One of our writers Emma Clair Kelly has moved from Ireland to Vietnam to start a new life teaching English. Here she talks about her first impressions of her new home Ho Chi Minh city:
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, as it’s known to everyone but the officials is stuck in a transitional rut between the nostalgia of the 1980s and the driving force of 21st century modernity. Shiny new tower blocks are mid-construction with the promise of industrial centres and glossy tourist resorts, while other areas are a maze of galvanised lean-to’s housing cafes, bistros and shops. Like any city there are pros and cons to living here but mostly, it’s the massive culture shock - as everything you knew from the Western world completely evaporates into the hot air.
The Vietnamese people are friendly and very warm; they have a natural desire to learn and speak English, so they make every opportunity to understand you. While they are innately helpful and gracious, do be warned that at the markets all bets are off! There is a certain price for Westerners so it is in your best interest to haggle and traders expect you to do this.
Food is central to the Vietnamese culture and it is not unusual to see locals sitting together in groups on street corners sharing bowls of pho and sipping iced tea or a local Saigon Green beer. The food here is diverse – as is common in most Asian cuisines – varying from the quail eggs and bo’kho (Vietnamese equivalent of Bettys hotpot!) sold by street traders to the traditional noodle soup pho to stir fries, tons of fresh seafood dishes and many, many varieties of rice. However, most restaurants cater for Western tastes as well for those who are not brave enough to dive into the local gastronomy. As well as that, KFC, Dominos and Pizza Hut restaurants are beginning to pop up around the city.
Going shopping in Vietnam is like swinging a pendulum from one extreme to the other. Those with expensive tastes will be satiated with what’s on offer in Diamond Plaza and Saigon Centre where all designer and high end labels are stocked including Longchamp, Burberry and Gucci. However, those keen on the trail of a bargain hunt will enjoy haggling at Ben Thanh market and Saigon Square which stocks rows upon rows of stands with all kinds of paraphernalia.
Nightlife centres around the Pham Ngu Lao area which is teeming with bars of all varieties. You’ll find everything from the rough and ready backpacker kind like Cheeky Monkey (where a hot meal and cold beer will cost you no more than a few dollars) to the more upmarket Allez Boo and Go2 which, are slightly more expensive. Whatever scene you’re into you can be guaranteed a night to remember. If you are looking for a classy night on the town, look no further than cocktails in the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel which offers a stylish ambiance, great music and excellent customer service – prices are around $8 for a signature Rex cocktail.
The not so good:
Driving and being a pedestrian in Saigon are equally precarious! The city is home to five million moped drivers and relatively few rules of the road, so don’t be fooled by a zebra crossing – traffic will not stop for you, however the bikes will go around you. The streets are all named but there are no signposts so should you decide to rent a bike in Saigon, prepare to get lost unless you have the same sense of direction as a Sat Nav!
Street sellers are more prominent in the touristy area of Pham Ngu Lao, and they sell anything from maps to sunglasses to bibles. It’s wise not to buy from them and if you do, be sure to haggle as prices are significantly higher for Westerners. You also might want to avoid the shoe-shiners. They will follow you unless you firmly say no and don’t think you’ll escape if you’re wearing runners or flipflops – they ask everyone. However, most of the upmarket hotels, restaurants and coffee shops hire staff to shoo them away from bothering tourists, nonetheless, these are the most likely to help themselves to the contents of your pockets. While crime in Saigon is relatively low – especially tourist crime – it is always important to be vigilant but the tourist police do their best and are often encouraging tourists to hide money and keep a tight hold of their bags.
The culture shock
This is not a city for the faint-hearted, it is a thriving, vivacious city with a real soul but it can be culture shock inducing. Children are often seen out late selling flowers or cigarettes, it is not unusual to see disabled people begging for money and the odd rat helping itself to the remains of a bowl of pho. The city itself is in a metamorphosis and there is a lot of construction going on so don’t be shocked to see heaps of rubble on the side of the road or motorbikes being repaired on the curb.
There are plenty of sights to see around Saigon, but it is important to do your research before you come here and understand the history of the country as a lot of the museums are propagandist and particularly biased against the Americans. Be careful of tour guides claiming to be vets of the war as they command a higher price! However, in saying that, the stunning Notre Dame cathedral is still breathtaking as you round the corner of diamond plaza, the Reunification Palace still dominates the area and a trip to Vietnam is not complete without visiting Cu Chi and the tunnels of the Viet Cong. All in all, like anywhere, Saigon has its pros and cons but to me, it’s like a drug. Once you’ve tasted Saigon, there’s no going back.