no MSG" nor "no monosodium glutamate" which became an issue because my wife started getting chronic headaches. (MSG is a flavor enhancer added to a lot of Asian food. It works on the nervous system to dilate and sensitize the taste buds, but it has side effects.) This is something I recommend a visitor get translated into Vietnamese in advance and keep a few paper copies of, to show to the restaurants. (In Thailand, there are restaurants with signs which say "No MSG", and many cooks know "MSG" in English, plus if you have a Thai translation then practically everybody understand that. MSG has also been recognized as a health issue ever since I came here in 1994 and knew Thais who also requested no MSG on their own.)




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