The past six years of my life have been spent in Southeast Asia—more specifically in Thailand, Cambodia and now Vietnam. Living and working in Saigon gives me a unique perspective on one of the most fascinating cities in the world. I enjoy this city so much. It has amazing architecture, interesting history and a hustle and bustle about it that only Asian cities seem to be able to generate. Ancient Asian buildings rub shoulders with French colonial architecture and enormous glass towers. It makes for a unique blend of old and new, Asian and European. However, it is with the people at street level that you get the greatest experiences Saigon has to offer.
Bui Vien is a street in the Pham Ngu Laos area of District One. It is almost like two streets in one. The differences here between day and night are huge. During the day it appears as though there are nothing but travel agencies, a few hotels and shops. The shops sell everything that you would expect in a tourist area of a big city. Street vendors wander about trying to sell bracelets and sunglasses to anyone and everyone. When darkness falls, however, the place really comes alive. Bars that were hardly noticeable spill out into the street as thousands of backpackers and tourists balance on the smallest seats you will ever see. The street vendors become even more outlandish in their approaches. Some are incredibly young, but very adept at getting you to part with a dollar. It’s all part of the fun. The street buzzes all night long.
Ben Thanh Market is the biggest and most famous market in the city. Inside is a seething mass of humanity, that almost resembles a Turkish bazaar. The walkways are extremely narrow, as every inch of available space has been given over to traders. Here they sell just about anything. Great bargains are to be made on clothes, shoes and other items. The general rule is that the vendor will start at about 50% more than he wants, so aim to get him or her down by 33% of the asking price.
The Reunification Palace: On April 30, 1975 North Vietnamese tanks smashed through the gates of the former Royal Palace, signaling the end of the Vietnam war. The communists regard this event as the Liberation of Saigon while the Southern Vietnamese prefer the title, the fall of Saigon. Everything at the palace was left exactly as it was on that day. It makes for a fascinating glimpse back into history. The command center in the basement is just as it was and there is even an escape helicopter still standing on the roof. Such was the speed of the takeover by Northern Vietnamese troops, it was unable to be deployed. This is a favorite spot of mine—it is like a living time capsule.
Finally, I have to mention Pho.
No trip to Saigon would be complete without trying this amazing aromatic beef noodle soup. It is sold everywhere and eaten every day by millions. Small street side venders, tiny backstreet restaurants, smart trendy cafes and restaurant chains all sell this most Vietnamese of foods. It comes with a plate of greens, bean sprouts, chilies and lime. You just put everything in to your taste, squeeze in the lime juice and enjoy the freshest bowl of soup that you will ever encounter.
Read more about Keith’s daily life in Saigon on his website, Saigon Districts.