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The Enduring Energy of Ho Chi Minh City

Words & Photography: Derek Dryland

Ladies in the Vietnamese national dress, the ao dai
Ladies in the Vietnamese national dress, the ao dai
Saigon Opera House, built in 1897
Saigon Opera House, built in 1897

Hours before dawn, the daily routine begins as the trickle of small motorcycles make their way through half-empty streets. It’s not long before the stream becomes a flood and like a great army of ants the motorcycles move fearlessly up and down every road, avenue, and alley.  Here motorcycles rule—if they can push, carry or pull anything, they will already be doing it.

Ho Chi Minh City has over 7 million motorbikes for its 8 million residents
Ho Chi Minh City has over 7 million motorbikes for its 8 million residents
Organised chaos at the intersection
Organised chaos at the intersection

For the newcomer to Saigon the motorcycles can seem like an impenetrable wall, not simply making crossing the road seem dangerous but worse, suicidal. It actually isn’t; the trick is to let the motorcyclist know what you are doing and not to deviate from your course once you have started. The bikers are remarkably skilled. As long as they are aware of what your actions will be, the chances of an accident are small.

Tourists passing by mobile vendors selling cooked food
Tourists passing by mobile vendors selling cooked food
Care for some fruit from a bike?
Care for some fruit from a bike?

Vendors wander round the city endlessly on foot, motorcycles, cycles or pushing carts of various descriptions.  They sell almost everything, but most important for the tourist, most things you will need for a day wandering round the city.  They have a remarkable knack of appearing like magic just when you need them.  Gifts, souvenirs, hot and cold food or drinks are all readily available. You can sometimes haggle and get a very good bargain for your money. But whatever you do, don’t get annoyed if you are constantly asked by various vendors if you want anything. This is how they make their living, which ultimately feeds their families. Try and be polite and courteous at all times. A “no, thank you” will do.

Take a no-rush tour of the city on a cycle rickshaw
Take a no-rush tour of the city on a cycle rickshaw
Night markets for excellent bargains
Night markets for excellent bargains

There are various ways for you to get around the city: bus, taxi, cycle rickshaw. I prefer walking if not travelling far, as you see a lot more. But if you need to take a cycle rickshaw or taxi, be sure to find out the price to your destination before you hire it, although in the case of a taxi, it may be metered, so prices will vary. The city has a lot to offer and with the help of a map and a good guide book, it is easy to navigate.

Vincom Center, the biggest shopping mall in the city
Vincom Center, the biggest shopping mall in the city
Spectacular views from the 68-storey Bitexco Financial Tower
Spectacular views from the 68-storey Bitexco Financial Tower

Saigon’s District 1 is always popular with tourists, with good quality hotels ranging from the very expensive to inexpensive. It is perhaps a good idea to book before arriving rather than taking potluck when you’re there.  Saigon’s famous night market and its super modern Vincom Center shopping mall will be only too happy to let you shop till you drop, if that’s what you want. While for those who want a different viewpoint, the top of the Bitexco Financial Tower can provide a wonderful panoramic view of the city day and night.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral constructed using materials imported from France
The Notre-Dame Cathedral constructed using materials imported from France
The Saigon Central Post Office, completed in 1891
The Saigon Central Post Office, completed in 1891

A little further afield you can come face to face with Vietnam’s recent history and colonial past. The Notre-Dame Cathedral and the General Post Office are the legacy of French colonialism, while the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum are symbols of the war most Westerners watched on TV from the early 60’s to 1975.

Today’s Vietnam at last enjoys peace, giving it the chance to develop and grow. When one looks at this country that has been through so much misery, it’s hard not to admire the energy and the tenacity of the population as it seeks to move forward in the 21st century.

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