We spent five nights in Vietnam's largest city in late August. Originally, we had anticipated a shorter stopover somewhere in south-east Asia before heading to Japan, but we decided to extend our time and really get a feel for the city.
Our trip could not have started off more perfectly - an upgrade to business class. We thoroughly enjoyed the (amazingly!) edible plane food and the warm service. If I was able to fly business class everywhere, I definitely would...but I think there are a few financial obstacles in my way right now.
Our first impression of Saigon was "crazy traffic". The road rules (as far as I could tell) involved copious horn honking until one is able to push through. This was all well and good in the back of a car, but was a little more nerve wracking on the back of a motorbike or on foot. Crossing the road entailed a very deep breath and a small prayer. We were told the best way to cross was simply to do so confidently and at a steady pace and drivers would swerve around us. That appeared to be the right approach, as we're still here to tell the tale...
So what did we do in Saigon? Well, this portion of our trip was all about relaxing and unwinding after a crazy couple of years of work, study and other pressures (not necessarily all bad, but pressures nonetheless), so we decided to indulge. To eat. To sleep. To be pampered. To take tours. To shop.
Eat.Let's start with the bit I'm sure everyone wants to know about first - food.
I think I consumed a phở a day (you know what they say....) while in Saigon. Our hotel offered a delicious array of local and western breakfast options. I wasn't interested in the latter, but gobbled up all the Vietnamese treats. I should add here that we did not try the street food except for one evening during which we participated in a street food tour (where the places had been carefully vetted for hygiene). Ordinarily, I'm not quite this careful, but as we had 2.5 weeks planned in Japan after Vietnam, I didn't want to take any chances.
Anyway, back to phở (because all roads lead to phở!): the stuff is so darn fortifying, not to mention delicious. I'd continue to happily eat it for breakfast regularly, even in Melbourne. The soup in Vietnam had a slightly different flavour to the broths I enjoy at Vietnamese eateries at home. It was a little more herby and healthy tasting - really nourishing.
Vietnamese drinks also proved to be fantastic - freshly cut coconuts spilling over with juice and my new favourite coffee, cà phê đá (pronounced "cafe da", as far as I could tell), were slurped up in generous quantities at breakfast time with my soup. Come to think of it, there was lots of slurping going on at breakfast!
We also enjoyed spring rolls, Vietnamese omelette, bánh mì (i.e. Vietnamese pork rolls) and rolled rice noodles among other things.
...not to mention canapés with a view thanks to our hotel's happy hour.
Thanks to Saigon's large Chinese population, there are some outstanding Chinese options also. An entire Peking duck prepared three ways at our table at a 5-star international hotel for less than $20? Yes please!
I mentioned that we participated in a food tour - this one specifically. During the tour we were able to sample some food that is a little less accessible to tourists. Bún bò Huế was a personal favourite of mine from the evening - a spicy beef noodle soup with a strong hit of lemongrass.
My beloved was even brave enough to try the balut (if you're squeamish, skip ahead now). Basically this is a cooked egg with a semi-developed foetus inside. Yeah, told you...kinda gross, right?! I pride myself on being adventurous with food and was intending to try this, but after peering inside and being confronted with the bluish-yellow mush, I just couldn't. The beloved claims it tasted of "chicken-y egg", which may solve the age old question of which came first...or perhaps not.
We also enjoyed barbequed okra and frog, as well as lots of seafood and were transported to each destination on the back of a motorbike with our guide, which was great fun.
Shop.We didn't anticipate we'd buy too much in Vietnam (it's certainly no Hong Kong, Singapore or KL as far as shopping is concerned), but I had heard that tailoring was very cheap and of a reasonable standard. As such, we signed up for another tour (again with XO tours - they were really fantastic!) to take some of the hard work out of the day for us.
We were met at our hotel by our drivers and guide and were asked what we wanted to buy. I mentioned that I wanted some dresses made for work and we were off to their recommended store. I tried on a variety of samples (where it was loudly noted by the employees that "You have very big bottom, but white skin. So lovely." Umm, thanks. I think?!). I was happy with the outcome at $40 a garment! We were also taken to a real lacquerware factory after stating that we would like to look for some home wares (there's a lot of poor quality imitation lacquerware in Vietnam, so it was good to get a better understanding of what to look for). Later in the day we were taken to a local market (not the dreaded tourist trap of Ben Thanh), as well as a shoe manufacturer. The bargaining was all taken care of by our guides and we walked away with some really good buys and great memories.
Pamper.When massages are only $20 for 90 minutes (at an upmarket place), it is imperative to enjoy more than one. Likewise, when manicures and pedicures complete with nail art come in at under $10, there's no excuse for shabby nails.
Tour.One of the coolest things we did during our time in Vietnam was a Mekong Delta tour, complete with cooking class (because clearly I haven't spoken enough about food yet!). This tour was marketed as the "risk-takers" tour of the Mekong Delta region, as it involved travelling on a Vespa, which is quite easy for the unacquainted to tolerate around the city, but a little more challenging for hours and hours on end. I loved being in the open air and whizzing past my surrounds. In particular, I enjoyed being able to go off-road (i.e. on paths too narrow for cars or trucks to use).
The cooking course was a highlight of the day. Ingredients were used that I hadn't even thought would be incorporated in Vietnamese cooking - for example, black pepper. We learnt some tricks to making perfect rice paper rolls, enjoyed well-seasoned greens, an array of shellfish and some very tasty pineapple fried rice.
At the various other stops on the tour we soaked up the day-to-day lives of the locals at cafes and their places of work and worship.
Aside from formal tours, we of course did a tonne of self-directed exploration. We took ourselves to the War Remnants Museum (a very interesting and harrowing place to visit), the Reunification Palace (a completely retro blast from the past), Notre Dame Cathedral and simply wandered the streets stopping as we pleased.
I loved lots of things about my brief time in Vietnam, but most of all I loved the genuine warmth of the people we encountered, who were just so happy to engage with us and impart some of their culture. From the fruit sellers on the streets to cab drivers to hotel staff and tour guides, we were always greeted with big smiles, their very best English and a healthy dose of cheek.
Would I return to Saigon? I would certainly stopover in the city for a couple of nights, but I feel that I have explored it sufficiently (at least in the short term). However, now that I have both a literal and figurative taste of Vietnam I am totally excited about the prospect of returning in the near future to see more of the country. I hear Hanoi and the beaches of the east coast are particularly special and will make it a priority to get there in the next few years.