First of all, let’s talk about the name. Most people refer to the city I’m soon going to ramble on and on about at length as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) rather than Saigon, however because I am a lady that pays particular attention to words, I will affectionately refer, with no ill-meaning, political connotations or any serious significance really, to HCMC as Saigon, simply because I am fond of the sound of this particular two syllable word. Sai-gon.
Unlike the airport in Hanoi, that of Saigon is essentially right in the city. Seconds after throwing myself and my humble pack (I know a DSLR doesn’t exactly scream humble, but I do pack quite efficiently light, or so people tell me) into a cab, I was surrounded by bright flashing lights, billboards and structures stretching upward, all of which made me feel comfortable and at ease, as city dwelling often does for a city dweller such as myself.
My first night in Saigon turned into something rather wild and wonderful as I managed to make friends with some local international students that invited me along for a night of drinking games and storytelling, and gave me the most thoroughly enjoyable welcome to a city I have ever had. Undoubtedly that night made me biased in my impressions of Saigon, but regardless, it’s worth noting that I was instantly enamored with the place.
Some of my sightseeing plans were challenged during my time in Saigon as the Tet holiday was still being honored and thus many areas of intrigue (monuments/buildings/museums/stores/businesses) were closed or significantly calmer than I imagine the norm to be, however I did manage to weave my way around the city to see a decent number of sights and partake in a memorable, sweaty photo jaunt.
If you ask anyone that knows me, even if only barely, they can almost definitely verify my claim that I harbor an uncanny ability to make friends with strangers. Personally, I quite like this quality about myself, though someday, hopefully never, I may be kicking myself for such irresponsible behavior. With my city map out, on the verge of plotting my journey to the Central Post Office, a kind man with a motorbike, by the name Nam, offered to take me anywhere I wanted and shoved a helmet in my hands. No convincing was really necessary though the ‘take this helmet’ plot must be a semi-effective measure for Nam and his motorbiking tourists scheme. Riding throughout Saigon on a motorbike is a must-do when visiting and was a period of my day and trip that I will remember fondly. Once arriving at the Post Office and Cathedral Notre-Dame, Nam adorably requested that I sign his journal (something he has every traveler he provides a ride to do) and asked to take a photo together. I too whipped out my film camera and snapped a shot of us that I’m really looking forward to seeing once I develop the rolls.
My walking tour essentially consisted of me trying to find my way back to the area of my hostel while hopefully wandering into some amusing and lovely sights along the way, which I can report that I managed quite successfully. Here’s a little of what my eyes spied while exploring Saigon by foot:
One immediately noticeable difference between life in Vietnam, at least from the snapshot I took in, as compared to that in Korea is the slower, calmer pace that seems to be prevalent and embraced in Vietnam. Not that folks don’t enjoy themselves in Korea, but the Vietnamese people appeared to allot more time in their day for simple pleasures like soaking up the sun and watching the world go by. This difference was one that was palpable as a foreigner in both lands and one that reminded me of the feeling I felt traveling from America to parts of Eastern Europe, where the day does seem to be greater apportioned for moments of personal enjoyment rather than work.
Similar, but still distinct, the architecture in Saigon reminded me of what I saw in Hanoi, especially in terms of the pastel coloring and clear French colonial style influence. Saigon is clearly a much more modern city with buildings that have generally been maintained, reconstructed or newly built, which contrasted heavily with what Hanoi was made up of. This distinction between the city up north and that of the south was one I found intriguing and enjoyed witnessing back-to-back.
Upon returning to my hostel, I met my roommates (two girls from Scotland and one from Tasmania) and embarked on a relaxing evening of food and drink with fellow travel-spirited women. I cannot quite express how nice it was to spend time with some girls! My Korean life is too often devoid of lady pals and though I do generally prefer hanging with the boys, a girl sometimes just needs to hang with the ladies.
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Waking up bright and early, my last full day in Vietnam featured a trip to the Mekong Delta. Due to my shortage of time, I was only able to explore the portion of the Delta called Ben Tre, which is about 90 min. away from Saigon. I absolutely loved my day in the Mekong Delta and sincerely hope to return to the area for a more extensive visit. Essentially the entire day consisted of boat hopping to various little islands where we (myself + the travel tour group I joined for the day) delighted in some of the area’s handicrafts and edible delicacies. Local honey tasting was involved as was taking shots of snake liquor, watching the process of making (and snacking on) coconut candy, dining on a rather delicious vegetarian lunch and cleansing the palette with a sampling of local exotic fruits (jackfruit, dragon fruit, papaya and a few others previously foreign to my tongue).
Tourism is obviously a big business in the Delta and though extremely large quantities of rice, local fruits, fruit by-products, and other crafts are exported outside of the Delta, most of the money that serves the economy of the Delta and its inhabitants comes from tourists. Regardless of your stance on organized travel (personally, I avoid it whenever possible), I couldn’t more highly recommend going on a tour of the Delta. Mine cost me around $12 in total including round-trip transportation, lunch and all activities included in exploring the area of Ben Tre. Quite a steal if you ask me.
Though I was pretty ecstatic about the whole experience of being in the Mekong Delta, the highlight for me was simply being able to walk around the islands and examine the flora and fauna, watch some of the locals conversing and working on their crafts and just kind of watch how the place functions so efficiently and almost mechanically in such a naturally beautiful, lush and green environment. Perhaps what impressed me most was the visit to the coconut candy ‘factory.’ I use quotations here because though our tour guide referred to the location as a factory, what we visited was more so a very effectively managed gazebo that housed individuals each serving a specific purpose in the process of creating sweet and delicious varieties of coconut candy–to call it a factory to me seemed both inaccurate and perhaps even demeaning to the beauty of the art of their skill.
What I found so especially great about this coconut candy making facility was the fact that not a single portion of the coconut is wasted, everything is put to use in the process of producing the candy. The juice and the coconut meat are both used as key ingredients in the candy and the shell is used for fire to heat the sugary concoction into something chewy and, in my opinion, quite close to perfection. I bought a pack of some fifty pieces of candy that I too quickly ate and seriously wish I would’ve purchased much more.
All in all, my adventures in Vietnam were plentiful, but I left the place feeling a pang that has sort of stuck with me. Saigon hit me hard as a city that was so alive and sparked in me an energy I think I’d been unknowingly searching for and needing. If I could afford it, Saigon would be the next stop of my train of living and working around the world, it’s certainly an idea on my absurd table of possible life routes to take. Regardless of whether I actually pick up and move to Vietnam, I will definitely be making the trek back to Saigon before bidding Asia farewell, whenever that is!
For more photographs from my trip to Vietnam, take a peek at my album on Flickr….On My Odyssey (pt. 2) : : Saigon, Vietnam