As I soared through the smog on my way out of Ho Chi Minh City (the locals still call it Saigon), Steve Winwood blared in my ear, telling me to roll with it, baby. In Saigon you pretty much have to roll with things or else they will quite literally roll right over you; see my upcoming post, 66 Ways to Die via Scooter (not a real post). If you can, if you can deal with the smog, the touts, the heat, and the traffic, then you can open yourself up to an exciting, vibrant city that continues to grow on the international stage. It’s a bustling city of 14 million people, and they’re growing – new MNC’s are showing up every day to build their head offices, and their first subway will be operational in two years. Their first McDonald’s just showed up last year; Starbucks two years ago.
One thing that was too bad was the constant warnings I got about my camera – everybody told me to keep it locked up, so I did for the most part. I took it out a few times, but was extremely careful when I did.
I arrived in Saigon four days ago in Vietnam’s biggest city. I was invited here on behalf of a Singapore based consultancy that I have been working with since 2005. It is one of my most cherished business relationships, and I love every opportunity to work with them. The head of the consultancy, Angeline, is an amazing, dynamic woman who inspires me to up my game every time I meet her.
Meeting me at the airport when I arrived was Kevin, one of Angeline’s employees in Vietnam. Kevin had an Uber car (yep, they have Uber in Ho Chi Minh City) pick me up, and along the way he had the car drive by many of the city’s sites. He was hoping I might remember where a few of these things were in case I wanted to go visit. Instead, I was fixated on the traffic.
Sweet mother of satay. The traffic.
But more on that in a minute. The Uber car dropped me at the gorgeous Renaissance Riverside Saigon, a five-star hotel in the heart of District 1. I was given a room on the 19th floor, which supplied me with dramatic views like this one:
I also enjoyed getting up at 4am every day (a blatant lie, I hated getting up at 4am every day, but jet lag won this round) to watch the badminton players, 19 floors below, begin playing as soon as the sun came up.
I loved the hotel, and the food was outrageously good (this my first bowl of tasty pho in Saigon).
But I love to get out as much as I can and explore. In Saigon’s case it was tough. While the Renaissance Riverside’s (from here on in “RR”) location is central, it’s also in the middle of tourist central, so as soon as I stepped out the door I was a target. Taxi drivers, cyclo (three-wheeled bikes used for transporting people) drivers, massage girls, vendors selling everything from hats to sunglasses fought for my attention. On the first night I tried to go for a walk but doubt I got more than a kilometre in when I gave up for two reasons: the harassment by everyone who wanted a piece of me was so much more overwhelming than in Thailand, I was kind of surprised; second, the traffic made it tough to walk in a free-flowing manner, and every time I wanted to cross the street I had to seriously plan it out, stretch, get mentally prepared, and then give ‘er!
So I knew I couldn’t fix the harassment problem, but I could change my viewpoint on the traffic by learning a bit more on how to handle it.
I’ve been to cities with bad traffic. I even wrote about the Bangkok traffic last week, but Bangkok is child’s play compared to Saigon. To watch Saigon traffic is to admire a never ending wave of scooters and motorbikes enveloping you from all sides. Bikes and cars move in completely unpredictable patterns – across traffic, head on into traffic, on the sidewalks…everywhere. Order took a permanent vacation from this city’s streets long ago. People there say it’s improving, and I have no reason to doubt them, but as an outsider visiting for the first time all I can say is that I am glad I wasn’t here when it was worse.
Here is everything you need to know about Saigon traffic: walking down the street on the sidewalk the other night I see the hordes of bikes waiting for a traffic signal. There are hundreds, if not thousands of them. One of them jumps the curb and motors along the sidewalk towards me. I watch nervously as he gets closer. “He’ll move,” I think. “No way he’ll hit me.” It dawns on me that I am as wrong as I’ve ever been, so I jump out of the way just in time to see him miss me, but run into another pedestrian a few feet up the road. The pedestrian, a local, is not hurt, but he’s knocked back a few feet. Here’s the kicker – neither of them acknowledge it. The biker keeps going, and the pedestrian keeps walking. Not an angry word exchanged, not even a sideways glance. Like it happens every day.
Now, I was there for four days and can confirm that it doesn’t happen every day. But that it happened once and wasn’t a big deal to either of them is telling enough. So to say I was a little bit intimidated by HCMC traffic is an understatement. I hate being intimidated by things, so I decided to take the bull by the horns and throw myself into the thick of things by booking a three hour motorbike tour.
The tour company, XO Tours, is a huge hit these days on Trip Advisor. They offer late night food tours as well as city tours, led by young women who wear brilliant uniforms and take your life into their hands as they drive you through the madness. The food tour was booked, so I took the morning city tour, which was great because if gave me an opportunity to see far more of the city than I would have otherwise.
My guide, the lovely Thiet, was a masterful driver. She picked me up at my hotel and asked me to jump on the back.
“You ever ride one of these before?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Then I think your knuckles are going to be white!” she said, laughing as she indicated where on the bike I was supposed to hold on to.
Helmeted up, she eased into traffic and we were off!
Moving into the sea of bikes and cars was easier than I had anticipated. The bike was comfortable, and traffic was moving slowly. Due to sheer volume it’s kind of self-regulating. Thiet made the ride comfortable, and my confidence on the roads grew quickly; after a couple of minutes I really began to enjoy the ride. We chatted as she drove, getting to know each other, until we arrived at the Reunification Palace.
It was here we met Anh, the other guide for the tour. Anh is a good guide, good sense of humour, and he walks us (there are only two of us on the tour) through the finer points of the Reunification Palace, and all of the other locations on the tour. He’s a good storyteller and the history nerd in me enjoys listening to him. This is Anh in front of Saigon’s famous post office:
Thiet was digging my headband and thought I looked like a kung fu master (who doesn’t?), so she wanted us to act out a kung fu battle. It might look like I got the best of her here, but she rallied and wiped the floor with me.
Following our battle we jumped back on the bike and hit a number of different spots including the post office and the cathedral. At the cathedral we came across a number of couples doing wedding photos. Traditionally in Vietnam they do the photos a few months ahead of the wedding, so when wedding day arrives they already have all of the work done on the photo side of things. It’s also very competitive to book shoots at this cathedral (a smaller version of Paris’ Notre Dame), so even though this was a weekday morning, there were plenty of brides and grooms zipping about.
Of course, there was also a guy with about 97 donuts on his head nearby. Who doesn’t need a sugary pastry when you’re a hungry wedding party?
Following the cathedral and post office area we zipped across town, Thiet keeping me safe by expertly managing the neverending onslaught of bikes. Personal space is non-existent on the street, with other bikes crowding you. If someone had been enjoying a big bowl on pho on a nearby bike I easily could have reached over and stolen a noodle or two. It was an adrenaline rush to be in the middle of the action, and I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would.
We next found ourselves at the statue of the burning monk. It’s a horrible story about Thích Quảng Đức, who was a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on June 11, 1963. He did so in protest of how the South Vietnamese government was treating Buddhists. It raised massive international attention, and is quite a famous spot in Saigon. The statue is fantastic.
The day was hot enough to melt my face off (like every day, it seems, in SE Asia), so Anh and Thiet took pity on us and hooked us up with some sugar cane juice and kumquat. The kumquat helps cut the sugar cane, for an amazingly tasty and refreshing drink. We picked it up drive-thru style on our way to Chinatown, me sipping while Thiet managed the increasingly busy roads. Honestly, I felt like a bit of a freeloader while she was doing the heavy lifting, but I knew that if I were driving we wouldn’t last fifteen seconds.
We finished up in Chinatown, driving through the busiest section of town. More than once I found my heart in my chest, but the sugar cane juice made it better. It’s that tasty. All of the animals at the markets in Chinatown are fresh – need a chicken? You pick a live one, they kill it, and then either cook it for you or you take it away. Fish? Still swimming in the bowls. If you like your food fresh, this is the place for you.
Our last stop was the Thien Hau Pagoda in busy District 5. The pagoda is a shrine to Thien Hau, also known as the Lady of the Sea. It’s a beautiful spot, with incense burning throughout.
It also has a beautiful altar, and people praying in amongst the scores of tourists.
That basically concluded the sightseeing version of Saigon for me. It was amazing to tackle the streets with Thiet, and it certainly helped me with my confidence when crossing the street and navigating my way around town. Everyone told me I was brave for jumping into Saigon traffic, but honestly, it wasn’t that bad (from the back of the bike!). If you are thinking of doing the same, I highly recommend using a group like XO to get you through it safely.
I have plenty of other fond memories of Saigon – the staff at the RR were amazing; Angeline and Kevin treated me with world-class hospitality; and people were very kind to me. I know I will be back to Vietnam, and when I return I hope to explore Dalat, Danang, Hanoi, and some of Vietnam’s amazing beaches. This is a country that has captured my attention, and thanks to people like Thiet, I am ready to roll with it like never before.
Next up, Chiang Mai!
Have you been to Ho Chin Minh City / Saigon? If so, what did you think? Don’t be afraid to mention your own blog in your reply!