The official name of the largest metropolis in Vietnam has been Ho Chi Min City since 1975, but I think Saigon is a much better name. It carries the friendly, lively and busy atmosphere that was the trademark of the city before the surrender of the South to the communist regime.
From various readings, Saigon was a prosperous place during the French colonialism and kept its rich and multicultural atmosphere even under American protection. With the wars since the 50’s and the communist era (75 to 94), it’s said that the city lost 50 years of development and is now frantically expanding to catch up with other Asian capital like Bangkok or Singapore.
The Colonial Beauty
When it comes to architecture In the city center, the French legacy is very heavy. But I would say in a good way. Where most of Vietnamese cities we went through felt overcrowded with every square inch put to use, Saigon has large avenues, parks and sidewalks where it feels good to stroll around in the shade of the old trees.
Colonial buildings can be seen a little bit everywhere, often aged by time and the various remodeling to accommodate local needs. Some of these spaces have been turned into fancy cafes or restaurants where expats hang out or hold business lunches. It’s still very charming and offers nice hideouts from the busy streets.
And while you are at it, you might as well try a Vietnamese iced coffee, or Cà Phê. It’s made from a French roast coffee (Robusta beans, imported by the french in the mid 19th century) and dripped through a Vietnamese coffee filter mixed with condensed milk, both pairing surprisingly well. The Vietnamese coffee filter gives a stronger brew than an American drip machine and different than a French press from what i understood.
Historical legacy at the War Museum
We were told that it was a must see. And indeed it’s quite interesting to get a crash course about the so-called “American War” by the Vietnamese (American call it the Vietnam war..).
There are many weapons, GIs artifacts, stories from survivor’s, propaganda posters and speech excerpts from communist leaders. The most shaking part relates to the war crimes and filthy methods used by the Americans: Napalm, Orange Agent and so on. There are very disturbing images of all types of malformations and side effects on the Vietnamese population (but also some US soldiers and their kids…)
There is also a nice photo exhibition curated by two photo reporters that covered the Vietnam war and were able to access almost all classified pictures from the different governments some 20years after the end of the war to commemorate the death of so many influent photographers.
Although it has been internationally recognized that “the US government is guilty of a genocide vis-à-vis the Vietnamese people” (Conclusions of the Copenhagen Tribunal, 1967), the museum still presents a very manichean vision of the subject to our opinion, where communists are presented as the good guys. To take with a grain of salt then, but still very interesting.
Saigon street life and markets
Saigon is alive from 5am to 9am, and then again after 5pm when the sun is down. At that time locals invade the streets and eateries, markets are packed and the traffic is insane. But busy is good! We visited the Chõ Lón market, walked around the garments district, and even popped into a church!
We also visited several Pagodas with Chinese roots, where they burn encens from the ceiling. It was also interesting to see people prepare the encens sticks right before our eyes.
We couldn’t resist the local food: Bun Xao, Spring rolls, Bun Bo Hue and a last Banh Mi before we leave for good.
This day wouldn’t have been complete without a rooftop…
We talked about how kind and open Vietnamese folks are (or at least have been with us) and Saigon didn’t disappoint. We were stopped by several people in the streets who wanted to speak for a few minutes to improve their English, we took pictures and selfies, Solene even got an interview! Our CS host was running an English school so we even got to do a 2hrs (improvised) class with 10-15vietnamese students.
Saigon felt like a place with an interesting business scene and familiar urban landscapes. Combined with the kindness of Vietnamese people and the unlimited food adventures that lay around, it’s definitely my favorite large city in SE Asia. I’ll be back. Until then, Tam Biet Saigon!