Impressions of Saigon: Managing Preconceptions & Travel

There are few sights more serene than dragonflies resting on the end of your fishing rod, warming up their wings in the morning sun.

I'm sat by a lake in the hills near Phuket, Thailand. Jurassic limestone protrudes on all sides but one. A hidden valley, full of monsters. Monster fish to be precise.

We’ve had a busy morning. 4 hooked, 2 landed. All before breakfast.

The sun is now beating down, we’ve retreated to the shade. The fish have seemingly followed suit. The rods lay motionless, occasional nibbles barely lift us from our seats.

The dragonflies have our rods for now. Normal service has been resumed and I can reflect on a great weekend past, and one to come.

A nice spot to reflect - Fishing near Phuket

This trip has just undertaken a vast change in pace.

Just over 24 hours ago I was in Saigon AKA Ho Chi Minh City – dependent on who you speak to (I’ll use Saigon as the majority of locals I met did).

One thing everyone can agree on is that Saigon is crazy. However, just as with the name, people seem to disagree as to if this is a good thing or not!

I''m very much in the pro camp.

I love big “dirty” cities.

When I say “dirty”, I don’t mean filthy. More like a dirty Martini – rough around the edges, and all the more interesting for it!

Considering this, Saigon being one of the bigger “dirtier” cities, it is in many ways my nirvana.

I’ve always wanted to visit. As a result, I had some pretty developed romantic preconceptions about the city. I really believe that it is incredibly rewarding to have your preconceptions about a place challenged, however it can also be similarly rewarding to have them completely met. Saigon falls into the latter category.

One area where Saigon completely delivers here is the traffic. I’d heard stories of the death-wish required to walk around the city. Scooters are everywhere, respect for pedestrian crossings seemingly non-existent. The accepted approach seems to be: take a deep breath and confidently step into the maelstrom. Purposefully stride across the road and rely on the fact that etiquette deems it bad form to plough into a person on a motorised horse. It’s bizarre, but it seems to work. It’s also bloody thrilling!

(To be honest this video is pretty tame, but for the crazier ones I was probably holding on too tight to film!)

Of course, bearing in mind the blog, the other area where Saigon meets every hectic expectation is street food. Every street seems to have some kind of vendor on, from the broad French avenues of District 1 to the dingiest of alleys in the seedy backpacker area.

There is a significant focus on famous Vietnamese fare – Pho, Broken Rice and Bahn Mi are seemingly everywhere. However, you do get a feeling that each cook is trying to put their own spin on things, deliver on quality and cook with pride. One person here told me food is communication, the ability to say you care about someone be it friends, family, or some random bloke from the UK. It’s clichéd as hell, however I reckon it’s pretty self-evident to anyone who’s eaten here.

Street-food is ridiculously abundant. It’s in stark contrast to Kuala Lumpur, where to some degree street-food been ghettoised to specific areas and government sanctioned Pasar Malams (night markets). In KL great food exists but you have to look for it, here you just step into the streets.

I don’t actually consider this a negative aspect of KL, however it is a common (if a little frustrating) complaint from backpackers you meet in Malaysia that it is in contrast boring/sterile/”bad” in comparison to other areas of South East Asia.

Usually loudly made by some w**ker sitting in a hostel bar. Besides being a proud adopted Malaysian foodie, this kind of comment can irk me as it suggests a lack of appreciation for the differences in the counties of this region. For instance, once you realise the comparative levels of economical development in the region (GDP per Capita in Malaysia is around 3 times that of Vietnam) it's little wonder Malaysia is more developed. No one complains that Australia doesn't have streetfood vendors...

The real problem here is that someone's preconception about a place was wrong. In a situation like this, you should make every effort to shelve your preconceptions and dig a little deeper to find out what a country is actually like, rather than complain.

It also touches on a point that I’ve made countless times, usually in hostel bars (who’s the w**ker now...) If you travel to a country and don’t enjoy it, it’s almost certainly your fault.

On every part of this planet, from Disney World to war-torn Syria, there will be something positive to experience. This could be the natural world, history and politics, food (obviously) or just people living their lives. It might be incredibly difficult to find, and I’m not saying go on holiday to a warzone, however it will be there. It’s certainly not the countries fault if you haven’t put any effort in to find it.

his doesn’t fit in with most people’s holiday plans (mine included), however pertain to some more meaningful travelling experience, you should probably pull your finger out.

Rant over, however it does bring me to my final point.

As with many countries in this region, Vietnam is developing. With it, conversations about Scooter control and Street-food vendor registration and zoning are already happening. As much as I don’t think it is necessarily a negative that places like KL may have already, to some degree lost this feeling it would be a shame to lose this aspect of Saigon. The world would be a little be less exciting. A little more sterile. But you can’t begrudge a nation for trying to build the modern future it wants. And if it does so, then I’m sure it will still be bloody fantastic.

A woman in a traditional vietnames hat selling Durian from the back of a scooter... romantic expectations met!

In the time it took me to write this we caught 17 fish (with my mate Hamiz), left Phuket and are not just about to land in Bangkok. In the time it took me to edit this we have had 2 fantastic nights in Bangkok - including one of the best meals of my life at Asia's "best" restaurant, Gaggan (will take me a while to digest that mindblowing experience).

Although I’ve been once before, I only hung out in the crappy backpacker street of Khao San road for a night. I might as well not have come.

My expectation was that Bangkok will bridge the gap nicely between Kuala Lumpur and Saigon. I’m expecting a city of massive contrasts, where roof-top bars on skyscrapers are next-door to dark and dingy alleys full of street food and $1 beers.

I can’t wait to see if I’m right... or wrong.

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