Culture Trip Edition
Have you ever been to a city that you do not necessarily miss, but its name nevertheless evokes emotions in you? That’s how I feel about Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), my hometown and an indispensable part of my identity. The metropolitan city has witnessed many cultural and historical turns, and has become Vietnam’s most prominent melting pot over the years. Immersing yourself in Saigon is a one of a kind experience, and you should definitely pay it a visit as soon as you can! You will understand why I have fallen for it over and over again.
When comparing Saigon to Dutch cities, it could be described as a cross-over between Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Many Vietnamese in the Netherlands have drawn the parallel between Saigon and Rotterdam, as both cities pride themselves as major industrial hubs. However, Amsterdam and Saigon also strike a strange resemblance: bustling, charming and picturesque. Both cities are open to people of all shapes and sizes and from every corner of the world. Saigon residents are similar to Amsterdammers: They go about their busy, fast-paced lives but they are far from being crude, pushy or distant. When you seek help, they welcome you with genuine affection and hospitality.
Yet, Saigon is astronomically more chaotic than Amsterdam. I have been asked multiple times how I managed to adapt to the intense Amsterdam lifestyle so easily. I always answer with a shrug: “Because I have lived in Saigon. And in comparison, Amsterdam is tranquil.” Being in Saigon means you can easily get carried away by its eccentric charms: the dust, the noise, the traffic, the honks, the chatter, the streets, the motorcycles, the karaoke, or the eateries on the sidewalk. The city is so incredibly hectic that travellers have even made tutorials on how to safely cross the road.
However, what sets Saigon apart from anywhere else is its cultural and culinary diversity. Since many Vietnamese city dwellers and expats reside in this remarkable city, Saigon’s food culture is a mix of Vietnamese cuisine and Western food. Your first stop should unquestionably be the Ben Thanh Market, where stalls have been arranged to represent the Vietnamese street food scene. From fresh spring rolls (gỏi cuốn), various noodles soups (bún riêu, bún mắm) to shellfish (ốc) and fried dough (bột chiên), these mouthwatering dishes will make your tastebuds fall hopelessly in love. Despite the variety that this market offers, I highly recommend branching out to explore less tourist-ridden spots.
Instead, one must look out for truly local hole-in-the-wall eateries (quán) to fully experience the culinary prowess, authenticity, and ambiance that I so dearly adore. If you are a first-time traveller, start with the basics such as the sandwich (bánh mì), Phở, broken rice (cơm tấm) and pork rice noodles (hủ tiếu) before advancing to more exotic dishes. Once you have indulged yourself in Saigon’s most luscious food, your palate will never be satisfied anywhere else anymore.
Unfortunately, Saigon is not the place for nature lovers. There is not much greenery going on, but the city makes up for it with its rich cultural heritage. Vietnam has been subject to a 150-year-long history of colonization by the Chinese, the French and the Americans and as a result Vietnamese architecture and landmarks have been heavily influenced. The French remnants in Saigon are omnipresent throughout the city and especially in the city center. Some notable attractions include the antique Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral, the City Post Office, and the Opera House. The Chinese settlers have also left their cultural imprint on Saigon, as evident in their communities in District 5 and 6, an area colloquially known as Chợ Lớn. Saigon is also known for its religious landmarks such as Ngọc Hoàng Pagoda and the Instagrammable Tân Định Church. Notable are also its history museums such as the War Remnants Museum and the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. These historic landmarks paired with the modern high-rise buildings represent what makes Saigon truly special: a place where the past and present do not collide but co-exist.
Similarly to Amsterdam, Saigon is divided into different districts which cater for every niche appetite. As a tourist, you will most likely stick to District 1, the flashy and fancy downtown with skyscrapers and giant shopping malls. Nightlife in District 1 is the wilder sister of Amsterdam’s Red Light District, proving its popularity among expats and the Vietnamese youth. If you want to distance yourself from the hustling crowds, pay the lesser known District 3 and Binh Thanh District a visit. Saigon also has its shady neighborhoods such as District 4, but if you are in the mood for something more adventurous, why not give it a shot?
However, as a local, I feel obligated to provide you with some safety tips. Saigon is not known for its high security, so make sure that you always keep your belongings close to your body and refrain from using your phone when you are standing close to a street or sitting on a motorcycle. To maximize your experience as a novice traveller, I highly suggest pairing up with a Vietnamese companion as this will greatly reduce the language barrier and help you bypass touristy destinations and scams.
Even though Saigon is notoriously linked to chaos and noise, there are always tranquil places for us to slow down and catch a breath if you know where to find them. From hidden, lovely cafes to hushed parks, you are welcome to take a minute to relax, set aside your worries, and watch people live their busy lives. It is just you and the city, sharing an intimate bond. Consider this piece a love letter, an ode, a tribute, and an invitation to the place I was born and raised in. A place that I can proudly call: Home.