I liked Saigon. I’d heard a lot about about moto thieves and grime and crowds, so I was wary. But the streets were wide, and there were several big green spaces I could walk to from my hostel in District 1, and the buildings were colorfully painted. They’re all very narrow, tall buildings, and the ones along the canal remind me of Amsterdam, but brighter. The boulevards and main streets were wide, but as soon as I ducked down any alley, I found myself in a narrow passageway packed with people, goods for sale, tiny stools to perch on while eating, bicycles and motorbikes. These alleys are the main entrances to the homes of the 9 million people who live here; the main streets are lined with shops and eateries.
Every time I left the guesthouse, the employees would implore me to hold on to my purse, not just let it hang by my side. I met up with a friend of a friend, a Vietnamese woman born and raised in Ho Chi Minh City, and she looked concerned when I showed up by myself–did I walk here alone? Did I feel safe? I never witnessed any muggings, but one of my friends from the elephant camp had her bag snatched as she crossed the street. A motorbike zipped by, the driver pushed her down and pulled at her bag, and next thing she knew, she had a bruise and no phone or wallet. So it’s not all good news there, but I was fortunate and only saw the good side of the city.
What’s with the name change, you might be wondering. The city was called Sài Gòn, part of Gia Định district, and when the French invaded in the 19th century, they Westernized the name to Saigon. It was known as Saigon until 1975, when the last American forces left the country and the new government branded this stronghold of Western influence with the name of the late Ho Chi Minh, the late communist leader. However you feel about the politics of the war, that was a canny and cutting move. The central part of the city is still called Saigon by most residents.
The Cinemax TV channel I got in my guesthouse advertised all the movies it would play in Southeast Asia in the month of April, with a note that The Hunger Games wouldn’t play in Vietnam. I wonder if that’s because the areas of Ho Chi Minh City are split into district numbers, and there are districts in the movie; or if the anti-government sentiment of the film is too much for the Vietnamese government to condone (although there wasn’t nearly enough of the book’s anger in the movie, I thought); or if it’s a more prosaic reason, like a distribution rights issue. You do start to notice the tiny things after a while on the road, I suppose!
Mostly I spent my time in Saigon visiting museums and sites about the Vietnamese-American War (which I’ll write about next week), but I also found time to have a feast of a meal with my friend’s friend at Mon Hue, and bia hoi with a new friend from my guesthouse.
Bia hoi is the beer that’s brewed daily at many places throughout Vietnam. There’s a “beer corner” in Hanoi that’s become a tourist destination, but there are plenty of places in District 1 of HCMC that sell the stuff too. It wasn’t great beer, but that’s not the point. We sat on tiny red plastic chairs on the sidewalk, surrounded by others spilling out onto the street, and we watched food hawkers and fellow tourists wander by in the noisy neon night. When I was ready for bed, I went back down the alley to my room, where it was several decibels quieter.