Vietnam has been called a nation on the rise but, I admit, I’ve never really felt a strong desire to visit. It’s a mainstay on gap year travel itineraries and, with very favorable exchange rates, a backpackers paradise, but it has never called to me. Maybe it is because of the pictures I’ve seen of congested scooter filled streets, stories of hustling and scams, or that the country is practically soaked in cilantro. Whatever the reason for my initial hesitation, a few days in Saigon pretty much wiped the slate clean.
Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh as it’s officially and less romantically known as, is the largest city in Vietnam and it feels like it. Covered in pastels and aqua color-palates, Saigon pulses with energy. Mopeds cover the streets and sidewalks like a blanket, and crossing the street is fraught with peril. Teresa and I arrived late in the evening, and after clearing customs, made out way to the hotel on streets still filled with people and traffic. Checking in to our hotel after a solid day of travel, most of it spent in the steaming miasma that is United Coach class, let us beat and we headed straight to bed.
We started our first full day with an excursion to the Mekong Delta, touring the lush wetlands, and the floating villages and markets. Teresa had fresh durian for the first time, served up from houseboat anchored in middle of the river. I think it’s fair to say she’s not going to become a durian enthusiast. I also think it’s fair to say that buying hot-ass fruit from a riverboat shanty probably isn’t the best idea we had that day.We did a little window-shopping at the Ben Thanh night market and enjoyed some spicy beef noodles and fried frog for dinner. It’s true what they say, frog legs really do taste like chicken.
On our second day, we toured the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Saigon. Afterwards, we headed back into the city to check out the Reunification palace and the War Remnants Museum. Vietnam has had a complicated history, to say the least, with western colonialism , first by the French then the U.S. The French influence can still be felt in the food and the architecture, from the Central Post Office building to the wide promenades that course through the city.
We closed out the day with a four hour food tasting around the city…by moped.
Racing through downtown Saigon’s notorious traffic on the back of a scooter, clinging to the tiny Vietnamese woman who’s driving, generates a lot of emotion. Emotions like fear. And terror. And more fear. The few thoughts that do manage to surface through the fright are not exactly comforting. Thoughts such as “will my disability insurance cover accidents out of the country” and “I really should have cleared my browser history” and “the one time I put lotion on my hands is the one time I desperately need to hold onto something”.
The initial terror subsides though, assuaged by amazing good food (and a few beers), and it turned out to be our favorite part of our short stay in Saigon. Tomorrow we catch an early morning flight north to Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital.
Where we stayed: Liberty Central Hotel, Riverside, District 1
What we did:
Buffalo Tours of Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta with Buffalo Tours
Food tasting tour by moped – one the best parts of the trip, not to be missed, with Back of the Bike
War Remnant Museum
Central Post Office
Ben Thanh night market
Bought disgusting durian from a river boat shanty – don’t do this.