HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Top 7 Saigon

For some reason, human beings are instinctively attracted to lists. At the end of every year, people compile lists of favorite movies, albums, books, etc. David Letterman will be presenting lists until the day he dies. A quick Google search brings you lists of Ways to Order a Pizza, and Fun Things to do in an Elevator. Time magazine even publishes an annual 'List Issue', full of lists concerning news of the past year; at the end of the publication humor columnist Joel Stein chimes in with his 'Top 10 List of Lists'.

I enjoy lists as much as the next guy, but what I don't understand is why they always have to come in 3's, 5's, or 10's. It just seems so arbitrary. Every college football fan rejoices the day their team cracks the Top 10. No one can name the fourth person in a list of accomplishments. What's wrong with 8? Or 13? Or 47?

In order to buck this list trend, I present the top seven 'Things to do in Saigon.' This is by no means comprehensive, and it also comes in no particular order. (20,000 VND = 1 USD)

1) Enjoy the views at Level 23 - This slick cocktail bar on top of the Sheraton provides commanding views over Saigon, and is just about the best place to go to get a sense of how sprawling (and how smoggy) the city is. The Skydeck at the Bitexco Financial Tower is higher, but it's so far up there you may end up seeing more haze than city. Head to Level 23 for the nightly Sunset Happy Hour, when you can get two refreshing cocktails for the price of one. This is a great place to kick off a big night on the town. The wide selection of drinks costs anywhere from 120,000 VND to over 200,000. The Sheraton is located at 88 Dong Khoi, District 1.

2) Cry at the War Remnants Museum - This museum is easily the most depressing place in the city, but it is also a must-see. The area in front of the main building is full of tanks, helicopters, planes, and artillery pieces that the American military left behind in their hasty exit from Vietnam. The interior features several permanent exhibits, as well as some rotating displays. When I went earlier this year, the entire first floor was dedicated to a simply devastating selection of photographs of victims of Agent Orange, while the upstairs was home to a stunning collection of pictures snapped by combat photographers that were killed during the war. The War Remnants Museum is located at 28 Vo Van Tan St., District 3.
3) Shop at Binh Tay Market - This mammoth market dwarfs the far more popular (with tourists) Ben Thanh, which is situated in the center of the city. Nestled down Thap Moui St., in District 6, Binh Tay makes the trek to chaotic Chinatown worth it. There is little you wouldn't be able to buy here, and in massive quantities, if necessary. The best place in the city to experience Vietnam's vital market culture at its most hectic. Check out my earlier post on markets, which provides more details and pictures on Binh Tay: http://mike-alongthemekong.blogspot.com/2010/11/market-central.html
4) Chill at Van Thanh Park - The traffic and constant noise of Saigon can fray the nerves of even the most hardened individual. For those seeking a desperately needed spot of peace and quiet, head into Binh Thanh District, and find your way to Van Thanh. This leafy oasis provides a wonderful respite from the din of the metropolis - you honestly can't hear even the slightest hint of vehicle noise on the grounds. The park features a huge lawn, tennis courts, quiet benches under the shade and, best of all, a beautiful pool. The water is always cool, and it only costs 30,000 VND to use. Plus, there's the added benefit of being able to send your friends in North America or Europe pictures of the sunny pool in December. One of my favorite places in the city to read, get some sun, or just relax. The park is located at 48/10 Dien Bien Phu, a good ways down a small side street.

5) Feast on Vo Van Tan St. - Food is one of the main attractions of Saigon. Vietnam's cuisine is as diverse as it is delicious, and there are thousands of places in the city get some grub; from dirty street stalls to uber-modern, white tablecloth temples of fine dining. I may be biased, since I live in the area, but I think District 3's Vo Van Tan offers one of the best stretches of good Vietnamese food in the city. The blocks between Tran Quoc Thao and Cao Thang are packed with stalls and restaurants serving basically everything: pho, bun bo hue, banh xeo, bun cha, banh mi, and so on. Lunch time is an especially good part of the day to visit, since this is when many of the awesome com tam stalls set up. Eat your way down the street, and you'll end up cramming a big chunk of Vietnamese culture into your stomach by the end of the day, while barely denting your wallet. Recommended stops: Beto, Pho Le, Ba Tam, Lucky Quan, any of the fruit carts, and Banana Lady.

6) Participate in a night of drunken stupidity - I recently wrote an article for Tuoi Tre News, in which I mentioned in passing how easy it was to stay out drinking until dawn in Saigon. Several commenters criticized me for being "irresponsible", but the fact is that you should go crazy at least once during your time in Saigon, especially since it is so cheap. Start the festivities with 12,000 VND beers at a dive in Pham Ngu Lao, and see where the night takes you. You could end up dancing with a ladyboy at Apocalypse Now, buying pot from a kid, vomiting in a taxi, or singing karaoke with random locals after 13 beers have steeled your confidence. (I'm not saying I've done all of those things, but anything is possible in Saigon.) Once you've recovered, make up for your behavior by volunteering at a center that helps street children.
The home-made rum bar on Phan Van Dat.
7) Rent or get a ride on a motorbike. Preferably during rush hour. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer insanity of Saigon's streets. There are something like 5 million motorbikes in the city, and I'm certain there have been days when every single one of them has been out on the road at the same time. Yes, there are rules, and there are stop lights, but both are regularly treated with utter indifference. Expect to see people driving the wrong way down one-way streets; on sidewalks; through red lights; while talking on a cell phone; while holding a baby; while holding a dog; or while balancing a washing machine strapped to the back. There is no sense of cutting people off either; the line of thinking seems to be: "I need to go to THAT spot in the road, so I will!" Without looking. For a real treat, drive around a traffic circle. What a hoot. I'm not even going to include any videos here, since they simply don't do the madness justice.

If all if this sounds too scary to you, simply flag down one of the thousands of xe om (moto taxi) drivers perched on corners around the city, and have them take you for a ride...actually, if you're a foreigner, they will flag you down first, since all foreigners are obviously tourists. These men are...usually safe drivers, but they are keen on ripping you off, so make sure you negotiate a fare before you start out. Whichever method you choose, just make sure you get a ride on one somehow - it is an essential part of Vietnamese culture. After all, there are 33 million of the damn things in the country!
A one-way ticket to fun. Or death.
Obviously, there are hundreds of things to do in a city as big as Saigon. However, if you're short on time, I think these seven (not 10!) activities will give you a decent taste of Vietnamese culture, cuisine, and history. Have fun!

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