FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Ho Chi Minh City: To Some, It Will Always Be Saigon

May 1, 2004
2004 / May 2004

Saigon. The name conjures myriad images — beautiful and terrible, poetic and mysterious, innocent and mendacious. Like many young journalists I have dreamed of becoming a fearless war correspondent. For me, the flights of imagination that swirl around Vietnam are forever intertwined with the war that once ravaged this tiny Southeast Asian nation.

Today, the former Saigon remains a city markedly different from the northern capital of Hanoi. It’s a place where vintage Jimi Hendrix music is as prevalent as long-sleeved Polo shirts. A fascination with the West is evident.

Having read Peter Arnett’s biographical account of the city as it was in the ’60s and ’70s in his book Live From the Battlefield, I was intrigued enough to move to what I call Saigon and live there for a while. Several years and many visits later, my love for the place has not waned. I’m comfortable there now. I can fearlessly cross the street without stopping. I indulge in locally produced pate xio, a kind of pâté. I can even say no to beggar children despite the look in their puppy-dog eyes. Still, not a moment goes by in this bustling city when I don’t learn something new, see something stunning, or shake my head, mystified.

Even something as mundane as catching the bus offers an adventure. When I lived there, I relied on local buses to get to the city. For me, a tall, relatively fit kid from New Zealand, the driver elected not to come to a complete stop, but to slow down just enough to allow me to jump — Indiana Jones-style — onto his dilapidated red cage on wheels, while the drivers of motorbike taxis called out in broken English, hoping I’d change my mind at the last moment. (In this city where anyone who has a bike offers taxi service, you’ll quickly realize that anything and everything is for sale — for the right price.) Once on the bus, I’d step carefully over squawking plastic bags and old plastic paint buckets writhing with live eels to find a place on a faded red seat next to a hollow window frame — a front-and-center seat from which to watch the entertaining dance of city traffic.

To visit is one thing, but to truly learn about the city you have to step out of your comfort zone and take a close look at its grim reality. In Vietnam, the steely face of hardship is as unavoidable as the heat. Still, everyone needs a comfort blanket. Mine was Allezboo, a bar in the backpackers’ quarter that’s stocked with huge bottles of Saigon Beir.

Pham Ngu Lao is another quirky little place where patrons from the East and West eye one another with childlike curiosity and, sometimes, engage in the age-old seller-buyer dance. A street in the backpackers ’ quarter, its name has become synonymous with the ethnic mix, native dress and hustle and bustle that permeate the area. When I first arrived in the former Saigon, I sometimes found the contrast to my native New Zealand exhausting. On heat-soaked afternoons, I’d settle at a bamboo window sill under a gently spinning ceiling fan to chat with the friendly cyclo drivers perched on the backs of rickety rickshaws as they waited for work in the tropical sun.

Even shopping is an adventure here. Vietnam’s beautiful lacquerware shares the stage with live animals and black market goods. For an authentic experience, head for Cho Binh Tan or the Binh Tan. I have often stumbled into the cavernous markets in a mad dash to outrun one of the region’s monsoon downpours. Immediately, I’d experience a kaleidoscope of smell, noise and color. The market is set out in orderly sections — live animals, flowers and fruits, clothing — but that’s where civility ends. Women run the stalls at Binh Tan and they are as ruthless and determined as any Wall Street broker. Whenever I approached, they greeted me with brilliant white smiles and quickly ushered me to their stalls.

I enjoy female attention as much as the next man, but as a lone Westerner up against a throng of middle-aged Vietnamese women, I was at a disadvantage — tongue-tied for the first time in my life.

Vietnamese women are, in my opinion, among the most beautiful women in the world, with intense eyes and inherent grace. I was consumer putty in their hands.

The American Market, situated a few streets from Pham Ngu Lao, can be difficult to find, but is thoroughly fascinating. “Relics” from the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War) are, more often than not, altimeters, speed dials and other aeronautic components being passed off as jet-fighter instruments. The market, a mishmash of wooden shacks, is nevertheless intoxicating for the glimpses it offers of wartime memorabilia. I recall dust-laden shafts of sunlight punctuating the murky darkness as I gazed through smudged glass cabinets at rusty bayonets and bits of shrapnel. For a journalist aspiring to become a combat correspondent, the market gave life to the history I had only experienced through books and film.

When it comes to getting around the city, cast away any ideas of navigating a vehicle on your own. Lunge at a bus, hop on the back of a tiny 150 cc motorbike taxi or — for an experience that will make you feel like you’re in a scene from The Quiet American — take a turn on a cyclo. The rickety little bikes are classics. Drivers will show you the city’s oldest and most ornate temples, abandoned riverside colonial mansions, war museums and memorial parks. It can be a harrowing experience, but it’s a timeless way to see the city.

The fascinating place now known as Ho Chi Minh City still bears the scars of war, but it has attained a peace. The contrast between rich and poor is graphic, but the vibrant beauty of this culture is addictive.

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