HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, December 20, 2012


If I had to boil my feelings towards Saigon down to a Facebook relationship status, the easy choice would be, 'It's complicated'. In the week that I've been back in the U.S. numerous people have asked what I thought about Vietnam. When they find out I'm only here for a visit, they say 'Wow, you must really love it there if you're going back.' The simplest reply is to just say, 'Yea, I do', but in reality the answer is far more complex.

If you've read this blog for a while you know that my feelings towards the city have definitely soured in recent months. As I've said I'm planning on leaving Saigon next summer, though for where I'm not sure of yet. I just feel that it's time to go.

I will admit that, professionally, it makes absolutely no sense for me to leave. I have a solid, steady income, and I really enjoy the work I'm doing, especially at AsiaLIFE. I'm gaining invaluable experience and I get to meet cool people and do cool stuff for free fairly regularly. Tuoi Tre, the newspaper I edit for, has already asked me to stay on for all of 2013. Small outside writing opportunities continue to pop up, and if I tried a little harder I could definitely make even more happen. If I were to stick around long enough I would, in theory, be able to work my way up at both publications and make more money in the future.

I often wonder if it makes sense to throw this stability and familiarity away and jump ship to another country, but for the sake of my personal life I think I need to. When I look back at the first few months' worth of posts on this blog, I wonder what happened to the wide-eyed wonder I wrote with. Obviously the way you perceive a place changes as you become more familiar with it, but the difference between then and now is stark.

One of the biggest problems is that most of the closest friends I've made in Saigon have left over the past six months. I realize this is part and parcel of being an expat, but that doesn't mean it hurts any less. I've struggled to become truly close with people ever since, as I'm under the expectation that they will just leave too.

I've also lost most of my interest in Saigon's nightlife. When I first arrived staying out in Pham Ngu Lao till 3am was great fun, but now it's pretty much my least favorite thing in the world. I don't do nightclubs, and the upscale lounge-type places downtown are way too uppity for me. The city just doesn't offer enough laid-back music joints or bars to keep me excited. I barely even go out anymore, even on the weekend. This has been great for my bank account (and my liver), but not for my happiness.

Then there are the aspects of daily life that, while fascinating at first, have become almost unbearable after over two years in Saigon. Exhibit A is the maddeningly high level of noise pollution in the city. Spending a week in my quiet New Orleans neighborhood has helped me realize how insanely, relentlessly loud Saigon is. For the most part I'm a fairly quiet person, and I prefer my surroundings to be the same. There is no escape from the noise in Saigon. The endless rumble of motorbike exhaust; the constant caterwauling of moto, bus, truck and car horns; the rooster crowing at 6am; the round-the-clock construction and destruction of buildings; the nasally calls of street vendors; the blaring of techno outside of clothing and electronics shops; your neighbor belting karaoke on a Saturday morning; it all adds up to create one impenetrable wall of sound. Living on the 24th floor of an apartment building means I am removed from some (though certainly not all) of that, but I don't want to stay holed up in my room all day, and any venture onto the street is an auditory assault that wreaks havoc on your psyche. The parks are too small to escape from the noise, with the exception of Van Thanh in Binh Thanh District, and really the only way to get away is to leave the city altogether.

Another major problem I have with living there is the impossibility of ever being considered a 'local'. Because I am white it is always assumed that I'm a tourist, which means I'm usually treated like one, unless it's at a restaurant or other business that I frequent. I am always stared at, laughed at, constantly approached by people trying to practice their mangled English or sell me something. Sometimes it's nice to just be ignored, and that doesn't happen often. This 'always an outsider' factor has become even more frustrating since I've started learning Vietnamese. I've written several posts on the bizarre, unexpected challenges I've faced in trying to speak Vietnamese to Vietnamese people, and the refusal by some to even try to understand me has left me seething. Sure, it's great when someone is open to talking with me, but I feel like it's been a two-steps-back, one-step-forward sort of thing, even though my language level is quite good. It doesn't matter that I've seen more of Vietnam than most people born there, that I eat pretty much every type of Vietnamese food, or that I can speak the language relatively well (especially by most expat standards), I will forever be an outsider.

Of course, I realize none of these problems are unique to Saigon, or Vietnam, but it's time for a change in the near future. Perhaps I'll run into more of the same wherever I go next, perhaps not. And yes, there are still great days in Saigon, and there are many things that I will miss dearly when I leave. Sadly I can't give the above text as my answer when people ask if I love living over there.


  1. "...the maddeningly high level of noise pollution in the city."

    Yep, I hear ya, Michael. After nearly a year there I too fled to more serene spaces (here in OMG coooool, greeeen Dalat).

    There IS something strangely endearing about HCMC though - rather like an Asian NYC - on steroids! And I'm glad I had the chance to live there awhile.

    I very nearly moved to Chiang Mai (which likewise has merit (albeit a tad more "expatty" for my tastes), but for me, for now, Dalat is my personal Shangri-la.

    And as far as ever feeling like an outsider... Surely that comes with the territory of choosing to be an "EX"pat, no? I mean, if you favored "fitting in" a great deal, you'd not have moved halfway 'round the globe to experience a different way of life.

    Sure it's gets a tad old at times to ever be viewed as a gargantuan goon. But I've managed to make some true close Vietnamese friends here, and the minor annoyance of sticking out like a sore thumb, sure beats the sameol'-sameol' of commuting to a cubicle in my native land.

    In short, after another year here, I too might jump ship to sample another country (after all, a smidge of "wanderlust" is arguably in our DNA, no?) So yes, sounds like what you need is a change of residence - a new (no doubt quieter, I mean most any other place on the GLOBE would be) place to stimulate that "wide-eyed wonder" that you once had here.

    1. There definitely is something endearing about it, though it is hard to explain. Like I mentioned at the end, I don't flat-out hate the place, far from it, it's just not as appealing as it once was. Good points about being an expat, and being a 'gargantuan goon' is certainly better than a desk job. I've been to Da Lat twice, really nice place, if you don't mind my asking what do you do for work?

    2. Well yes Michael, finding work in a smaller berg like Dalat is no doubt more difficult than in large (uniformly noisy) cities like HCMC, Bangkok, etc.

      Personally, I have a small pension, plus supplement that (to fund my wanderlust for trips to Mongolia, etc.) ;) with teaching EFL part time (I took the CELTA in HCMC).

      It also depends of course, on the living standard you choose for yourself - here in Dalat you can live quite cheaply (yes, even more so than Saigon).

      And figuring out how to make ends meet most anywhere might just be a matter of creativity (i.e. as a previous U.S. tour operator, I could probably do something in tourism here, and/or something digital). Just depends on your own (no doubt both bountiful and eclectic) array of skills.

      But in any case - it sounds to me like... not sure about work, but I think you'd find Chiang Mai a nice change.

    3. All good points - I've been to Chiang Mai and did really enjoy it, though at this point I'm actually looking outside of SE Asia. We shall see. Happy holidays!

  2. Hey why don't you live in a different area of Vietnam that's more quieter? and make more local friends or ones that are there to stay?
    But you did very well to manage in such a different country to your own. Enjoy the best of it while you're around! =].

    1. Well the problem with living elsewhere is that it would be harder to find work - I really don't want to go back to teaching English, and that's mostly what's available. Plus I really want to see what other countries are like, I never intended to stay in Vietnam this long in this first place, as amazing as it has been. I do have some good local friends, but I still need to hang out with people who have a similar cultural background and all of that stuff every now and then.

  3. "Another major problem I have with living there is the impossibility of ever being considered a 'local'."

    Haha, welcome to the feeling that every first generation immigrant has in the US. You've only been there for two years. Try to imagine what it feels like when you've lived there since you were two and people still think you're an outsider. When you come back to your mother's country, you stand out so much even though physically you look like them. It makes you feel more like an outsider.

    You're right. It's not just Vietnam. It's everywhere. Unless you're born there, very few will consider you a "local". I've lived in the US my whole life, and people still talk to me as if I just arrived yesterday. People are confused when I tell them I don't know much about the culture and heritage.

    But I've come to realize that it's the mark of a traveler. It's a cross you have to bear living the vagabond life. I think it's a lot better because a traveler's home is not just a small spot in the world it IS the world.

    I've only spent a few weeks in Vietnam just outside of Saigon. Still, I have a soft spot for it especially the countryside where people are more hospitable. If you really want to be taken in, go to the countryside. They make you feel like family.

    1. I agree about the countryside, have spent some time there and had some amazing experiences. Also, very good point about travelers - I guess it is better to consider the whole word your home. Thanks for the comment!

  4. you should try to live in Phan thiet for few weeks. It's a small coastal city and much quieter than saigon

    1. I've heard good things about Phan Thiet - I'm sure that would be a nice break, but I can't really go live somewhere else for a few weeks with the work I do. I would basically have to quit.