Saigon is a hectic city, fact. Wandering along congested roads and equally congested pavements, you spend most of your time dodging motorbikes laden with an entire family happily piled on, dogs lapping their big tongues in the air, or squawking chickens restrained into a dozen boxes (and anything else they can squeeze on the vehicle). Large telephone wires hang precariously on street corners and traditional shops are squished next to Starbucks and international restaurants. Is easy to tell how long tourists have been there for by how long they take to cross the road.
The secret is- if you’re wondering, to keep walking and make eye contact with motor cyclists only stopping to allow them to drive round you. Saigon for me, didn’t indicate true Vietnamese people and their traditions. Riding in a taxi to the city centre I was intrigued by the numerous bright lights from shops and neon signs highlighting where to get what. Although the shops are modern, many of the streets are filled with restaurants that are built up of one woman adding herbs and spices into a boiling cauldron, and pre school sized chairs that circle her. Tables are rare, but if seen are constantly wonky. Although there are many restaurants floating about I would stay well clear from them, spotting a tourist from a mile away they rack up the prices for small amounts of average tasting food. Stick to eating off food stalls on the street, much cheaper, tastier and much more authentic. I went to the War Remnants Museum filled with archives from the war with evidence and photographs, as well as actual tanks and helicopters in its surrounding areas. This museum is not for the faint hearted as there is much shocking evidence of the Vietnamese suffering from birth defects from the war.
I spent an afternoon wondering the stalls in Ben Thanh Market, an interesting diverse market full of everything from tourist goodies to jewellery to clothes and much more, and it is very easy to get lost in. Although there is little to do in Saigon itself but to dodge motorbikes and learn about the history of the place, I recommend a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Saigon. You are led by a tour expert through the areas above the tiny and complex tunnel network, learning various ways of attack and you even get the option to crawl through a tourist sized version of a tunnel itself. A word of warning to all those that are interested in doing this- keep moving, keep breathing and if slightly larger than the rest of your group I would not advise it, as rumour has it, a tourist has been stuck before.
On the same day trip I went to Tay Ninh, a beautiful pagoda on the northern border nearing to China, although a slightly long journey, it is worth it to see hundreds of Buddhists flock to the temple for their daily prayer, all humming in unison, tossing their orange robes behind them and ignoring the flashes of tourists camera, starting fixedly at the holy Buddha that lay in front of them.
I stayed in Madame Cuc’s within the backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lao, which is clean, nice and not too pricey. If you do stay here I would suggest climb all the stairs to the roof, it has a great view over the city. As the main backpacker area is set on some crossroads, Id recommend wandering down the right hand side from Madame Cuc’s where you will find a back alley of a few great bars and… more great bars. Try stay away from the main ones on the strip, they compete with each other for customers and although a great place to sit and people watch, the clubs upstairs are of poor quality and are full of unfriendly prostitutes.
Although Saigon is an interesting city, I would recommend to stay here three days max there isn’t much to do or see and there are plenty more beautiful places to visit in Vietnam, that are filled with natural beauty or much friendlier people.