As you’ll see from our video below, we started off with unexpected enthusiasm for Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). The words “super-modern”, “pushy”, “fast”, and “commercial” were bandied about with regularity by those who had gone before us, and so when our arrival afternoon brought us a cluster of positive interactions, sights, tastes, and discoveries, we were admittedly surprised.
We managed to avoid being fare-scammed by our taxi from the airport! Our Airbnb homestay was wonderful! There are frozen yogurt shops and international grocery stores that sell blond hair dye! Ladies with beautiful smiles make warm, flaky waffle cookies right on the street and will sell you a whole bag of ‘em for less than $1! The most delicious pho we’ve eaten yet was just $1.35! Awesome food is everywhere! And there are even a few sidewalks that are uncluttered enough to walk on!
However, as the day drew on, we were quickly worn down by Saigon’s staggeringly populous, loud, and smoggy city center of District 1. People are literally pushy—it’s a common occurrence to be abruptly pushed or body checked by other shoppers or to have your wrist grabbed by an eager market merchant. Out on the streets, Saigon’s incessant honking accumulates inside your brain, leaving you irrationally twitchy and hostile.
(Here’s a quick population comparison to give you a sense of the scope of the Vietnamese cities we’ve been visiting in contrast to home: Philadelphia: 1.5 million, Da Nang: 1 million, Hanoi: 7.6 million, Saigon: 8.3 million!)
Thankfully, we had our Airbnb homestay to retreat to. We stayed with Thuy and her sister in their beautiful 4-story home along the border of District 1 which was tucked far enough back from the main roads to be peaceful, but just a 3-5 minute walk to everything you could need. Two blocks away you can catch bus route #1 for a $0.22, 10 minute ride to the heart of District 1. Take a 5-minute scenic walk through the charming neighborhood back streets and you’ll pass beautiful architecture, hear the sounds of caged song birds and wind chimes, and probably encounter an achingly adorable kitten or puppy before arriving to a block that bursts with delicious and affordable restaurants, street food stalls, coffee cafes, and a convenient 24-hour mini mart. We loved our stay at Thuy’s home not only because it was slightly outside of the heart of District 1, and not only because our 4th-floor walk-up room was clean, cheery, well air conditioned, and gave us great stair exercise, but because Thuy and her sister were such wonderful hosts. Thuy, a professional in the travel industry, is incredibly lovely, offers great recommendations for anything you might like to do in Saigon, provides a map she custom-designed in relation to her home’s location, and is happy to make ticket and transportation arrangements for any day trips or onward excursions during your time in Vietnam. We were especially appreciative of her help securing tickets for our long bus ride to Can Tho which we likely wouldn’t have managed well on our own with our still limited Vietnamese language skills. She not only booked our tickets, but wrote out a note in Vietnamese for us to give to an attendant at the bus station so that they would continue to help us along! We definitely encourage you to consider Thuy’s home if you’ll be spending time in Saigon.
Another thing we encourage you to do in Saigon (or in any city in the world for that matter) is to PROTECT YOUR PHONE when using it to reference maps, take photos, or whatever else you need to do with it while out and about. In cities like those in SE Asia where the majority of the population moves ‘round by motorbike, it becomes especially easy for thieves to make quick getaways and stay completely disguised beneath their helmets. We were warned to always wear our backpacks using both straps, to not wear necklaces that could be torn off by quickly-passing riders, and to keep our phones concealed when on the sidewalks. So we knew to be cautious, and thought we were being cautious when we stepped into the mouth of a small alley to use Google maps for directions. It’s astonishing how narrow of a space motorbike riders can speed through. We never would have imagined someone could fly down an alley as quickly as the rider who suddenly zoomed past us, deftly snatched Robin’s phone out of her hand, then merged into the crowded street ahead, instantaneously blending into the masses. We gave chase, we hollered, but he was traveling at least 35 miles faster than our feet. Catching or even identifying him was an impossibility.
So that sucked.
But we gained a lot of perspective from the experience. We realized that stuff isn’t nearly as precious as we sometimes think it is. That traveling as a couple, we didn’t actually need two smartphones. That thanks to Google’s integration throughout Robin’s (just purchased a month before the trip (of course)) Nexus 5X Android phone, we not only had every photo and video that was taken with the phone already auto-backed up to the cloud, but we could request through Google a complete and immediate remote data-wipe of the phone so that the thief wouldn’t be able to access any of the device’s content (thanks Google!). But most of all, the experience was a humbling reminder of how incredibly fortunate we are to even own something as luxurious as a smartphone and further-still, to be in a position to replace it if necessary. We wouldn’t have expected we’d feel grateful after such an experience, but we did indeed.
Our time in Saigon brought us two more things we are grateful for: cat cafes and connecting with Rae Labadie and Tony Dong. Upon learning that we were headed to Vietnam for our living-abroad experience, Philadelphia friend Joe Canuso e-introduced Robin to Rae, a Philadelphia theater artist and University of the Arts graduate who had moved to Saigon with her boyfriend Tony in the summer of 2015. They have since returned to Philadelphia, but we had the great fortune to meet up with them in person during their final and our first days in Saigon. Rae and Tony’s impetus for coming to then staying in Vietnam is remarkable. Tony was born in Saigon and raised through his early years by his father after his mother left for America. Tony eventually joined her in Philadelphia before the age of 10, where his life remained until last year when he and Rae decided to go to Vietnam so he could try to reconnect with his father and extended family who he’d completely lost touch with since leaving several decades ago. He had no telephone number, only an address that no longer existed. Yet miraculously, after much searching by word of mouth through the city, Tony and his father were reunited! Tony’s father had since remarried and has two more children, and so Tony not only reconnected with his father, but discovered he had half siblings as well! Rae and Tony settled into Saigon to be near Tony’s family, and both went through the rigorous CELTA program to become certified to teach English as a second before taking on teaching positions with ILA. Rae and Tony are beautiful, creative, thoughtful, and kind people who we are so lucky to have met and spent time with. The insights and advice they gave us from their year living, learning, and teaching in Vietnam were invaluable. We also just loved hanging out with them and hearing their perspectives on topics ranging from Vietnam to theater to teaching to pet ownership and beyond! We also will never forget the surreal location for our meet-up with Rae and Tony: the ICHI Cat Café! You can check out the cat montage video below. Rae and Tony (and their expat Vietnamese dog Peter Barker they brought back with them and Philadelphia-native cat Pablo Picatso!) are on our list of people (and pets!) that we will be so happy to get to be with again when we return to Philadelphia.
We wound down our time in Saigon with a few more great meals (we recommend the restaurant that offered more than twenty different preparations of goat: goat tenderloin, goat feet, goat brain, goat blood pudding, and so much more!), worked them off on the public exercise machines in the parks (video below), visited the (very skewed) War Remnants Museum, and placed Mark’s brother Dan’s Fairy Door across from Saigon’s Citadel.
While Saigon’s heat, rain, and overall intensity roughed us up a bit, we’re still glad we went. Our visits to Vietnam’s major cities were to bring us the answer to our question of where to eventually drop anchor. Determining that Saigon definitely isn’t for us was helpful. Also, we imagine that if we’d had time to explore beyond District 1 we would have found softer versions of Saigon. If we should return, we want to check out the more residential Districts 2, 3, and Bình Thạnh. You can view our photos from Saigon HERE, our brief videos below, and for a proper overview of the many highlights of Saigon, we offer you this link to popular YouTube Vlogger Mark Wien’s “Top 23” list HERE.