Saigon - which still sounds a lot better than Ho Chi Min City -, Saigon is not a pretty city. It is big, no doubt, it is vibrant. Calling it fast-paced would be pushing it, considering the traffic, but it is certainly the commercial hub of Vietnam. In effect, it stretches all the way into the Mekong delta, as we traveled all the way, from Chau Doc to Can Tho to My Tho to Saigon, almost entirely through built-up areas. If Saigon itself has 7-8 million inhabitants, Greater Saigon is probably closer to 25-30 million people. And the Greater Saigon area certainly has its charms, consider some of the delta, for instance. But it is not a pretty city.
We are staying in the city centre, around Dong Khoi and Nguyen Hue, the Champs Elysee of Saigon, indeed with plentiful fancy shops, up-market hotels (as well as mediocre mid-range hotels), and lots of character. Streets are clogged with slow moving traffic, mostly motorbikes - thousands of them, they are a pest, really, and they area everywhere - and taxis. Pavements are equally clogged, with parked motorbikes, or people waiting on motorbikes, or otherwise with low tables and chairs, representing restaurants and coffee shops. But then you turn a corner, and without warning you are suddenly in a deserted street - deserted as far as shops and people are concerned, not traffic. Indeed, many of the motorbikes take advantage of the empty pavements to circumvent the traffic jam, making the pavement almost more dangerous than crossing the street is. Lots of building sites, everywhere in town, the old French architecture – with the exception of some of the more illustrious colonial buildings – making way for modern high-rise; indeed you can imagine this place turning into the next Bangkok in 10, 20 years time.
(1) The Continental Hotel Saigon, perhaps the most characteristic colonial building in town.
(2, 3) And the General Post Office, apparently the most-photographed building, so many tourist come here that you cannot only buy stamps, but also whole tour packages, there is a commercial travel agency inside.
(4) More and more modern office buildings shoot up, this one being the most eye-catching one, a huge tower and heli-platform. Contrasting nicely with one of the old legend heros.
(5) Motorbikes clog the pavement, and everything else in Saigon.
(6) Street vendor selling cakes – some of the French influence remains, baquettes everywhere, and even éclairs (not on this head, however).
Taxis make all the difference, and they are cruising the streets, almost all empty. No tuk-tuks, and more importantly, no need to get on the back of a motorbike, no, we get into roomy, air-conditioned taxis, a little slow perhaps, given the general status of the traffic, but definitely comfortable. Only problem is the communication. Norman Lewis, who I quoted before, describes the old way of communicating with the cyclo-drivers, simply by flapping your hand left or right whenever you need to make a turn. A modern taxi is no different, you need to know where you want to go, and with the help of a city map, direct the driver. We wanted to visit the most famous pagoda of the city, the Jade Emperor Pagoda, which the driver didn’t know, or at least, he didn’t understand me. So I happily pointed him left and right and left again, until, 100 meters from the pagoda, suddenly a bright smile breaks through on his solemn face, and he says, “Ah, Pa-Go-Da!!”. Indeed.
Jade Emperor Pagoda, (7) jostle sticks outside, (8) sun light inside, (9) some metal sculptures of uncertain nature, and (10) wood carvings with less than pleasant scenes of, well, burning people alive in pots, is what I make of this.
But even the taxi system breaks down in a tropical rain storm, the kind of which we had today, when we were about to meet an acquaintance for dinner. Just when you need a taxi, everybody else needs one, as well – but then, that is no different in London, or anywhere else when it suddenly starts raining, no? But what surprised me more is that almost all the motorbike drivers must have anticipated the rain, no matter how unusual in early March, because almost all the motorbikes managed some form of protection, a rain cape or just some plastic sheeting. And not just for the driver, every passenger - and that can be up to three or more people on one bike -, was covered. Amazing, where that came from so quickly.