Updated: Nov 14, 2018
1 May 2009
And so we arrive at our last city in Vietnam – Saigon. Our expectations of this city are low – much of what we’ve read suggest a massive, crowded, noisy concrete metropolis that should be treated as a gateway and best and got out of as quickly as possible. We’re forced to spend a night here as we couldn’t connect to our international flights the same day, so we’re going to make the best of it. On the upside, going in with low expectations means that you have a far better chance to be pleasantly surprised...
Despite our best efforts to avoid it, we make a bad call on the taxi front and managed to get ripped off for the ride into town. It’s not that it was a lot of money, but it’s the principle of the thing you know.
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?: In 1975, Saigon fell to the north Vietnamese army, and the following year was officially renamed to Ho Chi Minh City. So why am I not entitling this entry “Ho Chi Minh”? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Many of the locals still call this city by its former name, and technically, HCMC refers to the greater metropolitan area, while Saigon is the name for the district 1 or the city centre. It’s similar to the District of Columbia vs. Washington or Canberra vs. the ACT. Since we never made it that far out of town, I think I’m safe using the S-word.
For our one night in the big smoke we’re staying at the Duxton Hotel, selected after some careful sleuthing on Trip Advisor and the like. To quote the web site’s blurb, it’s “located right in the heart of vibrant Ho Chi Minh City”, and as we drive in we are indeed pleasantly surprised (see, I told you). Indeed, I’d go as far to say that we’re impressed. The streets of district 1 (aka Saigon) are big, broad and attractively lined with trees and wide, usable sidewalks. Granted we’re arriving on a public holiday, but the traffic is minimal – certainly far less than we experienced in Hanoi. The Duxton Hotel is indeed conveniently placed right in the ‘French Quarter’ of Saigon, and the surrounding buildings and boulevards attest to the designation.
After checking in we go for a bit of a random wander and quickly stumble across some very attractive sights, including the Opera House, City Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Post Office (more on these in a bit), without really trying.
One thing Saigon does have a good reputation for is food – apparently far better than anything else in Vietnam, and way way better than anything you’re going to be served at your favourite Vietnamese restaurant back home (yes, even yours). As our initiation into this culinary venture, we took lunch at the Temple Club, a very atmospheric colonial style restaurant that had received glowing reviews. Unfortunately, Lynn’s choice took a couple of goes to get right, but in the end the food was just fine and the setting perfect.
After a spot of lazing and digesting back at the hotel we set out on a more serious and structured exploration of the surrounding streets. As Robert Reid’s map shows, this isn’t particularly challenging – the sights are densely packed around here and it’s easy to tick them off at a pretty rapid pace.
The Vietnam Times: International newspapers such as the Herald Tribune or Australian are hard to come by, but the English language Vietnam Times often makes for an amusing, if somewhat self centred alternative. The concept of political correctness is still in its infancy here, as you can see by the following sampling:
Job recruitment ads stating that candidates must be young, male and good looking. We’re not talking about models or perhaps flight attendants here – these are ads for run of the mill positions such as a project manager.
The Hanoi city government are considering requiring doctors working in public hospitals to have a medical certificate! The article goes on to point out that in other countries this is actually common practice, and in some cases doctors have to study for several years before being able to take the test. [Note to self – get really good medical coverage and evacuation insurance for the next trip].
The same body of elected leaders are also considering legislative changes that would for the first time promote the construction of family apartments in Hanoi, rather than individual houses. Given the chaos and crowding of this city, you would have thought that this would have occurred to them somewhat sooner.
And, one of my personal favourites – an article about a new federal government program to increase the average high of the population by a few centimetres.
One of our personal favourites was the Post Office, which sounds a little strange I know, but the inside has to be seen to be believed. A beautifully decorated, curving ceiling, old fashioned teller counters and the best bit was the telephone booths – like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. Hopefully our somewhat dorky pics do it justice.
The main attraction in Saigon is of course the Reunification Palace. Formerly known as the Independence Palace, this was the place where a north Vietnamese tank ran roughshod over the front gates and ended the war. After spending a thoroughly enjoyable hour wandering around its halls and galleries, I can happily report that it hasn’t change a bit in the succeeding 34 years. Literally. This place is a living monument to 1960’s architecture, style and taste; it’s like walking into the set of an Austin Powers movie. The furniture was undoubtedly bleeding edge when it was installed all those years ago, but is wonderfully clichéd today. The best bit is the basement, where you can wander at will though the narrow concrete corridors and poke your nose into tiny rooms filled with ancient radio gear, steel desks and maps adorned with suitably warlike looking icons and annotations.
After all that excitement we sauntered back towards the hotel, enjoying the streets and sights along the way. It was nice to note that a good number of the old colonial style buildings are still in use as government offices and haven’t been bulldozed in favour of some modern glass edifice.
Saigon seems to sport a goodly number of inviting, courtyard style restaurants, and for dinner we checked into one of the most highly rated of these - Quan An Ngon. I had eaten at their sister restaurant during my first days in Hanoi and enjoyed it, but in comparison to later venues it wasn’t overly spectacular. The man from Frommer’s raved about this one however (“…the best in Vietnam”), so we gave it a go. It was certainly popular – crammed fully of packed tables and harassed looking waiters rushing between them. In summary, there was plenty of people watching opportunities, but the food was just OK – nothing to rave about. Clearly the guy from Frommer’s needs to get himself on a plane to Hoi An, spend an evening at Song Hoai and reset his expectations.