Despite our initial concerns due to the many bad stories (scams, bag snatching, etc.) we heard and read of, we ended up liking Saigon more than we thought we would. Certainly going from the rural (but in no way sleepy) atmosphere of the Mekong Delta, to the urban, international slant of Saigon had a certain impact.
We settled in the Pham Ngu Lao area, also dubbed the backpacking district, and took it from there, with no particular plans. The Pham Ngu Lao area is where all the tourist action is, and the centre of gravity for the expat community – lots of expats from western countries are living there.
Because Vietnam was once a French colony, we weren’t surprised to find so many French restaurants in Saigon. Now, we usually only go for local food when we travel, but because we were on the road already for quite some time, when faced with the opportunity to taste some good cheese and wine we couldn’t resist and we had to treat ourselves to a special, western-style dinner. But then after all, isn’t this French legacy part of the history and the ‘soul’ of Vietnam? Can we really say eating French food is not like doing something typically Vietnamese, to some extent? 🙂
The highlights of our frequentation with French food were these two restaurants: La Fourchette (across from the Grand Hotel on Ngo Duc Ke, in Dong Khoi, district 1) and La Nicoise (close by, always on Ngo Duc Ke, in the same area). The fact that many French expats are seen having dinner there, makes me think the cuisine is authentic – something I couldn’t be 100% sure myself, as a non-expert.
Speaking of French influence, Saigon downtown has also some French bakeries, boasting excellent baguettes and fine pastry. Some of these bakeries may be a tiny bit more expensive than your usual Vietnamese average, but they are worth every cent.
In terms of local food, there’s nothing better than street restaurants and food stalls. There is also a chain of restaurants called Pho 24 (where Pho, noodle soup with meat, is the signature dish in Vietnamese cuisine, usually eaten for breakfast, but from time to time also for lunch and dinner) – you find a lot of Pho 24 all around town (as in many cities in Vietnam). Pho 24 serves Pho, as you may have guessed, plus other Vietnamese specialties, but we weren’t very much impressed with these restaurants.
As I said, the main landmark for travellers is Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacking district, which is packed with pubs, clubs, resturants, bars, etc. – we rarely made it out of this area.
Other two places we enjoyed, and which gave us a glimpse of the spiritual aspect of the Vietnamese society, as well as the opportunity to see some good architecture, were the Notre-Dame basilica and the Jade Emperor Pagoda.
As we wanted to learn more about the Vietnam war, which the Vietnamese, fairly so, call American war, and hear the Vietnamese version of the story, we paid a visit to the War Remnant Musem and also took a day-trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. We also went to the Reunification Palace but we didn’t find it so interesting.
To read more about Kim Phuc and her story, check wikipedia here.
To read more about Booby traps, check out this wikipedia article.
The cityscape – In the streets of Saigon
Saigon is the city of mopeds, probably more than any other city we’ve seen in Vietnam. As taxes for cars are very expensive, people buy mopeds (they are more affordable even taxwise) and use them as cars. This is very common in all Souteast Asia.
Electricity cables are another important visual element in Saigon, there are so many and they are so messily tangled with each other…
We figured out eating and sleeping are important parts of a Vietnamese’s life. This is an aspect I absolutely loved: I’ve seen people eating and sleeping any time during the day, even when on duty.
The other aspect I found interesting of Saigon is its mix of tradition and modernity…