Saigon L to Q

 

Saigon is a city for lovers … of all ages

Saigon is a city of contrasts, of old meets new, of rich versus poor, of west up against the east. So, here is a mini guide to what makes this city unique. Meet the L to Q of Saigon.

Lovers Delight

A romantic day out doesn’t get any sexier than on a bridge over the toxic waste and putrid stench of the Saigon River. The massive hunks of concrete and hard steel beams just ooze romance, making an ideal setting for wedding pictures.

Lovers take to parks and bridges and, especially newly constructed ones, for alone time. Really, what better place for a leisurely and free Saturday afternoon to satisfy the Asian affinity to take an excessive amount of silly pictures? Kidding aside, most young lovers don’t have many options to sneak in a little canoodling.

Nguyen Tam gave us a a local tip on a cinema at CT Plaza, near the airport, that has ‘double seater chairs’ in the back roll of their screening rooms. The prices of these seats are slightly higher than the regular ones but, nonetheless, sell out fast.

To Market, To Market

Located in District 10, Ho Thi Ky Flower Market is the place to pick up a bunch or two of the most exotic blossoms. Established over a decade ago, rows of stalls are washed in a rainbow of lisianthus, carnations, gerbera and orchids, all delivered nightly from Dalat. Locals usually arrive between 3am to 4am to pick the best. A bunch of 50 roses costs under VND100,000 but will double in price during Tet and Valentine’s Day.

District 5 tops the poll for the most speciality markets — fabric, motorbike and chemical — all within a 1km radius of each other. As you’d expect, the fabric market on Tran Hung Dao supplies endless metres of linen, silk, felt and cotton imported from all over the Indochina region. Open from 7am to 9am, there’s enough material here to blanket the whole city.

From the largest exhaust pipes to the smallest nuts and bolts, hundreds of parts for practically every model of scooter, bicycle and motorbike in Vietnam can be purchased at this market on Do Ngoc Thanh. A mainstay of Saigon’s market scene for over 40 years, experienced mechanics come here to make repairs and salvage stuttering motors from scrap metal graves.

Known for selling industrial-sized vats of butter oil substitute and chemicals used for scenting restaurant wet wipes, packaged pho and coffee, Kim Bien Market (37 Van Tuong, Q5) also sells the most random array of products in the city. Need a bag of super-strength washing machine powder and a wall clock? One stall can take care of both. Other items include heavy-duty restaurant kitchen machinery, bras and big ol’ cuddly bears for the kids. You won’t know where to look first.

A macaque in the nature reserve on Can Gio, Ho Chi Minh City

Nature Watching

Saigon suffers from a dearth of nature spots. But explore enough and you’ll find areas of untouched beauty and, even better, flora and fauna to match.

Closest to town is Thanh Da Island, an easy straight drive up Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Xo Viet Nghe Tinh and then Binh Quoi. The road once you’re on the island is built up, with riverside cafes and restaurants to the left. But, for a real dose of nature, take any of the turnings on the right. Here you’ll find the paddy fields and jungle that you can see from The Deck and Boathouse in District 2. And if you want to dine in a rustic, jungle-like setting, keep going on the main road through the island towards its end. Binh An Village (www.binhanvillage.com) is off to the left.

Further out down Highway 1 are the delights of District 9. Turn off to the right down Le Van Viet and you get the typical urban sprawl of a big city, Vietnamese suburb. But follow the road to its end, turn right down Nguyen Van Tang and then right again onto Nguyen Xien and you start encountering doses of the original Saigon. Vuon Co (Stork Garden – turn off at No. 23) is down here, a beautiful river-like spot with storks from September to April. There are also two, riverside pagodas — Hoi Son and Phuoc Long, both replete with boat rides and a jungle-like setting to match.

To get a real taste of this area before development, though, go down to Can Gio (follow Nguyen Tat Thanh through Districts 4, 7 and Nha Be). This vast district on the edge of the city is a conglomeration of islands, all nestling in salty, mangrove swamps. It’s a place worth getting lost in — simply follow any of the side roads off the main highway. Or even better, take the highway to the far end of the islands, visit monkey island and then turn off towards Dong Hoa. Here you will find a number of wild, beach-like areas with views across the sea to Vung Tau.

The restaurant at Ben Duoc on the Saigon River

Off the Rails

The idea of going off-the-beaten track in a dusty, writhing metropolis such as Saigon is an anathema. But many non-urban districts make up this city, providing it with almost as much rural breathing space as there is conurbation.

Take Cu Chi District, for example. A mere 35km away from town, there is far more to this peaceful idyll than just the tunnels at Ben Duoc (www.cuchitunnel.org.vn), a tiny hamlet in the other Phu My Hung (yes, there are two in this city). The restaurant at this infamous tourist spot is an example. Floating on the Saigon River (at this point it is only 25m wide), on the far side lies the trees, paddy fields and rubber plantations of Binh Duong. As for the restaurant itself, come here at the right time and it’s as peaceful as you can get for a city such as this. You can even go in for a spot of paintballing here — prices start at VND6,000 a pellet.

Just a few kilometres away back down Highway 15 are the other holes in the ground at Ben Dinh. Similar to their compatriots up the road, they are certainly worth a visit.

Best about this area though is the Saigon River. Often running parallel to Highway 15 you can catch glimpses of what this waterway may have looked like before urbanisation. Other attractions include the vast crafts and cultural village Vietnam Crafts Village (www.motthoangvietnam.vn), Nha Hang Ben Nay (www.bennayrestaurant.com), a restaurant and ‘ecological’ area set on an island and Cu Chi Water Park(Highway 8, Phuoc Vinh An Village, Cu Chi. Tel: 3790 5501). Then of course there’s the countryside. It’s off off-the-beaten track but it’s worth checking out.

To get to Dao Dia Cu Chi follow Highway 22 out of Tan Binh. At Cu Chi Town take the second exit under the bridge and follow the signs to Dao Dia Cu Chi. The journey is about 50km. Alternatively take Quang Trung and then its continuation To Ky out of Go Vap District to Hoc Mon Town. There turn right onto Highway 15 (Trung Nu Vuong Street).

Swimming pools abound in Ho Chi Minh City

Pool Cool

A quick glance at most riverside spots within the city quickly dismisses any ideas of bathing in the Saigon River, though on a sunny day Vietnamese children can be seen daringly frolicking in the shallows. For the more feint-hearted (or more wise-headed) there are a number of swimming pools, both covered and uncovered, dotted around the city.

Several of the hotels located in the Dong Khoi area boast rooftop or courtyard pools where you can join the affluent tourists in soaking up a few rays from the dizzy heights of the city. Alternatively, 258 Club (258 Tran Hung Dao, Q1) is located close to the backpacker area and is a mere VND40,000 to swim or VND2 million for a six-month pass. Partially covered, with lounge chairs and a café attached, the pool is frequented by locals and foreign residents alike. For the ladies, there is the added bonus that the local fire station practises here some mornings.

Lan Anh (291 Cach Mang Thang Tam Street, Q10) offers a good-sized outdoor pool and bar, though it can get noisy when schools are out. A cut above the rest, Van Thanh Park (48/10 Dien Bien Phu, Binh Thanh) is home to a large outdoor pool, popular with locals and foreigners. Surrounded by trees, the pool is blessedly quiet and has plenty of lounge chairs and a poolside bar. A VND30,000 entry fee in addition to the tranquil surroundings marks this pool as a top spot to escape the noise and stress of the city.

The 258 Club on Tran Hung Dao, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City

Qi

District 5 houses Chinatown, blocks of traditional medicine shops and therefore, much of the city’s qi. But District 3 and the outer parts of District 1 shouldn’t be overlooked. Close to downtown Quan 3 has several pagodas worth a visit that can offer you a sense of qi.

The largest pagoda in the city, Xa Loi (89 Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, Q3), was built in 1956 and was once the headquarters of Buddhism in southern Vietnam. Vinh Nghiem Pagoda(339 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Q3) was built in the 1960s and has a seven-storey, 40-metre-high tower. It is supposedly the first pagoda to be built with concrete but in Vietnamese-style architecture. The Jade Emperor Pagoda (73 Mai Thi Luu, Q1) is a Taoist pagoda built just over 100 years ago. Also known as the Tortoise Pagoda, this spooky place holds carved figurines and elaborate statues, including the menacing looking “god of the heavens,” the Jade Emperor himself.