Travel Diary: 24 Hours in Saigon

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Whether you call it Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon won’t change the following facts* about the biggest city in Vietnam:

1. There are 10 million people and 7 million motorbikes. Take care when crossing the street.
2. Traffic rules that seem set in stone (and enforceable by law) at home are more of a gentle suggestion here. See point 1.
3. The best place to eat pho is in District 5 at Pho Le.
4. There are a lot of things to see.
5. I wasn’t really interested in any of them.

I arrived in Saigon with just over 24 hours to soak in the sights, sounds, smells, and smog of the city before leaving for my next destination. I asked the friendly staff at the front desk of my hotel (Town House 23 for anyone who wants to know) what they’d recommend doing for the day. I tried to make it clear that I was a bit fatigued of touristy sites, and could they please point me in the direction of a cool neighbourhood where I could simply wander the streets and window shop for the day, stopping in at a café for a cappuccino when the need arose. I think something was lost in the translation, because they proceeded to circle all the tourist attractions on my map of HCMC.

In the interest of sharing, here is what they noted:

1. Notre Dame (not the Notre Dame, but a smaller approximation rendered in red brick)
2. the HCMC Post (designed by Gustave Eiffel)
3. the Opera House (also home to ÀÓ performance art show / circus)
4. Ben Thanh Market (rows on rows on rows of cheap goods)
5. Saigon Square Outlet Shopping (where presumably castoffs from local factories making name brand items find their way into bargain-hunters’ hands. Legit or not-so-legit? I’m not sure.)
6. Independence Palace (a really interesting example of 1960’s architecture)

Maybe it was my inner people-pleaser guiding me, but I did manage to make it to all these spots. However, the best part of my day took place purely by happenstance when I wandered into a grubby mid-rise building at 42 Nguyen Hue.

Propelled only by blind faith and a few well-designed logos posted at street level on the front of the building, I stepped tentatively into the ground floor entrance – essentially a motorbike parking lot. But I noted a small gathering of people, low on pretense, high on style, waiting at an elevator, so I joined them.

It turns out that behind the sooty façade and maze of motorbikes, 42 Nguyen Hue is home to a building full of independent boutiques and small cafés, scattered across floors 2-7. The shops are tiny (no bigger than a hotel room in most cases) and usually found behind a non-descript door in an open air hallway more reminiscent of an apartment building than a retail location, but the spaces are filled with character and unique finds from local designers.

I found a jewelry shop with delicate rings and bracelets made of sterling silver. In another shop, a young designer specialized in tailored women’s suits. In yet another, the racks were scattered with sophisticated resort pieces in tropical prints, like breezy wide-legged culottes with watercolour palm leaves. There was also Partea, a charming English tearoom serving over 30 varieties of looseleaf teas and some decadent desserts.

On the fifth floor, I found my happy place at Saigon Oi. This light-filled café is actually three adjoining rooms with high ceilings and Scandinavian-inspired design. Almost all of the tables were taken by stylish young hipsters who appeared to be freelancers, working away on their laptops, or fashionable young professionals, having a casual business lunch. Light streams into the space through a set of enormous French doors and adjoining windows, trimmed in wrought-iron. The staff is sweet, the food is good, and most importantly, the cappuccinos are strong and delicious.

If you find yourself in Saigon (HCMC) and are itching to see the sights, no doubt you’ll find your fill. But if you want a slightly more relaxed experience, and a chance to chill out for the afternoon, I highly recommend a visit to 42 Nguyen Hue. You’ll be amazed at the treasures hiding behind the façade.

*Most of these “facts” were discovered via chatty motorbike drivers or helpful front desk staff. Take them with a grain of salt.

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