If you were a motorbike I don't think you'd want to live in Saigon. I mean, if there are over 3 million of you on the road there are just too many options if you were looking for a motorbike partner. Much rather be in a place where there are less options..but that's just me. In a city of about 8 million people, 3 million motorbikes is not a number to sniff at.
Me seeing what the fuss is all about
Taipei might try; Bangkok may get close; Beijing or Shanghai only pale in comparison. Saigon is where Honda is making bank. Flying into Saigon, rows upon rows of streets teem with what look like worker ants from a distance but as the plane descends further you can make out that the little black things moving very quickly are in fact motorcycles. It is one crazy city. But amongst the craziness, there is a certain order to the madness which you often find in Asian megacities. Then there is the certain buzz; you can see why Tony Bourdain finds it his favorite place on Earth. Oh, and I guess the food ain't too shabby either...
Touching down in the city we felt that anticipation of discovery. We were met with a pleasantly empty immigration hall with super-friendly staff. The girls wasted no time in winning over the locals....
A quick and reasonably painless wait for our visas on arrival and we were set to go. I felt mildly sorry for the girl in line next to me who didn't have USD or Vietnamese dong to pay for her visa but she should have known... luckily they had an ATM nearby. We saw a familiar ATM on the way to our hotel. In fact, there were a large number of Commonwealth Bank and ANZ ATM's scattered all over Saigon. Guess they're not making enough money in Australia ..cough..cough.
We stayed at the lovely Ma Maison hotel in District 3, off the crazy main road and down a few alleyways. It's about as quiet as you can get in Saigon. Natasha and her team at Ma Maison really go out of their way to make you feel at home; from the welcome juice to the fresh tropical fruits to the personalised service they are a class act. If you're looking for a small (they only have 12 rooms) boutique hotel in Saigon that is in a quiet, local area I'd certainly recommend it.
Ma Maison is right in-between a banh mi vendor and a pho vendor so I knew we were at the right place. Banh mi is a Vietnamese baguette, essentially an Asian cold-cut sandwich. But boy is it good! There are a million variations but a standard banh mi would have some type of meat (roast pork, chicken), pickled radish and carrot, coriander, mayonnaise, pate and fresh chilli. Pho (pronounced 'fur') is beef noodle soup that has become a Vietnamese icon, traditionally eaten at breakfast but now is available 24hrs a day. Our banh mi vendor charged 10 000 VND ($0.50AUD) for a sandwich so I was in heaven... where else could you get this much goodness for 50 cents!!
From left; cold cuts, chicken pate, pickled radish and carrots
Surprisingly I did not put on any weight over this holiday... Over the next day we visited the central Ben Thanh market, got a banh xeo(savory crepe) fix and managed to also visit a day spa that my sis-in-law Bel recommended. Ben Thanh market is the main marketplace in central Saigon that sells everything; from durian to snake wine to chopsticks.
Ben Thanh market
Banh xeo! and cha gio - spring rolls
Banh xeo cooked over charcoal
We managed to get to Banh Xeo 46A in the afternoon for a Viet pancake fix. Banh Xeo are Vietnamese savory pancakes made out of rice flour and stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts eaten with lettuce dipped in a fish sauce 'dressing'. Banh Xeo 46A is 'THE' place for Banh Xeo in Saigon - there are many imitators in and around the main place but don't go for anything less. Their cha gio or fried spring rolls are great too so we polished off a plate of them also. Call me a stickler but food just tastes better cooked over charcoal and that's what they do at 46A. No fancy Miele gas burners here....
In-between Banh Xeo and Ben Tranh we managed to get to L'Apothiquaire day spa for a swim and scrub. Well, Nat went for the scrub and me and the girls went for a swim. The water was a bit cold but it was refreshing nevertheless. My sis-in-law recommended the place from her visit in 2009 and it was well worth it! We got to visit Notre Dame Basilica and the central post office which is a beautiful gothic remnant of French Indochina.
Notre Dame cathedral
Central post office
On our final day in Saigon we visited Cholon - Saigon's Chinatown. We payed our respects at Thien Hau (or Tian Hou) temple which pays worship to the goddess of the sea. She is known here in Macau and Southern China as 'A-Ma' or grandmother.
Thien Hau temple
There are many interesting murals within the temple depicting life in Southern China in the 19th century. Some show Lion and Dragon dancing and other murals depicting monks and European sailors.
On our final night we visited the park across the way from our hotel. There were heaps of people exercising from playing feather shuttle hacky sack to jogging to dancing a strange form of 'Zumba' that i'm thinking of incorporating into our ZAiA exercise classes. After all the touring and eating and dancing we needed some decent R and R; next stop - Phu Quoc island!