#001: Initial Observations in Saigon, VietnamTak's dispatch released on 21 October 2014

Tomato Seller - Saigon, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon or…

Without getting into crazy backstories, Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City and Ho Chi Minh City is Saigon. You won’t be burned at the stake for using either one. It seems that HCMC is used by the government as the official governmental name of the city and Saigon is used by the rest. I will just use Saigon because, quite simply, it flows better as a name and it is generally what the common people use.

First Impressions and Observations of Saigon

Juxtaposing your own impressions against the impressions of others is one of the more fascinating things about experiencing places, things, foods, etc. You go to a restaurant with some great friends, have some bottles of wine, the food is amazing, the discussion lively and you walk away eager to visit again. While this was all going on, someone else was at that same restaurant having strained conversation, picking through the same food with disinterest and affirming to never return again. Same place, two different experiences. I think travel is quite the same in some regard. With that said, we will look at what I was warned about going in, and what I have experienced thus far. Welcome to the First Edition.

Expectations & Warnings of Saigon Before Arrival

The Media & War-Scared Perspective: You Are Going Where?!?

The middle-aged to elderly sector of the population looked at me like I had just climbed over the wall of a psych ward three years too soon when I told them I was leaving for Vietnam. I suppose the stark grainy imagery flashed over TV’s in the 1970’s has something to do with that. Without anything to reverse that association, it preserves quite well.

The Saigon Doomsters: How Many Seconds Before the Wolves Eat You

“Be careful, they slash out your wallet from your pocket with a knife while you are walking,” noted my Vietnamese-born, US-raised airplane seatmate. The other repeated, “Just be careful in Vietnam, try to stay safe” as if I was entering a crocodile-infested swamp. Most of the US-raised Vietnamese people (along with the doomsters of the internet) had similar stories; con-artists would befall me, pickpockets would perform their elusive magic, all the shopkeepers would play tricks with money, cab drivers would drive in a dizzying array of circles, the motorbiking population would steal anything they could get their hands on, and so forth. In sum, I was sternly warned that I would be treated as a walking cash machine in a criminal environment and subjected to daily scams.

The Front Lines of the Saigon Experience: You are lucky!

Those whom live, had lived or had previously traveled to Vietnam (or those who had friends come back from Vietnam) generally produced a markedly different observation set. Rather than the doomsday fear-oriented outlooks of those groups above, it was instead excited commentary about a country with great food, good people and amazing scenery to behold. It is affordable, relatively safe and hasn’t turned into a tourist, commercial or industrial wasteland (yet).

Streetside Motorbike Service - Saigon, Vietnem

Streetside Motorbike Service – Saigon, Vietnem

My Early Impressions of Saigon

From my first week in the field here, I mostly aligned with the last group. On the downside, I do get the strong sense that the current developmental strategies being pursued with external investment dollars will exact a heavy hand upon the lovely character of this unique city (but then again, I do realize that is quite a bold observation with just a week under my belt). In any case, let’s delve into early impressions across various areas of interest:

Prices for Foreigners in Saigon

Yes, as a non-native—and clearly non-Vietnamese—visitor, prices are higher for us. If you order a delicious meat platter on the street for 20K VND (approx $1USD), you might observe, while eating your fine meal, an old lady rolling up on a motorbike and leaving with a substantial amount of that same food for 5K VND (approx .25USD). Yes, you are being identified as someone who can pay more, and you are paying more some of the time. I don’t see this as a con-game, but as a business decision. (I will at some point write more about this dynamic). Does this bother you? Then get your negotiating game on. Do you want to save even more, learn Vietnamese. You visit somewhere, you play by their rules. Always ask for the price first!

Saigon Produce Seller
Crime in Saigon – Is Saigon Safe?

Purse-snatching, kidnapping and whale-hunting is happening every day, but I have yet to see it happen here. In contrast to any warnings of Saigon being saturated with unethical wolves, it seems that the society is well grounded. Do I wave my camera around like a fool? Do I have bills bubbling out of my back pocket? Do I leave electronics unattended? No, as I have done none of these genius maneuvers, I can’t conclude on outcomes. For a city of this size and speed, criminality appears quite low at first observation.

The Food in Saigon

You may at first be shocked by the food preparation and other sanitary standards. Raw chicken floating in a solution in a tub on the side of the street. Raw beef assortments arranged on a stainless steel tabletop in the alleyway at 0500AM, and still waiting for a bid at 1100AM. A container of re-usable chopsticks on the restaurant table. “Forget that place,” you just yelled at the computer screen halfway around the world, and I understand the jump to judgement. But then there is the other side of the coin.
Tender cuts of pork cooked to perfection over hot coals on the street. Hand-made sausages wrapped in betel leaves roasted in a smoky cloud right under your nose. Giant bowls of pho (a clear beef-stock based coup with amazing flavour profiles) cooked over a fire from an ancient wooden cart. Iced coffees that perfectly balance the coffee’s robust, full-bodied acidity with the creamy sweetness of condensed milk served over ice. Fresh squeezed juices cranked from a hand operated mill or topped with fresh cuts of pitahaya, more well known as dragonfruit.

So I don’t know, maybe the food in some spotless restaurant with fluorescent lighting and an English menu in the middle of the tourist hub is amazing. Maybe the buffet in some top-shelf hotel is singing to your soul. But as I see it, the street food scene here is a marvel to be experienced. If you are afraid of most of life’s experiences, you’ll be afraid here. Did you ever notice your grandmother thawing meat on the counter or using the same cutting board or knife between meat and vegetables…

Mobility in Saigon

The bus system looks like it functions great. It is very inexpensive and buses seem to come often. I will jump on some in the coming time ahead, but for now, the appearance is a well-functioning usable system. The taxi system also appears to function well and is affordable. To get most places you’d want to get within the city isn’t going to run you more than a couple dollars. Mai Linh and VinaSun are the two noteworthy contenders, and you will see Vinasuns everywhere.

Where do things get real interesting? On foot. In the downtown district and thereabouts, the traffic is a sight to behold. Not so much in the Los Angeles-styled gridlock storyline, but in the “holy heck everyone is about to die…nevermind” storyline.

Buses are the kingmakers. If you are a pedestrian, a bicyclist, a motorbike magician or a car, you have the same predator, the bus. As such, the bus is essentially the top of the food chain. Logically, you would think, that this means the pedestrian is at the bottom of the food chain but alas, it seems the only other real threat is the automobile.

You see, anything without four or more wheels seems to work together in a mind-boggling world of efficiency. Most intersections have no pedestrian crossing lights or signal lights. The motorbike magician does not want to hit you and you do not want to get hit. As you walk across the road, the motorbikes and bicyclists will just barely drive around you and you will ever so slightly adjust your constant speed crossing the street to allow that to happen if need be. You do not step out in front of a bus. You try your best not to end up in front of cars. The moral of this story is, there is a lot of activity going on in the street. Pedestrian signal lights that you took for granted back home only exist on major corners, and even that is to be used as your backup plan. When you walk here, you need to first observe and understand the unwritten rules and then follow them as best you can. Eventually the amount of brainpower (which on arrival is probably 85% of total capacity) devoted to ensuring a successful street crossing becomes a much smaller percentage of the pie, but no matter what, Saigon is not a place where you can mindlessly walk from point A to point B.

Of course, this is where we find ourselves jumping to the conclusion that the streets are dangerous, but I think that is just as flawed as jumping to the conclusion that street food is dangerous. Rather, the whole system here is crazy when viewed against what you know, but it works quite amazingly on its own accord. If you suddenly turned your little rusted motorbike sharply into oncoming traffic attempting a turn in Europe, you die. If you suddenly turn into oncoming traffic here in Saigon, you are just in the simple process of gaining passage. I am not advanced enough to know how that system works, but it definitely does.

You want to observe something amazing in everyday life here? Stand up against a wall—so that you don’t get run over—with a view of a downtown Saigon street and observe the vast amounts of non-verbal communication and group understanding that happens in what, at first glance, seems to be a reckless sea of traffic pandemonium. Developed countries rely more on mechanisms to ensure orderly traffic flow whereas a place like Saigon relies essentially on person-to-person teamwork.

Morning Traffic in Saigon

Morning Traffic in Saigon

Impressions and Early Observations of Photography in Saigon

Some photographers will do anything to get their shot. If that means ripping up the social contracts of the day, and acting as tyrannical beasts, then so be it. I don’t really have any advice for this class. For the rest of us, you are looking at nice light and activity in the early morning (0500-0900) and evening (1700-1830?), with subjects being relatively accepting of having their photos taken. I am still getting a feel for this observation, especially considering that sometimes money is expected in poorer societies (which so far has not been the case here). Asking permission and smiling both have worked well. As for night photography, I am still getting a grasp on that. I am really appreciating the textures and intricate details of the streets, and that obviously disappears at night, so at this momenet, I am having the best luck in the early morning and evening. What I plan to continue to explore is the lights generated by the motorbike swarms at night. We will see.

The Vietnamese people in Saigon

First impressions? Intelligent, resourceful, friendly, hard-working.

Weather in Saigon in October

You want to visit Saigon in October? I think it is a fine month so bear with me. October is a transition month, as it seems, from the wet season to the dry. October is generally humid, with temperatures around 85-90F (30-32C), and bouts of rain. As you move along in October, the humidity and precipitation is more apt to decrease, but the good news is that the rain showers generally are short-lived. So, in a sample day, you might wake up to clear skies, you walk around or hang out in clear skies, you eat lunch with clear skies, and then maybe it rains for half an hour in late afternoon. By night, you are eating again in clear skies. As for humidity and temperature—both are bearable although I’d recommend having a room with air conditioning. And while I can’t speak comparatively to December, I note that the city isn’t saturated with tourists right now.

Conclusion of Week One

I landed late at night at the airport and was able to find a Mai Linh taxi (as suggested in the Vietnam Travel Guide). The taxi driver drove in a direct path, and being so late, we weren’t hung up in the crazy traffic that occurs around rush hour. Upon dropping me off, he tried to shortpay my change explaining that he had to pay an exit fee at the airport. Such is life. Things have gone well so far, generally. The other day, I must’ve eaten something that didn’t agree with my system and so I am experiencing what many traveling in developing foreign countries experience—upset stomach and lethargy. The hotel/apartment I am staying at is nothing opulent but it does the job and is very well located. The iced coffees here are brilliant as are the juices. In the week ahead, I hope to visit a custom tailor, show you some Vietnamese food dishes and maybe have some video content (if my computer can handle it).

Thanks for visiting! Be back next Tuesday!

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New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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