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Ho Chi Minh City: Exploring the city's dichotomies

HCMC – still known as Saigon to locals – is home to 13 million people and 8.5 million motorcycles. Conquer the traffic in streets that move to the beat of dance breaks and rock 'n' roll drums

By James Draven
Published 20 May 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 13:08 BST
Ho Chi Minh City: Exploring the city's dichotomies

Aaaand, go

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

A 70-year-old, Singaporean woman, incongruous in her battered summer hat that looks like an upcycled doily, has just appeared on stage. She takes uneasy, considered steps between bemused, black-clad band members, and uses a Marshall speaker stack as a handrail with which to negotiate the tangle of cables underfoot. Finally she totters up to the lead singer, who has been entertaining a 300-strong group of diners at the outdoor Ben Thanh Street Food Market. Most of them have long finished slurping down bowlfuls of pho and scooping up banh xeo (Vietnamese omelette) from the smoking, sizzling stalls, and are finishing the evening with a few beers beneath a blanket of fairy lights.

Music here has come a long way since communist marches and revolutionary anthems were broadcast. Though the city still has communism inked red on its sleeve, tonight's tattooed bandmates are ably rattling through Western hits, from the soaring soliloquies of Adele to the rock attitude of Ziggy Stardust. Dancing diners pause mid-step as the music stops, and Janet cups her hands around the vocalist's lughole. She's inaudible to the rest of us, under a finale of drum rolls and the distant cacophony of motorcycle horns. As she exits, stage left, backed by a 10ft-tall mural of crooked angel wings, the band launches into their 10th encore at the crowd's perpetual cries of: "One more!"

Janet returns to her seat beside me and I ask what she said. I'm immediately red-faced to be with her, as she bellows: "I told him he can't sing! I said: 'Your band is terrible. Get off.' I wanna go home!" She's a member of a tour group with whom I've traversed Vietnam from north to south, finishing here tonight in Ho Chi Minh City — or Saigon — the nation's former capital and still the country's economic heart.

We're all enjoying a final dinner together before heading off en masse to Bui Vien Street in the backpacker district — a lurid, vibrant, filthy fantasia, where pub hosts tout balloons of laughing gas to passing punters, bloated Westerners spout hot air at buxom bar girls, and fire-breathing street performers belch blazing clouds into cyberpunk skies.

Unsurprisingly, Janet's not up for it, but she's refusing to take a taxi to our hotel because a young Australian couple in our group — like countless visitors before them — have been ripped off in a disreputable cab, so she's petitioning the whole party to turn in early for the night and walk her home in the process. All ears but mine were deaf to her requests for an escort.

Cycle paths for psychopaths

Janet's not making a fuss over nothing. With up to 8.5 million motorcycles plying the streets of HCMC, crossing the road here is an art form: mopeds come from all directions, tackling intersections and even dual carriageways on the wrong side of the road, and traffic lights are largely disregarded. The locals, of course, slip through terrifying throngs of bikes like ghosts: evanescent, walking whisps disappearing amid the choke of four-stroke fumes, passing through the thrum of motorbikes in transitory silence. In contrast, one tourist tells me, as we stand bemused on the curb together, that she's just given up on going to a restaurant because she couldn't get across the road to it.

Not that there's any shortage of dining options in HCMC. While classy restaurants can be found serving international cuisine and vegan versions of local dishes all across the city, you rarely need to cross the road to get fed; you can just take a stroll around the block. Saigon's sidewalks are littered with diminutive plastic tables and chairs that look as though they've been stolen from infant school classrooms, around which cram savvy diners who know where to get the most banh mi for their buck.

Aside from architectural oddities and wide boulevards, nearly seven decades of French rule (1887-1954) has left a distinctly Franco flavour on this chaotic Asian city, and banh mi, one of the most commonly found street foods in Saigon, is basically a baguette. Janet and I pass by punters lined up at a fluorescent-lit cooker cabinet as a sweating chef heaps chillis, fresh coriander, and roasted pork, dripping with soy sauce into feather-light bread rolls a Parisian would be proud of. Subway doesn't stand a chance.

Dining curb-side here is people-watching on fast forward, with mopeds offering snapshots of the city as they whizz by: families of four and five people cram on to single scooters; a puppy hitches a ride with paws on handlebars; babies are cradled and toddlers stand on footboards, while pouting pillion passengers shoot selfies at speed.

Pavements are even accepted motorbike circuits as they bypass traffic jams: short-cut cycle paths for psychopaths. As I walk on with Janet, mopeds appear out of darkened, narrow lanes that waft with incense from alleyway shrines, appearing in clouds of smoke on the path in front of us. Many conserve light-bulb lifespans by turning their headlights off at night, but their riders are nevertheless illuminated — like bike-riding wraiths — by the glow of smartphone screens from surfing the internet.

Tonight is especially chaotic. Vietnam has just won a football game against Qatar in the semi-finals of the Under-23s Asia Cup, and celebrations have reached fever pitch. Thousands of scooters' beeping horns fill the air like a stadium of vuvuzelas, and their passengers launch drive-by fireworks, wave flags and cheer against the omnipresent background sound of scooter motors.

But there are plenty of places to find respite from scooters' honking inculcations to gangway. Smog-skewering pagodas are losing the battle for Saigon's cityscape to vertiginous skyscrapers, with religious sites like the Jade Emperor Pagoda — filled with ornate statues of deities and intricate carved panels — lost amid the surrounding commercial edifice. But within is a sacred bodhi tree in a hazily perfumed courtyard.

As heaving with carbon monoxide as they may be, motorcycles are the life blood of Saigon, surging along clogged arterial roads and its spider-vein backstreets like the city's red blood cells, carrying executives, students, workers, produce, and even livestock. It's this that's driving Saigon onward.

Named the second most dynamic city in the JLL City Momentum Index 2017 — which measures economic growth, population, education and innovation — foreign investors are attracted to HCMC by low-wage manufacturing and rapid consumer market expansion. If this boom town's logistics were entirely dependent on trucks it would surely grind to a halt, but as I walk the streets I witness unstoppable scooters piled high with boxes, sacks, huge flower arrangements, and even six-foot panes of glass, carried upright by passengers.

The high life

"You haven't been to Saigon until you've been to a rooftop bar," says Van Ha, communications manager of the Sofitel Saigon Plaza, as we stand atop her hotel, taking in the views of the glimmering city below, with Janet safely deposited in the lobby. Van Ha's from Hong Kong but, like most expats who live in District Seven, it's the down-town rooftop bars that become extensions of their living rooms. With an annual average humidity of 75%, you feel like you need a shower every time you return from the city's gritty streets; sky bar zephyrs are, therefore, at a premium. "There are no rules here, drinks are cheap, and a penthouse apartment costs next to nothing," she adds. Part of the joy of being an expat in HCMC seems to be elevating oneself from it.

At the 23rd storey Social Club, waiters dressed in prohibition-era waistcoats and shirt-sleeve garters serve cocktails, but I'm mesmerised by the skyline, reflected in the rooftop infinity pool. The clamour of the streets is muted under a blanket of ambient beats, emanating from the DJ's decks.

From up here, even an intersection traffic jam looks like a twinkling blanket of fairy lights, and I can see the gothic belfries of Notre-Dame Cathedral, styled after the titular towers in Paris during French colonial rule, although it's currently closed to the public for renovation. Nearby, the opulent Opera House is equally impressive, but access is restricted to ticket holders. Another top tourist sight, the celebrated Saigon Central Post Office, is attractive from the outside, but decidedly workaday within. Everywhere across the city, form battles function to earn its keep. The Reunification Palace was once a rococo rhapsody, but the utilitarian hand of communism rendered it stark and austere, though no less a fascinating history lesson.

With all of them visible from up here — in sky bars like Shri, Glow, Chill, and most famously the bar on the 50th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, the Saigon Skydeck ­— it can be hard to drag yourself out to see them. Even war correspondents towards the end of the Vietnam War would report from the rooftop bar of the Caravelle Hotel from where they could see the frontline. In some ways, you still can. The Vietnam War has left indelible scars on the psyche of Saigon — as the locals tellingly still call it.

Infamous among the city's myriad nightspots is Apocalypse Now. Named with tongue firmly in cheek after Francis Ford Coppola's hallucinatory Vietnam War film, this place is on street level, presumably to be nearer to hell's debauchery. Inside, as DJs and bands play the stage, and natives and expats hustle the pool table, an eclectic crowd of tourists and locals are served by waitresses in cocktail dresses.

On streets filled with boozy revellers, tourist markets are stocked with war iconography from the emblematic Viet Cong scarf to propaganda prints and army surplus. If there's a market for it, they'll sell it.

This isn't a city that's fussed about forgetting the horrors of war, and in many ways it can't, because its effects have been too far reaching. The must-see sight in HCMC is a sobering one: The War Remnants Museum tells of the conflict and its terrible aftermath with unflinching candour. Photographic displays from Vietnamese and international media show graphic images of the Vietnam War's immediate brutality, and the long-term effects of the US's chemical weapons: birth defects caused by phosphorous bombs and Agent Orange dropped on Vietnam 50 years ago.

The infamous Cu Chi Tunnels are in the city's suburbs — a vast, labyrinthine underground network used to conceal the Viet Cong's guerrillas and launch surprise attacks on American soldiers from camouflaged hatches in the ground. Here you can still pop off 10 rounds from an AK-47 or an M16 for fun. It doesn't seem terribly respectful, but at £2 per bullet, it's certainly lucrative.

Here, I follow Hung Phan, a tour guide in his 50s who's more spritely than any of his guests, into the tunnels themselves and crawl along a 300ft stretch of the subterranean system. "They had to widen them for Western tourists," he grins later, as he shows us the ghastly, ingenious traps used to maim US troops, before explaining this area's pivotal role in the Vietnam War, and the ultimate proud victory of the communist north, all while wearing a fake Rolex.

While the city may have been renamed in honour of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, once the US pulled out and the tanks of the North Vietnamese reds came rolling through the gates of the palace, today's is a funny kind of communism.

At the junction of Le Thanh Ton, a statue of that iconic communist, known affectionately as Uncle Ho, stands in front of the grandiose People's Committee Building, looking down the broad promenade street of Nguyen Hue, towards the river and a modest museum in his honour: District Four's Dragon Wharf. He's flanked by Union Square and Parkson Plaza: glitzy malls filled with designer shopping from Chanel, Prada, and Burberry. It's like a Soviet Rodeo Drive.

For me, though, there's no better illustration of the city's dichotomies than the seas of egalitarian scooters that swamp its streets. A museum-piece Vespa that used to transport weapons and the injured during the Vietnam War sits in the backyard of the dilapidated Gia Long Palace, where the First President of the Republic of Vietnam was assassinated in 1963; ironically it now houses the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. Meanwhile, up on Vo Thi Sau street, a crowd of shoppers surrounds a sale rail, struggling to stretch discount frocks over their clothes at the roadside. They're all sporting the same line in millinery: motorcycle helmets.

Women wearing glamorous gowns, looking fit to step out of limousines, casually hop off the back of scooter taxis outside the Opera House. Nearby, off-duty drivers snooze atop their steeds — feet stretched over handlebars and scruffy heads resting on vinyl seats — right beside four lanes of frantic traffic.

Though communist in its politics, these streets still move to the beat of dance breaks and rock 'n' roll drums, to the incessant thudding of motorcycle engines, and the pounding of the capitalist heart of Saigon.


Getting there & around
Vietnam Airlines operates three direct flights per week from Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh City, and three direct flights per week to Hanoi. Indirect flights are daily. Cathay Pacific operates daily non-direct flights from Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh City, and to Hanoi. Traffic accidents are not uncommon in HCMC, so it's safer to eschew scooter taxis for traditional cabs.

When to go
The best time to visit is from December to March when temperatures (28C) and humidity are at their mildest.

Places mentioned
Saigon Opera House
Saigon Central Post Office
Reunification Palace
Bitexco Financial Tower (Saigon Skydeck)
Caravelle Hotel
War Remnants Museum
Cu Chi Tunnels
Parkson Plaza
Ho Chi Minh City Museum

Where to stay
Sofitel Saigon Plaza

How to do it
G Adventures' 15-day Best of Vietnam tour, travelling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, starts from £1,199 per person on a sharing basis. The price includes nine hotel stays, two nights on sleeper trains, one night on a junk boat, and two basic family homestays. Some meals, internal flights and on-ground transport included.

Follow @jamesdraven

Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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