SAIGON: Practical Matters
This is the main "travel guide" part of this mini-site. If you're planning to go to Saigon, some of this might help (bearing in mind it was written in 2006, and the city changes fast.)
The best thing a newcomer to the city can do is first get a firm understanding of the Dong Khoi quarter - that is, the part of the city that has most been built up over the years, and now is both touristy and somewhat trendy. Even some of the places you might want to see outside it are most easily located by their relation to this center. (NOTE: If you're thinking, "But I don't want the touristy area, I want to be with the REAL people, walking about getting agreeably lost", be warned that humid, cluttered, noisy Saigon is not the best city for this sort of exploration. Still, it's just possible you might like the Backpacker's Area better; see below.)
Two buildings "anchor" the Dong Khoi district: the City Hall and the Opera.
The City Hall faces Nguyen Hue, a street which leads right to the river, and is lively enough in its own right (the Central Cafe, at the base of the Sunwah tower, is on this street). The area right around the Opera is also central: the trendy Q Bar is right along one side of it; the Caravelle Hotel is right across from it, with the Sheraton behind it. The entrance to the Sheraton is on Dong Du street, which not only includes several of the more fun places, but a mosque which is said to have a good lunch (I was there during Ramadan, so I can't say). But the Opera also starts La Loi street, a long avenue that ends at the Ben Thanh market and changes to Tran Hung Dao. Simply walking the length of La Loi will give you a good look at different aspects of Saigon. Continue on to Tran Hung Dao and you'll soon be near the backpacker's area; if you take a cab still further along Tran Hung Dao and beyond, you'll end up in Cholon, the "Chinatown" that once was entirely separate.
Once you've located these two sites, it's easy enough to find Hai Ba Trung, a street where you'll find a number of cafes and restaurants, even as you leave the Dong Khoi end of it and go into dicier stretches. Dong Khoi itself leads right up to Saigon's Notre Dame (nothing like Paris'), which happens to be by the main post office, itself well worth a visit. The big modern Diamond Plaza is just beyond it.
Not everything is right near these streets. The War Remnants museum, for instance, is on the other side of the large park that runs parallel to where La Loi and Tran Hung Dao meet. Some nice coffeehouses are tucked away in other unexpected places. But you'll save yourself a lot of frustration by finding the City Hall and the Opera as soon as you can, and getting a feel for the area around them.
One other hint: On the long flight over, I had printouts of several maps and lists of suggested restaurants, etc. By mapping out where these were, I got an idea not only where key streets were, but also which tended to be the most lively. I was still a bit lost when I got there, but far less than I might have been.
THE BACKPACKER'S AREA
This one long street (Pham Ngu Lao):
is packed with small guesthouses and coffeehouses which clearly cater to the poorer class of tourist, is where I would have stayed when I was eighteen. Not only is everything cheap (and I suspect correspondingly risky), but if you're a young person looking to connect with other young people travelling about, this would be the place. In terms of sights, per se, you're not really near anything there, but it's as good a place as any to get a look at the 'real' Saigon, with a few colorful alleys nearby and a full-on market not too far away. There are also unexpected restaurants, such as this kebab place:
VERY, VERY BASIC VIETNAMESE
I did a crash course of Vietnamese with CD's for three weeks before I left. Here are the words and/or phrases I ever actually used:
Cam on [GAM ern] - Thank you
Americans might like to know that the word for America/American is "My", which, amusingly enough, is pronounced "ME!". But in fact saying "America" usually does the job, and, as often as not, draws a smile. So does "California", which is a brand name there as well:
but when I said I was from Los Angeles, I drew a blank. Then I said "Hollywood" and made the gesture of aiming and winding a camera, and got a big thumbs up.
If you make any real attempt to learn the language, you'll quickly learn that it's tonal, which means that a word pronounced on a high pitch (for instance) means something different than the same word pronounced on a low pitch. (The use of upper case above very roughly approximates this.) But your chances of making that work without some serious practice (not to mention help from a native speaker) are pretty minimal, and most people will be too surprised to hear you say anything in Vietnamese to mind a foreigner's blatant mispronunciation. As for phrase books, I have no idea how people get anything intelligible out of most of the pronunciation in them. Pointing and miming are generally far more useful.
For instance, I had learned some food ordering phrases, but in fact you usually end up pointing to a menu, many of which have pictures or (not always a good sign) English translations. You should at least understand the basic terms for coffee, the most common being Ca phe da - coffee with ice (though you should never use ice outside upscale or tourist-oriented places). Numbers are not horribly complicated, but risky if you're not used to using the language - it's probably better to write them out or, when possible, point.
It helps to be aware of just a few quirks of the missionary-created spelling, if only so you won't get hopelessly confused:
TR - pronounced "CH" (ex. "Trung" is pronounced "Chung"; "Tran Hung Dao" is "Chan Hung Da-o")
HASSLES AND HUSTLES
Did you know you were rich? For most readers, the answer will be "No", perhaps followed by a chuckle. So let's get this straight: if you can afford to take the time off, buy a plane ticket to Saigon and rent a hotel there, you are, relative to most people you will meet there, rich.
It helps to understand this when dealing with a relentless series of come-ons, all perfectly understandable attempts to get a little of that money you don't think you really have. In Saigon, the most common of these are cyclo drivers, who will scream, "Hello! Where you from? Where you want to go?"(almost literally those three phrases) even when you are obviously already at a tourist destination. More than one will literally follow you down the street, repeating the same pitches over and over again.
There are several reasons you should NOT yield to these pitches. Though most are probably just hard-workers trying to get ahead, some will do anything from change the agreed amount once you get to your destination to (in one case I read of) taking you to a place where they have friends waiting. Also, though most guides don't mention this, anyone with a motor scooter can suddenly see a profit opportunity, no matter how unqualified they are. I finally let one man who was screaming he would show me the city for an hour help me find my location on a map. He was.... lost; I found the spot before he did.
There are also shoeshine boys, often adorable, if relentless. No real danger here, I'd guess (though watch your pockets), but bear in mind you could get your shoes shined every ten feet in Saigon.
For a male traveling alone (as I was), there are also the inevitable prostitutes. I made the mistake of admiring a woman on a scooter - who really was one of the most beautiful women I saw there - and suddenly she'd driven up next to me. When I kept walking, she kept following: "I want to be your girl friend." Some of the other come-ons - one I think from a transvestite - were cruder. "Massage... You give me massage..." was the most standard starting offer. Some of these people were alone, some with others, male or female.
I would guess anyone who would even consider such unsavory offers probably knows the dangers involved: getting robbed, getting a disease, etc. Personally, my own position, all other moral considerations aside, is: "Why would you have sex in a place where you're afraid to drink the water?"
An old trick that cost one tourist her camera in Beijing is to warn people about pickpockets - whereupon they immediately pat the pockets with their valuables to see if they're still there. Which is exactly what the watching pickpockets want. I never saw this in Saigon, but it's a pretty universal trick (once used in 18th century fairs in France, as it happens).
The most annoying thing I actually fell for was a trick used worldwide. I stopped in a large restaurant in a park. I should have been put on guard by the restaurant's size and the fact that every dish's name was translated into English (not such a bad sign in the more modern upscale places, but iffy in what look like local places.) I first ordered a beer, just to cool off, and then, despite my better judgement, two dishes. A man brought me a dish of peanuts. I didn't really need them, since I was about to eat, but I nibbled a few anyway, figuring they went with the beer. Then, after my meal, he brought me a pot of tea. Nice.
Then I got the bill - I was charged for both the nuts and the tea. I actually drew on my limited Vietnamese to say I hadn't ordered the nuts (I ignored the over-priced tea) and got that at least taken off. But I was irked. And the waitress chose this moment to bring another customer's bill wallet over to show me they'd left a tip (not necessarily usual in Vietnam). Bad move....
As a general thing, you should probably check your restaurant totals - even in a nice restaurant near my hotel, I asked to see the menu when I got the bill. The head waiter said, a little indignantly, that it was accurate. But it turned out I'd been charged for the more expensive of two similar dishes when I'd in fact had the less expensive. (I made him take it off the tax, too, which really annoyed him :) .)
Otherwise, if you've ordered a tour, be aware that worldwide now tour guides often include a "factory visit" that is usually a thinly disguised sales pitch. In Beijing, I actually missed one of two Ming tombs to be taken off to one of these. They're getting harder to avoid, but if you're going through a package, you might ask if these are part of any of the tours, complain if they are, and, if told they're not, but led off to one anyway, be sure to write the company (which might not know what the locals are up to.)
TAXIS AND OTHER TRANSPORT
It is an unfortunate truth that taxis in any major city in the world make sport of travelers. Saigon is no better, but probably no worse in this regard. I had no serious problems myself, though I've read of some beauts around the Web, my favorite being a cabbie who used a black light to reveal letters saying the meter amount (always in dong) was in dollars (my pocket flashlight - see below - would have wiped this ploy out.)
The big warning you'll get from numerous quarters is to only use taxis with permanent, known logos on their sides, and numbers on their light. Some of the less savory operators seem to have cottoned to this and you'll sometimes see an awkward attempt at a logo stenciled on a door (but no number up top).
Even then, I took a ride one night with one of the recommended companies. When I got to my hotel, the meter read 12,000 dong (generally the starting fare). I handed a 20,000 dong note to the young driver, who GLARED at me. What was he expecting? That I would give him a dollar (roughly 15,000 dong) and he could pull the frequent ploy of not having change? Or worse, had he planned to claim the meter was in dollars? I'll never know, because once the hotel doorman opened the door, the cabbie sullenly and quickly counted out my change.
I most often took Vinataxi. SaigonTaxi and Vinasun are also recommended by some. Otherwise, unless you're feeling adventurous, be firm about not letting others drag you in.
Guides never seem to mention this, but there are buses in Saigon, and they go to places like the airport and Cholon. If you're there long enough, and on a budget, it might be worth exploring this option.
TELEPHONESThe standard wisdom is not to use your hotel's phone because of the surcharge. The few times I did so, however, I only found it a bit more expensive. Still, I bought a phone card early on at the main post office to use in the public phone booths. All of these accept these cards (just as in France), but the cards themselves are hard to find.
If you have a cell phone that readily accepts SIMs (i.e., is fully unlocked), these are sold all over the city, though I never tried using them (and suspect some hard bargaining is involved in buying them.)
The best option for someone with a laptop is Skype. But be sure to load your account before you go - I tried paying while I was there, and couldn't confirm my credit card without my cell phone (which I'd left home.)
Every major city seems to have its own distinctive flavor of traffic. Saigon traffic can be entertaining or terrifying.
Like Beijing, it has as many, or more, two-wheeled vehicles as cars. Unlike Beijing, these tend to be motorbikes rather than, say, rickshaws that are pedaled like bikes (though these exist, typically open where those in Beijing tend to be enclosed). Also unlike Beijing - and any other city I've been to - the drivers feel an urgent need to use their bleating little horns on a regular basis, independent of any obvious stimulus. The result is, that when whatever mysterious sign (rarely simply a green light) frees a waiting horde of these vehicles to charge forward, they at once give off the sound of a herd of manic geese [yes, I mean a herd, not a gaggle.]
What's more, and a source of pure terror for many Westerners, they are even more random in their observance of traffic signals than in Beijing. If you're standing on a corner waiting to cross and the unrelenting flow of traffic before you suddenly stops (most of it, anyway), you may be fooled into thinking it is because the light changed. But in fact that is secondary to the fact that another herd of vehicles is now blocking their way. The fact that the other vehicles feel authorized by a green light should not fool you into thinking that those before you are stopped by a red one. Should there, by chance, be no vehicles coming across the path of the ones before you, they will think nothing of moving forward.
Nor should you be fooled by the fact that MOST of the vehicles have stopped. Any that can will slip off to either side with complete disregard for either lights or pedestrians.
My own theory is that this anarchic approach to motorized bikes is an extension of behavior first developed on bicycles. Unfortunately, not only do motorbikes ("cyclos") act as if they were harmless little peddled vehicles, so do the cars (still in a minority, but I'm guessing not for long.)
In practical terms, what this means for Western visitors is that often there is never any moment when traffic stops. Crossing an intersection becomes a kind of dance with the traffic, which really doesn't (this is reassuring) want to hit you, but isn't adverse to making you think it will and certainly tries to make it look as if it has always missed you by accident, not because you forced any driver to deviate one centimeter from his or her intended path. Having jaywalked in New York City traffic more than I would admit to in court, I was less terrified by this than some, but I did see at least one tall blonde woman almost lose it in a crosswalk.
The good news is that it seems to be dawning on the local authorities that having visitors scared out of their wits does not encourage tourism. Notably, at the busier crosswalks, you will often find people in green uniforms who will, unasked, start escorting you across the street (I scared the hell out of one of these helpers when I cheerfully continued on into moving traffic when he had stopped in the middle.) I also had the distinct impression that, in the week I was there, people actually began to obey the traffic signals more - maybe I arrived in the middle of a crackdown?
THE HEAT, THE TERRIBLE HEAT
If you've never been to or lived in a tropical climate, you really can't imagine just how oppressive hot, humid tropical weather can be. I've been to Africa in the rainy season and to New Orleans, and I don't think I've ever experienced anything like Saigon's climate.
Expect to sweat, pretty much continually. Expect to get worn out by the heat - I saw people in a public office with their heads down on their desks, and one guard in a museum dozing in a hammock. People even nap in the streets:
Sometimes you'll see cyclo drivers curled up across their seats and handlebars, napping as well. Many guides, on-line or printed, don't emphasize this enough: everything you do in Saigon, you do in a crushing welter of heat.
If (like me) you're a walker, one thing to do is take every chance you get to stop into a cool place. This isn't just a matter of comfort - it can quickly become a matter of avoiding exhaustion. Here are some of the places I took refuge in as I wandered about:
And of course you should drink bottled or canned drinks frequently.
When I arrived at the airport, I was surprised to see a young woman wearing a face mask that extended down to her chest. Once I got into town, I saw a number of people on motorbikes wearing at least a mouth covering, often decorated (which gives an idea of how standard they've become).
At some point, I actually got worried, because I never noticed the pollution at all. Which may merely be a measure of how long I've lived in L.A. If you're sensitive to air quality, however, this might not be the best town for you.
I stayed at the Metropole (148 Tran Hung Dao Avenue District 1 - no Web site, but it's described on others, such as this one):
Many packages available on-line offer this hotel as an option. This was once the big journalists' hotel in Saigon. It has clearly fallen on harder times, but just as clearly is renovating back to a high standard. On the fourth floor, for instance, the carpets were stained, but my room itself was impeccable: clean, comfortable, with a mini-bar, a programmable safe, a well-stocked bathroom, a TV and (first time I've seen this) a remote-controlled air conditioner. There were minor oversights with restocking my room, but generally everything was comfortable and well-maintained.
The personnel at the desk didn't always speak excellent English, but they were always cheerful, alert and completely helpful. When I had a strange problem with my laptop hinge and asked to borrow a pliers, the young handyman not only went to some effort to help me, but actually seemed shocked when I offered him a dollar. (This by no means implies that tips aren't welcome generally.)
The breakfast here is an excellent chance to taste different Vietnamese specialties every morning, especially pho and other soups, which were always excellent. The steam table offerings were more inconsistent - some very good, some "steam-table stiff" - but there were also numerous Western options and often I skipped lunch because I'd been so well fed in the morning.
There's also a small gym and a pool, which you'll be glad to use after a morning of Saigon's heat. I avoided the bar, which a Saigonese man had recommended to me for less than licit purposes.
There is free wifi in the lounge, if not in the rooms, and a small business center, which I had no occasion to use, but which seemed busy enough while I was there. Someone on the Web complained they'd charged him for sending a letter, but in my case they just took it (without asking my room number) and said they'd put it in the mail.
The hotel is right near the backpacker's area, but a bit far from the Dong Khoi district. Still, for the dollar or two it will take you to get to the latter by cab, you could do worse in terms of location.
Overall, it was a good experience and I would gladly stay there again.
I brought my French plug style adapter, but never used it. In the hotel, at least, the plugs either were dual-purpose (round plugs with slits for American plugs) or plain American style. But I also did little but use my PC.
I always carry a tiny flashlight (the kind that can go on a keyring). This was very handy for reading menus in the darker places.
It only rained once when I was there, but hard, and when I went out after it, I took one of several sandwich bags I'd brought along. Had it rained again, I would have put my digital into it right away.
I knew it would be hot in Saigon, so I brought several t-shirts, all with pockets, as well as short-sleeve shirts. I also brought the usual passport holder I wear around my neck, but discovered to my dismay it couldn't protect my papers from the torrents of sweat that are an inevitable by-product of walking around Saigon. If you use one of these, be sure it can handle humidity.
Rather than use hand-gestures and poorly pronounced numbers for any possible negotiating, I brought a small memo pad. This might have served for directions too, had I needed them. It had the additional benefit of sticking out of my front pocket, beyond any hotel key card or other items I had in there. Also, no one ever tried to pick my pocket, but this might have slowed them down if they had.
The pad of course also requires that you carry pens (two, one a back-up.)
If you want to avoid looking TOO much like a lost tourist, it's handy to have some maps printed off (from the Web, for instance) so you can fold one up and keep it in your back pocket.
IT'S A COMMUNIST COUNTRY, ISN'T IT?
In a word, yes. But in Saigon at least, unlike Beijing, you really have to look for signs of the Communist party (Ho Chi Minh's grandfatherly face is just a bit more visible.)
The only time I really felt a chill was arriving at Customs, when a grim square-headed man looked at my passport and my visa, then said, "What is your name?"
"My name?" (subtext: you mean that thing you just saw on two different documents?)
"Your name!" (subtext: do I stutter, moron?)
Otherwise, one of the few times I saw a red flag, it was right next to an ATM machine. Which kind of says it all.