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Sunday, 13 January 2013

What's Saigon Like?

Saigon’s really began to grow on me, and despite its oddness, I’ll be sad to leave.  Sure, it doesn’t have the glamour of Hong Kong or Singapore, nor the ‘poison lotus’ edge of Bangkok, but it has its charm in its own, old school, chaotic but graceful way.

The best things about this dirty but dreamily romantic city, have to be experienced by getting involved with locals. There’s no point in hanging around the Rex hotel roof terrace hoping to get inside the city or going on a quite silly daytrip to some random temple crowded out with Russian package tourists.

Nothing’s made me feel more alive for years, than racing round the streets of Saigon with the chaotic horde, getting totally lost, peeping my horn, and dodging out in front of buses. I don’t advise doing it drunk, you need to keep your wits about you (and to be fair, I didn’t even see any other white people doing this) but it certainly made my whole holiday…So, first thing you do,  is rent a scooter. It’s about $5 a day so don’t give me any squeamish excuses.

The best way to rent them is to ask at your hotel. Usually you’re actually borrowing one of the workers bikes, so try not to crash it or you won’t get your passport back. 

The whole city is crammed with bikes and motorbikes (the only cars are usually taxis) Despite looking completely chaotic from the outside, like a swarm of bees, they seem to all flow smoothly in and out of each other and despite most people going in opposite directions, no one seems to crash….

The other main positive is the food.  Thousands of street vendors line the streets selling, I’m 100% sure the tastiest healthiest food I’ve ever had for a couple of dollars. Quails eggs, weird fruit, fried rice, nuts, sweets, satays, spring rolls, rice paper rolls, oysters, pho (soup), tofu, and even raw sugar cane mashed up to make a drink can all come out of a random little hovel up a back lane. Pho shops are all over the place – they basically give you a filling ramen style soup and a bunch of leaves and beansprouts that you put in yourself, along with a whole bunch of other tasty things. I’ll get a couple of addresses of some standout places from a local friend and put them in here, I doubt too many lonely planet clad drongos end up out in the back lanes at night anyway – I didn’t see any outside the main tourist drags or one ludicrously overpriced market in the centre of town.

Pagodas are the other weird and wonderful thing to go out of the way for. There are the ‘tourist’ pagodas near the centre, but today I went 40mins out of the city so a bizzare one swastika covered pagoda (name to follow!) which had a psychedelic light show in the main hall while a monk sang prayers like shamanic ‘icaros’. All very Hunter Thomsonesque. 

The ‘Saigon baby’ days were pretty much wiped out (along with the whole middle class and all the smart people, who jumped on boats across the pacific rather than be killed) when the lefties took over from Hanoi after the war. Recently though some nightlife started coming back. Every night there’s a ‘ladies night’ somewhere, which just means one club a week is even more thoroughly packed with expats, and local girls looking for a nice western man. Most things close earlyish (about 3 or so latest) which is a bit of a waste of Thai red bull (which I read on the can, has 1000mg of Taurine per can!)  Things change every night, so just check up with locals if you’re doing that. It’s the usual stuff, with places called ‘lush’ or ‘velvet’ and quite unimaginative all round. I heard that the famous Apocalypse Now bar/club is still going strong- we had a great night out there 15 years ago, and I understand its still the same old freak show and well worth a visit.  There are loads of tired looking girly bars all around the Japanese area, and also around ‘Go2’ bar (a really pretty morose backpacker/hooker hangout)

Spa’s are everywhere, cheap, and amazing. $25 can give you a whole afternoon of saunas, spa treatments and so on (although no happy endings, I understand, just so you know)

And, most wonderfully, you can now play poker every night in the casino next door to the super posh ‘New World Hotel’ – Its an electronic poker table, which is pretty weird. Real poker, real money, real people sitting round playing against each other,  but you get your own little screen to see your cards, and it actually moves a lot faster than normal ‘live’ poker. All in all a pretty good experience though, and mostly the usual rich donkeys you see in poor countries, squandering their national debt at the card table…

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