Saigon. First Impressions.

Saigon. December 2019.

We flew to Saigon to start our three-month sojourn in Vietnam.

My sister asked what it was like. The answer came tumbling out of me, so many impressions threatened sensory overload. Our first days passed in the stupor of jet-lag. The heat was suffocating. We’d gone from 9 to 30+ degrees. It was a sticky heat that made me wilt. Jim loved it.

The traffic blew my mind. The number of motorbikes was staggering. Cars were engulfed in a swarthy sea of the two-wheeled devils. They came at us from every direction and carried everything from the dog to stepladders; kids (a whole family could fit on one bike) to shopping bags, sacks of ice to small forests of green plants. You name it, it went on a bike. Crossing the road was tricky but not as bad as we’d feared –the  traffic did stop at lights. (Mostly). Tourists always held hands to do it like small children.

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Mopeds are a sign of status. Everyone has one. Men sleep on them. Sit cross-legged on them. One morning one zoomed in front of us and the passenger on the back was holding a fag in one hand and his mobile in the other. Holding on is for sissies!

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The Vietnamese don’t walk. (See above). Pavements are not for pedestrians – they’re for motorbike parking, and riding (drivers use the pavement as extra road space). Food vendors sell from mobile carts, bicycles, and chicken wire baskets. Diners sit at plastic tables and chairs. There are hot grills, bar-b-ques, sunshades and cool-boxes One-ring burners with frying pans, sizzling pork for banh mi sandwiches. Food blenders producing tropical milkshakes.

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As if these were not obstacles enough, there was always a loose paving stone, a bit of rubbish or the odd tree root waiting to trip us up.

It was barmy but glorious. We tried to take it easy, but that wasn’t easy. We sat at pavement cafes and watched the street. There was a constant hum of noise; a never-ending procession of salespeople offering fans, lighters, book-marks, hammocks, sunglasses, massages. The best offer was a telescopic back-scratcher. It was good-natured. We laughed, they laughed. They always asked. We always said no.

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Our first few days passed in this slow, easy way. Watching, enjoying, a little detached. Putting a toe into the water. And then we got sick. Nothing terrible. Sore throats. Hacking coughs that kept us awake at night and drained our energy. We thought we were taking it easy, but realised we weren’t taking it easy enough. Quite prophetic in the light of what was to come.

25 thoughts on “Saigon. First Impressions.

  1. Yep! You described the Saigon experience perfectly. Of course. 🙂 I felt like I was transported back into that madness and chaos! Hard to imagine that, to cross the road as a pedestrian, you just have to “do it”. The mopeds will smoothly work around you like magic. It’s similar in Hanoi!

    I hope you didn’t get too ill. The symptoms sure sound a bit like the Coronavirus. But, if that was the case, you are hopefully immune now!

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    1. Crossing the road requires courage! I felt like Indiana Jones when he steps out onto the (invisible) bridge to get the Holy Grail! It does work though. Except for buses. Think they would just run you over! We sometimes wonder if we’ve actually had Corona but it was too early. We’re all good now though.

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  2. This is one country I would like to explore, as I have a S-I-L who is Vietnamese and now a nephew. My brother wasn’t so impressed with the crazy taxi drivers. So, it would be great to experience it first hand. One day.

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    1. Sure hope you get to visit your family there at some time Suzanne. It would be great to have someone to show you the ropes. Everything is so, so different. In such places I often feel I would love to walk around with someone who could speak the language and could answer my every question.

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  3. You took me right back there with you words and fabulous photos. What a circus it is!
    I do hope you’ve both fully recovered from those sore throats and coughs and that it wasn’t something more sinister. Stay safe.
    Alison

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  4. Sorry! Think I should’ve written something else at the end of this post. I meant only Corona in general – not that we were struck down by it personally. Now we’re just coping with the challenge of being homeless at a time when everyone’s being told to stay at home!

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  5. Much as we love Viet Nam, Saigon is not our favorite. Maybe it’s because we just love the rural side of Hoi An so much. But of course it’s hard and definitely unfair to compare a small city with a large one!! Saigon is buzzing and exciting but yes, hot humid and definitely exhausting. Love all your motorbike photos.. I never tire of watching the traffic there, with it’s weave and dance and the ease with which everyone navigates it.

    It is never fun to be sick but especially when traveling. I assume we saw you after this top, so glad that I do know you both recovered.

    Peta

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    1. Saigon is all of those things – so hot, polluted, crazy busy, energy sucking, exhausting and totally mind-blowingly amazing. About as different from Hoi An as it could possibly be. I also fell in love with Hoi An (although I hated it at the beginning), but I loved Saigon for different things. If I had to choose one though, I’d pick Hoi An! You were lucky to live there for a while.

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  6. Tracey, before the CV crisis, Saigon and Vietnam were on our list for a medium-term visit. We’ve spent quite a bit of time in this part of the world, but have never made it. We wanted to visit, not so much because we thought it would be pleasant, but simply because we’ve never experienced the place and culture. From your vivid description, it sounds like many of the large, crowded capitals that take patience and a good dose of repeating your mantra.

    We still have it on our list, but in recent years we’ve become more realistic about how much time we really need to experience these big, chaotic cities before we move on to smaller, more pleasant places. This is what we will look for when we go. I see that you recommend Hoi An. Is this a good place to settle in? ~James

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  7. We’ve spent a lot of time in this part of the world as well but had hardly touched Vietnam, so our reason for going was much the same as yours. Saigon was great, but I do think you need some time to get to grips with it and be able to enjoy it. It’s very hot, frantic, frenetic, fabulous and exhausting. There’s a lot of history, and a lot of stuff worth seeing, but in 12 days we felt we barely scratched the surface. We didn’t find many green spaces, but there are some lovely cafes to chill in. We’d like to go back but if we do, we’ll probably spend to plan 3 months there. Hanoi was better in that it was cooler (but it depends when you’re there) and we felt less harried there. After Saigon, the traffic wasn’t so bad, and the city is based around 100 lakes, which make lovely spots for walking and watching local life. There aren’t so many ‘sights’ in Hanoi, which also means sitting in a café, watching street life is an ‘activity’! (That’s my kind of thing!). Hoi An is in between the two. At first we both hated Hoi An, and were horrified by the number of tourists. It’s full – and I mean full – of people all day. But it is a lovely place, even if it’s a bit like Disneyland. We coped with it by getting up and wondering about from 6am to about 9am – that’s when the tourist groups hit. Then it was gorgeous. We met fellow bloggers who lived just outside Hoi An, near the beach and that might be a good option. The countryside around Hoi An is lovey for cycling. Another good thing about Hoi An is that it’s only about 40 minutes drive from Danang, a great city with fantastic food options – so you kind of get 2 for 1.

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  8. Love it! (from a Saigonese far away from his hometown for too long). Really had my memories triggered to pour back so fast….which is something emotionally significant during this covid thing. If you love to know more about the city heritage and its history and memories and stuff, have a go by dropping by my blogsite at ceasingworld.wordpress.com
    Hope it help bring about something new!

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