When we did our 3 week, 4 country whirlwind SE Asia tour in 2009, the place that we really fell in love with was Saigon. If we hadn’t loved Saigon as much as we might not have come back to SE Asia. I remember getting on the plane back then and thinking “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I have to get back to this place.”
So we were incredibly excited to get to Saigon and fall back in love with Vietnam. Hanoi was really wonderful, but it was smaller and quainter than I would have liked and central Vietnam was…well, kind of boring. Saigon is a lot of things, but it is not boring. There is a constant buzz and energy about the place. Millions of motorbikes, streetside food carts, and constant pounding heat create a heady mix.
Still….something felt different. Was it us or Vietnam that had changed? Whereas in 2009 there was a constant sense of adventure (and perhaps a small amount of exotic danger), Saigon this time felt a bit more organized. There seemed to be a lot of order and rules, whereas in 2009 there was just an overriding sense of complete and total freedom. Yes, there are a million people on motos, but now they all stop at stoplights and EVERY person wears a helmet. Crossing the street in 2009 was always a close brush with death, but now we just sauntered across the road without even pausing. The trash was being collected regularly. There seemed to be fewer pop-up streetside restaurants. I cannot be sure what exactly is different — whether Saigon really has gotten a bit more “civilized” in the past 4 years or whether we just understand Vietnam better now and so standard “Vietnamese” things make more sense to us. Regardless, we still love Saigon. It’s still my favorite place in Vietnam and that time and place when we first met will always have a special place in my heart.
Some people dislike Saigon partially because they say that the people aren’t nice. That’s not really true, in my opinion. Saigon’s people are big city people. They don’t have time for you and they don’t suffer fools. People in the north seemed friendlier in general, and people in the tourist spots in central Vietnam, while shrewd, are more used to dealing with tourists. Saigon exists for Saigon, and not tourists so it can be hard to get under the surface. Here, like any big city, if you don’t take care of yourself no one will do it for you — this is particularly true for tourists. Vietnam is a place where you have to haggle and barter at pretty much EVERY financial transaction, and the Vietnamese will start every bargaining session at a ridiculously high price. You just have to come back at them aggressive and hard. (Bear in mind, these are the rules for white people. Vietnamese pay different prices for everything. It’s just how it works. Even if you speak fluent Vietnamese, if you are white, you pay more.) Our friend Rob from Burma lived in Vietnam for 5 years and he gave us an example of a typical (successful) bargaining session:
You: How much is this soup?
Vendor: Hmmm…for you? This soup….is….TEN MILLION DOLLARS.
You: NO! YOU WILL GIVE ME THIS SOUP FOR FREE. AND YOU WILL ALSO GIVE ME FREE GAS FOR MY MOTORBIKE.
Vendor: NO GAS. Soup….ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS. BEST PRICE.
You: 10 CENTS.
You: $1 (at this point you start to walk away)
Vendor: Ahhhh, Ok! Ok! My friiiiiiend.
As you can imagine, some people tire of this game very quickly. Sometimes you just want a bottle of water and you don’t want to have to have this ridiculous back and forth just to get a fair price. Kat and I tried to buy a coconut from a guy and he pulled every trick in the book on us. We said we wanted one and refused to answer us when we asked (in Vietnamese) how much it cost. He just hacked it open and handed it to us. Then he named a ridiculously high price ($2.50) we said no and told him we’d pay no more than 75 cents. He said no no no repeatedly, so kat handed the coconut back to him and we began to walk away. He says “OKOKOK! and calls us back. I made the rookie error of not having exact change, so I handed him a large bill and he pulled the second trick of not handing me back the correct change. He handed me one bill, I stood there with my hand out and he slooowly pulled out another bill and handed it to me (still not enough) so I stood there again and then he claimed that we’d agreed on a DIFFERENT price. Kat impressed me at this point. She put the coconut down and literally GRABBED at the guy’s stack of money in his hand to get our proper change. This was the best thing she could have done. This man could tell we meant BUSINESS and he handed us the correct change, screaming the whole time how we got a better price than Vietnamese people get (which was 100% NOT true) and how terrible we were. Whatever. I got my coconut and I paid the right price. THAT how you roll in Saigon,
Of course, you aren’t here to listen to our haggling war stories. You’re here to look at pictures of soup. We’ve already written about pho and we had pho all over Vietnam, but the pho is quite different from north to south. Most people, I think, prefer northern pho, but not me. Southern pho is sweeter, more robust (and can also be ordered with meatballs in it!). Northern pho, more delicate and subtle. If you’ve had pho in America, you’ve almost certainly had southern pho.
We ate things other than soup, of course! For a few nights we met up with our friend Chi who we met in 2009. Chi is originally from Hanoi but now lives in Saigon and showed us an amazing time, bringing us to really cool bars, clubs and restaurants as well as patiently enduring hours of “Ask a Vietnamese Girl” sessions. (Example: Chi, do you find it offensive when white people wear those traditional Vietnamese conical hats? No, but you guys look really stupid when you wear them.)
Chi also delights in expanding our culinary horizons. She took us to an AMAZING restaurant called Monsoon (Apparently Brad and Angelina ate there on their last trip to Saigon — but, sorry, no photos). In 2009 she took us to eat goat brain hot pot (which Kat LOVED and still talks about), this time when we asked where we were going for dinner, she replied “Up to you! You want snails or frogs?!” I had a bad run in with some snails back in Paris when I was 13 (a doctor was called), so we chose frogs. “OH GOOD. I WAS SO HOPING YOU’D SAY FROGS!”
As we’ve found, time and again, what makes a place special is its people and Chi makes Saigon a place where we always feel at home. When she comes to Philly, we’re gonna stuff her so full of cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches that she’ll forget all about goat brain and snail.
After 5 days in Saigon, we were ready to leave Vietnam. Vietnam is a place that in traveler circles evokes a lot of extreme emotion. People LOVE/HATE Vietnam SO MUCH. Kat and I? Well…we like Vietnam. I understand both sides of the argument, and both certainly have merits. We were also VERY excited (our mothers less so) about our next destination: SOUTH KOREA. After 4 months of 95 degree days, beaches and coconuts, it was time to bid farewell to SE Asia. We scrambled around Saigon to find winter coats (NOT EASY TO FIND in a place where it never drops below 90 degrees). Weather forecast for our arrival in Seoul: 28 degrees. Fahrenheit. Yeah. Things are gonna be different.