By Andrew Kolasinski
I arrived in the center of town on the back of a moto, a motor taxi. My driver wove through the crowded streets, around pedestrians, past cars, bicycles, rickshaws, and thousands of other scooters.
Some scooters had rice sacks piled up over the driver’s head, others carried entire families; three kids riding the passenger seat behind dad, with mom perched on the handle bars. People crossed streets dodging vehicles. I was thankful my driver had given me a helmet.
Up above, suspended between the shop fronts, a tangle of electric wires, most mere extension cords, ran down the centre of the street like a thick jungle vine.
Saigon, also called Ho Chi Minh City, is Vietnam’s largest city, with over seven million people. Freighters used to sail into the heart of Saigon when it was the capital of Cochinchina, the French Colony. Saigon Port was among the world’ busiest. During the Viet Nam War, Saigon was the capital of non-communist Vietnam. The name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City after the 1975 communist take-over. These days Saigon Port is the fulcrum of government efforts to ease into a free market economy, but most port facilities have moved downstream.
The city is divided into 12 districts. Districts one and three are the most vibrant and appealing, central on the banks of the Saigon River. Here are the shopping centers, the hotels, restaurants and theatres, the government buildings, foreign consulates, and schools.
Along the river are some of the city’s most impressive French colonial buildings: Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and the Cathedral, as well as the Hotel Majestic, the Rex, and the Grand Hotel. Concrete walkways and jetties access ferries to the other shore. European, American and Chinese tourists embark on excursion boats and dinner cruises.
Street vendors sell drinks, ice cream, and Banh Mi sandwiches. There are lots of bars and nightclubs, and at night the district comes alive with locals and foreigners looking for fun.
Tourist highlights in the riverside are Notre Dame Cathedral, Reunification Palace, the Saigon History Museum, the War Remnants Museum, the Opera House, the Post Office, Ben Thanh Market, and the country’s tallest building, the stylish Bitexco Tower. The tower’s upscale Chill Skybar has thrilling views of the city, as well as sky high prices.
The district is compact enough to tour on foot, but traffic congestion and tropical afternoons make walking a chore. For a leisurely tour try a bicycle rickshaw, called a cyclo. With the driver peddling in back, the front is furnished with a seat, and covered against sun and rain. Negotiate the fare before getting aboard.
I rode a cyclo on my first afternoon after checking into a small family run guesthouse. Once I knew my way around I wandered the busy streets with confidence. For longer outings I asked my hosts at the guesthouse to hire a moto for me at a set price. The same driver was ready to serve my needs again the next morning, and I made a bad decision to hire him for a trip to far-flung, district nine. This required twenty minutes on multilane freeways; not a joyride mixing with speeding transport trucks. Once in district nine it became obvious my driver was lost. We spent half an hour finding dead ends before he finally asked a shop keeper for directions. That night I rode back in a metered automobile taxi.
Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. As the publisher and editor of Island Angler, Andrew spends half the year fishing for salmon and trout, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for a story. This article was written on behalf of Tucan Travel, specialists in tours to Vietnam and all over Southeast Asia.