5 weeks in Vietnam, Part 1: Saigon

Our Vietnam trip begun in Saigon, the vibrant city where the old and the new sit side by side, the food is among the best in the world and the people are warm and chatty
Vietnamese lady

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Welcome to Part One of our Vietnam adventure! For five glorious weeks, we traversed over 1300 miles of this incredible country. Our journey took us from the bustling streets of Saigon to the serene countryside of Can Tho in the heart of the Mekong Delta, the quirky honeymoon town of Dalat, the photogenic Hoi An, and finally, the chaotic energy (and egg coffee) of Hanoi.

Today, we explore Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

Drawing of bowl of Vietnamese soup

“This is the way so many of the great meals of my life have been enjoyed. Sitting in the street, eating something out of a bowl that I’m not exactly sure what it is. And scooters going by. So delicious. Fellow travelers, this is what you want. This is what you need. This is the path to true happiness and wisdom.”

– Anthony Bourdain

After countless airport naps, we knew the drill – find a quiet corner, hug your backpack, set the alarm, and catch some Zzzs. We flew to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, from New Zealand, with an overnight layover in Bangkok. Airports seem to have an aversion to making you comfortable, but his time we lucked out. The armrests-free chairs were not bolted to the floor so we pushed them together and made a makeshift bed.

Breakfast, Booze, and Beards

In the morning, we boarded a Thai Airways flight and all was right with the world. The service and hospitality were on point, and the level of comfort put Western short-haul flights to shame, as we learned to expect from all airlines we used in South-East Asia.

We arrived in Saigon (which is a historical name for this metropolis in the south of Vietnam and is still lovingly used. Ho Chi Minh City is the official name, used especially on formal documents, often shortened to HCMC). We made our way to Long Hostel, the winner of our accommodation search based on rave reviews, the great price of 15 bucks a night for private rooms, a piano in the common room, and the promise of free breakfast and two free beers every evening. The perfect recipe for meeting fellow travelers. Nothing brings people together like a hearty meal, a couple of cold ones, and music.

We checked out our room, got unpacked, and ventured out. As soon as we left the hostel to explore the city, Mark became an instant hit with the locals, thanks to his luscious, white beard. They giggled and couldn’t resist the urge to touch it and even took selfies with it. Mark was, henceforth, referred to as “Uncle Ho” on many an occasion, a nod to the resemblance he apparently shared with the iconic former president of Vietnam.

We weren’t content with just basking in Mark’s newfound fame. Our first night was a whirlwind of activity – from joining a dancing class out in the open and dodging the never-ending stream of motorbikes and cars that flooded the chaotic streets, to giving impromptu English lessons to groups of curious youngsters in the park.

Here’s an 8-minute video of our time in Vietnam

The local food scene is legendary. We slurped noodles from the bowls of steaming pho, piled high with tender slices of meat and fragrant herbs, and sank our teeth into banh mi sandwiches, a Vietnamese take on the French baguette sandwich (one of the positive leftovers of France’s occupation) stuffed with all manner of delicious and unique fillings. We try to learn a few words in the local language of each country we visit, apart from “Hello” and “Thank you”. In Vietnam, our most used phrase was “Ngon guá!” meaning “Delicious!”, to the amazement and immense delight of all who fed us. “Legal Nomads” put together a good self-guided tour of Saigon’s street food.

When the day was done, we made our way back to our hostel – a haven of calm in the midst of all the chaos, just in time for our free beers. We sat around a big table, sipping on “Bia Saigon” and chatted with fellow vagabonds from around the world, while the musically inclined among us provided a live soundtrack.

Specters of Saigon

As the days ticked by, we wandered the streets with equal parts of intention and chance. We stumbled upon tiny eateries hidden in narrow alleyways, played in big parks that were buzzing with activity the whole evening, and sought out iconic landmarks:

The War Remnants Museum chronicles the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American War. Walking through the exhibits is heartwrenching. You’ll see photographs of the war, including graphic images of horrendous torture and violence. The museum gives voice to the victims and survivors, displaying their personal stories. It doesn’t hold back in its condemnation of the US government’s role in the conflict but, amazingly, there was not a shred of resentment in any of the local people we met.

The Independence Palace (also known as The Reunification Palace) is the embodiment of tumultuous Vietnam history and one of the most important historical sites in the country. It was once the presidential palace of the former South Vietnamese government, until the fall of Saigon in 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates, effectively ending the American War. Nowadays, it’s a fascinating museum, with architecture and decor frozen in time.

Ben Thanh Market is a chaotic kaleidoscope of colors. You’re surrounded by stalls selling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to handmade crafts, knock-off clothing, and handbags in the wonderland of narrow alleyways. The quality was surprisingly high, Mark’s $3 “Columbia” hat still looks like new after being worn almost daily for months on end. Food stalls don’t disappoint either. The real magic, though, lies in people-watching. Locals go about their business, bargaining fiercely over prices, joking and chatting. You can find some unique souvenirs and delicious street food and experience the excitement of a bustling Vietnamese market.

Notre Dame Cathedral was built by French colonists smack in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City, with materials imported from France. The interior is simple and elegant, an eerie island of silence amid the bustle outside. The statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the church caused a media frenzy in 2005 when people reported seeing a tear streak down her cheek. A crowd of thousands swarmed the area before the church officials refuted the “miracle”.

Tao Dan Park has been called “The lungs of Ho Chi Minh City”. It’s a sprawling oasis of over a thousand lush trees, fragrant flower beds, inviting benches, pretty pavilions, artsy statues, tennis courts, a swimming pool, coffee stands, and songbirds to provide a soundtrack. In the mornings, locals gather here to practice tai-chi and yoga, meditate, or relax on the grass enjoying a picnic. A breath of fresh air by day, a chill down your spine at night. Travel and Leisure magazine lists Tao Dan Park among the 30 most haunted places on Earth, because of a ghost of a lovelorn young man searching for his girlfriend.

Tackling the Traffic

The traffic seems to be a neverending river of honking chaos. You stand on the sidewalk wondering how the hell you’re ever going to cross the road and watch how the locals do it: You take a deep breath and step confidently into the traffic, with your arm extended in the direction you’re headed. The drivers don’t want to hit you any more than you want to be hit and will veer around you accordingly. The sheer number of motorbikes and scooters in the streets of Saigon is staggering. The drivers seem to instinctively navigate the bustle, weaving around each other like dancers. The honking, though incessant, doesn’t mean “danger” or “move, you idiot” in Vietnam. It simply means “Here I am.”

Thrifty Travels

The best part is, that you can enjoy Saigon, Vietnam on a budget that would make a penny-pincher proud. Our flights cost just a few dollars in taxes, the rest was covered with credit card pints. The private room with a bathroom at the Long Hostel set us back $15 a night, complete with good breakfast and two free nightly beers ( $17 at the time of writing this, the word must have spread out, haha), and the food about $5 per person per day.

Vietnam’s history is dark, unjust, and complicated but the locals are incredibly welcoming, honest, and eager to talk to you. It would be hard not to make a friend here, even without a long, white beard. I’m still in contact with some of the friends I made there.

Cruising on a Coach

We were itching to explore the Mekong Delta and its legendary floating markets, so we booked a sleek, modern bus for the 4-hour journey for $9 per person (the first of many bus trips during our Vietnam trip, some delightful, some harrowing) and set our sights on the town of Can Tho – the perfect launching pad for such riparian escapades.

But alas, that’s a tale for another time. Stay tuned.

Savory Snapshot Showcase

So there you have it. Whether you want to dive into the country’s past, admire French colonial architecture, roam the colorful and buzzing markets, indulge in delicious dishes with bold flavors and fresh ingredients, party with locals at roof-top clubs, or chill with an international motley of travelers over beers at your hotel, Saigon has you covered. As we were leaving, I felt a little sad. I’ve grown to like the energy and the chaos of the city and knew I would miss it.

Here is Part 2 of our Vietnam trip, where we rent a boat to experience the famous floating Market in CanTho, take a nightmare night bus to Dalat, see how silk is made, and roam the psychedelic Crazy House. In Part 3, the grand finale of our trip, we get to roam the yellow streets of Hoi An, feast on the best Banh Mis in the world, get addicted to egg coffee and soak up the lively energy of Hanoi.

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