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Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral

The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius.”
– Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Visiting churches is not something that comes to mind when considering tourist sites around Vietnam, but there I was, standing inside Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral on one of my daily wanderings through the city.

While in Hanoi I noticed a few churches that were being renovated–they looked like they were in disrepair and the renovations were injecting life back into them. The architecture and colors were beautiful, but I couldn’t enter the grounds with all the construction going on.

Notre Dame Saigon

Traffic outside Notre Dame Cathedral

When I arrived in Saigon, I found the pinkest church I’ve ever seen (inside and out) just down the street from my apartment. It was a fascinating sight.notre dame saigon

As I searched for places to visit in the city, I came across Notre Dame Cathedral, which is conveniently located across the busy street from the Saigon Central Post Office. As the post office was one of the places I wanted to visit, not only because I had postcards to send, I decided I could see both at once.

saigon central post office

The Saigon Central Post Office

Of course, I walked along this route more often than just to see the sights. Notre Dame and the post office were on the way to the Co.op Mart as well as to the center of culture and entertainment in Saigon.

Getting to know Notre Dame in Saigon

In the early days of French colonial rule, a church was built for colonists, but it was later deemed too small. Notre Dame Cathedral was then constructed beginning in 1877 with material imported from France. notre dame saigon

Construction was completed in 1880, with the two bell towers being added in 1895.

The interior of the cathedral is not as interesting as the many churches I visited in Italy and not as colorful as that pink church near my apartment. There were some stained glass windows around that would be of more interest to someone with greater knowledge of the biblical stories they represent.notre dame stained glass

The most intriguing part of Notre Dame is its location. It’s set on an island in the middle of a busy intersection with numerous tour buses stopping along the street every day.notre dame saigon

I often walked nearby, choosing this route because of the beautiful tree-lined avenues on Le Duan leading to the former presidential palace. It was also near Pasteur Street, where I found a pleasant roadside beer and food vendor for some entertaining nights (the roadside fun has since been replaced by a popular coffee shop).

Sampling Craft Beer in Saigon

Oh, this beer here is cold, cold and hop-bitter, no point coming up for air, gulp, till it’s all–hahhhh.”
– Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

On my first trip through Vietnam, there wasn’t much variety of beer. There’s Bia Hanoi, Bia Saigon, 333, La Rue, and various local brews that tasted pretty much the same as those.

Hoa Vien Saigon

Inside Hoa Vien in Saigon

When I arrived in Saigon in 2014, I found Hoa Vien, a Czech brewpub that was the first of its kind in Vietnam. The brewpub was near my apartment in District 1, but I found it rather deserted when I visited for a late dinner. Compared to most establishments in the embassy area, this was still expensive. When you’re used to spending less than $3 for a meal, $10 seems like a lot.

Hoa Vien Saigon

Beer and a meal at Hoa Vien

Granted, the food was good and the dark lager was a welcome change from all the cheap beer I had drunk in Hanoi. The lack of other patrons sent me to find other bars after that. I tried going there once more during my month in Saigon, but it was a similar crowd and I decided to continue walking. Also, the little cafe that recently opened at the end of my alley began serving a similar dark lager for less.

I did not return to either establishment on my return to Saigon in 2017, mostly because it was not a short walk. I did, however, find new brewpubs and craft beer bars that opened up in the more touristy section of District 1, just a short walk from the backpacker street.platinum pale ale

I did, however, find Platinum (not to be confused with Platinum in Seoul) at the new tourist street food market near Ben Thanh Market, but the pale ale wasn’t anything special. Fortunately, it was significantly cheaper than the more attractive new breweries that have opened.

On my first night I checked out East West Brewing and immediately walked out when I saw the prices at more than VND 200,000 per pint. Compare this to buying a bottle of Bia Saigon for VND 10,000 (50 cents) at a restaurant or convenience store. That first night, I ended up sitting outside at an alley restaurant with a couple bottles of Bia Saigon that only cost VND 8,000 each.

After my stops in Mui Ne and Dalat, I decided to give East West Brewing and Pasteur Street Brewing a try as I realized I had plenty of leftover cash and little to spend it on during my last day in Vietnam.

Pasteur Street Brewing

If not for offline maps and GPS I might not have found it

Pasteur Street Brewing

This was the most recommended brewery in Saigon, and I visited it before meeting a friend for dinner. It wasn’t the easiest bar to find as it was hidden down an alley with a small sign to indicate it. Then it was up the stairs to the bar for a taste of what they had to offer.

I opted for the six taster glass set, but couldn’t order the acclaimed Cyclo Imperial Chocolate Stout because it was a significant amount more to add it to the group. I was already paying VND 250,000 +10% service fee (about $13) for those little glasses and wasn’t sure I wanted to splurge more on a taste of one more. Plus, the heat of Saigon doesn’t drive me to drink dark, heavy beers that may put me to sleep (and it was still quite early).

My sampler included the Double IPA, Coffee Porter, Strawberry Soursop Hefeweizen, Spice Island Saison, Pomelo IPA, and Jasmine IPA.
pasteur street beer

The layout and design of the bar reminded me a bit of Mikkeller Taipei. As it was before dinner, the bar was quiet and there were few customers. I imagine it gets more crowded than I saw.

I probably would have enjoyed the atmosphere more had there been a few more people. They at least played some good music while I was there.

The beer was better than expected, and I appreciated the local flavors added. The Jasmine IPA had a strong jasmine tea-like flavor that worked well with the hops and mellowed out the flavor at the end. I thought the Pomelo IPA was better as the pomelo isn’t as harsh as grapefruit, making this beer more mild and sweet to balance with the earthy hops.Pasteur Street Brewing

The Double IPA was also a worthwhile beer–a bit more complex than the others I tried. It had a fruity aroma to go with the mix of citrus and earthiness in the hops. It was sweet and bitter all at once.

The most surprising were the Strawberry Soursop Hefeweizen and Spice Island Saison. I was concerned that the hefeweizen would be too sweet, but it was refreshing instead. The fruit could’ve been stronger to make it a better beer, but it was still an interesting one. My favorite, however, was the Spice Island Saison. This beer had amazing flavor with ginger, lemongrass, and pepper mixed with the sweetness of the heavy wheat. If I lived in Saigon, this would be my go-to beer.

The only disappointment I had was the coffee porter. It had a great coffee aroma, but the flavor was more like coffee extract and it lacked a good porter base. Considering the tropical environment, I wasn’t expecting much out of a dark beer.
pasteur street brewing

East West Brewing

After dinner and meeting with my friends along the busy streets of Saigon, I decided to try a little more beer before heading off to sleep. East West Brewing was about a block from my hotel at GK Central.

I probably should’ve eaten more before having more beer as it definitely hit me harder than it should have. My light dinner was not filling enough for night of drinking.

Just as I did at Pasteur Street, I opted for the four-beer sampler of Far East IPA, Coffee Vanilla Porter, Modern Belgian Blonde, and Summer Hefeweizen. It was only a little less expensive than the six I had earlier.east west brewing

East West Brewing looks more like a beer garden than a neighborhood bar–it was much too loud for the small crowd that I encountered. The high ceilings gave the place a cavernous feel. The entire bar felt out of place in Saigon. It’s a common problem with trendy new bars around the world–they want to look like the same establishments in the US and lack local appeal.east west beer

The hefeweizen was light and refreshing and not too sweet, which made it more appealing than the other beers. It was a good introduction beer after walking in the heat. I found the Belgian blonde to be a sweeter version of the hefeweizen–there wasn’t a significant difference.

The coffee vanilla porter was disappointing, but slightly better than the coffee beer at Pasteur. The vanilla overpowered the coffee. It’s not a beer I would recommend.

east west beer

Coffee Vanilla Porter

The Far East IPA was nothing special, but a decent IPA. It tasted like an IPA should with nothing that differentiated it from others. It would be a worthwhile go-to beer if not for the price.

Thoughts on Craft Beer in Vietnam

Other than what I tried at Pasteur Street Brewing, I wasn’t impressed by the beer in Vietnam. And considering the price at Pasteur Street, I would be unlikely to go there often if I lived in Saigon.

It’s a similar issue I encountered in Taiwan with high prices in a city with a low cost of living. It’s difficult to justify splurging on beer that costs as much as multiple meals.

I would recommended having a taste at Pasteur Street to anyone visiting Saigon as it is a pleasant bar with good beer, but I wouldn’t push visitors to go out of their way for it.

Have you tried craft beer in Vietnam? What did you think?

Returning to Saigon

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about spending time in Saigon again. And my trip ended up with a day more than I had originally plan in the southern Vietnamese city. I was on my way to join my friend for a few days at the beach at Mui Ne about four hours north of Saigon.

It had been about three and a half years since I set foot in Vietnam’s largest city. My memories of that time are mixed–I hated it at times, but I also had a great experience meeting some people and eating.

Bitexco Financial Tower

Bitexco Financial Tower

After years of living in more developed cities, I wondered how I’d fare against the infamous Saigon traffic. I admit to being intimidated by the thought of crossing major streets with the cars and motorbikes swerving past me. This was not a part of the journey I looked forward to experiencing again.

Fortunately, I only planned one full day and two half days on this journey, so I figured I could suffer through the negatives before heading to quieter locations in Vietnam.

saigon opera house

Saigon Opera House

Arrival in Saigon

Upon arrival I didn’t recall much of anything of Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport, but I considered that I only ever flew out of the international terminal. It was fairly efficient, albeit crowded when I approached the visa on arrival counter–there many more people than I saw in Hanoi almost four years before. The whole process took about 20 minutes and by the time I had my visa, the lines for immigration were gone, so it all worked out.

ben thanh market saigon

Ben Thanh Market, a very touristy place

While checking for transportation into the city, I noticed the airport bus and checked the route. Unfortunately, no one was near the map to help me confirm whether any stops were near my hotel. At a significant price difference to taking a taxi, which still would’ve only been less than $10, I decided to take my chances with the bus. The worst-case scenario would be that I would take a shorter taxi ride after getting off the bus.

Score! The bus stopped a short walk from my hotel, though I made the walk a little longer because I took a wrong turn after someone offered to help me with directions. It was a friendly start to the journey even if it wasn’t the best help.

Saigon hotel view

Not a bad view from the hotel

After checking in to Little Brick Saigon Hotel I was able to relax for a few minutes with a cold shower to help me prepare for the oppressive heat as I searched for food and coffee. The food I found wasn’t all that good–I have no idea what I ordered, but it was a bowl of rice noodles with some vegetables and processed meat slices. It was not what I had hoped and the only disappointing meal during my stay in Vietnam. Fortunately, I found better iced coffee…a few times.

Get me some Vietnamese coffee!

Not only did I need the coffee to wake up before meeting my friend for dinner, but I needed to escape the heat, pollution, and noise of Saigon. The simple act of crossing the street was stressful and I was already growing weary of the taxi and motorbike offers at every turn.

tuxo coffee saigon

This looks like a good place for coffee

But I found friendly little coffee shops, particularly TUXo, which was a quaint open-air cafe. There was always one person who spoke English and wanted to offer a friendly greeting, which improved my mood after inhaling all the exhaust fumes while walking. And I could watch life from the comfort of a seat–I wanted to take in the city and see what had changed in three and a half years since I was last in Saigon.

Wandering in Saigon

I attempted to wander through streets, first in the immediate neighborhood of my hotel and then farther out. It became clear that as I wandered more, I became exhausted from the heat and stressed from the traffic.

saigon traffic

Just some motorbikes riding on the sidewalk to avoid traffic

Oddly enough, the first encounter with a beggar in the city was an Irishman who approached me in a park claiming to have run out of money and had nowhere to stay. Being wary of such people, I said sorry and that I had my tight travel budget to adhere to. Note to travelers: ALWAYS have enough money to get a flight home.

I gave up on my extended walk to a market in District 10 on my only full day in Saigon–it looked like it was walkable, but after more than an hour of crossing huge, congested roundabouts, I turned around and settled for more coffee and a cold shower.

saigon traffic night

More traffic, but the color is more pleasant

After a pleasant dinner with my friend on my first partial day, I headed back to the area around my hotel to find a cheap beer before going to sleep. My mood was altered by an altercation on the main road leading to the backpacker/tourist area of the city. A Vietnamese guy resting on a motorbike said something (probably rude) to a foreigner and the Asian woman he was with. The foreigner yelled back and the two approached each other, at which point the foreigner slammed the local to the ground. He began asking for help in English, but I saw a crowd of Vietnamese men approaching–I know how fights between foreigners and locals turn out in the eyes of the public and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Nguyen Hue Saigon

Nguyen Hue pedestrian street

At that point I was desperate to find a beer. I saw some expensive new craft breweries near my hotel, but I wasn’t about to shell out $6+ for a beer in Vietnam. I headed toward the backpacker streets but became frustrated with the crowds.

Finally, I came across a small restaurant in a quiet alley with a few tables and stools in the street. For less than 50 cents I could have a cold bottle or two of Saigon Beer and release the stress of the city. Of course, finding out the price required a bit of charades skill as no one spoke more than a couple words of English and I was having trouble remembering how to even say hello and thank you in Vietnamese.

That evening ended on a much better note after finding that little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The beer was even cheaper than they had originally told me as well.

After my brief return to Ho Chi Minh City, I came to the conclusion that I had previously–Saigon is not a city in which I could live. There’s a lot to enjoy, but it’s not a comfortable place for living.

The Attraction of Vietnam: Not Quite a Love Story

This was the problem with a walk down memory lane. It was almost always foggy, and one was likely to trip and fall.
– The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

There’s something about Vietnam’s major cities, Hanoi and Saigon, that attract me. I had a love-hate relationship during my time in both, which is why I chose to depart Vietnam after two months rather than explore for the additional month remaining on my visa.

Hoan Kiem Lake street

The streets around Hoan Kiem Lake

I could identify what drove me to dislike both cities, and to some extent that is my own fault. I didn’t get out of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and I was in Saigon during Tet. Both of those conscious decisions caused me to dislike Vietnam. That my stay in Hanoi ended on a sour note tainted the first part of my stay in Saigon. It’s disappointing because I have wonderful memories of my two months in the country.

power lines hanoi

I’m not sure how this is supposed to work

But then there are the little things that made me love the cities, or at least enjoy my stay. This is a reversal of perception–usually it’s the little things that lead me to find fault in a place. There were moments in Vietnam that made me smile uncontrollably and laugh, tastes that made me stop to savor, and sounds that calmed me. While I believe I couldn’t live in either city long term, I have admiration of joyful memories to take me back.

Chaotic life & oases in Hanoi

In Hanoi, I found a few spots in the Old Quarter or just outside of it that I could return to for a moment of peace. The narrow, crowded streets that could give one a heart attack while attempting to cross made each day an adventure when all I wanted to do was find dinner or grab a beer. And after moving at a snail’s pace through the streets, dodging motorbikes and hawkers, I could find myself at a destination that provided breathing room, where I could tune out the noise and watch the lights of the city appear as the sun set behind the hazy sky.

bike hanoi

Woman rides a bike along Truc Bach Lake

Sometimes it was just a matter of reaching Highlands Coffee–a local coffee chain that had clean banh mi for lunch–to grab a meal and take in the view from three floors above Hoan Kiem Lake. It was the only view of the lake that was undisturbed by hawkers or students who approached requesting photos and English conversation.

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake at night

Other times it was a matter of fighting my way from my room at Hanoi Graceful Hotel where I was working online all day to go grab the 2-for-1 75-cent happy hour special at Central Backpackers Hostel. I was able to meet some travelers there who had tips on places to see in my limited free time. It certainly wasn’t the same atmosphere as the dirty Bia Hoi around the corner from my hotel that served 33-cent draught beer, but that dingy little place was for other evenings.

Truc Bach Lake

Quiet view of Truc Bach Lake at night

More than anything, it was making a friend in Hanoi. A young woman stood on the side of the road inviting people into a restaurant a block or so from my hotel, and one night I decided to stop in. After talking with her during my time in the restaurant, I decided I’d find her again after my trip to Cambodia. We became friends and have kept in touch since then–she even visited Taiwan during my second stay. She gave me my first ride on the back of a motorbike, a rather terrifying experience as I don’t like being a passenger and Hanoi traffic is not exactly organized. That experience gave me a little more courage when I needed a motorbike taxi ride back to my apartment in Saigon a few times.

Away from the crowds in Saigon

I found a bit more breathing room in Saigon, or maybe it was sidewalk space. I rented a large private room in a building through Airbnb–it was down a quiet alley off Le Van Tam Park in District 1. The area was surrounded by embassies and consulates, which meant that there was more security and fewer crowds.

Saigon riverside walk

Is this really Ho Chi Minh City?

I encountered plenty of frustration in my first two weeks in Saigon–the local market refused to bargain and tried charging ridiculous prices for produce, so I ended up only buying bananas because the one vendor gave me a fair price that was still likely higher than the local price. There was also a lack of restaurants in the immediate area for lunch, which meant I spent most of my break walking in the oppressive heat to get take-out to eat while I worked.

After Tet, I found a little shop in my alley that had cheap lunch for local workers–it wasn’t anything special, but rice, fried fish, and vegetables for about $1 was good enough for me. A quaint cafe also opened at the end of the alley, which I headed to a few times to grab a drink after work and play with a couple kittens that hung around outside.

saigon kitten

Curious kitten at the local cafe

Every now and then I headed out in the early morning to one of three Highlands Coffee shops within a 15-minute walk that had a breakfast buffet. For about $6 I could eat all I wanted and drink as much coffee as possible for about three hours while I worked–the coffee shop had decent Wi-Fi and an outlet for my laptop. By the time breakfast was over, I was over-caffeinated and so full that I wasn’t hungry until dinner. If that location was full, I went to the one down the street that was in an old wood building–it was beautiful architecture, but it had no air conditioning, making it difficult to work.

During my first weekend in Saigon, I took a tour of the Presidential Palace. As I entered the grounds, I found two young women taking photos of each other and I offered to take photos for them. They were both recently returned students from the US, so it was easy to talk with them. For the rest of the day we walked around the Presidential Palace and talked; we exchanged Facebook contacts before parting ways. Only one of them lived in Saigon, and she contacted me after Tet to go out to dinner. She introduced me to her friend and some Korean exchange students she had just met.

Vietnam presidential palace

Presidential Palace on a hot day (now known as Independence Palace)

Before I left Vietnam, I met up with the two women for meals a few more times–they introduced me to some good food and interesting streets. Most importantly, they directed me to the Co.opmart, a government-run supermarket with set prices so I could easily buy tons of tropical fruit to enjoy for breakfast. After our second dinner together I regretted already booking my flight out of Vietnam–I was beginning to enjoy my time in Saigon and had found routines that made life easier.

restaurant saigon

Cool restaurant my new friends invited me to try

After the city returned to life following the Tet holiday, I found places to relax and enjoy myself. I found a roadside restaurant that opened in the evenings–small plastic chairs and tables with cheap food and beer. I discovered a few good noodle shops that were much cleaner than the street vendors and set out to find more high-end restaurants farther from my apartment. I grew more comfortable wandering the streets each day.

There was still plenty of daily frustration–hawkers approaching far too often and the ever-present danger of crossing the street. There was even a moment when I couldn’t physically cross a street with idle traffic because there wasn’t enough space between all the motorbikes–I was trapped on a narrow curb until the traffic began to move again.

More than anything, I have the friends I made in Vietnam to thank for my time in the country. Without them, I would have written off much of my time there. I have been fortunate enough to meet all three in Taipei and hope to be able to show them around again if they choose to return.

Have you ever had a love-hate relationship with a place? What made you love and hate it?