Disclaimer: I don’t speak Vietnamese. I understood very little of Vietnam’s culture before arriving here and, for my own reasons, still don’t. My interpretations of this amazing country and its equally awesome people are filtered through my subjective experiences here and elsewhere. I don’t write as an expert on the country and its culture. I have done ZERO research on its history (unless you wanna count watching Apocalypse Now about a dozen times) and my intention is not to educate but rather relay what living here and photographing its people for two years has made me feel.
A friend of mine who once visited Ho Chi Minh City described the city as: “A great many people doing a great many things.”
While he wasn’t wrong, the things I’d say to someone visiting this deranged sprawl underwent the following evolution:
Week 1: “Make sure your travel insurance covers the surgical extraction of scooters and scooter drivers from your body.”
Week 2: “Prepare for the climate by spending some time on the sun.”
Week 6: “Learn how to operate a scooter under stressful circumstances. Ideally in a city undergoing bombardment and evacuation.”
Week 8: “Forget the ramblings of cultured ‘foodies’. There is no city with a better street food scene than Saigon.”
Week 12: “You’ll never want to leave. Make the necessary arrangements.”
This trajectory reflects another piece of advice I often give people asking me to suggest an itinerary: “Saigon is a shit place for a short visit, but a kickass place to live.”
The key to enjoying your time in Saigon is accepting the lack of almost anything resembling the mechanisms of Western convenience. But, for the adventurous, culturally sensitive traveller, the rewards of spending an extended period of time in HCMC eclipse these inconveniences. What waits for you here is an experience in psychotic urbanism that probably can’t be experienced anywhere outside of Southeast Asia.
Infrastructure and Transportation in Ho Chi Minh City
Saigon is populated by a very poorly defined number of people. Wikipedia says around 8.5 million, but I’m pretty sure that’s the number of people I saw on my way to get breakfast this morning so that seems like a conservative estimate.
Backing up my hunch is the mayor of the city, who in 2017 announced that the figure is closer to 13m, with a density that rivals that of Tokyo. So for those of you who have been to Japan’s capital, imagine that obscene amount of people but without any measure of the consideration for their fellow citizens the Japanese are famous for.
Add 7.5m motorbikes, no sidewalks (these have been claimed by scooter drivers as supplementary traffic-lanes and street-food vendors as their official realms of business), virtually no adherence to even the most fundamental of traffic laws, a temperamental electricity supply, and you have a perfect storm of refined disharmony.
A lazy writer could be tempted to use the term “organized chaos” when describing cities like Saigon, but in this case it would be patently untrue.
There is nothing organized about Saigon’s chaos. The prevailing state of mind for the average resident seems to be: “Let’s do THIS and see what happens.”
What this remarkable culture infuses the city with is a pleasing sense of fearlessness and acceptance of the daily annoyances that abound in a city with an underdeveloped infrastructure and extremely lax enforcement of traffic laws.
To the visitor, this plays out mostly in the locals’ acceptance of their fellow citizens’ irresponsible use of the roads. Incidents that would escalate to litigation in New York, disownment in London, and gunplay in Cape Town, are often resolved with an avuncular cuff on the ear or a brief screaming match, but not after the offending party has helped the victim to the side of the road and enquired about the extent of their injuries.
Yes, of course roadside impatience and confrontation abounds, but these very seldom seem to be as a result of one party’s sense of entitlement or another’s self-importance.
There’s something admirable about this state of mind and, once one becomes accustomed to the jarring, visceral ways it can affect your life occasionally, it’s impossible not to develop some legit feelings for this awesome city.
The best way to get around Saigon is to rent a scooter. Get insurance first, but this is just good judgement, not necessarily because a novice is more likely to be involved in an accident than an expert. An adventurous traveller is likely to find the experience thrilling and it’s only when you’re “transportationally independent” that you will truly feel like you’re home. Trust me on this. With very limited exceptions, one doesn’t walk in Saigon. It’s too hot, the sidewalks are more dangerous than the roads and interacting with Grab or GoViet (the local equivalents of Uber) drivers can be more stressful than indefinitely locking yourself in your apartment.
Also, get yourself desensitized to honking. The ear-piercing wail of a scooter horn is as ubiquitous as the country’s iconic conical hat. Fortunately, I’ve been driving in Saigon long enough to compile this handy reference list of things that the “honker” could be trying to communicate to their fellow road users:
- They are stopping
- They are accelerating
- They are turning
- They are doing none of these things
- They want you to do one of these things
- They want you to stop doing one of these things
Lastly, and this almost feels too obvious to say, but it’s gotta be said. Scooter accidents are terrifying and you don’t wanna be in one. Drive defensively. Expect the unexpected. Don’t drive drunk. Stay off the highways until you are an experienced driver. Wear a fucking helmet. It’s easy to get tricked into thinking you’re bulletproof once you’ve seen people get away with the insane shit Saigonese scooter drivers attempt. You’re not. Causing or being in an accident sucks more than you can imagine.
Having said all this, driving a scooter in the city is fun and exhilarating. Be brave, rent one, practice in the relatively quieter streets of Thao Dien, get out there and make the city your home.
Weather in Saigon
Unsurprisingly, given its location, Ho Chi Minh City is Really Fucking Hot. Two kinds: Really Fucking Hot and Dry, where it feels like the sun could render your outer layers into something that should be served with fries and gravy. And Really Fucking Hot and Wet, where it feels like you’re living inside the lung of a giant, which is actually not as awful as it sounds.
I can’t offer any advice on how to deal with the dry season (December to March). It’s gonna be rough, but you’ll be okay. It’s really hot but I’m convinced that it doesn’t pose challenges outside of any reasonable human’s capacity for processing mild discomfort. Honestly the best bit of advice I can offer here is to park your scooter in the shade. If there is none available, don’t sit down on its seat while wearing a skirt or short shorts – the thing will be hotter than the earth’s core and will scorch your thighs into oblivion.
The wet season (May – September) requires a little more discussion.
Forget about weather predictions. Every time you step outside, assume that an astonishing volume of water is going to fall from the sky at any moment. How much water? Not enough to float a Biblical ark. Enough to render an uncovered dash from anywhere to anywhere the equivalent of sitting in a bath for an hour.
Here’s some practical advice for this season:
- Remember your laundry. Even if its been hung in a covered area. Sideways rain is a thing.
- Don’t leave home without flip-flops or rain-friendly footwear. Even an outsized umbrella won’t keep your feet protected from the literal rivers you will need to wade through even after four-minute shower.
- Get a waterproof backpack. Unless you have a waterproof laptop and phone.
- Invest in a quality waterproof poncho and practice driving in it. When you get to your destination, hang the poncho outside. DO NOT put the poncho in your scooter’s storage area. If it spends more than two days in a small enclosed space, it will feel like you’re wearing a corpse the next time you put it on.
- Flooding is a thing. Especially in District 2. Wading or driving through knee-high water is a frequent occurrence. So while you may be willing and able to drive through a monsoon shower, the limitations of the internal combustion engine may come into play.
- While you may be cool with braving the elements to make it to your Tinder date on time, some of the city’s residents may not. Be prepared to encounter severe congestion underneath bridges, where scores of drivers and pedestrians will wait out a storm.
Food in Ho Chi Minh City
With one exception (see below), I’m not gonna waste any virtual ink on culinary experiences you can have anywhere else in the world. Yeah, the city offers enough quality Western, Italian, Mexican, Thai, etc options to satisfy an army of Top Chef enthusiasts for a lifetime, but what makes this place an essential destination for people who love to eat, is the street-food scene.
I’m not qualified to talk with sufficient insight about even something as fundamental as
“flavour”, let alone more complex culinary obscurities like “preparation” and “ingredients”, so I’ll keep this simple.
The food here is incredibly delicious. And diverse. And cheap. And feeding yourself is convenient. None of this “cooking” and “washing up” malarkey that robs regular people of a quarter of their lives.
Hungry? Head out of your apartment into whatever street or alley it’s situated. Walk in any direction for 10 minutes. Choose one of the dozen options you’ll literally be tripping over. “Eat in” by sitting your giant body down on one of the preschool-style plastic chairs or mime carrying a bag back home until the proprietor realizes you want a take-away.
Street-food in Saigon is Asian comfort food. It’s flavorful, accessible, and filling. And obvious concerns about hygiene is a non-issue. In the 2.5 years I’ve lived in Southeast Asia I’ve had serious food-poisoning once. From a KFC.
South Vietnamese flavors are intense, but not packed with the type of rich, spicy ingredients that will disrupt a normal, healthy gastric system. This isn’t Bangkok or Calcutta. Eat on the street with confidence that you’re not likely to be facing some kind of digestive emergency.
The “regular dining” exception I mentioned earlier comes in the form of the Japanese cuisine scattered throughout the city, but is concentrated in a typically Saigonese warren of alleys casually referred to as Japan Town.
Situated in District 1, off either Thái Văn Lung or Lê Thánh Tôn, this haven for traveling Japanese businessmen and tourists overflows with ramen and sushi options and is well worth a frequent visit.
Nightlife in Ho Chi Minh
Personally, I’ve found HCMC to cater disproportionately to the two extreme sides of the nightlife spectrum: “depravity” and “casual”, with the middle ground often intruded upon by the former.
There are exceptions, which we’ll get to, but if your idea of a good night out is a lively bar featuring either live music or a DJ who caters to the audience’s energy, you’ll need to keep your ear to the ground to find new spots and pray they stay open long enough to become a reliable post-sunset destination.
If, like many of the city’s short-term visitors, you prefer to spend your nights amidst staggering foreigners, hundreds of cynical “service providers” taking advantage of their diminished inhibitions, and enough street-facing sound systems to overwhelm even the most robust mental constitutions, then Saigon has a special place for you.
While Bui Vien Street may not remotely compare with Khaosan Road in terms of the depths of debauchery it facilitates, there’s still more than enough stimulation for a visitor looking for a hard fucking party. The street (and the several roads and alleys protruding from it like neon limbs of a meth-addicted Christmas tree), is lined with more bars, clubs, massage parlours, restaurants, Nitrous dispensers, ATMs, and vomiting Australians than a healthy person should interact with on a night out.
Look, I’m not gonna pretend I’ve not had at least a dozen enjoyable experiences on Bui Vien when I just arrived, but having it as your long-term go-to party over a destination isn’t sustainable if you have any interest in living a life that doesn’t involve a middle-aged ponytail, Hepatitis C, and well-nurtured relationship with low-quality speed.
My personal favorite drinking option is finding rooftop happy hours where beautifully prepared cocktails are served at half-price (typically around $4) for up to three hours a day. Google and Tripadvsor will easily help you find several of these.
Interacting with Saigonese People
Another subjective topic, but I’m comfortable that several other long-term dwellers of HCMC have had a similar experience.
On the whole, I’ve found the people of Saigon to be overwhelmingly welcoming and friendly to visitors and expats. My Vietnamese hosts, neighbors, service providers, and friends have mostly been visibly pleased to have me in their space and it makes adjusting to an extremely foreign environment not only possible, but also pleasant and exciting.
Speaking of which, the culture-divide is astronomical. Not only is it an Eastern country with practices, eccentricities, and conventions that are very different from their Western counterparts, but it’s also a nation that only opened up its borders around four decades ago.
The result is that Westerners are treated in a way that flips between sincere neighbourliness, awkward reverence, comical curiosity, and, occasionally, deliberate indifference.
This plays out in ways that are too numerous to get into, but it must be said that there are occasions when it can be a challenge to keep your cool. Miscommunications occur frequently.
I’ve had the misfortune of witnessing far too many entitled expats respond aggressively to frustrations that result from the massive culture gap. I’ve also, on rare occasions, lost my patience when severely inconvenienced, but fortunately I’ve yet to cause an incident that requires diplomatic intervention.
What is critical to remember when spending time here is that you are a goddamn visitor to the country and that its residents are going to continue with their lives whether you are here or not. There is nothing special about me or the way I live my life, despite what I may think about my “elevated” customs and experiences. This realization makes dealing with inconvenience and conflict easy. It’s not my place to enforce or expect a certain level of treatment. I am fortunate to enjoy the lifestyle that living here affords me and the least I can do is respect the people kind enough to host me.
A quick word on Vietnamese: Unless you’re getting lessons, don’t bother trying to learn more than the very basic phrases you need in order to not die.
It’s an astonishingly difficult language to speak. The reason, I found, after several years of frustrating myself and a large contingent of fellow pedestrians and taxi drivers, is because of how English speakers don’t note the importance of the complex intonations imparted to a vowel.
For us, there are five vowels, with the exact pronunciation not having a significant impact on the word’s meaning. In Vietnamese, however, a slight lift in your tone at the end of a long “oooh” sound can severely alter the semantic difference of the same sound with a slightly more consistent pronunciation. Seeing or hearing what we think is a short “oh” sound, sounds simple to our untrained ears, but there is phonetic nuance that we can’t hope to understand in a short space of time or without professional guidance.
This complexity is intensified by the fact that context is less evident in Vietnamese since all (yes ALL) words contain only one syllable. You do not have another eight letters to give context to the sound your mouth just mangled.
TL;DR: Keep Google translate handy.
Housing in Ho Chi Minh City
Visitors to Saigon have three options when finding a place to stay.
Over the past decade, a number of residential monoliths have sprung up throughout the city and stand out amidst the compact, eccentric Saigonese architecture like circuit boards would in a beehive.
These arrays of giant buildings offer all modern conveniences like gyms, pools, and coffee shops, while the individual apartments that comprise them are generous in size and tastefully furnished.
The drawbacks of choosing this residential option are limited, but worth noting. Typically you’ll be spending 30% per month more than a more traditional residence, and you’ll be denying yourself the experience of living in Saigonese conditions – something that should be a priority for any person choosing to really get to know the city.
Calling it a “homestay” may not be 100% correct since you’ll not always be living with the family that owns the property, but the sense of making your home inside another person’s prevails, even if they don’t stay there with you.
This may be a turn-off for travelers who (like myself) value their privacy, but it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. So much so that I spent 14 months living in one of these houses with a lovely family of seven. The grandfather (a handsome, athletic man I estimate to have been in his early seventies) and I formed a wordless bond of friendship based solely on the warm smiles, awkward greetings, and misunderstood queries about the weather that passed between us once or twice per day.
Typically, these houses are tall (around 5-6 stories), very narrow (they mostly have one large, oblong room per floor) and are usually occupied by a combination of the landlord’s family and and/or other travelers.
The rooms can be equated with a large studio apartment. There will always be an en-suite bathroom but it will lack a kitchen (although many landlords will provide a refrigerator for your room). Expect most to have a small balcony that furnishes an always-entertaining view of the street and its other residents.
Living in one of these houses is essential if you want to experience the real Saigon. Immersing yourself in the practicalities of Vietnamese life and aligning your own daily routines to it, is one of the main reasons for embarking on this adventure. You will form strange, silent bonds with members of the local community like the Nuoc Mia vendors, Hu Tieu stall owners, Xe Om drivers, and local kids vigorously practicing their English at you.
While this is definitely the residential option I recommend, it bears pointing out that there is one major drawback – a level of ambient noise that varies in intensity from “mildly annoying” to “holy shit, the world is on fire”.
One sleepless night close to Christmas, I calculated that nine seconds was the longest period of silence that passed between hearing an ear-splitting crow from one of the 900 roosters that resided within virtual touching distance of my windows. Fortunately this lasted only until Tet (the weeklong Vietnamese new-year celebration where literally everything in the city closes down and one has to rely on stockpiled food and water to remain alive) when all but one of these cacophonous fuckers was cooked and eaten.
Also… mobile street karaoke is a thing. The trauma its practice has caused me renders it a topic I’m not willing to discuss in greater detail.
Some enterprising landlords have converted their homes into apartment complexes that are a hybrid of the above two housing options.
These are awesome but a little more expensive than homestays and can typically only be booked through sites like Airbnb where a hefty service charge will be applied and your cultural immersion will be slightly compromised. Expect to share the space with invisible short-term travellers.
The End Bit
How would I sum up getting the best out of your time in Saigon as a long-term visitor? Well it helps if, like me, you have a hobby that forces interaction and exploration, the two most important parts of a fulfilling experience here.
Being a street photographer has forced me to avoid the pitfalls of spending time in an inaccessible and, at times, confrontational environment – sticking to a location or clique that suits my comfort zones.
Saigon rewards the brave traveller arguably more than any other urban destination. Get yourself lost. Smile at people. Interact with them, even if you’re forced into a blundering state of perma-gesticulation.
Around every corner there is an alley to explore with a coffee shop or restaurant or street-food vendor serving something you can’t find anywhere else. The city is safe, friendly, and full of unexpected wonders.
Get out there!