Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Is this the same city I last came to almost a decade ago? Honestly, if they hadn’t checked my boarding pass a couple of times before I got on the plane, I might be digging it out and checking it myself now.
Did I really just fly into Saigon? What’s happened to the place?
I remember Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as I probably should call it, but won’t) as an unbearably chaotic place. The noise and the crowds didn’t create vibrancy, it made it stifling and annoying.
After the relative charm of Hanoi, Saigon seemed like it was designed to crush you, rather than welcome you.
But that was ten years ago. Now, this time, I see that the city has changed. And maybe I have a bit too.
Saigon has entered the age of modern Asia.
Skyscrapers are going up in spaces where thin family homes would once have squeezed together above speciality shops. The most iconic of these tall buildings, affectionately known as the ‘shark fin’ by locals, can be seen from kilometres away.
A metro system will open in a couple of years and the construction sites for stations litter the centre of the city.
Next to one of them, near the tourist Mecca of Ben Thanh Market, a street that was once multi-laned has been closed to traffic in the centre and an unnecessarily large pedestrian mall stretches from the Town Hall and its statue of Ho Chi Minh down to the riverfront.
A Starbucks on the side of the road is an ominous sign of change (it’s one of only 18 Starbucks cafes in the whole country).
But these are the large symbols of progress, the examples of infrastructure that show Saigon is becoming more similar to cities like Bangkok or Jakarta. It’s more interesting to look at what’s happening in the surrounding suburbs.
In the local streets, you still get a sense of the Saigon you might imagine (although still different to how I remember).
Unofficial cafes and restaurant are set up on the street with tiny plastic chairs and tables that can be folded away at the first sign of police…
Motorbikes criss cross each other at intersections with no obvious system…
Men sit in groups and play cards while women watch toddlers pee into the gutter.
I would recommend exploring it with a guide, if you don’t know the city very well. There’s a great tour in a jeep you can do, or there’s also a good one on a cyclo.
In fact, there are lots of great tours of Ho Chi Minh City, so you can also consider these ones:
This is the Vietnam that I love and I wonder why I didn’t enjoy it last time. I considered myself to be an open and well-travelled person even then but perhaps it wasn’t that my eyes weren’t open, rather that I was looking for the wrong things.
Perhaps a decade ago I thought a city should be about tourist sights and everything else should be there to help facilitate that aim. I saw the hectic mess of traffic and the crowded streets as impediments rather than part of the cultural journey.
But Saigon for me now is about experiencing the food and drink, the lively nights and the steaming days. What I’m looking for and what I remember is different. And, let’s not forget, Saigon has changed and made that easier.
Perhaps it’s the Internet Age. That’s one of my theories as to why the city now offers a new culture for eating and drinking.
Trendy little cafes – dare I call them ‘hipster’ – are all across the cities, where you can order lattes while enjoying free fast wifi from your shared large polished wood tables.
Rooftop bars that resemble student gardens have extensive cocktail lists. Casual dining where expats and locals mingle favour quality over price.
There are Westerners at these places, sure, but it’s the wealthy millennial Vietnamese who make them their local haunts. I watch one Vietnamese girl spend ten minutes perfecting a selfie shot while her boyfriend patiently stirs and sips his cocktail.
In short, the fantastic food and coffee that’s always been on the streets has now spread to the new social meeting points of the well-off tech-savvy generation.
If you’re looking for the best places to eat and drink in Saigon, I recommend spots like Workshop and L’Usine for coffee, Secret Garden for dinner, and Cong Cafe for drinks.
(Thanks to Nomadic Notes and Jimmy Eats World for showing me some of these places.)
To explore this side of Saigon, you can do an excellent craft beer tour with food pairings.
Or there are some other great food tours that will show you the authentic side of the city’s cuisine:
I spend my time in Saigon enjoying it more and more every day. I start to wonder how I could ever have felt wary about coming back. I’m so glad I did. It’s left me with fresh eyes – newly opened eyes – for one of the most interesting cities in South East Asia.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh City is super busy but accommodation around District 1 will save you a lot of transport hassle.
For a modern and quiet hostel, I would suggest the awesome Tam Social Enterprise Hostel.
A comfortable budget option is Tripwriter Hotel… and I like the name!
For a stylish design hotel, you should try Cinnamon Boutique Hotel.
And if you want to splurge, I think one of the coolest hotels is The Myst Dong Khoi.
16 thoughts on “What’s happened to Saigon?”
Hi Micheal, It’s been three years ago when I first visited Saigon. And it was my third and last stop of my first time in Vietnam, after Hanoi and Hoi An. I had no idea what it may have looked like a couple of years ago, so I could only compare the city to my other stops. What striked me the most was that Saigon was a more modern, more western city as Hanoi. (I can’t really compare it to Hoi An, as it is not only a UNESCO city, but also so full with tourists that it was too much for me). Anyhow, Hanoi for me is much more the Vietnam that I fell in love with. Maybe it is because I don’t want to go to Starbucks when I travel, I want to eat the streetfood like a local and I don’t want to spend my evenings on fancy roof top bars, but rather with a local beer after having a spicy soup, slurped on a tiny plastic chair. 😉 It may be the view of a romantic traveler and it may be wrong, but that’s the way I like to travel. Anyhow, thanks for this beautiful article! I really would like to go back to Vietnam now! <3 xoxox, Angelika
Thanks for sharing such an interesting perspective. I know exactly what you mean and have quite similar sentiments. However, I liked both Hanoi and Saigon on this latest trip – for different reasons. Hanoi does feel a bit more ‘classic’ and there’s almost a romance to the streets and the energy on them. Saigon, on the other hand, is more modern but just as authentically Vietnamese, I think. Other than a few examples of globalisation, I think it’s still got all that buzz that is the best thing about the country’s big cities.
Oh dear – I’m not entirely happy about this. I visited (and LOVED) Saigon in 2007, but I guess that’s progress. I just hope the character hasn’t changed too much. I’ll have to visit again soon and see for myself.
I would love to hear what you think if you get back there again yourself one day. I felt like the character hasn’t really changed that much at all – it’s a huge city and most of it is still street stalls and chaotic traffic. It’s just around the centre that I saw more of these hipster cafes and trendy restaurants. In some ways it’s nice that most of this change has been organic and is catering to the trends of locals, rather than multinationals forcing their business on people (other than the Starbucks, obviously).
Cities are constantly growing and changing and (usually) progressing. Good to hear that you enjoyed it more the second time around!
Of course – as you say, cities are always changing. If you had a decade away and then went to London or New York, I’m sure you would find it different as well. So it probably shouldn’t be such a surprise. I actually liked the way it was moving with the times and becoming a more modern city for the residents but wasn’t losing too much of the local authenticity.
It’s strange really, I’m a 2nd generation Vietnamese-Australian and I’ve been back 6 times in 95, 2000, 2004 (stop over, grandfather passed away), 2010, 2012 & 2016. The first time I was over in 95, being a 14 year old, I wanted to go back to Australia ASAP, no Maccas, no Western conveniences I’m used to. The older I get, the more I appreciate my heritage and now it’s quite the opposite, when I’m back in HCMC (Saigon), I feel sad, it’s all about becoming to quickly “modernise” or “Westernise” a lot of the older culture I feel will go within 10-20 years. Apartments will mushroom, just how many more of those 3m frontage townhouses stuck side by side will still exist in 20 years time? On one hand, I’m happy the old country is developing, on another, it’s eroding the old way of life, I just feel that sweaty, dirty, grimy lifestyle will be buried with the older generation who will pass in time.
Flipping through some travel snaps, I felt sentimental and almost feel the most rapid period of transition would have been felt between my visits from 95 to 2000. The difference was stark, 95, Vietnam’s skyline was almost non existent. By 2000, it already developed a semi decent skyline, traffic was noticeably heavier with more cars on the road, the motorcycle was still king though and those rickshaws were diminishing! Frankly, a lot of the services were crap, hotels were grubby, tours were rather poorly prepared and presented and the attractions were far and few between. The majority of the ‘tourists’ were mainly Vietnamese living in the West.
By 2004, it was more an evolution rather than revolution, until probably 2010, but by then, the concepts of globalisation and internet that took the entire world by storm was already evident in Vietnam itself, that is, you wouldn’t find it much more different in Saigon than say, Sydney.
It’s so interesting to hear your point of view – as someone who has seen the city quite a few times over a long period. I can completely understand where you’re coming from. You can’t really argue with progress – everybody deserves that – and it certainly brings some benefits. But then there’s the unfortunate side effect of losing the original culture.
My experience in HCMC is that there’s still a good mix of culture and development but the balance is constantly changing. Who knows how it will look in another decade or two?
Saigon and most of Vietnam is very much behind the times. That is the effect of having a communist government. A lot of their internet is blocked and almost all their tv shows are home grown or imports from China and Korea. At least that was the way it was about 5-10 years ago. Since my last visit there have been major developments. The Metro, a few major shopping malls have opened, way more cars than ever before. Even the most ‘ghetto’ areas, such as district 4 where I am from, are singled out by the government for major developments.
There are also sweeping changes made by laws that will affect the character and charm of HCMC greatly. They’ve made it so that street vendors are no longer allowed to set up those small chairs and tables on the sidewalks to sell their food. You must eat in restaurants. This is a law that came into effect only a couple of months ago. The police have begun confiscating signs and chairs and tables that advertise food on the sidewalk.
The number of tourists flowing into the city are growing by huge numbers. So much so that Bui Vien/Pham Ngu Lao looks impossibly packed viewed from recent videos on youtube. There is barely walking space on the road, much less room enough for motorbikes and cars. I couldn’t believe how packed it is. It use to be a nice little lively area during the night but now it looks like Khao San road in Thailand. Just packed with foreigners drinking beer and sitting around. Basically the spillover from Thailand and Cambodia are making Vietnam into one of those party destinations. You see hostesses and scantily clad ladies walking around looking for johns and ‘customers’. It’s awful.
Saigon is losing it’s character and it’s charm. 2007 was the perfect time to visit Saigon because it was just the right mix of original character with hints of modernism. There were only a few Shopping malls. Tourists were visible but they weren’t in your face like they are now. They are literally everywhere. There weren’t many multinational franchises opened yet. I don’t remember even seeing a Starbucks. Most of the coffee shops were home grown like Cafe Nguyen. Now I see that even a Popeyes chicken chain has opened across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral. There was so many things that were just uniquely Saigon to me. But now they want to sweep it away and try to morph into something else. Something very commercial.
But I am speaking as an outsider, as someone from the west. Maybe this is something the people want. Maybe it’s good for them. It’s not something I would want but it would be unfair for me to want them to remain the Saigon I feel in love with the first time I visited.
I completely agree with your point that, as outsiders, we can’t expect a city to stay the same just because it’s more enjoyable to visit. Everyone deserves progress if they want it. But I wonder who really wants to see the food stalls on the street disappear, or have scantily-clad ladies servicing the tourism trade. I would be really disappointed if I went back again in another ten years and all of the charming things about Saigon had disappeared, just to be replaced by metro trains and department stores. I’m hopeful the authentic city will always be there somewhere, even if certain areas change a bit.
Oh, and thanks for your great comment – really appreciate it!
Hey Michael. I’m from Saigon and I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on my hometown. Please share more of what you experience in Saigon so I can learn what life is like from the perspective of a traveler. By the way I’m picking up some really awesome vocab to describe my city thanks to you!
Hi Dat. As you can see, I think Saigon is a fascinating place. It may not have a lot of tourist ‘sights’ but you could easily spend days exploring and still not feel like you’ve seen even a tiny fraction of the city.
I’ll try to write some more about Saigon and Vietnam at some point. Hopefully I’ll even do another trip!
Cities change, for better or worse, I feel that the difference between Hanoi and Saigon is that the former’s charm is the ‘place’ while Saigon’s is its ‘people’. It irks me whenever people claim ‘Hanoi feels more Vietnamese’ because there’s an element of cultural differences that people do not take into consideration.
In spite of all the changes on the physical level, Saigon is still as hectic and welcoming as ever, even if its traffic has progressively become worse but that’s what happens with an economic boom. I also feel that nostalgia can be a giant roadblock in moving forward. People all too often romanticise the past without cherishing the present.
Saigon still welcomes people from ‘tứ phương’ (four corners of the world), it still has its hundreds of little alleyways, it still retains hundreds of colonial remnants and its people are just as ready to offer a smile when greeted. That’s what makes Saigon for me, not what the physical form necessarily looks like or how bad the traffic can get.
Saigon is what Saigon is, you either love it or hate it. I love it!
A lot different from my last US sponsored trip in 1969. I wish nothing but the best for all the Vietnamese people.
I bet it’s changed!! Yikes! I think you would hardly recognise the country now. And what is so nice is that the history of the conflict seems to have been largely left in the past as the country finds a new identity in the 21st century.
the greatest source of freedom for Citizens [especially Christian Citizens and more especially Catholic Christians] of South Vietnam and those underground in North Vietnam are worthy of all they have to put up with. The Capitalistic Christian Societies and Cultures have always proven their statue of truth for all the world. 2 Thessalonians 3:10
For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.
For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement)