66. A Day in the Life: Ho Chi Minh City

A full day on the streets of Saigon doing absolutely nothing, or at least the next best thing: Stop, look and listen.

“Ca Mau Guerillas” by Thai Ha (1922-2005), in the Fine Arts Museum, depicts soldiers traveling past villagers in a mangrove forest.

It’s quite easy to spend a relaxing full day in a major world city doing absolutely nothing of note … yet, somehow, at the end, feeling as though it were a day of observation, a day well lived. It’s even better when you can do that without spending a lot of money.

This was my yesterday in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), or Saigon.

I’ve been wanting to visit the ìnfamous Cu Chi Tunnels, a discreet system of subterranean passages from which the Viet Cong controlled a large section of countryside within 20 miles (32 km) of Saigon during the American War. It’s a popular day-trip destination, especially when a tour guide accompanies to explain the extent of the network.

The day before, I had zoomed to the SkyDeck Observatory of the Landmark 81 tower, the tallest building in Vietnam, 382 meters (a quarter-mile) above the Saigon River. After staggering through and surviving a virtual-reality skydive from its summit, I wanted to say something about the high and low points of a Saigon visit by ìncorporating the tunnels in a story.

At 470 meters (1,542 feet), the Landmark 81 tower is the second tallest building in Southeast Asia. There is ice skating on the ground floor. (JGA photo)

The problem now is that tourism is still on hold in Vietnam due to the Covid pandemic. I tried to book a trip online, but the best I could find was a private trip that would have been way out of my price range. I learned it would be best if I wait until I can share a tour with others — a difference of US$15 to $20 versus US$105.

I discussed these options with a couple of tour operators in HCMC’s Bùi Viện neighborhood, the “Backpacker District.” They would have been glad to set up a private visit and take my money, but they also suggested I might want to take a local bus. As a solo traveler with minimal Vietnamese language at my disposal, however, I would have had little idea of what I was seeing when I got there. I’ll wait.

Redhead Willies

While I was hemming and hawing about my next best choice, I slid into a sidewalk café with a server whose magenta-colored hair matched the table settings. My ham-and-onion omelet was passable at best, but when an Italian man of about 40 took a table next to mine, it gave me an opportunity to do one of the things I do best: talk. An online English teacher, Marco was biding his time waiting for a friend. Like many of us in Vietnam these days, he had plenty of travel stories to share, and we agreed that 11 a.m. was as good a time as any for our coffee hour to slide into beer o’clock.

Lan produces 100% robusta coffee for the Cao Nguyen coffee company, hand-roasting it on hot coals in Cu’mGar village of DakLak province. (JGA photo)

Sometime after noon, I ducked around the corner of Phạm Ngũ Lão and ran head-on into a tall, redheaded backpacker who bore a striking resemblance to Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons. Three minutes of small talk evolved into a slurred panhandling pitch: “I’ve been going through a hard time,” he said. “I could use a drink to take the stress out.” He wanted more than one.

It was still around 1 o’clock, many hours before Bùi Viện would start hopping. That was fine with me. Of three principle entertainment districts within HCMC’s District One, this is the most notorious, its cheap whores and drug dealers on every corner. They are much less visible in broad daylight, although two women did approach and offer me a two-on-one, full-body massage for just 200,000 dong, less than US$9. Had I been shopping (I wasn’t), that is a bargain. Things are desperate here without tourism.

Back alleys and coffee

I was in the mood for walking. Narrow alleys that will never see my presence by night somehow beckoned me to explore. People could live their entire existences avoiding sunlight in these labyrinthine canyons. I would not be surprised if some do. Not wide enough for a pedestrian to pass a motorbike, they are nonetheless like miniature villages, with grocery stores and cafés, nail salons and barber shops. I felt briefly panicked a couple of times when my forays hit dead ends and I had to backtrack. I wouldn’t want to be lost here.

As búsinessmen enjoy nitrous-oxide balloons, dancers take the stage at the Crazy Girls nightclub on Bui Vien street. (JGA photo)

I turned a couple of corners and was back on Bùi Viện street. I passed my buddy’s girlfriend’s (perhaps ex-gỉrlfriend’s) bar, where a “lady boy” on my lap forced a rapid end to my last visit, and the Crazy Girls nightclub, where the girls go wild when they are inhaling nitrous-oxide balloons and feeling no pain.

At the corner of Đỗ Quang Đẩu, Little Cu’mGar Coffee reminded me of my Vietnamese home province. I paused for a cup of rich 100% robusta and struck up a conversation with Lan, the owner of Caffe Cao Nguyên. As I recently wrote about DakLak coffee, I was impressed by the photos she shared of her traditional roasting process — directly upon hot coals. No wonder it is so delicious.

Two blocks east, I pulled up another chair to watch the motorbike traffic pass. Across the street, a woman crouched on a tiny stool and beckoned me to purchase cigarettes or, better yet, Cuban cigars or illegal marijuana. I explained to her that I don’t smoke. She persisted. “These men who smoke, they aren’t strong like me,” I told her. “And with all these women around, I must stay strong.” I extended a straight finger. She laughed.

The Fine Arts Museum of Ho Chi Minh City comprises three adjacent French colonial-era mansions. (JGA photo)

Urban art reprieve

My mid-afternoon, I needed some real culture. A few blocks away, the Fine Arts Museum of Ho Chi Minh City was calling. This collection does not appear high on many lists of recommended attractions here, but I found it easily worth 90 minutes of my attention, especially for a cost of 30,000 dong (about a buck 30).

Housed in three adjacent French colonial-era buildings, the museum includes fine collections of paintings and sculpture from ancient to contemporary. I was most interested in the canvases that I don’t see in history museums: the modern art. You can learn a lot about a culture by observing its artists’ choices of subjects. Floating markets. Urban streets. Battle scenes. Expressionless portraits. Much of it is heartbreaking.

I went out the gate and turned the corner to Lê Công Kiều, “Antique Street.” At least two dozen small shops line both sides of a single block, all of them in head-to-head competition for tourist dollars which, at this time, are not exactly pouring in. No doubt some of the bronzes and porcelains are authentic, but I’m no expert on the subject. Many of the less expensive trinkets help pay the overhead costs.

An antiques dealer on Le Cong Kieu exhibits some of her merchandise to a passer-by. (JGA photo)

Mulligans and piggies

Halfway down this street on the right is Mulligan’s Saigon, as authentic an Irish sports pub as one might find this side of Chicago. The TVs were tuned to Fox Sports and the Sunday football roundup. (Vietnam time is 15 hours ahead of the US West Coast, so it was early Monday morning in the States.) What’s a boy to do? It was happy hour.

Light turned to dark and I still was in no hurry. At 7 p.m. I was meeting a friend on Lê Thánh Tôn, an easy kilometer’s saunter from here. I made it there with time to spare. We dined at Play, a whimsical Chinese-style dim sum joint where bite-size dumplings resemble pigs and yellow chicks, and non-latex hand wipes are distributed in foil condom packets.

Eventually I summoned a motorbike cab to return me to my hotel in Thao Dien. Including dinner, I had spent about US $25 on my day of wandering, including food, drink, transportation and museum admission. In my book, that’s a bargain.

Barbecued pork dumplings get an added accent at the Play dim sum restaurant on Le Thanh Ton. (JGA photo)
Love it or hate it, the Bui Vien “pedestrian street” is the heart of Saigon’s “Backpacker District” and a wild nightlife strip after dark. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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