Explore enchanting Saigon

Posted by Narina Exelby on 25 June 2018 Tags:

Most visitors to Vietnam will arrive in Saigon first. Instead of rushing off elsewhere, linger for a few days. It’s enchanting, stimulating and surprisingly affordable.

Motorbike food tour. Photo by Narina Exelby.

On the far western fringe of Saigon’s Tao Dan Park, each day begins with a gathering of songbirds. Warblers, white-eyes, bulbuls and finches – prized, every one of them, for their beautiful voices – hang in collections of bamboo cages, from where their songs spill into the city’s early morning air. Around low plastic tables, time is kept by the slow, steady drip-drip-drip of filtering coffee, while cigarette smoke twirls to the inaudible melody of a tepid morning breeze.

The birds arrive at the park on the back of scooters. Their cages are strapped to the bikes or backs of their owners, always men, who come to this cafe to meet with friends, discuss breeding and listen out for the sweetest of voices. Upon arrival the cages are hung onto a metal framework around the open-air cafe. Coffee is ordered, cold green tea is served, cigarettes are lit. And then the cà phê arrives: drip, drip, dripping onto a thick bed of condensed milk.

Elsewhere in the park, dawn brings a different gathering. With 8,5-million people living within the city limits (a density of 4 000 people per square kilometre), getting outside is an important way to begin the day. In parks across Saigon groups of people practise tai chi, ballroom dancing, aerobics, martial arts. Badminton is played in available open spaces. Street corners become workout studios and trees become objects against which to languidly stretch hamstrings.

When the government isolated the country from outside influences after the American War, Vespa scooters became status symbols. Right: Collecting and breeding songbirds is a popular hobby for men in the city. Photo by Narina Exelby

They also, as the sun begins to splinter off the city’s skyscrapers, provide shade for the plastic chairs and tables – always cut low to the ground – that spill onto the pavements from wide-open doorways. Here, on streets around the city, residents bend over bowls of phó, a delicious bone broth served with noodles and a mound of mixed herbs. Always better eaten at a simple restaurant than made at home, locals say, because to be really good, phó should cook slowly for 12 hours.

While eateries spill out so obviously onto the streets, Saigon also has a thriving ‘secret cafe’ culture: independent cafes you have to look very hard to find. Built mostly in the first half of the last century, when Vietnam was under French rule, many of Saigon’s old colonial buildings are neglected and crumbling – and it’s usually in these character-filled structures that the cafes have found a home. Some of the secret cafes’ furniture and fittings may – or not – have come from Lê Công Kièu, the ‘antiques street’ where families make a living selling trinkets from Vietnam’s past.

Here, rooms are filled with old cameras, light fittings, fans, oriental ceramics, jewellery, paintings – and war memorabilia. Proud collections of aviator sunglasses, helmets, engraved Zippo lighters… although their authenticity is questionable.

The Reunification Express rail journey. Photo by Narina Exelby.

It’s been more than 40 years since the fall of Saigon, the end of what the Vietnamese call the American War, but it’s virtually impossible to visit the city without in some way acknowledging the country’s brutal past. Trawl through souvenir shops or quirky art stores and you’ll see copies of the bold propaganda posters that have become icons of the war; in central Ben Thành Market there are sections dedicated to army gear – khaki water bottles, camo clothing, helmets. And along Võ Van Tàn street, firmly placed on almost every visitor’s itinerary, is a stark modern concrete building with gold lettering: the War Remnants Museum. The carefully curated photo exhibitions between these walls are riveting, yet harrowing. Other buildings in the city are less severe.

The beautiful red-brick Notre Dame cathedral – a favourite backdrop for pre-wedding photographs – is just over the road from the picturesque Central Post Office, where an octogenarian letter-writer has been plying his trade since the early 1950s. The Saigon Opera House is slowly being dwarfed by rising modern buildings, so it’s fitting that this stately theatre hosts the wildly successful A O Show, a captivating Cirque du Soleil-meets-cultural dance performance depicting Vietnam’s transition through history.

These grand colonial buildings seem a world away from Saigon’s intriguing Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas, hidden between ramshackle apartment blocks behind a flower market, and the old Chinese pagoda temple, Chua Ong Bon, where coils of incense drift smoke between red lanterns and then out onto the streets.

The traditional palm-leaf hat, the nón lá, is still worn today. Right: fresh fruit and vegetables form the base of all meals. Photo by Narina Exelby

As daylight fades, life returns to Saigon’s sidewalks. Plastic chairs and tables, often packed away during the day so businesses can use the pavements as storefronts, are set out once again. Through twilight the swirl of motorbikes is navigated by women riding bicycles loaded with shopping; vendors pushing food carts begin to take over street corners. Slowly, slowly, families and friends gather on the sidewalks. Children play games around trees. Someone turns a radio on. Beers are cracked open and as the smoke from street-side barbecues begins to thicken the air, somewhere inside a mechanic’s shop a songbird calls, singing for its supper.

After Saigon, you could…

Photo by Narina Exelby.

Tour the Mekong Delta

Twice the size of Kruger, the Mekong Delta is where one-third of the country’s fresh produce is grown. Backyard Travellers offers multi-day trips through the delta. Your days will be spent cycling and strolling through the web of waterways, paths, alleys and roads that lead through crops and plantations, and you’ll explore floating markers, small home industries and villages.
Budget: From R4485 per person including transport from Saigon and accommodation in the delta. backyardtravel.com
Get here: The delta is a two-hour drive southwest of Saigon.

 

Chill at the beach

With an extensive white-sand beach and warm, calm sea, Cam Ranh Bay is set to become Vietnam’s big resort destination (a lot of it is currently under construction). The Anam is a luxurious but laid-back resort where tropical gardens and an abundance of swimming pools will put you straight into holiday mode. There’s also a spa, beach club, tennis and badminton courts, and free yoga classes.
Budget: From R2330 per double room B&B. theanam.com
Get there: Cam Ranh Bay is east of Saigon, an hour’s flight or seven-hour drive away.

 

Cook in Hoi an

With pretty French-style cafes, cobbled streets and a river that’s dappled with thousands of floating candles everywhere. Hoi An is a favourite tourist destination and a lovely place to connect with local life. Spend a day with My Grandma’s Home Cooking and you’ll trawl a market for fresh ingredients, take a boat ride to the family home and cook (and eat) Vietnamese dishes.
Budget: From R350 for a day excursion. cooking-hoian.com
Get there: Hoi An is just south of Danang (45 minutes by taxi); it takes an hour and 20 minutes to fly from Danang to Saigon.

 

Explore Halong Bay

One of Vietnam’s most mystical landscapes, where more than 1600 jagged, jungled limestone emerald water. Spend a few days here on a junk-style boat and explore limestone caves, kayak into isolated bays, cycle to remote villages and visit the floating fishing communities.
Budget: R1570 per person for a two-day cruise. halongbaytours.com For a luxury package, try indochina-junk.com.
Get there: It’s a two-hour drive east of Hanoi (in the north) but rather take a seaplane for R3144. vietnamseaplanetours.com

 

Plan your trip

Photo by Narina Exelby.

Getting there

Many airlines fly from Joburg to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. In May, Qatar Airways has return flights, with a stopover in Doha, from R7869. qatarairways.com

 

Visas

SA passport holders require a visa, obtained before you travel. I used vietnam-visa.com and received my visa approval letter within 24 hours. It cost $21 (R244) to apply, and a one-month single-entry visa cost $25 (R290), to be paid on arrival. Note: you must pay this in US dollars cash.

 

Need to know

In tourist spots you’ll be able to get by with English – Vietnamese is a difficult language to grasp. With thousands of scooters on the streets, self-driving is daunting; rather catch a taxi. They’re affordable and run on meters. If you want to cross Vietnam (from Saigon to Hanoi), the Reunification Express is an affordable sleeper train that stops en route and offers wonderful views. seat61.com

 

When to go

Temperatures in southern Vietnam (including Saigon) are warm and remain pretty constant: from low- to-mid-20s to low-30s. The dry season is November to March; June and July are the wettest months.

 

Do this

Explore the antique street. Lê Cōng Kiêu is in District 1. Note that not all antiques are actually old – ‘war memorabilia’ is, most often, reproduced.

Stroll through Ben Tanh Market. It’s easy to find as it’s a major landmark in District 1. You can buy clothing, fabrics, shoes, trinkets, army surplus and food.

Go to the theatre. Cirque du Soleil’s LA director described the A O Show as ‘most extraordinary’. Tickets from R287. luneproduction.com

Take Sophie’s art tour. Not only for art fundis. In four hours you’ll visit a few art museums and, through the development of painting styles and subjects, explore the country’s past. R756 per person. sophiesarttour.com

See the city from the back of a Vespa. There are a range of tours that’ll take you to the main attractions (and secret ones) around the city. From R870 per person for four hours. vespaadventures.com

Visit the War Remnants Museum. Formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the displays show the effect of war on ordinary people. Entry R20. warremnantsmuseum.com

 

Stay here

Little Saigon Boutique Hotel is affordable, clean and friendly, and in a superb location in the central city. From R430 per double room. littlesaigon.com.vn

Ma Maison is a homely French-style guest house 20 minutes’ drive from the city centre. It’s a lovely choice if you want authenticity. From R756 per double room B&B. mamaison.vn

Le Méridien is a luxury hotel filled with local art, on the riverfront in central Saigon. From R1978 for a double room B&B. lemeridiensaigon.com

 

Eat here

‘Secret cafes’ are hidden and often have no signs (which is the point). Try googling ‘hidden cafe in HCMC’. Or if you don’t have time to search for them, try one of the Công Càphê outlets, a small chain of coffee shops fitted out with Viet Cong memorabilia. congcaphe.com

Wrap & Roll is a chain that takes the guesswork out of ordering (there’s a menu in English). Meals from R35. wrap-roll.com

The Refinery is a popular French-style bistro in an old opium factory, close to the cathedral. Good food and a relaxed vibe. Main courses from R85. therefinerysaigon.com

 

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Getaway magazine.

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