As cities go, I was pleasantly surprised by Saigon. Technically called Ho Chi Minh city, everyone that I spoke to refers to it as Saigon, so I’ll do the same. I was expecting a city without discernible layout or direction, massive crowds of people and a more run down feel. Instead, the buildings are bright (especially at night when the neon is flashing) and modern; the streets are easy to navigate by foot and, while there are millions of people on mopeds and motorcycles, some going against traffic in the lane, somehow the traffic works. Crossing the street takes strategy, but it works.
We arrived by mini-van from Vinh Long, which was not a bad three hour trip, except for the first hour or so of me averting my eyes from the road so that I couldn’t see the (to my eyes) narrowly missed accidents and vehicular homicides. It took me a while to get used to driving in Vietnam.
Our hotel was located in District 1, a bustling area containing a multitude of restaurants, coffee shops and shopping. We had two nights in Saigon to explore before catching the night train to Da Nang–here are a few of the highlights:
- Watching the sunset from a rooftop bar. There are several great options for this particular event, several with a colorful history dating back to war and the expats and journalists who enjoyed this town. We toasted at one old and one new: Saigon Saigon at the Caravelle and 23 at the Sheraton. Yes, the drinks are pricey, but the views and decadence of $10 cocktails (two for one at happy hour) were worth it.
- Eating. I know, it’s a big city, of course there’s good food, but remember: we’d been in small towns for the past week or so. Lot of good options to choose from was a real treat. We found a chic restaurant that specialized in Nha Trang cuisine when waiting on the War Remnants Museum to open. There’s a cozy little alley/nook/enclave behind the Park Hyatt Saigon with cute bistros where we had dinner one night. We even found a tasty frozen yogurt place in one of the malls. Plus, if I ever decide to import a chain to America, it’s going to be Wrap and Roll.
- Visiting the War Remnants Museum. After my visit to the genocide museum in Phnom Penh, I steeled myself for the trip to this museum, though it was highly recommended. In the end, again, I was glad I went. I made it through the whole building–well, almost–and was not only impressed by the facility and quality of the exhibits, but was also enlightened and horrified by aspects of the “American War” in Vietnam. The exhibits were somber and often graphic, particularly about the lasting effects of Agent Orange, of which I was unaware. But, I think it’s important that later generations, my generation, doesn’t forget the past. It’s the only way that we can mold a more positive future.
We saw the some of the other attractions, too, like the massive Ben Thanh market, Notre Dame, the Opera House and the General Post Office (we even ran into our friend from our Cai Be tour at Notre Dame). I even had an outfit made to order while we were there–turnaround in less than 24 hours!
While Saigon is pleasant, as far as cities go, we were ready for the next leg of our journey: our first overnight train in Vietnam, riding the Reunification Express.