In Ho Chi Minh City, the largest of all of Vietnam’s cities (roughly 9 million people…and 6 million motorcycles), wandering with my fellow Loyola classmates, Damien and Sara, allowed us to experience first hand the famous hustle & bustle of the locals’ lives. To say it was exciting and invigorating doesn’t do justice to the feeling of being surrounded by constant movement and a vast array of exotic people, colors, and smells.
We encountered the famous Saigon traffic head-on while walking the short distance from our hotel, Golden Central Hotel Saigon, to the buzzing Ben Thanh Market, where you can expect the local merchants to grab you as you walk by; “Please, you look, good deal for you!”. This market and the surrounding streets no doubt make up HCMC’s liveliest (and smelliest) area.
Everything that the locals wear, eat or use can be found here: fresh live and wiggling seafood of all kinds, spices, flowers (beautiful, colorful and aromatic – for locals to leave as offerings at temples), bread, clothing, hats, and so on.
It is certainly the place to buy a Non La (Vietnamese hat) or Ao Dai (traditional dress), and other items you’d want to bring home as a reminder of the magic of this churning and bubbling city. In this endless maze of shops we saw every color imaginable and we were stopped constantly by women at their shops just itching to negotiate with us (it takes a little getting used to strangers grabbing you). Bargains are struck with a little negotiation, we NEVER paid asking price for an item (and learned quickly we could get our rock bottom offers simply by walking away).
Unexpectedly, we ran into our Professor, Dr. Cliff Shultz, who helped us plan our day and agreed to meet us at sunset at the Majestic Hotel Rooftop bar so we could get a one-of-a-kind view of the river and city below.
We spent the majority of my first day as one should in a new place, wandering and taking it all in. Everything seemed to move to a beat, especially the young workers on their motorbikes, weaving through each other effortlessly.
There were pavement cafes, women squatting over bubbling pots and fires cooking street food, vendors selling fruit and drinks and shirts. In all the excitement and fervor, I was suddenly given a rude reminder that this is still a developing country when a beggar grabbed me with his good hand and showed me his other missing all its fingers. Damien was offered rambutan, a tropical fruit grown in this region of the world, by an enterprising woman wearing the traditional non la. While he no doubt had little interest in these strange-looking spiky red fruits, he was a good sport buying a whole bag for only $2.
We made our way down Le Loi Street to the Rex Hotel, where we were told we could get a superb view of the city traffic from the rooftop bar.
The Asian gardens, decorations of caged birds, potted bonsai bushes, and large elephants surrounding us did nothing to remind us of the extensive history of this place. Journalists and soldiers once frequented this bar during the Vietnam War.
For dinner, we walked a long way down Pasteur Street to a classic little hole in the wall called Pho Hoa, supposedly the best place in all of Saigon to get a traditional bowl of Pho, a beef noodle soup. While not my favorite dish on this trip, I couldn’t be happier that we ventured out to this little spot where no one spoke English and immersed ourselves in local cuisine. It also served as an interesting lesson: addresses in HCMC don’t always make sense.
After nightfall, we walked down the beautiful Dong Khoi Street, the nerve center of the city. Occasionally having to tell men with cyclos and motorbike taxis “đi bộ” (pronounced Dee Baww), which means we prefer to walk (and they really got a kick out of us trying to speak Vietnamese), we took in all the lively vibrance of New Years lights and Tet decorations, unparalleled to anything you would see in Chicago this time of year.
After making our way to 1 Dong Khoi Street, bravely now crossing the street as though we’ve lived here in a past life, we took the elevator up to the impressive rooftop “M Bar” of the Majestic Hotel to meet Professor Shultz and other classmates we last saw in the states.
Overlooking the Saigon River, we were told the hotel dates back to the early 20th century and was where past study abroad groups had stayed. The building is a gorgeous piece of French colonial architecture with art deco interior. Viewing the river and city at night while having a few 333 (ba ba ba) beers with my fellow classmates was somewhat surreal…I’m in Vietnam!!!