Feb 28 2015

Five things I would tell first-time visitors to… Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City. No, Saigon. No…

One. You say Saigon….

First, it doesn’t really matter what you call it. Saigon will always be “Saigon” to me, but I get that there’s a history, and I get that…. No. Seriously, fuck it: no city name should have five syllables! Vietnamese history is complex enough without adding three extra syllables. Don’t get me wrong: I mean absolutely no disrespect, and I think Ho Chi Minh was an admirable man who deserves the recognition he … deserves.1)Hell, even his enemies admired him. If the only thing you know about Uncle Ho is what you’ve seen on the History Channel, you might be surprised. Start with the New York Times’ obituary.  But five syllables—nuh-uh.2)I don’t care what the Australians are up to. (See this post, “A lyrical reworking of Geoff Mack’s classic to accommodate all 67 of the 5 syllable place names in Australia.”) And clearly the Welsh are just smoking something with ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.’ (The Welsh, like much of Eastern Europe, are vowelphobic.) For your amusement, this is how it’s pronounced. This is not.

My sense is that you are not going to necessarily offend anyone by using either “Saigon” (Sài Gòn) or “Ho Chi Minh City” (Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh). Hell, half the buildings and businesses are called Saigon-something-or-other. The airport call-sign is SGN, the river is the Saigon River, it’s the Saigon Train Station, and so on. Just use some sense. If your Củ Chi tunnels guide is clearly from the north, is standing next to one of the traps, and uses “Ho Chi Minh City,” then be nice and do the same.

If you’re going to lose nose skin over it, then you probably shouldn’t have come in the first place.

Two. Xe ôm

Forget traditional taxis. Unless it’s raining, but even then, the rains in Saigon tend to come and go quickly. Sit back down, have another coffee, and wait ’til it stops. Saigon Time is relative, anyway, and follows the French tradition of being fashionably—and frequently appallingly—late. You’ll be glad you waited, because otherwise you’d miss out on a whole lot o’ fun: the xe ôm is the only way to fly!

Trish and taxi

Trish with my favourite xe om driver, getting ready for her first ride. Running on four hours of sleep, to boot! 🙂

Trish suiting up 2

I didn’t take a single Vespa cab where the driver wasn’t super nice, helpful, and fair.

Trish on a taxi

Trish hesitated slightly about what to hold on to. Driver just laughed, reached back, and placed her arms firmly around his middle, and off we went!!

Success

Trish’s first ride, safe and sound at my favourite French restaurant in Saigon, L’Essentiel!

Xe ôm (pronounced say-ohm; mnemonic: Say, ‘ome!) are Vespa taxis. My understanding is that xe ôm means “motorbike hug,” or “hug the driver.” Either way, it’s a great term! Xe ôm are nimble and they’re a great way to meet kids! (You know, at traffic lights; kids find farang on bikes highly amusing). Before you know it, you’ll have learned that Saigon traffic isn’t the mayhem you first thought it was on your way in from the aeroport. Well, it is, but there’s a method in the madness. Truly.

Also, there’s the cool factor. Like the first time you canter bareback on a horse (ask a horse friend; they’ll understand), that moment when you realize that you don’t need to hold on for dear life and you can sit back and relax like a pro.

 

First things first: a helmet

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It’s the law and it’s enforced for anyone over the age of 14. (I know; makes no sense at’all at’ll, but they didn’t ask me to draft the law, did they?) Your driver will carry a spare helmet for passengers, but you may as well just get your own. You can spend as little as 30,000 VND (clearly just for compliance; you may as well wear a shower cap) to over 3,000,000 VND. In this case, you really do get what you pay for. But there’s a bright side! The Saigonnaise, as entrepreneurial3)I really must write about the war-time black market in Saigon; man, you could buy ANYTHING! U.S. Army surplus (or not so surplus) mortars, guns, flares, blankets—anything. as I remember, have turned the initially-despised helmets (aka, Rice Cookers) into a fashion boom. So go nuts! Saigon helmets are no-holds-barred fun!

Agree on the price before you get on

You can get a decent idea of what the trip should cost by using distance as your metric. You might factor in weather, as well, and the likelihood of your driver getting a return passenger. I use my iPhone extensively (see future article on SIM cards), so I’m able to access Google Maps and determine how far a trip is. A reasonable fee is about 10,000 to 15,000 VND per kilometer. (Dear Americans, Liberians, Burmese, and (sorta) Brits: get with the metric system! Look it up, learn it, and join the rest of the world. Honestly!) Have the exact amount in hand, but be prepared to add a bit (for weather and other factors). Really, be reasonable, be nice—not every sale or service has to be a showcase for your bargaining skills.

Three. Phở

You’ll want to read Jodi Ettenberg’s excellent blogging about eating Saigon, and especially her passion for soup. If you know me, you know I’m all about food, generally, but if you’re missing phở for breakfast, you are missing out on a particularly pleasurable aspect of life in Saigon. Ho Chi…. Saigon.

First, it’s not pronounced “fo” like “go.” It’s more like “fuh” like “duh,” but with a very slight ‘r” at the back end. Here’s a great guide to the pronunciation (and all things phở, really!).

 

Second, phở is mostly a breakfast dish, occasionally lunch. Getting up early and watching the broth-making is a fabulous way to start the day! Taste the broth before adding anything to it. Generally, though, I like my phở with a healthy addition of lime juice, all the basil I can manage, cilantro (not always offered in the States, but likely available if you ask), bean sprouts, and of course a ring of hot pepper (mash it up a little in the bowl for best effect, or just use chili sauce). I add my bean sprouts in one swell foop, the herbs as I go along. Soup spoon in my left hand, chopsticks in my right, aaaaanddd, we’re off!

[A funny thing happened while I was wrapping up this paragraph while trying to un-kill my blog: I was browsing through one of the Living Magazines I received while I was away, and there’s a full feature by a chef who apparently did his graduate thesis on phở. Don’t ask. Anyway, here’s the link.]

Four. Củ Chi tunnels and War Remnants Museum

Do take the tour of the Củ Chi tunnels. I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t something as tastefully and thoughtfully done as we found. In fact, I didn’t for a second wish I’d worn my “Proud to be Canadian!!!” t-shirt. Regardless of your leanings vis à vis the Vietnam War, the tour is a profound experience. We also visited the War Remnants Museum on the same day, then drank heavily at the Rex that night. I know a number of Americans have visited the museum and were, um, disturbed by the Vietnamese perspective of the war, but, well, yeah! I found it moving on so many damned levels. You could feel the same sentiment throughout the rooms. You’re going to be touched by something here. If you’re thin-skinned, don’t go. I wouldn’t have missed it.

My friend and American School of Vientiane school-mate, Lloyd Coleman, is a genius at arranging reasonably-priced private tours in Asia. If you know me, you’ll know I’m a bit of a control freak about travel. This trip, I put my entire itinerary in Lloyd’s hands, and WOWza! Among everything else, he arranged to have Thuy guide us around. You’ll be reading more about Thuy later. (I will also be writing about about the Coleman family’s amazing story in 1970s Laos, so keep an eye out for that.)

If you’re heading to Asia, do contact Lloyd to book Thuy in Saigon–she is a totally rockin’ chick! Lloyd is with AAVAN Vacation, Inc., and his direct line is 626-573-8689 Ext. 2119, or you can email him at lloyd.coleman@aavanvacation.com.

Note that Lloyd’s professional services are entirely paid for by his suppliers, so you get his Old Asia Hand expertise without the fees!! Tell him I sent you; I’m sure he’s forgiven me for that… oh never mind.

Five. Massage

Get a foot massage. Get ten!

Massage parlors are the new brothels: they’re on every street corner, they’re reasonably priced, and they provide what appears to be a vast employment boom. Except they’re legit (well, most of them), they’re awesome, and they seem to be the hot place to take a date on a Friday night.

Actually, “foot massage” is a misnomer, since it usually also includes a back massage. My absolute favorite place is Professional Foot Massage, at 44 Tôn Thất Thiệp, Bến Nghé, in District 1. It takes up about three stories in a typical Saigon shotgun-style building. You’ll be given cotton jammies to put on, and then led to a long room with chairs-with-ottomans lined up against one wall. I did the 70-minute treatment for 220,000 VND (about $10 US). About 45 minutes of foot/leg, and the rest is back and head, with some serious stretching, cracking, pulling, and kneeing! On my first trip (yes, I went twice), the kid who was doing the massage next to me was a complete ham once he saw me giggling. He was doing outright gymnastics on his Japanese client’s back. Between his tumbling, and the client’s loud grunting, groaning, and what sounded like the occasional appeal for mercy, I was practically in tears!

By absolute, sheer coincidence, this is the same spa that Jodi Ettenberg mentions in her blog. I had just finished a spectacular dinner at L’Essentiel with the lovely and talented owner, Vanessa/Hang Bui (more about Hang and her fabulous restaurant in my next posting). I was walking back to my hotel, and just around the corner from L’Essentiel was this garish green sign, “Professional Foot Massage.” I couldn’t resist. So now I have my First Night In Saigon pattern established: dinner with Hang at L’Essentiel, then a massage, then sleep.

So: been there, done that, got the t-shirts? What would you add? I’d love to hear your comments!

References   [ + ]

1. Hell, even his enemies admired him. If the only thing you know about Uncle Ho is what you’ve seen on the History Channel, you might be surprised. Start with the New York Times’ obituary.
2. I don’t care what the Australians are up to. (See this post, “A lyrical reworking of Geoff Mack’s classic to accommodate all 67 of the 5 syllable place names in Australia.”) And clearly the Welsh are just smoking something with ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.’ (The Welsh, like much of Eastern Europe, are vowelphobic.) For your amusement, this is how it’s pronounced. This is not.
3. I really must write about the war-time black market in Saigon; man, you could buy ANYTHING! U.S. Army surplus (or not so surplus) mortars, guns, flares, blankets—anything.
2 Comments
  1. Rhoda Miller

    Kim, Love your high tech go-aheads design. Just read your Saigon–or is it Ho Chi Minh City–blog and soaked in every word. I look up now and then to clue Maryann in on my latest chuckle and then I’m reabsorbed back into your story. Really looking forward to your ongoing stories!

    Reply

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