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Saigon old woman

I made it to Saigon two days ago. The train ride from Hanoi to Saigon was a lot different to what I’d expected. For some reason I guess I thought the trains would be nicer than the Beijing to Hanoi ones. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Maybe I got the wrong train after all, but while they’re good, they’re also far from modern. More like run down and shaky. Still you can’t complain. The beds are comfy enough to sleep, even if the rocking of the train would probably keep light sleepers awake. Failing that Vietnamese kids running rampant until the early hours and again from the early morning will probably be enough to stop you from sleeping.

The scenery though was a lot more amazing than anything I’d hoped for. The China to Vietnam ride was nice, but far from really captivating in terms of scenery. Maybe it was the grey skies and pollution, but while the landscapes do offer some interest and surprises going through China, they’re something entirely else in Vietnam – a lot more breathtaking, varied and impressive.

The highlight, always mentioned if you read about taking the train through Vietnam, is the leg between Hue and Da Nang, south of Hanoi and just before you reach the middle of the country. The train goes up the moutains along the coast, giving you stunning views of the coast, and if like me you’re lucky to also have sunshine and clear skies during the ride, it’s all the more hypnotic and attractive. Beautiful, unspoilt beaches give way to rugged coastlines where the forest drops into the sea, boats laze in the bays, and small towns pop up in the mountains and the coast, giving you an insight into countryside life in Vietnam. This leg of the journey lasts maybe about 2 or 3 hours, and if you take the 7pm train from Hanoi, it starts at around 9am, the perfect way to start a long day on the train.

Vietnam coast

For the rest of the journey it’s all mostly inland, but still offers plenty of surprises and visual pleasures, from the lush greenery of the forests and rice fields, to the fascinating daily life of Vietnamese coutry folk and small towns. Roads are still full of bikes and cyclos, people playing on the side of the tracks, farmers going about their business in the rice paddies, ox eating grass and, most surprisingly I thought, a wealth of temples and cemetaries spread out alongside the tracks in the middle of the country. Between the scenery, the food, which in my case consisted of devouring as many of the fried spring rolls as I could without going to the toilet, and the kindness of the Vietnamese people on board, it’s definitely a journey I would recommend making. If like me you can’t afford, timewise or moneywise, to visit smaller cities or other parts of the country, than taking the train between Hanoi and Beijing, or even Beijing and Hanoi, affords a unique insight into Vietnam, and a definite incentive to come back and visit the spots that grab your attention.

I arrived in Saigon, or as it is officially known now Ho Chi Minh City, in the early morning, affording me the pleasure of a walk through the awakening city centre, which was nice. Probably the highlight of my time here which has been unfortunately a lot less captivating than I’d thought.

That’s not to say Saigon has nothing to offer, far from it. But in my case I’ve found Hanoi a lot more attractive and pleasurable than Saigon, even though as I was told before hand that the opposite was likely to happen. It’s true that as I’ve heard, people in the south of the country seem to be a lot more pleasant and welcoming than in the north. However, in terms of the city itself, I’ve found Saigon to be severly lacking. It’s hard to explain or define, it’s just a certain something that I found in Hanoi but haven’t found in 3 days in Saigon, and maybe have decided I won’t find.

For a start Saigon is a lot more westernised and bigger than Hanoi. Depending on what you like in a city that plays for or against it. Personally I don’t have anything against either element, however I’ve got to admit that Hanoi’s slightly smaller size and the Old Quarter’s atmosphere and charm are definitely a lot more attractive than Saigon’s colder, wider streets and somewhat westernised city center. The town center in Saigon, located in District 1, is all shopping streets, hotels, and tall buildings, with patches of more typical Vietnamese city life, with street stalls, dilapidated streets and cyclos vying for business. The western element and overall multicultural feel is a defining element of Saigon. And it’s something you see and feel a lot less in Hanoi, which has a much more colonial and traditional charm to it.

Saigon street

The streets of Saigon are also, as I’ve mentioned, a lot wider. In turn this means a lot more traffic, and, as with Hanoi, a lot more chaos when it comes to either crossing the street or just walking alongside it. Though Saigon seems to have a lot less of the street life that typified Hanoi for me. Mind you as I discovered in subsequent days, that street life is still there but instead relegated to the suburbs, or in the town center to the smaller streets and small connecting alleyways. Another side effect of more traffic is that Saigon feels a lot more polluted than Hanoi. Nowhere near as bad as Beijing thankfully, but the air is a lot more dusty and dirty than in Hanoi. And on a hot day that doesn’t make for a nice combination.

Walking around the town centre on my first two days here I really didn’t find much to be excited about, whereas Hanoi captivated me straight away for the reasons I mentioned above. Primarily shops, hotels, high rises and museums, it does lack a certain something, though it’s still enjoyable to just walk around and take it all in. Where Hanoi’s architecture was as chaotic as the traffic, contrasting wildly with anything I’d seen before, Saigon is a lot more varied – alternating between western style buildings, colonial architecture, run down buildings and, as with Hanoi, a patchwork and mish mash of cabling, colors and styles in the smaller streets.

Saigon does have things going for it though. For one the nightlife here is a lot more vibrant than up north, which still has stringent licensing laws left over from the communist era. Saigon though is more similar to western seaside resorts, with bars and clubs open till the early morning and people on the streets all night long. The food stalls that made Hanoi’s streets so enjoyable to walk on are also here, but as I said, in a lot less apparent way. For a start the smaller stalls, those with baby chairs and tables set up on the pavement, seem to close a lot earlier than in Hanoi. And on the busier streets in District 1 a lot of them are actually more like restaurants, located inside the front of buildings rather than directly on the street. They’re still as appealing as those in Hanoi though, with a bright and irresistible mix of food, ingredients, colours and smells that make it really difficult for me to consider eating anywhere but in one of them.

Market map

Another thing Saigon has that I really missed is markets. Big indoor markets, the two main ones being some of the main attractions in town. The first one, Saigon market, is located right in District 1, and offers a vibrant mix of food, clothes, souvenirs and trinkets, all packed under one big roof. Smells, sounds and sights all vie for your attention as you walk through, avoiding the constant cries for attention from stalls. The food is especially amazing in the market, with a section dedicated to food stalls, cooking all sorts of local dishes using fresh products from the market, including a lot of seafood and pig’s feet, a local delicacy. Next to this and around it are food stalls selling fruit and veg but also spices, sweets and coffee, as well as a couple of lines offering fresh meat and seafood. There’s something about markets that just fascinate me and seeing how the Vietnamese do it, which is not so different from Europe, if a little more chaotic like everything else, is a real pleasure and a great way to discover a city and its people. Prices at the market are reasonable too and a little haggling can get you a long way. It’s definitely a recommended spot for people watching but also for the food which is not only tasty and exciting but fairly reasonable, considering that, unlike Hanoi, a lot of the prices are advertised here rather than the people making them up by looking at you and deciding your fate.

The other big market in town is located in Chinatown, a fair distance from the town centre. I didn’t think I’d bother originally, but with a bike and nothing inspiring in the centre on my second day I drove down to Chinatown and found an even more amazing and captivating market. A lot bigger than the other one, this market has two floors and is located in a square building with a little open square in the middle, giving the feel of a small town of all its own, with streets on all three sides of the square being as much a part of the market as the inside of it. The same things are on offer there, with a lot more variety – food wise it’s as good as the central market, with maybe even more choice as there’s a lot of Chinese influence with the market’s location. Again though the main attraction remains the smells, sounds and sights, walking around and taking it all in as locals go about their business, haggle and deliveries happen all around you. The whole delivery process is also fascinating, seeing guys on bikes with 3 meters of boxes behind them, the balance held only by one of their hands, somehow make it to the market and then even more bizarelly somehow deliver all the boxes without breaking anything. Or just seeing people carrying massive boxes, bags and other things on their backs, hunched over and navigating the crowds and tiny alleyways between stalls. While I felt quite conscious at first, realising that I was the only foreigner I could see and that by all accounts it was very much a local affair in the market with most people paying little attention to me, I soon realised that while it’s very much a local place the people there are as warm as elsewhere, smiling and joking as you walk past, or in some cases trying to grab you and sell you whatever wares they’ve got, which is only par for the course in a place like that.

Chinatown market

The ride to and from the Chinatown market was also as fascinating as my time there. Cycling the streets of Hanoi was already a worthwhile experience, but with Saigon’s traffic so much more dense and chaotic, the long ride to and from the market was a real trip. Not only did it give me an insight into the city’s suburbs, which as I learnt with Beijing can be a lot more fascinating and interesting than some city centres, but it was also a real insight into the life of Vietnamese traffic. As I rode countless people kept overtaking me and looking on with a mixture of shock and amusement, smiling at me as they drove past, a crazy foreigner on a beat up bike taking on the chaos of Saigon’s traffic. I soon realised, back in Hanoi but even more vividly here, that with the traffic it’s very much a case of becoming a part of it and flowing with it, doing as the locals do which basically involves ignoring any road rules you might know and paying special attention to your sides rather than front or back. Considering I have next to no knowledge of the road the first part isn’t so difficult. But the whole keeping eyes on either side of you, especially at crossings takes a little getting used to. It’s incredibly good fun though and gave me a real feeling of Vietnamese life, blending into the traffic and swerving around the bikes and cars, just like anyone else trying to get from A to B without killing themselves. For all the chaos and crazyness I’ve yet to see an accident out here, and considering what some of the bike riders pack on the back of their bikes (including in my short time here glass panes, wardrobes, 3 or 4 people and what looked like half a flat packed into bags) it’s a real miracle. As with Beijing though I’ve come to realise that it’s just the way things are here, and while in the West we’re focused on safety and conventions, here it’s the other way around and people have obviously developped an innate ability to deal with it and work with the chaos, whether they be a pedestrian, car or bike. It’s actually quite beautiful when you think about it.

Another big surprise in Chinatown was the Chinese pagodas. Saigon has a huge Cantonese community, with a huge portion of the suburbs given out to the Chinatown. And with the community of course came their religion and beliefs. This in turn translated into them building temples, strangely referred to as pagodas here, which are absolutely breathtaking.

After 18 months in Japan you develop a certain blase attitude towards temples. It might sound a little haughty or conceded, but it’s true. There’s only so many temples you can see before it just becomes another element of the city’s landscape. And while Japanese temples are fascinating in their own rights, I did get a little tired of them by the end. In China I also didn’t find much to change my opinion, with forms and shapes similar to Japan’s temples, though of course there’s still plenty to surprise and impress, like for example the forbidden city or some of the sculptures at the entrance. In Vietnam though I soon realised that temples were a lot more different than I’d thought, more accurately they are a lot more intricate than what I’ve seen elsewhere, with incredible levels of details in the reliefs and on the structures, as well as much brighter colours than in Japan or China.

Chinese pagoda

In Chinatown though the temples are I guess Chinese, but blended with Vietnamese temple architecture, resulting in some truly fascinating examples. Especially when it comes to the reliefs and decorations around the roofs and ceilings. Simply put, in all 4 temples I saw, the roofs and ceilings are decorated with incredibly fine and detailed small scale sculptures which give the place a feeling that’s unlike anything I’ve felt so far, as well as making you spend the majority of your time staring at them, their detail and their variety. The rooftops sculptures are as intricate, mainly composed of dragons which are by far the most beautiful ones I’ve seen. Inside they’re not so different to other buddhist temples I’ve seen, with the difference that here they seem to have a tradition of hanging swirly incense sticks to the ceiling, giving the place a strong smell but an also hypnotic ceiling in certain parts, where the twirly incense blends with the reliefs and woodwork.

The temples were definitely a nice surprise and only make a visit to Chinatown a must if you’re in Saigon. Even though it might at first seem odd, as I always find visiting Chinatowns a little weird, but it’s definitely a highlight of Saigon for me. Another thing Chinatown has going for it is that its architecture and streets feel a lot more ‘real’ and chaotic than the city centre, a lot closer to the chaos, dirtyness and appeal of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

Overall my week in Vietnam has been amazing and full of surprises. From the food which has been an attraction all of its own, to the people, who have been a mix of infuriating and surprising, welcoming at times and offputting at others, but definitely very warm and attractive, which makes all the difference. After China, Vietnam was already less of a contrast from my time in Japan, but it still held much to challenge anyone looking for something different. The chaos of the streets, buildings and the sounds and smells will definitely be the defining things of my time here for me. Simply put Vietnam is a chaotic place, but in that chaos lie many attractive elements that make the place irresistible.

As a side note, I’ve thought a lot less about politics and history in my time here than I thought I would, and a lot less than I did in China. The state control of media is not really different to China, with the news being severly biased and well uninformative, and the country’s troubled past and recent reunification are still apparent in many elements, from communist and war memorabilia on the street corners and t-shirts to posters, walls and museums dedicated to the country’s war and political past. However, unlike China, in the people it feels a lot less apparent and as a result you end up not thinking about it so much, especially if you like me you basically avoid all museums and obvious tourist attractions.

Saigon streets

There’s a lot to be learnt from cities, just experiencing them for as little or as long as you can, seeing and meeting the people, taking it all in, walking, cycling. In a way I’ve realised that this is what makes travelling really appealing to me, more than the often trodden paths.

Next stop Cambodia and the beaches of the south coast. After 12 days of cities, it’s time for a break.

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