25 THINGS I LOVE ABOUT SAIGON (HO CHI MINH CITY)
When someone embraces a person they love, it manifests on the brain a mappable sensation of electricity that can actually be seen on an MRI scan. Love affects the brain in the same way that stimulants such as alcohol or drugs affect our physiology and physchology. Love, like whiskey, is addictive. And cities, like love, can cause us to be irrational and abandon our plans and direction to return back again and again.
There are many cities I love, but there are only two cities in the world that I just can’t quit.
They are both sweltering delta cities with a French colonial history. One is at the mouth of the Mississippi and the other at the mouth of the Mekong. This week, I returned to my favorite place in Asia. How do I love thee? I count (and photograph) the ways.
25. Imported Goods
I love Vietnamese food and drink. I rarely get tired of it.
However, when I need a change and want some Argentinian red wine, Dutch cheese, Scotch whiskey or New Zealand milk, I can buy it cheaper here than I can in the country it was produced in. For instance, a bottle of Campari (perfect drink for hot Saigon) is cheaper here in my nearby Vietnamese grocery store ($14) than it is in Novi Ligure, Italy where it is made and sold for $24.
24. Le Cat Trong Ly
Four years ago, I began seeing Ly Cat Trong Ly live at the impossible-to-find Yen Cafe. She would play acoustic shows on Tuesdays and Fridays. I had to call a week in advance to get a table. I remember her cover of Saigon Kick’s “Love is on the Way” that caught hold of me (…how she did the Middle 8 section of the song: “in the morning I’ll be gone away…”). Since then, she’s gone on to attract a much larger audience and tour the whole of Vietnam widely. I can still catch her shows at larger venues such as L’Espace and on television programs, but nothing can compare to seeing her consistently at Yen in 2009. Sigh.
23. The Big, Old Trees
A result of the city’s French heritage, unlike other Asian capitals, Saigon is generally tree-lined, with well-delineated parks and squares throughout. Many of the trees that inhabit these spaces have grown mature and impressive and provide a cool canopy over the sunny city streets.
22. Artbook Bookstore
Saigon doesn’t have a great bookstore for English offerings. Beijing has “The Bookworm” and Bangkok has “Kinokuniya”. Saigon does have the cool little Artbook store if I need a fix of pretty pictures. The ‘art gallery’ here has a cool collection of propaganda posters for sale.
21. The Humidity
I spend a lot of time alone. When I’m surrounded by humidity, or rain, I never really feel alone. The humidity here becomes a friend, both sticky and loyal. Makes the skin healthy, too.
20. The Tall, Skinny Buildings
Saigon’s narrow lot widths are a remnant of the city’s French colonial heritage. Classical architectural theory tells us that we are attracted to buildings that look like ourselves. This is why classical architecture incorporates the proportions and scale of the human head, body and feet.
As a somewhat tall, thin guy the buildings of Saigon agree with me. As my friend Zeke once said, “if these buildings had arms, I’d hug them”.
19. Public Swimming Pools
I’ve been fortunate to have a swimming pool in my apartment complex, but still I often like to journey out into the neighborhood public swimming pools to enjoy the hot days.
My favorites include the rooftop pool at the Rex Hotel in District 1 ($6 / 6:30-21:30) and the pool / sauna / gym at Hoang Anh Gai Lai in District 7 ($1 pool / $1.50 sauna / $3.50 gym per visit / open from 8am to 9pm).
18. Happy Hour at Xu Bar
71 Hai Bà Trưng in District 1
Xu Bar is a worthwhile upscale lounge and restaurant on any evening at any time. However, before 8:30pm on weekdays, Xu is particularly awesome- as all of their cocktails are 50% off (@ $3.50, as opposed to $7 normal). Especially worthwhile is the Xu Tini seen above (vodka, tea, vanilla, honey and cream) and the Old Fashioned made with snake and scorpion-infused rice liqour.
17. Phu My Hung
Upscale District 7’s main drag, referred to as Phu My Hung, is still a bit young and sterile. However, it is a great respite from the urban hustle of Saigon. Here, there is a German beer brewery, international restaurants, some friendly bars and breezy terraced cafes. It’s a great place to go for a jog and take in some fresh air. I love working at a sidewalk cafe here on warm nights when the cool breeze comes up from the Mekong Delta. Each of my three apartments in Saigon have been near here, and I come daily to enjoy the breezy, international atmosphere.
16. The Pastels
Saigon is colored a bit like Miami. Which leads to…
15. It’s Sexiness
Upon my first visit four years ago, I was struck by how sexy Saigon was. Especially compared to Hanoi, Saigon is a sensual and romantic, all highlighted by neon. Perhaps its the posture of the young Vietnamese on their motorbikes (average age here is 27). Maybe it’s the curves of the numerous traffic circles, the hand-tailored dresses, the slender widths of the buildings, the….I gotta move on….
14. Pham Ngu Lau
Saigon’s version of Khao San Road. At first, I hated it. Even today, I’d hate to live anywhere near it. However, when I do need a dose of the international, fresh-off-the-bus backpacker scene, I can find it here. The street improved greatly in 2010 with the addition of the urbane Thi Cafe, where I can hear great live music and chat with the travelers generally not wearing Chang Beer tank tops. I’m always a bit relieved to drive off from Pham Ngu Lau, yet I keep coming back again and again.
13. This Little Guy
12. The Rooftop Bars
I love rooftop bars. Anywhere. I have never understood how a vibrant, prosperous city like Taipei can have eight million people, countless towers and not one worthwhile rooftop bar, restaurant or cafe (esp upon 101?). At any first-time visit to a city I scope out the best vantage point to sit back, grab a drink, check out the city’s spread and make a quick sketch. Saigon’s offers too many to count and you can find one for all budgets, styles and vantage points. On a hot evening there is nothing quite like grabbing a cool cocktail, enjoying the breeze and taking in Saigon’s expanding cityscape.
11. Finding a Place to Live
I have lived in Saigon for three short stints. Each time, I have easily found an amazing place to live that always made coming home at the end of the night a bit easier. My first house (pictured above) I found via Craigslist. I subletted a 6-bedroom townhome with a spiral staircase, rooftop garden, BOSE surround sound and bountiful fruit trees in the backyard. I constantly had guests coming and going and we enjoyed the kitchen and backyard. I miss that place. My second and third times living here I was able to find a room in a high-rise with a pool and gym. With many international professionals coming and going, there always seems to be space opening up. Additionally, Vietnam has some of the nicest homes and apartments in all of Asia.
10. The Cumulonimbus Clouds
Another striking similarity to the atmosphere of New Orleans. Sitting at the cradle of the humid Mekong Delta, Saigon is blanketed by these friendly, flat-bottomed, muffin-topped clouds. The nearby ocean and surrounding waterways create the mass of moisture needed to build these up. Just before sundown they often turn a peach color, nicely complimenting the pastel colors of the city.
9. The Bitexco Tower
The physically altruistic Bitexco Tower looks a bit like an elegant robotic waiter. It always surprises me from each angle I view it, due to it’s feminine and kinetic design. I watched it being built throughout my frequent trips to Saigon over the past four years and I can’t imagine the skyline without it.
I just moved into another high-rise apartment and am pleased to go to bed each night and wake up with an amazing view of the Bitexco Tower dominating the skyline. I am currently working towards a set of 20 drawings of the building.
8. The Neon Lights
To stay competitive in Saigon’s dense cityscape, the businesses much stand out amongst the narrow-lot streetscapes. Thus, Saigon is draped in neon.
7. Riding a Motorbike (to the apex of the Phu My Bridge)
At first petrifying and eventually exhilarating, navigating Saigon’s urban fabric from atop a quick little 125cc Honda Wave is one of the great thrills of Asia. My favorite time to ride is around midnight, when activity still lingers at the cafes and street stalls, yet traffic is sparse and relaxed.
My favorite motorbike destination in Saigon is the peak of the Phu My Bridge, connecting District 7 with District 2. Completed in 2009, like the Bitexco Tower, I remember watching this under construction during my first visit to Saigon. From the top of the bridge, you can view teenagers in love, boats coming in and out of the Mekong Delta, the skyline of District 1 and the collage of homes below. It’s amazing at sundown. Go (be safe).
6. The Opera House
A highlight of Saigon’s wonderful French Colonial architecture, the Opera House (or, Municipal Theater) was built in 1897 and modeled after the Petit Palais in Paris, both buildings completed about the same time.
Sometimes I like to play dress-up and come here. At this theater, I have viewed Vietnamese traditional legends, a big-band jazz concert, and (yes) a ballet. Walking up the steps as the sky turns pink and all of the surrounding colonial buildings turn pastel is an amazing experience.
5. Cafe Era
58C Tran Quoc Thao Street, District 3
Saigon is a city of cafes. They are on every boulevard and also tucked away in every nook of the city.
Cafe Era is my favorite of them. I love spending my nights in here reading by candlelight, drawing in my sketchbook or chatting quietly with a friend. Like other great bars and cafes everywhere, the place feels handmade and lived in. The music is always cerebral and soothing; same with the lighting; computers and phone calls are not allowed. The coffee drinks are top notch and the cocktails reasonable. The staff is impeccably dressed and attentive. The complimentary water (served in a tall, slender, sexy glass) is infused with fresh strawberry. There is parking right in front. It’s on a dark, quiet street. It’s hard to find. It’s a gem. I could go on.
I returned tonight and Leonard Cohen’s album Songs from a Room played in its entirety, followed by Nina Simone’s Live from Ronnie Scotts, again in its entirety. The water still tasted like natural strawberry. The coffee was a rich as ever. Perfect.
Unlike Seoul, Beijing and Bangkok, Saigon does not yet have a raging party culture. You can find nightlife here for sure, but not to the level of the aforementioned cities. Unlike Seoul, where I frequently wake up with my shoes on, I rarely have crazy nights out in Saigon. This is largely to the fact that I get around on my motorcycle and drinking is a no-no when you’re on wheels. Saigon gives my liver a chance to repair itself and my wallet to maintain weight. I always feel healthier in Saigon. Without much alcohol, what do I drink when I’m out? This leads me to…
3. The Coffee
Coffee was introduced to Vietnam by the French 150 years ago. Today, Vietnam as a country is the #2 producer of coffee in the world (Brazil is #1).
Vietnamese coffee is typically sundried for up 90 days to bring out flavor. The roasting process is slow to preserve the natural sweetness of the beans. Then, the unique filtered steeping process (which you see above) results in a richer, more naturally sweet flavor than other coffees. Raw power.
2. The Food
For me, Vietnam is the best place in the world to eat. Southern Vietnam’s rich soil and warm weather make for an ideal place to raise fruits and vegetables. Saigon’s food tends to be sweeter and more garlicky than in the north. Combine that with the abundant seafood brought out of the Mekong Delta and….my god.
My personal favorite meal in Saigon is a large pile of prawns caught from the muddy waters of the nearby Mekong Delta (seen above). The shrimp have an earthy taste that resembles another favorite of mine: crawfish from New Orleans.
You can also choose from a number of urban and rural Vietnamese opportunities that interact you to the friendly population of Vietnam. It may be the chance to catch/buy and cook your own regional meal as well as simply share the phenomenal southern cuisine at a local dinner table. You can choose your own adventure here and find other things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.
1. The People
As with any other city on Earth, Saigon is simply the sum of it’s population’s ambition and spirit.
Saigon is stylish, intense, colorful, vibrant, sensual, unpredictable, damn hot, ambitious, and on the rise. So are it’s people.
Saigon is served by an international airport located conveniently close to the center. Coming from overseas, the cheaper option is to fly to Bangkok or Singapore and then catch a budget flight on AirAsia or Tiger Airlines. Nearly all backpackers arriving by bus will begin or end their journey here (at Pham Ngu Lao Street).
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The easiest place to stay is Pham Ngu Lao in District 1, as the tourists buses will drop you off / pick you up here. Single rooms begin at $7 and doubles/tripes from $5 a person. However, if you confine yourself to this backpacker district you are doing yourself a HUGE disfavor.
For a more local experience with a central location, try the Au Lac Hotel in District 3, with great rooms starting at $28.
Amazing food abounds in Saigon. The worst Vietnamese food can be found around Pham Ngu Lao. District 1 tends to be twice of the cost of the “outer” districts, as you’re basically paying for real estate. Some of the best traditional recipes can be found in District 3, where family-owned restaurants have carried on the tradition.
As I mentioned, Saigon is humid and doesn’t really cool off at night. If you’re going somewhere nice, linen is a good choice. May through October is rainy season, so bring an umbrella and avoid sandals.
Before visiting Vietnam, be sure to check out my list of 25 Things You Need to Know.