Saigon, otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City, is the largest and busiest city in Vietnam. It sits in the southern section of the country, at the heart of the Mekong Delta. To its north, is the mountain retreat of Dalat, and to its south are some glorious beach resorts along the coastline of the South China Sea. However, the city of Saigon itself often has a bad reputation.
My second trip to Vietnam focused on the southern part of the country, having already been to many places in the north and the central areas. I had never really wanted to visit Saigon earlier on in my backpacking adventures, but more research led me to believe that I was missing out on perhaps Vietnam’s best city – and the best example of everything that is good AND bad with the country (for in ‘Nam you have to learn to take the rough with the smooth…).
It’s very easy to be swept off your feet by the business of the roads in Saigon. In fact, some mopeds even use the pedestrian walkways to drive, if the roads are blocked! In Saigon, it pays to be on the move, like the wind is sweeping you along all the while. Being deep in the Mekong Delta, Saigon is also prone to severe weather alerts, so it is not uncommon to see entire villages under water, with main roads in Districts 1 and 2 unnavigable due to the flooding.
There is a big contrast of styles in Saigon: on the one hand, it is known for its frenetic pace, infamous crime levels, and its [very] busy roads, and on the other hand there is a slower way of life here that would be interesting to enjoy as a local. As a mere tourist, it is often difficult to get used to local customs, especially in fly-by trips, but I saw many Vietnamese men and women just chillaxing from their daily routines.
Most of the tourist attractions in Saigon are pretty old, and most are from the colonial times. There is a grand Opera House, a few patriotic museums, and a nice copy of the Notre Dame Cathedral from Paris. In fact, a lot of the architecture I noticed in Saigon was of colonial style left over from the French occupation, and I noticed this much more than I did in Hanoi, for example. Regarding tourism, for me, my time in the south was epitomised with day trips out of the city (and later to border with Cambodia), but there’s no doubt the street food here kept me coming back again and again to savour the Banh Xeo and the pho!
Overall, if traditional tourism is your thing, then perhaps you may be better off heading north to the Vietnamese capital Hanoi (and an excursion from there to the beautiful Halong Bay), but if history is more on your agenda, then you will feel at home in Saigon down south.