Ah, Saigon. In the last six months I’ve spent two weeks there and formed favorable impressions. Part of it is the warm weather. Part of it is the food. Part of it is the beautiful women. Part of it is because everything is cheap. But there are other, more important reasons.
The architecture of the city is nothing captivating. There is no old quarter and not much of the old days remains except a few classic buildings in District 1 like The Majestic Hotel and the Notre Dame Basilica. In another district there are a handful of old villas dating back to colonial days which are hidden behind high walls and rented by wealthy expatriate families.
And yet, despite that, the skyscrapers have not arrived. There’s one bit of postmodern craziness (the Bitexco building, built in 2010 and topping out at 68 floors), which dominates the skyline. It has a helipad which took a year to install and has never been used. But that’s it. You can still sit on the rooftop terrace of The Caravelle Hotel (which itself is only 24 floors) and gaze across the city to where the last U.S. helicopter took off from the roof of the old CIA listening station in 1975.
Lining one bank of the Saigon River is a crumbling, half-repaired, half-boarded up Bund. Across the river is a vast swampy greensward screaming for a Pearl Tower, Superbrand Mall and Jinmao Dasha. Now it’s just eight huge billboards advertising random stuff as well as the final stop on the Vespa tour. The inexorable jabberwocky of bubble-fueled property development has somehow not yet destroyed everything the war didn’t.
The cars have not arrived en force either. Of course everyone knows Saigon is a scooter town. They don’t even do e-bikes in Saigon. It’s all unstoppable fleets of gas-powered scooters. For all that, though, the traffic isn’t bad. As daunting as it is to bob and weave through an onslaught of Saigon scooters to cross a road, I never experienced the total gridlock of Beijing’s Second Ring or Shanghai’s Gaojia. Entire cars are engulfed by Saigon’s scooters which move and flow like a school of fish.
And this is Saigon’s real beauty: here, you get from point A to point B under your own power.
There is no subway and the buses run empty. Whether you are a girl in high heels going out for a night on the town or a family of four heading home from the market where you just bought a new microwave, you ride a scooter. You don’t need to soulcrush into crowded metros. You don’t need to wait at the side of the road like some hollowed out welfare ghost for a bus that might never come.
The best times I had in Saigon were on a scooter exploring the city. You can get from Saigon’s Bund to the airport in 30 minutes on a scooter. You can ride your scooter over the main bridges which span the Saigon River. There are designated scooter parking places everywhere. Scooters have storage hidden underneath their pop-top seats where you can stash your bag or an extra helmet for a friend.
The scooter equals a kind of freedom that just doesn’t exist in Shanghai and is only possible in Beijing on a bicycle and even that is a kind of freedom that no one wants or values anymore. The scooter is Saigon’s moral majority.
To foreigners who lived in Shanghai or Beijing 10 years ago, Saigon of today will feel familiar. It’s that same blank canvas, that same in-crowd secret. Saigon’s expats moan about how there is no good music so they form bands and play gigs. They gripe about how there are no good parties so they download music and become DJs. The same circle of people go to their twice-monthly indie mod dance parties. Everyone knows everyone and they marvel at their own importance. They wonder when the scene will arrive. They imagine themselves at the center of it, without realizing that when it arrives they will be lucky to be footnotes. None of them speak Vietnamese.
Yes, these are good, indulgent times for Saigon expats.
So here are my expert Saigon recommendations:
Saigon is about eating. The food is terrific. Better than Chinese food, I reckon, though obviously not as diverse. There’s no need to mention price for any of these places because it’s negligible compared to China.
Nhu Lan Market
Behind the Bitexco Building, this is my first stop when I arrive. Amazing banh mi sandwiches plus incredible fresh fruit smoothies, semi-open air right on a street corner. The place is so popular that at lunch time it sprawls outward taking over the adjoining garages. And not a bit touristy.
In District 1, right on the square, six floors up, it affords great views if you get the right table. At night you’ve got the ceaseless flow of neon scooter traffic below. In late afternoon, you’ve got the sun slipping down in the west plus lazy wooden ceiling fans spinning overhead as you sip a Vietnamese coffee with the place to yourself.
Quan An Ngon
Way more touristy, but you’ll not find a better collection of regional Vietnamese specialties gathered under one roof. It was started by two German brothers after a motorcycle trip through the country.
Cuc Gach Quan
Amazing homestyle Saigon food in an upscale environment. Reservation recommended but not always needed.
This is your classic wifi cafe, serving up a decent array of soups, salads, sandiwiches. Real reason to go though is the taste of one of their incredible cupcakes. Better than any I’ve had in China.
I don’t go here for the food but for the narrow, wrought-iron ringed second floor balcony. Perfect for an afternoon over a coffee and Somerset Maugham.
This was easily my favorite restaurant in Saigon. It’s far from downtown, on an island in one of the Saigon River tributaries. You have to call them to send a boat over to the shore to fetch you. The restaurant is all seafood, delicious seafood.
This is one of the most unique spots in Asia. It reminds me of Shanghai’s old Maoming Lu scene in its heydey, or if you’re from Beijing think Maggie’s meets Alfa in their heydeys. There are plenty of shady white dudes, there are plenty of non-shady white dudes. There are plenty of skanky hoes, there are plenty of supremely hot hoes. There are plenty of locals just there for a good time. There’s an upstairs which looks like the set of Mad Max. There’s an outdoor patio. The music is LFMAO, Pitbull and Black Eyed Peas remixes. It’s been there like 20 years. There’s a gift shop a door down. It’s a whole lot of fun.
If you can’t get hold of your own, or make a friend with one, this is the next best thing. There are a couple different tour options. The Vietnam War one looked good, but you have to book it in advance. The usual one is pretty good, but it does take you to a surprisingly large number of Chinese places. I’ve also heard good things about the night tour and the street food tour. Regardless, if you are in Saigon, you must get on a scooter.
Vietnam War Remnants Museum
A must, obviously. It’s really interesting. But the Agent Orange room was really too much for me. Yikes.
Backpacker District (for cheapest beers in the world)
Some people compare this to Patpong in Bangkok. It’s nowhere near as sleazy, but it is just international and just as interesting a spectacle. My favorite is to pull up to a plastic chair in that alley just down from GO2 club in the early evening and down Saigon Reds while watching the backpacker dregs of Asia wander past in search of enlightenment.
There is a small carnival just down the street from the Ben Song River restaurant. Lit up against the night, it feels like the end of the earth. It has a few rides including a small roller coaster, bumper cars, video games plus something called Crazywave. I highly suggest Crazywave.
It’s so Saigon.