Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is more commonly known, is Vietnam’s largest and busiest city with a population of 8 million. I didn’t expect much from it, mostly because I didn’t know too much about the city, expecting it to be like Hanoi, only dirtier, busier and filled with even more motorbikes.
Surprisingly (and pleasantly), I was wrong and found myself really enjoying Saigon and much preferred it to Hanoi. Here are some of the reasons why.
1. Seamless mix of the traditional and modern
I loved seeing the contradictions around the town: a vendor selling food next to rush hour traffic jam, a sugar cane seller transporting full length sugar cane sticks on the highway, grandmas in conical hats selling food next to big, modern cars and smoky street side barbecues next to big hotels.
Saigon was also a lot more developed than I thought it would be, with large, shiny office buildings making up the skyline of the city, and a fair number of familiar global brands dotting the streets. I won’t lie – it is sometimes nice to see recognisable shops and restaurants when on the road. 🙂
2. More motorbikes but less pushy xe om (motorbike-taxi) drivers
The one thing I really disliked in Hanoi were the vast numbers of xe om drivers who would persistently hassle tourists for a paid ride. I had a particularly bad experience with a couple of them which has really put me off them in a major way. I was therefore relieved to find the moto-taxi drivers a lot less pushy and aggressive in Saigon, when compared to Hanoi.
There were still a vast number of motorbikes on the streets though!
3. More visible policemen
Uniformed policemen were prevalent in the centre of town and around the major tourist attractions. They were also unusually friendly, offering help whenever they saw anyone trying to make sense of their maps. Seeing them patrolling the streets certainly made me feel a lot safer, especially as I was out and about alone most of the time.
4. A change from the usual tourist sights
This point will be one of personal preference but here goes. Whilst the pagodas and temples were beautiful to look at in Hanoi, I have contracted a bit of temple fatigue and was pleased to see the wholly differing style of the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica in the centre of town.
The Saigon Central Post Office is located opposite the basilica – not that you can really miss the peach coloured neoclassical building (incidentally built by the famous architect, Gustave Eiffel).
At an entry fee of 15,000 dong, the War Remnants Museum is also worth a visit, giving visitors the opportunity to revisit the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese. Be ready for some very poignant photos.
The other major tourist attraction is the Ben Thanh market which hosts hundreds of stalls selling all manner of things from clothes, bags, shoes, fabrics, vegetables, dried fruit, souvenirs and other knick knacks. The indoor day market closes its doors at 6pm, when the outdoor night market takes over until about 9pm. Be sure to bargain as things here tend to be overpriced (being the tourist trap that it is).
5. Lively and busy streets at all hours
The thing about solo travel is (surprise surprise), you’re alone a lot of the time. This can result in some travel restrictions in the interest of safety, for instance, not walking alone at night around quiet streets. After getting accosted and mugged in Hanoi doing precisely this, I’ve become quite paranoid about walking alone in the evening. It can be frustrating as I have, at times, found myself rushing back to my accommodation just to ensure I am not caught in a potentially dangerous situation after the sun goes down.
A major plus for Saigon versus Hanoi therefore, was how much livelier and busier the streets were, which made me feel a lot more comfortable when I was out and about on my own. The bright lights and continuous rush of vehicles at all hours were also comforting in a way that I just didn’t find in Hanoi.
What do you think? Do you prefer Hanoi or Saigon?