Although we only stayed in Saigon on the last part of our visit to Vietnam, I thought I’d start my series of posts with some of the recognizable icons (places and buildings) that are usually associated with Ho Chi Minh.
We arrived in Saigon (from Can Tho) on a rainy evening. After a few days, I’ve confirmed that there are generally two seasons here just like in the Philippines: the wet and the wetter seasons.
We stayed in one of the inns in De Tham in the backpackers’ area (in District 1). This is a convenient location: near the tour agencies where you can get guides and tour packages, the bus stations (heading north to Hanoi or southeast to Cambodia or Mekong Delta), and near the Saigon “attractions”. In fact the one we chose is right beside a tour agency’s office, so no need for a taxi.
After dropping our bags in our room, we decided to do the touristy thing to do: shop and explore Saigon’s night-scape. Of course my wife insisted we pass by the night market at Ben Thanh first.
Sure enough it was just a short walk from De Tham along Pham Ngu Lao.
The streets along one side of Ben Thanh market is lined stalls selling mostly souvenir stuff. The street is shared with motorist as well. How’s that for dangerous shopping!
I don’t really see the attraction to this night market. For one, there are more choices if you visit Ben Thanh area at day time. Secondly, the prices are not even lower at the night market - it’s the opposite in fact, probably because more tourists visit the night market (as daytime is reserved for tours).
There food stalls as well, perfect for a bowl of hot pho that will surely re-energize a tired shopper. You can't seem to walk a few meters here without coming across someone selling street food.
The universal rule in bargain shopping in Saigon is to haggle, but make sure you buy the item once you get the seller to agree with your desired price. It’s also interesting to note that items are priced not just based on their value but also partly your capacity to pay (as perceived by the seller), so look poor. I also found out that if you stand long enough in front of a stall, someone will soon drag you by the arm into the stall and try to sell you stuff. Talk about aggressive selling!
After buying a few stuff, we decided to head to some of the iconic buildings as I’m sure they’ll be dramatically lighted at night time. We decided to hire motorcycles to take us around. The buildings are actually within walking distance (everything is, if you have the time and energy to walk) but 3+ hours of traveling by bus has drained us a bit.
Our first stop was the Saigon Opera House (Municipal Theatre) in the chic part of the city. The guides often refer to this as a fine example of French Colonial architecture in Vietnam, although it pales in comparison to its Hanoi counterpart – at least according to some guide books. It looked magnificent nevertheless.
In this part of the city you can actually see a bit more cars, quite a rarity.
Next we went to see the Notre Dame Cathedral in Dong Khoi Street. The façade was not lighted directly but I can see beautiful red brick façade. There was a crowd doing novena in front of the church that time. Built by the French in the late 1800s, the Cathedral continues to be one of the most recognizable symbols of Catholicism in Vietnam.
On the way back to Ben Thanh market we made a quick stopover at the most photographed building in Saigon: Ho Chi Minh City Hall or Hôtel de Ville de Saigon. It was the City Hall under the French but now it’s officially the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee building.
In front of this gothic parody of the Hotel de Ville in Paris is a small park with the statue of Ho Chi Minh.
The highlight of the evening was when, after the tour, one of the motorcycle drivers (who appeared helpful earlier) insisted we pay double the agreed fare. Classic rip off! It just confirms what I read about how “tricky” getting around Saigon is. You are not safe even if you take the taxi. They have even elevated the tampering of taxi meters to an art.
The next day we “developed” a new countermeasure to overpricing: give the seller a piercing look when you think you are being ripped off and you’ll immediately get a discount. It works btw, at least with the lady selling baguette. We went back to Ben Thanh market, my wife was “curious” about what’s inside while I wanted to shoot the facade.
Next we headed to the City Hall, this time we walked. The small park, which I did not noticed much the previous night, was beautiful. I also wanted to see the basilica again in daylight so we proceeded there after taking a few posterity snaps of the City hall.
The Notre Dame Cathedral was also grand in the full sun. Several couples in wedding suits and dresses were having their pictures taken all around the church.
There was a time in Oct 2005 when someone reported that the statue shed tears, prompting a huge crowd to gather and disrupted the traffic.
We met two motorcycle drivers who wanted to prove that not everyone in Saigon are scums bent to rip you off. They offered us a tour of some of the pagodas in Cholon (Saigon’s China town, will write a separate post on it) and while it’s a bit far they did not charge us much.
They even gave us some good luck charms from one of the pagodas. They reasoned if you do what’s right then everybody’s happy. Tourists are happy, you are happy, and your family will be blessed with good luck.
The Cholon tour was capped by a visit to Binh Tay Market (what's a day without shopping). Our driver said most of those selling stuff in Ben Thanh actually get their goods here. I also noticed the absence of tourists in the area, except for us and probably a few who blended in too well.
Best part of the visit to Binh Tay, apart from the incredible bargains, was the several glasses of free ice tea from complete strangers. Everywhere we went folks mistake my wife for a Vietnamese who married a Filipino. She does look like a local especially with that conical hat on, and sound like one too with her few mastered phrases (all of which had something to do with shopping). Our guide said her accent is good. I, on the other hand, was a dead give away with the flags on my shirt, camera, tripod, and backpack.