The Streets of Saigon
I was very excited to check out Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City.
For the record, it’s not incorrect to call it Saigon. The official name for the whole metropolis is Ho Chi Minh City, but there is still a district of the city officially called Saigon. Apparently government officials don’t much care to hear it called Saigon, but many of the locals would prefer it that way. The old name, the one that conjures up all kinds of images, is still very much alive all over the city.
City of the Scooter
Scooters are a popular means of transportation all over Asia, particular in the southeast. Taipei is packed with them, Bangkok has more than its fair share, they share the road only with tricycles (or tuk-tuks) and jeepneys in the Philippines, and double as single person taxis all over. But no country has more scooters per capita, I’m convinced, than Vietnam. I have no empirical data to back up this claim, i simply believe it to be self-evident. As it is to anyone and everyone the second they set foot in Saigon.
Without very many cars or buses, the traffic in Saigon flows like water. There are very few traffic signals, or rules even. Everyone is pretty much responsible for not crashing into things. Crossing the street takes a little getting used to, but is no problem once you get the hang of it. I’m not sure which is more daunting, or actually dangerous, crossing the street in Saigon or in Cairo. It’s all cars in Cairo, so when you are standing in the middle of somewhere between six and seven lanes (a “lane” is a very ambiguously defined and fluid concept), you’ll have cars doing forty miles an hour on either side of you. But it’s easy to watch out for cars; they don’t appear from nowhere like scooters do. In Saigon, as long as there are no cars or buses barreling towards you, you can just step out into the street. You just walk slowly, giving the scooters time to pick their path around you, and you make your way across. But frequently you’ll look both ways and step out, only to be buzzed back to the sidewalk by a scooter that just appeared out of thin air.
This kind of pedestrian activity would never work in a big Western city. You’d be killed or cause a huge accident, because the drivers would freak out and do something stupid. But in many places in the world, the drivers are expecting pedestrians to step into the street at any and all times, and don’t make unexpected movements, and therefore traffic and pedestrians peacefully coexist, for the most part, without pesky things like traffic laws, crosswalks, and stoplights.
Many of the tourist activities in Saigon revolve around the Vietnam War (or American War, as it’s called here). I visited the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants museum, and found them to be pretty interesting.
The exhibits are pretty moving, because from any perspective it was a terrible conflict.
Not everything to do in Saigon is war-related. It’s a pretty fun place to spend some time. If you can get used to the zany traffic, walking around the city is a great way to explore. The old French-style architecture and wide, tree-lined avenues are almost peaceful when there aren’t hundreds of scooters streaming past. There are lots of places to grab a steaming bowl of pho on the street, or sit down and sip some excellent Vietnamese coffee. And of course, the bar scene is always jumping.
In short, Saigon rocks.