I spent a few days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) Vietnam this past week for work and wanted to give my impressions of life there. After seeing so many movies and reading so much about the Vietnam War, I was interested in seeing what it was like there.
In some ways, it is another big Southeast Asian city like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. In living in developed and sedate Osaka, I am struck by the noise and traffic, masses of electrical wires and general disarray of city life. When I lived in Europe I was getting used to all of the cities having their historic centers with plazas and Hapsburg era buildings. Southeast Asia is like that because of the tropical heat and the huge number of people on the streets.
Saigon had two characteristics right away that jump out.
When you disturb an ant nest, thousands of ants scurry in every direction and create a web of movement. The streets of Saigon are similar, but with motorized scooters (mopeds) instead of ants. Literally, at major intersections, you will see over a hundred scooters shooting through. There is obviously a helmet law and the different styles and colors made my taxi ride in from the airport colorful. There are mostly single men and women, but I noticed several families, including one guy with his wife on the back and one child on the gas tank in front of him and another squeezed between him and the wife. They weave around cars and trucks and even go on sidewalks, so when crossing streets or walking in the city, I needed to be alert and agile. There is no staring at an iPhone and walking in Saigon!
The second characteristic that stands out is the numerous coffee shops. There were several upscale chains, Starbucks and Highland Coffee the two most prominent, but there were also coffee houses for the poor, with plastic chairs set out on the sidewalk and independent shops set in old colonial buildings. I tried the famous “Vietnamese Coffee” as described by Nicola Graydon from the Guardian.
I ordered the classic Vietnamese coffee known as ca phe sua da – literally “coffee, milk, ice”. It comprises strong coffee, dripped from a small metal filter into a cup containing a quarter as much sweetened condensed milk, then stirred and poured over ice in a glass.
At first I couldn’t bear its cloying sweetness, but three days in I’d grown addicted to the sweet buzz that follows a refreshing coolness on the tongue. It suits the humidity of the place in a way that an ordinary latte wouldn’t.
I love coffee and so I like the French introducing it to Vietnam in the 19th century. You can see remnants of the 60+ years the French colonized Indochina in the architecture of the Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office and in the street names.
Because the conference hotel was located downtown, I had time to visit the War Remnants Museum and see the famous front gate of the Independence Palace. For Americans, the country is known because of the 20 years of the US fighting the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Over 50,000 US troops were killed and over a trillion dollars spent in trying to stop the spread of communism. The museum is well worth visiting, telling the story in photographs of the tragedy of war. I was troubled by the images of fleeing families, traumatized children, young men killed before they could experience the full arc of life. As always, war is such a waste of life for everyone involved. I was particularly interested in the section documenting the use of Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the US military. The government and NGOs are still trying to clean up areas that were sprayed 50 years ago. The room dedicated to the reporters that were killed in action was also poignant. Definitely worth a visit. I will continue watching The Vietnam War: A Film By Ken Burns & Lynn Novick.
The city is vibrant and I felt the energy of the place. Perhaps because of so many young people and me staying downtown. The walking street, a huge long plaza running perpendicular from the Saigon River, was full of families. At the end was a statue of the father of Socialist Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. Thankfully they have a good open public space because trying to cross the street is difficult because of traffic. It took me 10 minutes to cross the main avenue that runs along the Saigon River. It reminded me of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya, with many barges, small boats and mats of floating vegetation.