Almost ten years ago, on my first visit to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, the terms seems interchangeable), I wrote:
“(Saigon) is a city of 12 million people – and three million motorcycles – and the commercial capital of Vietnam, the place where everything happens first, where fashions come from and money is made. The Big Time. It sounded exciting. I had high expectations for the city.
But I was to be disappointed. I found it noisy and hectic, but somehow that “buzz” was missing – the fashions were drab and cheap looking, there were no supermarkets or convenience stores, restaurants all seemed to have the same menu, and there wasn’t much choice in the stores. There were upscale areas – the leafy generic-expat-area of Dong Khoi for instance – but they had nothing that couldn’t be bettered in Singapore or BKK or even Phnom Penh.”
But this is no longer true. On my return trip, a decade later, I found that the city had changed immensely, and for the better. Or perhaps, in a slightly higher price bracket hotel and better informed, I was now in a better position to see those changes?
Saigon today has a definite buzz. It also has convenience stores, Mini Stops and Family Marts, and a vibrant restaurant scene. There are Brazilian churrascarias and Japanese sushi-yas and stunningly well-executed Australian style cafes. Skyscrapers had shot up and a brand new metro was under construction, as was a shiny new Takashimaya department store, catering to the needs of the blossoming Vietnamese middle and upper classes. People looked more prosperous and sophisticated, and the city better maintained. And there were surprises, like tattooed “Mexican” gangster barbers, graffiti-decked hipster bars, an under-the-radar architectural revival and local hip hop and house DJs, which seemed to promise a reservoir of creativity as yet barely tapped. The future for Ho Chi Minh seems exciting.
This time, I noticed too some of the advantages the city already has over its regional rivals: the proliferation of graceful old French buildings, the streets lined with immense centuries-old jungle trees and the city’s human scale. I found Saigon surprisingly walkable. Unlike other sprawling Southeast Asian capitals, Ho Chi Minh is – at its centre at least – surprisingly compact. For the average tourist staying in District One (the city’s numbered district system has a delicious dystopian ring) most places of interest are within twenty minutes on foot, and there is a cafe in which to stop on every other corner if you need it. In the cool of the rainy season, I pounded the pavements all day, enjoying the sense of space on the footpaths and the sky still visible in this mainly low-rise city. In all of these regards, I preferred Saigon to Manila or Jakarta, for example.
Of course the traffic and the noise are still there, the street vendors in their stereotypical bamboo hats, the baskets of live skinned frogs in the markets, the stalls of noodle soup and banh mi. Sparrows and annoyingly ill-disciplined children proliferate. Motorcycles scream down the footpaths in rush hour and change direction unexpectedly on the roads. Once out in the suburbs, the sense of space vanishes in densely-packed neighbourhoods of little lanes alive with the shrieking cicada-like buzz of the motorcycles. Women sell vegetables in muddy lanes. Charcoal smoke blends with exhaust fumes. And people still don’t know how to line up.
But I found Saigon this time to have recaptured its sybaritic former self. It is a city of pleasures. There is coffee, everywhere. Cafes are full of people relaxing, groups of friends gossiping and lone workers tapping away at their keyboards. There is great food, of course: broths of fragrant herbs, grilled pork, river fish and exotic tropical fruits. Ho Chi Minh City loves music, although its taste can be questionable : J.Lo and terrible Eurodance blast out of stores at incredible volume. And it has that very Indochinese sense of calm and restraint, one shared with Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Vientiane; it can be both lively and laidback at the same time. Saigon is not too small, not too big, relaxing but not boring, energetic but not overwhelming.
I left the city surprised to find myself a new fan.