HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Saigon Love Story


An example of why this city is so fascinating.
Since moving to Saigon last September, one of the most common questions I’ve gotten – whether from locals, other expats, or friends and family back home – has been: “Do you like Saigon?” The answer has always been quite easy. Yes, I do. In fact, I often say that I love it. Explaining that answer, though, can be a bit difficult.

To be sure, there is a lot to hate about Saigon. The absolutely insane traffic strains the patience of even the calmest individual. The honking and general noise of the metropolis is something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. The lack of good public transportation and pedestrian areas is frustrating, as is the absence of any real outdoor recreational spots. The little “parks” here, where you can’t even walk on the grass, don’t really cut it. Taxi drivers, certain xe om drivers, and other unscrupulous individuals prey on foreigners, assuming that we are all idiots that love to be parted with our money. It’s hot in the dry season, and incredibly wet in the rainy season. The streets flood, the power could go out at any time, there’s garbage all over the place, and did I mention the traffic?
Despite all of this, I find myself comfortable in calling Saigon ‘home’. Whenever I’ve traveled elsewhere in the region, I’ve always been ready to come back by the end of the trip. I haven’t connected with Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore in the same way. So, why do I love Saigon?

Let’s start with the food and restaurants. Before moving here, I had only eaten Vietnamese food a handful of times. I loved each meal, but I was still a relative newcomer to the cuisine. I hadn’t even tried a Vietnamese dish until 2008, when I ate a banh xeo in Toronto. I had no idea how to eat it correctly, so I simply ate the pancake part with a fork and ignored all of the lettuce and other greens. Surely the restaurant staff was laughing at me behind my back.

Now, though, I’m (hopefully) a bit of a pro. The food here is so fresh and unlike almost anything we have in the U.S. Street food especially is almost nonexistent in America. Simple open-front shops, where the food is prepared right in front of you, are also a rarity. Sure, I do miss some types of food, and certain restaurants, from back home, but when I return to the U.S., I’ll miss authentic goi cuon, bun bo hue, bun thit nuong, and bun cha just as much. And the fresh fruit smoothies. Oh, how I’ll miss them.

To be honest, the differences between life here and life in the U.S. make up most of the reasons I like living here so much. That isn’t meant as a slight to America, I simply mean that it’s fascinating to experience a culture and daily reality that is completely different from the one I spent my first 22 years in.

Another example of this is the economic growth that Saigon is experiencing. The constant rush of traffic proves that this is literally a city on the move, while the skyscrapers going up downtown show, equally literally, that this is a city on the rise. I find it absolutely fascinating to be living in a city that is on the verge of becoming a truly international metropolis. The new financial tower, the new airport in the works, the (hopefully) upcoming subway system, and areas like Phu My Hung all highlight the ambitions of the area. This may be harder for locals to understand, but seeing all of this construction and activity is a novelty for many Westerners.
The Times Square Saigon

M & C Tower
Cities in the U.S. and many parts of Europe are, in a sense, ‘finished’. They’ve been fully developed for decades, and in these tough economic times most can't afford to change at all. You can say with confidence that Saigon will look vastly different (hopefully in a good way) in a decade. You can’t really say that about most cities in the West. Sure, that is partly a sign that the economies of those nations are more advanced and wealthier, but they are also more boring. You can almost feel the commercial energy and optimism of a city on the up crackling through the streets. It’s an exciting time to be living in the developing world.

Also, some of the stuff you see here is just mind-boggling, and far from anything you will see anywhere in North America or Europe. I still get a kick out of seeing refrigerators, 5-foot stacks of DVD players, big-screen TV's, and cases of beer strapped onto motorbikes. It is also impressive how many four- and five-person families are able to squeeze onto these not-so-big machines. Children nonchalantly run along the side of the road, while 7,000 motos a minute tear past them. Women in iconic conical hats ride bicycles with huge loads of recycling tied onto the back, and poles with two baskets tied to each end over their shoulder, peddling a wide array of goods. Men snooze in chairs, on the sidewalk, and on top of motos, and street vendors noisily announce what they are selling. Saigon is provides a constant stream of humanity at its most interesting.

Finally, for an expat, Saigon can be a relatively easy to place to live. This is a rather selfish reason, but it’s true. Enough people speak English that you can cruise by even if you barely know any Vietnamese. (Guilty. And that's not something I'm proud of.) If you've followed this blog at all you know that cost of living is far lower than anywhere in the West. I can get full meals for less than most appetizers at American restaurants, and I'm paying the same amount of rent for a 5-story house here that I paid for a dumpy, 5-room apartment in Pittsburgh. I don’t have to work all that hard to make a decent amount of money; in fact, I'm making more than I ever have. Yes, dealing with the bureaucratic nonsense of obtaining visas and work permits can be soul-crushing, but outside of that Westerners live an, at times, obscenely easy life here. I certainly wouldn’t be able to have as many stumble-home-at-4am nights, while still holding a steady job, in the U.S. as I’ve had here.
Good food, experiencing a vastly different culture firsthand, witnessing the birth of a major city, cheap drinks. What’s not to love? Well, other than the traffic…

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