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.
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.
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.
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 new hotels in the city is The Myst Dong Khoi.