WHEN it comes to Saigon, one never knows quite where to begin.
Should I first write about the zipping motorbikes slowing down in the middle of the road as its riders try to quickly whip out their colorful raincoats as the monsoon rain starts pouring down?
Perhaps it should be the Pho, that ubiquitous noodle soup that is hearty and at the same time heartwarming, and yet uniformly tasting at any restaurant one goes.
Or what about the numerous memorials and museums to the Vietnam war, that deep-seated skirmish that Americans still can’t seem to forgive themselves for, and yet the Vietnamese seem to have already moved on from?
There are just so many things to see and do in Saigon’s District 1—each one more enjoyable than the last. Next to New York City, I think it is one of the best cities to visit because it just offers so many choices to please every other kind of tourist there is.
History buffs, for instance, will have their fill of Vietnam’s unique role in world history. At the War Remnants Memorial, it is of course, Vietnam’s version of the war that takes center stage. There are endless photos and posters on the wall depicting how those tough beer guzzling, marijuana-smoking American soldiers invaded their precious land and assaulted their women, maimed their men and children, and torched their villages.
The exhibit is gory and at the same time heart-wrenching. The most moving display are photos of the children who were born with genetic problems because of the widespread use by American forces of the herbicide Agent Orange which were sprayed on farmlands and forests.
It is an exhausting visit, as the images in the framed pictures weigh so heavily on one’s conscience and one’s soul. As many have said before, in war, there are really no winners or losers, just victims.
A trip should also be made to the infamous Củ Chi tunnels, located north in the Saigon countryside. These network of tunnels were actually built during the war against the French, according to our tour guide Phuong, and later became the base of operations by the Northern Vietnamese soldiers (Vietcong) who were preparing to attack the American soldiers during the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968.
About 20,000 hectares, visitors trek through the woods and are shown how the Vietcong ingeniously squeezed themselves through a tunnel and cover the entrance by using leaves. Underground there are sleeping chambers, airshafts, and storage rooms, while closer above ground were kitchens, conference areas and hospitals. There are also samples of the kinds of traps used by the Vietcong to defend themselves from the American soldiers.
At any time of the day, the Vietnamese seem to be eating, or sipping away at their iced coffees, perched on stools in yet another sidewalk stall. Cafés serving tea, coffee and sandwiches dot the streets, as well as restaurants serving meals.
All establishments my friends and I ate in, from the nameless hole-in-the-walls to the classy fine dining restaurants – just offered a wide array of palate-pleasing wonderfully healthy dishes. Such that if there was a perfect destination for anyone to go on a diet, Vietnam would probably be it.
The cuisine is all about the balance of flavors and nutrients – like one bowl of phở bò (beef noodle soup) for instance, has tender slices of beef brisket (fat), rice noodles (carbohydrates), bean sprouts (protein and vitamin C), basil and mint leaves (roughage).
It is also about gentle restraint, like the Vietnamese character. While there are sliced red chilies to give the phở some heat, these do not overwhelm. There is a hint of sourness from the lime, an undertone of sweetness from the duong phen (yellow rock sugar), salt from the fish sauce, and bitterness from the charred onions. All these in the water with the long-simmering beef knuckle and beef oxtail, and these create a broth that is uniquely umami. In Filipino, malinamnam.
Not only is Vietnamese food nutritious and savory, it is cheap anywhere one goes. Across the road from the side of the War Remnants Museum where we sought refuge from a sudden downpour was a nameless restaurant where the working class Saigonese lunched.
We had fried fish and one braised with a sweet tomato sauce almost like a sardine, as well as fried pork and with it we each got a plate with a cup of rice, two tablespoons of mixed vegetables, a simple soup with pechay, and a banana. We had to recompute our tab twice because it was so unbelievably cheap! The three of us only paid less than P50 per person and that already included my two friends’ softdrinks!
Aside from the delightful Vietnamese cuisine, there are a number of fine French restaurants around - a throwback, of course, to the French occupation of 1856-1954. Guided by the New York Times and Frommer’s, we dined at the L’Olivier at the Sofitel Hotel. Michelin-starred chefs such as the legendary Paul Bocuse have cooked there. Its present culinary staff serve up a tight menu of delectable Provencal dishes.
And might I add, anywhere you go, the crusty and light French baguette rules. You can get it from the street vendor, your hotel restaurant, and the French restaurants. It is as much a national dish as the pho.
The arts and cultural scene is spirited and soulful in Saigon.
There are art galleries which highlight the abstract expressions of its young artists and one which featured for that week, an array of intricately-beaded ao dai, that traditional long sleeved and figure hugging tunic worn by Vietnamese women.
Showrooms are located strategically for tourists and feature superbly crafted ceramic art as well as the painstakingly silk-embroidered tapestries depicting the breathtaking local countryside or elaborate pastoral scenes of Europe.
A visit to the Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Post Office, City Hall, and the Opera House – all within walking distance of each other – is also definite must-see. These buildings pay homage to the country’s French heritage and provide a splendid backbone to the city’s architectural aesthetic. It is to the Vietnamese government’s credit that they have taken care to preserve these links to their colonial past, even as they have allowed the surrounding buildings take on a more modern cosmopolitan look.
Also, check out the witty and creative Water Puppet Show at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater (your hotel can easily get you tickets). Although the dialogue and singing is conducted entirely in Vietnamese, a show like this just confirms my belief that good old folksy humor is universal and transcends language barriers.
But what I loved best about Saigon’s dedication to artistry and good taste is the number of pocket parks within the city. The trees that have been planted equidistant from each other, provide adequate cover from the noonday sun, yet allow some sunlight to filter through. The shrubs are thick and lush, with flowers in all colors providing a spectacular counterpoint to the overall greenery. These parks offer a peaceful sanctuary amid the mad rush of motorbikes – and they are a horde! – buzzing along the streets.
As for the shopping, high-end American and European fashion brands are aplenty especially downtown, some located on the ground floor of the historic Rex Hotel (where the iced coffee, may I add, is probably the best in Saigon!), and across the plaza in front of the Opera House. Filipino tourists, however, congregate at the Ben Thanh market or Saigon Square (just a short cab ride away from the Rex) for reasonably-priced clothing and shoes, fake branded leather goods from China, as well as coffee beans and a smattering of souvenirs. (A better array of local souvenirs such as lacquered items, wooden boats, and T-shirts can be found in the Postal Office.)
This travel piece is by no means complete. There is much more to Saigon than the historical landmarks, fun activities, and cuisine I’ve touched on. In fact, four days was still way too short for us to completely take these in. I yearn to return and immerse myself more in its local color and culture.
• Where we stayed : The Kingston Hotel (52 – 54 Thu Khoa Huan St., Ben Thanh Ward, District 1) is just a five-minute walk from the Ben Thanh Market. The three-star accommodation came with our PAL Swingaround Lite package ($477 per pax for 4D/3N, triple-share). It was a bit dated but clean, and its front office girls like Ms. Linda were always helpful. But there are far newer three-four star accommodations in the area, so just check TripAdvisor or Vietnam tourist web sites.
• Local tours : You can either book them online while in Manila, or do it in Saigon via your hotel. We chose Amitourist (www.amitourist.com), the local partner of PAL, which gave us very reasonably-priced tour packages almost $30 less than the other operators. They provide professional English-speaking tour guides as well as comfortable airconditioned SUVs when traveling to the countryside. If you stay in the Ben Thanh area – most of the must-see tourist destinations are within walking distance, so do the city tour yourselves, but get a local tour operator for the farther trips.
• What to remember : Exchange your currency (they accept Philippine pesos) at the bank as much as possible, or at your hotel because fake Vietnamese currency or dongs are prevalent. Usually $100 will be more than enough for a day’s tour and shopping.
Be sure of where you are going (consult your map frequently) because some cab drivers can figuratively speaking, take you for a ride. It’s best to get the white VinaSun cabs, as their drivers are more trustworthy.
When shopping, check the store signage first. Government-monitored stalls at Ben Thanh for example, only sell fixed-price items, so haggling is next to useless.