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 planned 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.
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.
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 were 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.