Just over a year ago I shut down my life in Scotland and went to Vietnam.
I quit my job, made a last minute trip to London to get a visa, and I was off. It’s the best thing I have done so far.
To many people, Ho Chi Minh City (District 1 being commonly known as Saigon) is a hectic, dirty place that is impossible to move around. As far as first impressions go, it’s not in my top five: it is exactly that.
Streets crammed with tacky souvenirs, over-priced food and elephant pants: the ‘backpacker district’ was once the poorest in the city, which is still quite shockingly evident today.
However, Saigon very quickly became my home: alive, thriving and filled with old buildings turned into quirky cafe’s, speakeasys and exhibition spaces. You just have to know where to look.
When you are here for a while, people start to know your foreign little face. With that, comes the beauty of a friendly smile in return.
If you give a little respect, you get so much back. Vietnamese people are incredibly polite and deeply respectful (especially to their elders) just in a different way, of course.
In time, you become aware of the little, much more subtle gestures that go a long way: how a quick nod of the head can say a thousand words. It’s endlessly surprising how showing loyalty to your banh mi lady in the morning can lead to a great bit of banter that will make your day, even if your Vietnamese is not that great.
Life is quite beautifully simple here: these little interactions really make you fall in love with a city and allow you to develop a form of language without words.
What’s left of French Colonial Architecture
Sadly quite difficult to find, but hidden around the back streets of District’s 1, 3 and 5, there is a haven of old French-colonial buildings. Untouched, unclean and more often than not, overgrown with weeds.
This said: my favourite is right under the tourist’s nose and in perfect condition.
Not far from Ben Thanh market, as you venture up Nguyen Trung Truc you’ll find a building that could be plucked out of Hoi An’s ancient town. It’s more or less impossible to miss, standing bold in rich, golden pigment and beautifully contrasted with the soothing hue of classic Vietnamese blue.
Over 130 years old, it’s actually the People’s Supreme Court. Well preserved, still being used and hopefully not going anywhere for a while. It’s an absolute feast for the eyes, and extremely significant to the city’s history.
Whether you’re stopping on the side of the street for takeaway or making a full-time job of it: coffee is an essential part of the day in Vietnam.
When you boil it down, it’s the same as any other country: a cog in the forming of social gathering, but on a much larger scale.
You can’t walk down a street in Saigon without seeing a coffee shop. At peak times of the day, it’s difficult to get a seat in the good ones.
It’s not just a casual stop off either, every coffee shop is a home from home to some who visit.
My top five are across here.
Endless Amounts of Food
Across the city, you can gorge on rice, noodles or mango at any time of the day. From your morning Phở to 3am Cháo: Vietnam has it covered. Fresh and packed with gorgeous subtle flavours that make you appreciate good, honest food.
Street snacks are not something to be missed, especially if working late. There are street vendors wondering the city at all hours of the day, some are infamous and known to stop by at specific times, you just have to catch them, they move fast.
Stop by, have a chat and snap up some deep fried banana, sweet potato fries covered in questionable dough-nut like seasoning or buttery corn: bắp xào tây!
There is a very good reason that Saigon is famous for it’s street food. Although sometimes a risk, I would never say it’s regretted.
Unlike the quiet countryside or seaside towns of Vietnam: Saigon wakes up at 5am.
I remember leaving early to travel to Nha Trang and meeting men sitting in the dark at the end of my alley drinking coffee, it was 5am. I found it bizarre, but they have the right idea; it’s the coldest time of the day.
Quite the opposite of this, you have the nightlife of the city.
Once you know where to go, Bui Vien is not your only stop for a late night on the town. Pulling up a plastic chair at a restaurant could lead to you still being there at 3am: it’s one of the charms of the city. It’s so cheap, you can’t say no.
Alternatively, you can head down to Little Tokyo: Japantown. A maze of small bars, questionable massage joints and delicious food; I’m not actually sure what time this area closes down, it might just keep on going.
It’s always easy to play it safe and go to that place with good music and the cheap beer, but venturing out of your comfort zone is the best part of being in the city.
That place with the good music and the cheap will still be there tomorrow.