After a 2 month lapse, today marks return of 10 Do's and Don'ts with Linh Le 10 Do's and Don'ts of Saigon
Saigon is an infinitely multifaceted city. This could be said of every city in the world but from all the places I have traveled, it could not be more baffling than in Saigon.
As your plane surfaces the rice fields, you can already envision the multi-facet aspect by the variety of greens and shades the landscape offers.
From a district to the other, from a period in history to another, the city has never ceased changing faces. District 1 is the most modern, west-inspired, and busy district of all. But just walk away from the main avenues into the surrounding districts and you will feel far in time and space.
Walk around the city. Few people do that, but that is the only way to get to know it Though the walk may at times seem long and sometimes devoid of touristic interests, you will find local markets on your way, typical food street vendors and a life that you really can’t fathom just walking the beaten tracks. Don’t be deterred by people gazing, it is risk free for you.
When strolling in the large tree-bordered avenues, along the French colonial buildings, through the tiny local markets, from early sunrise to warm dew point, and despite the relentless hustle, you will feel the city’s timeless atmosphere of peace, elegance, and joy.
Which leads me directly to the food subject. Eating in the streets of Saigon is as exciting for any food lover as Disneyworld can be to a 4 years-old…fun, new, endless, infinitely varied, tasteful, colorful, surprising, joyful : heaven for taste buds!
Enjoying Saigon demands that you take your time, that you take it slow. Like sticking to the slowest beat in a fast-rhythm song.
Here are some keys to achieve just that.
- By sunset, go and have a drink at Saigon Saigon Bar on the 9th floor of Caravelle hotel. When there, sit facing the Saigon Church, and you will have a view on the mythic Continental hotel, Rex hotel, and the church. If you have read some 20th century history before leaving, or “A quiet American” by Graham Greene, the view will undoubtedly be very lively to you.
- Around 7p.m. go to “Saigon xua va nay” café (33 Nguyen Trung Truc / District 1). This is a typical café located on a terrace a few minutes away from Ben Thanh market with low tables and chairs. It is a highly popular venue for locals and once there you will be part of a national custom named “nhau”. Nhau means sitting around with friends, having (numerous) drinks and eating loads of typical playful dishes made for that single purpose. The food made for “nhau” is nowhere else to be found than in the designated places. So please go, sit, take it slowly and stay until wee hours in the morning. You will see street performers, you’ll be able to order food from street vendors if you feel like it. And you will be a real saigonese for a moment.
- Forget about your watch, food street vendors will remind you which part of the day lies ahead. From the 6 a.m. sandwiches, to the 2 a.m. fish skewers, you will have the greatest live food show ever. If you walk by Square Alexandre de Rhodes / District 1 at the following hours : 6 am, 12 pm, 4 pm, 8 pm, 10 pm, you will see a ballet of food street vendors and you can try all sorts of rolls, cakes, and drinks depending on the time of day. My very favorites are the 6 am egg sandwich, and the 4 pm coconut sweet roll.
- If you need to take a time out of the city hustle, go to “Regina Café” (84 Nguyen Du / District 1), just a few steps from the Church. The café has terraces and a friendly staff. Their iced coffee and chocolate are just what you need to start afresh. The atmosphere is calm and peaceful, protected by ancient trees.
- At 7 pm, Ben Thanh market is closing. At that very moment, restaurants will pop out on its pavements. Among them, “Hai Lua” is a must-do. Try at least their “Banh Khot” and “Banh Xeo” (spectacular) which are southern amazing specialties. The restaurant is very popular with locals, and it’s worth the wait!
- If you are looking for tasteful, authentic, fresh foods, don’t go to hotel restaurants or so-called “high scale” restaurants. Unless you are looking for the atmosphere and the service, you will be disappointed. It will absolutely look like your local fusion restaurant, and will be almost as pricey.
- Don’t stick to your 3-meals-a-day routine. Eat whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, the streets offer just that. Don’t hesitate to eat fruits, rice cakes, pancakes, sandwiches, rice, noodles, soups, desserts…Around Ben Thanh Market, on Le Loi avenue, in the surrounding streets. Street food is safe. You can also go around 610 Nguyen Dinh Chieu / District 3 by noon. There, you can walk around the pagoda “Chua Ky Vien”. You will find local markets and amazing food stalls anytime of day. The place is very typical Saigon, lively and colorful.
- Don’t walk around flashing your jewelry or your Chanel-logotyped tote bag as if you were on Rodeo Drive. Where tourists are swarming, thieves are thriving. This is also true under the Eiffel tower. Apart from all basic rules, concerning bags, money, camera and jewelry, you can walk around and feel safe, Vietnamese people are mostly friendly and helpful.
- Don’t buy your souvenirs in Ben Thanh market or if you do, be aware that many lacquerware, wood-carved objects are mass-produced in China and you might as well find them in your local Chinatown. The best souvenirs to bring back from Vietnam are food (coffee, tea, sweets, fruits, dried seafood…), lacquers (around Dong Khoi Street), embroideries (Close to Dong Khoi also). You can also go to Fahasa bookstores to find your favorite novel in vietnamese, or fast-learning methods to learn the language. Also go to Huynh Thuc Khang street to find Vietnamese (and non-Vietnamese…and sometimes long-forgotten) music.
- Don’t lose your nerves over small arguments. Hotel staff, cabs, and all people working in the tourism industry have a very different notion of time and stake. What seems unbearable to you (like an unfair cab fare, a slow/wrong service…), will be a lesson to learn for them (or a risk-free shot at making some extra money). Patience and a smile will take you anywhere in Saigon.
When in Saigon, I can only recommend you to take 3 or 4 days to dive into the Mekong Delta. Best option is to hire a driver for the ride (Approx. 150 USD including the driver’s meals and accomodation), your hotel concierge will help you find one. If your trip should have only three stops, here are what I really recommend you they should be:
- My Tho : rent a boat with any local company (all prices are equivalent, you can bargain) and visit the small villages on the river. You will see local craftsmen, farmers and you will catch a glimpse of a simple life. It will be a stark contrast with life in the city but closer to the reality of Vietnam, as more than 80% of Vietnamese people are living in the country.
Make sure your guide takes you to a restaurant where you can have “xoi chien phong” (fried sweet sticky rice cooked and bloated into a ball the size of a soccer ball!) and “hu tieu my tho” which is local a noodle-soup specialty.
My address to find both dishes is Trung Luong restaurant (Quoc Lo 1 / My Tho). There is a grocery store at the entrance of the restaurant, indulge in the chewy tamarind, coconut or ginger sweets.
Long Xuyen is the historical heart of the Mekong Delta. Long Xuyen market is one of the most beautiful market I have seen in Vietnam. Each stall has a specialty and it is a semi-wholesale market where small merchants of the
- specialty and it is a semi-wholesale market where small merchants of the delta come and buy their produce. Located on the bank of the river, Long Xuyen market is riveting by the light in between the stalls, by the opulence of its stalls, by its colours and the endless activity of boats loading and unloading. But above all, the food stalls are just amazing by the variety of choice and the freshness of its dishes. There you can have “Banh Tam Bi” (large rice noodles with minced meat and a slight topping of coconut), all kinds of desserts, fish, fresh vegetables…
- Can Tho : located on the bank of the Mekong, Can Tho is famous for its floating markets. They are definitely worth the ride and you will find a thousand ways to go to the market, you can ask your hotel. However, the floating markets are not my favorite spot in Can Tho. The most staggering experience for me has been to float on the river by 4 am, before sunrise, in a blind darkness, and no sound but that of the still water and the coughing engine of the boat. Our guide took us into the small branches of the river where we could witness the awakening of the Mekong. This ride was topped by the visit of a traditional rice noodle factory just before sunrise. The atmosphere of mystery, timelessness and peace is breathtaking. And finish the ride just roaming in the middle of the market, having a coffee on the boat.
My recommendation for Can Tho is that you stay in Hotel Ninh Kieu with a room overlooking the river. Then you can ask the concierge to book a boat ride for you, starting at 4 am. The ride should cost you around 20 USD.
Thanks to Linh Le for opening our eyes on real Saigon for this return of 10 Do's and Don'ts.
Linh Lê is as multi faceted as the Saigon she takes us through. Born in France, based in Paris, raised in a food-addict Southern-Vietnamese family and raising a multi-cultural family herself, she goes through life as through an endless journey. In this journey she is fueled by love, food and literature. So it is only natural for her that she eats, reads, writes and loves every bit about her ancestors’ homeland. Saigon is her second base, a place where she takes a second wind whenever serendipity takes her there. Linh happily hosts cooking classes and shares her knowledge with chefs. She tells some of her moments and shares recipes in her blog Baguettes et Traditions (Written in French).