After seven long days in Hanoi, I flew down to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The last time I was in Saigon was early 2012, and I have to admit that I’ve been anxious to revisit the city. I didn’t like it so much the first time I went there in 2011, but it grew on me the second time in 2012. Now that I’m a much more experienced traveler and have finally seen Hanoi, will my opinion of Saigon change?
I spent seven long days down south in Saigon to compare and contrast the city with Hanoi up north. This trip report is all about what I learned visiting Saigon for the third time now in 2017. Let’s get started.
Whereas Hanoi feels “stuck” in between Northeast and Southeast Asia – similar to southern China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan – Saigon feels like Southeast Asia proper. The very first day I went outside, I was smacked in the face by the intense sunshine and heat. The dreariness of Hanoi doesn’t exist here in Saigon.
Just like in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, or Penang, street vendors selling fresh fruit and shakes are abundant everywhere in Saigon. After spending nearly two years up in Japan and Northeast Asia, it’s nice to finally be back somewhere with these distinct tropical vibes.
Even though Hanoi’s population is high by Asian standards, the city still had a smaller city feel to it. Yet the first thing I noticed here in Saigon is a sense of space, something I never felt in Hanoi. Main avenues and roads feel wider, and the city as a whole just feels more modern. Saigon feels like a true megacity, but Hanoi certainly didn’t. This is good in some ways, yet bad in others. Would you rather have distinct local culture or global modern conveniences? For example, back in 2012 there were no McDonald’s restaurants in Saigon, yet now there are at least a few. Hanoi on the other hand seems far more resistant to international franchises and brands.
Though just like in Hanoi, it’s clear that Saigon also badly lacks in the public transportation department. Other than a few token buses here and there, there’s not much to speak of. As a person who generally prefers to get around via walking and public transportation, I’m quite disappointed. The sidewalks also leave a lot to be desired. Apparently an extensive underground metro system is currently being built, and it’s supposedly due to open to the public in 2020. Getting around Saigon via subway would be awesome, and I would love to see how the city changes when it’s done being built. In the meantime it’s still very much a motorcycle’s city with zero regard for pedestrians.
I distinctly remember back in 2012 noticing just how many good-looking women there were all around Saigon. I even remember seeing lots of pretty girls wearing ao dai (a traditional Vietnamese dress) as they zipped by on their motorcycles. But now it’s 2017, and I think I’ve had a change of heart. Even though I walked through hundreds of streets and went into countless places all over the city, I just don’t feel like I saw that many hot girls. Rarely did my head turn. Hanoi definitely seemed better women-wise.
Girls dress much less classy in Saigon as well. All those modestly dressed beauties I saw up in Hanoi were few and far between in Saigon. Many girls simply wear the skimpy, skin-revealing clothing that you can see girls wearing all over urban Asia, especially in cities like Bangkok. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I do appreciate when girls dress more modestly (especially when they look so damn good doing it). Nor did I see a single girl wearing an ao dai during my entire seven day stay. Has something changed? Or was I always at the wrong place at the wrong time?
I didn’t get much of any female attention or eye contact in Saigon either. I wasn’t exactly getting a whole lot up in Hanoi, but I did receive enough to feel noticed. In Saigon I pretty much felt invisible. The only girls who ever noticed me were the ubiquitous “Massage, sir?” girls, but they of course notice every passing foreigner. I honestly would’ve expected far more female attention in Saigon than Hanoi, but apparently I was dead wrong.
All in all, I felt the ladies of Saigon were nothing special. I’ve seen plenty of pics of hot Vietnamese girls from Saigon, but I just wasn’t seeing many of them with my own two eyes as I walked around the city. A cute girl here and there, but that was about it. Maybe they all stay sheltered away from the harsh realities of the real world by living tucked away in gated communities and luxury cars? Or perhaps my standards of beauty have changed radically in the last five years? Or maybe both? It’s hard to say.
Though travelers often say that the people up in Hanoi are more stone-faced than the people down in Saigon, I personally didn’t notice any significant differences. Yes, some Vietnamese have a bit of seriousness in their gaze, but it’s tame compared to what I see up in Northeast Asia. I’m very used to Asian straight-forwardness, so perhaps I’ve just acclimatized.
Though just like up in Hanoi, there were lots of people in Saigon wanting to practice their English at parks popular with foreigners and travelers. Half the time I would sit on a bench at a park in District 1, I’d get approached by university-aged people who would openly tell me they want to practice English with me. Once again I admire their dedication to practicing English, but it got a bit annoying after the fifth time of being approached when all I really wanted to do was just relax in peace. But beyond that specific group of people, the overall command of English in Saigon was pretty poor. Some people in the touristy areas knew very basic conversational English, but that was about it.
The touts in Saigon’s District 1 were even more aggressive than the touts in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Getting pestered to buy motorcycle rides, sunglasses, massages, and other crap I don’t care about was a nonstop occurrence. Though thankfully whenever I got out of District 1, the solicitations took a nosedive.
Generally speaking, the average person in Saigon just didn’t seem that interested in me, so I really didn’t talk to anyone beyond a basic superficial level. A few old dudes would ask where I’m from every now and then, but that was about it. I’m sure learning some Vietnamese would unlock many social opportunities in Saigon, but as a non-Vietnamese speaking tourist in the city, my opportunities were nil. The folks of Saigon just didn’t leave a lasting impression on me, but I’ve got nothing against them either.
Some people might want to murder me for saying this, but I found the food in Saigon to be almost the same as that in Hanoi. I’m sure there were many subtle differences, but my untrained palate didn’t notice much. Nevertheless, all the food I ate was good. Just like in Hanoi, I often found myself eating gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls), bánh mì (French baguette sandwiches), and phở (rice noodle soup with meat and vegetables). There’s plenty of other great Vietnamese cuisine, but those are my three go-to foods.
Though I was planning to save all my Western meals for Bangkok weeks later down the road, the Western food available in Saigon’s Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker district was too hard for me to resist. I found myself eating at Sancho’s Craft Beer & Mexican Kitchen day after day because their Mexican food was superb by Asian standards. I wholeheartedly recommend their giant wet burrito, as it was one of the best Mexican dishes I’ve ever eaten in Asia. I also found myself eating at Indian restaurants from time to time, as the Indian food in the city was pretty good.
All in all, the food scene in Saigon is pretty good. Eating both local and foreign meals was always a delight. The variety and the quality of the Western food perhaps surprised me the most. Obviously Western food was usually much more expensive than local food, but more often than not it was worth it. Regardless, the local food was never a letdown, either. It’s hard to go wrong with any meal in Saigon.
I’m back in Southeast Asia proper, and with that comes tropical weather. The humidity of Hanoi is largely absent in Saigon, but the sun has taken the humidity’s place. For the very first time in 2017, I feel hot. I can wear shorts and T-shirts again. The sunshine is intense most of the day, and there’s very little shade to escape to. The temperature usually hovered around 90 – 95° Fahrenheit in the day time, which means I was always drenched in sweat by sunset. I’m back to taking twice daily showers. I’ve always been a hot weather person though, so none of this really bothers me too much.
But not only am I hot for the first time in 2017, I’m also seeing clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds for the first time in 2017. Finally I can take outside pictures that don’t look grey and drab. Luckily there wasn’t any rain during my week stay in Saigon, but that will surely change with the arrival of the wet season in the coming months. Saigon’s weather during late March summarized in only three words – hot and sunny.
Things to Do
Saigon is a massive megacity, so there are countless things you could do here. Most new travelers to the city find themselves at famous landmarks like the Bến Thành Market, Ho Chi Minh City Hall, the Independence Palace, the Notre-Dame Basilica, the Central Post Office, and the War Remnants Museum. Those places are fine for a quick peek, but don’t plan your trip around them. They’re all way too touristy.
If you’re willing to brave the chaotic traffic, renting a bicycle or motorcycle and just exploring what the city has to offer is probably one of the most interesting things you could do. Most of Saigon’s districts are numbered, and each of them has a pretty unique feel. District 1 is the glitzy and touristy district, District 5 has lots of Chinese influence, Bình Thạnh District is the up-and-coming residential district with lots of construction, and so forth. I spent most of my time exploring Districts 1 and 2 and Bình Thạnh District.
One of the most memorable things I did in Saigon was visit the Pháp Viện Minh Đăng Quang Buddist Temple in District 2. The temple features a couple of pagodas, a large statue of Guan Yin, and of course a main worship hall. I went just as the sun was setting, which was a perfect time to get some nice photos. I also climbed to the top of one of the pagodas, which gave me a really nice high-up view of the city. It was a great place to just escape the madness of the city and relax in the calm for a moment.
And last but not least, one day an expat friend and I drove his motorcycle over 20 miles southwest to “Monkey Island,” a foresty area in Saigon’s far-out Cần Giờ District that’s filled with macaques. My friend bought a strawberry ice cream cone from a vendor as we were leaving, and suddenly out of nowhere countless macaques descended upon him to try to steal his ice cream. They were relentless. It was all pretty funny, if not also a bit frightening. But not only did we see macaques, we also saw lots of alligators and cattle. If you’re into wildlife, then this might be the place for you. The drive to and from the island is interesting as well.
Cost of Traveling
As of April 22nd, 2017, 1 USD equals 22,649 VND.
Prices for just about everything in Saigon were roughly equivalent to second-tier Chinese city prices (Dalian, Shenyang, Chengdu, etc.) – a good value overall, but not shockingly cheap either. Perhaps a bit more expensive than Hanoi, but not by a lot. Here are the numbers:
All in my AirBnB apartment was roughly 337,000 VND per night. The apartment was located in Bình Thạnh District and was about a 45-minute walk (or 10-15 minute drive) from Bến Thành Market. Though the inside of the apartment was fine, the building was located in a very low economic class neighborhood. It was interesting to see local life in the neighborhood, but I felt totally out of place staying there every night. I felt my AirBnB apartment in Hanoi was a much better value overall.
As I mentioned above, the public transportation systems in Saigon are dreadful for a city of its dynamics. In seven days I only took one single motorcycle taxi ride, and that was late at night from Phạm Ngũ Lão to my apartment in Bình Thạnh District. I had no idea how much I should’ve paid, so I just gave the driver 90,000 VND, and he seemed content with that amount. Perhaps I overpaid, but there was no way to really know. I also paid 20,000 VND to take a bus from the airport to Phạm Ngũ Lão. Other than those two instances, I got around almost exclusively by foot, which wasn’t pleasant at all but a necessary inconvenience.
Food prices for local Vietnamese cuisine were more or less the same as they were up in Hanoi. To get a complete and satisfying meal I usually paid around 40 – 60,000 VND. To just get a simple snack I usually paid around 20 – 30,000. Foreign cuisine was unsurprisingly more expensive, but also more filling. Those meals usually cost me around 120 – 250,000, completely depending on how much I ordered. The quality and value were both very good, though.
I allotted myself a budget of about 500,000 VND per day (after airfare and accommodation), and once each day was finished, that was usually just about what I spent. I ate well and slept well, but I also had to do a hell of a lot of walking to stick to that budget. That’s not something I normally mind doing, but I just wish it was a little more comfortable.
If Hanoi is Vietnam’s Beijing, then Saigon is Vietnam’s Shanghai. Hanoi feels busy, but Saigon feels even busier. Hanoi struck me as an old school cultural city, yet Saigon struck me more as a modern city with some old school remnants here and there. Hanoi felt compressed and dense, yet Saigon felt more spacious (albeit still crowded). The women of Hanoi came across as a bit refined and elegant, but the ladies down in Saigon seemed more like your typical run-of-the-mill modern big city girls. Hanoi had a moderate climate similar to that of Taipei and Hong Kong, but Saigon felt more like a proper tropical Southeast Asian city.
In the end I liked Saigon more. Both cities have their pros and cons of course, but I think Saigon is more to my tastes. The women and the photo opportunities were both better up in Hanoi, but everything else felt better down in Saigon. If I only had the time to visit just one, then I’d definitely visit Saigon. But that said, I’m still not much of a Vietnam guy. Why? Because I like most of its neighboring countries much more. To me Vietnam is one of those countries I would only visit if it was bundled into the same trip with a bunch of other nearby countries. Vietnam is certainly worth checking out, but I don’t think it’s worth a trip to see it and it alone.
Did my impression of Saigon change much after seeing it five years later for the third time? A little bit, but not a whole lot. I’m glad I saw the city again all these years later, but I doubt I’ll be back anytime soon.