Vietnam – Images of Saigon

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.

Food

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.

Some pastry from the French Bakery in Le Lai street, in the Pham Ngu Lao area.

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.

The bowl of Pho we had at Pho 24
The bowl of Pho we had at Pho 24
Street food vendor, in the Notre-Dame basilica area.
Street food vendor, in the Notre-Dame basilica area.
A typical street restaurant.
A typical street restaurant.

Landmarks

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.

Le Lai street, which runs parallel to Pham Ngu Lao.
Le Lai street, which runs parallel to Pham Ngu Lao.

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.

The Notre-Dame Basilica square.
The Notre-Dame Basilica square.
Notre-Dame Basilica.
Notre-Dame Basilica.
Jade Emperor pagoda, incense sticks.
Jade Emperor pagoda, incense sticks.
Jade Emperor pagoda, devotees praying.
Jade Emperor pagoda, devotees praying.

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.

War Remnant Museum. This is one of the most famous images of the Vietnam war. It portrais Kim Phuc terrified, running away after a napalm attack from the southern Vietnamese forces. This picture played an important role in the anti-war public opinion at the time. Author Denise Chong wrote a book, "The Girl in the picture", about this picture and the girl's life.
War Remnant Museum. This is one of the most famous images of the Vietnam war. It portrais Kim Phuc (the naked girl in the centre of the frame) terrified, running away after a napalm attack from the southern Vietnamese forces, near Trang Bang. This picture, shot by AP photographer Nick Ut, played an important role in the anti-war public opinion at the time. Author Denise Chong wrote a book, "The Girl in the picture", about this picture and the Kim Phuc's life.

To read more about Kim Phuc and her story, check wikipedia here.

Cu Chi tunnels. Booby trap used by the Vietcong to injure or kill American soldiers.
Cu Chi tunnels. Booby trap used by the Vietcong to injure or kill American soldiers.

To read more about Booby traps, check out this wikipedia article.

Romana ducking into one of the tunnels the Vietcong used to hide from American soldiers. Vietcong surely weren't claustrophobic!
Romana ducking into one of the tunnels the Vietcong used to hide from American soldiers during the day to attack them by surprise at night. Vietcong surely weren't claustrophobic!

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.

Mopeds in a parking lot downtown.
Mopeds in a parking lot downtown.
It is very common in most regions of SE Asia that mopeds, instead of cars, are used to carry every sort of thing.
It is very common in most regions of SE Asia that mopeds, instead of cars, are used to carry every sort of thing.
A typical Saigon street crowded with mopeds.
A typical Saigon street crowded with mopeds.
When the road is too packed and there's no more space, some mopeds take the footpath, to the joy of the pedestraians.
When the road is too packed and there's no more space, some mopeds take the footpath, to the joy of the pedestrians.

Electricity cables are another important visual element in Saigon, there are so many and they are so messily tangled with each other…

Electricity cables looming over a street in Saigon downtown.
Electricity cables looming over a street in Saigon downtown.
More electricity cables...
More electricity cables...

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.

Man sleeping on duty.
Man sleeping on duty.
Shop assistant having breakfast outside her shop, during work hours.
Shop assistant having breakfast outside her shop, during work hours.
Security guard having lunch.
Security guard having lunch.
Street food vendor and people from offices having an afternoon meal in the Notre-Dame basilica square.
Street food vendor and people from offices having an afternoon meal in the Notre-Dame basilica square.

The other aspect I found interesting of Saigon is its mix of tradition and modernity…

  • Marie

    Thanks for these gorgeous pictures and your impressions! We are going to Vietnam in july… I just can’t way to discover Hanoi and meet his inhabitants!

    • Romana

      Thanks Marie. Are you going to Saigon as well or are you staying only in the north? We will be posting more about Vietnam.

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  • Neil

    Hi Romana,

    It was very nice pictures of Vietnam that you posted. It looks very nice and sharp too. Don’t mind me asking did you using Digital SLR camear to take all these pictures and how did you take the picture on the fifth picture from bottom count up the people standing on the downtown. It looks like some transition you add. I have Canon G12 and like to take the same if I could when I go to Vietnam again in few year.

    Thanks Romana.

    Neil.

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