Lifestyle slow travel travel Vietnam

A sneak peek into life in Saigon

Ah Vietnam, you beautiful surprise. After spending 5 weeks in Malaysia, which wasn’t our favourite place in the world, we weren’t really sure we want to stay much longer in Asia at all. But everything was planned and booked for Vietnam already so we didn’t have much choice. Reluctantly, we set off to experience the new-to-us country.

It’s been truly awesome since day one and I’m glad we didn’t cancel!

Our neighbourhood & accommodation

We stayed in the infamous District 4 (there are stories about it being an ex-mafia area with slums, illegal gambling and crime), just across the bridge to all the action of District 1. There weren’t many tourists around, no English menus in cafes and restaurants – a local experience, just like we wanted.

Our Airbnb apartment on the 29th floor was the best one yet. Spectacular sunset views, no bad smells from any of the two bathrooms, comfortable and modern. Still no dishwasher though but I think I got used to that by now (which doesn’t mean I like it).

Just outside our building, we had 2 small streets filled with street food vendors, small restaurants, cafes, shops and our favourite local bar. There were also plenty of cats keen for cuddles, including one who fell asleep purring on top of my foot and I couldn’t move for 15 minutes. Really great place to call home for 5 weeks.

Impressions about Saigon – likes & dislikes

Coming soon

A lot is happening around Ho Chi Minh City. There are many new developments, cranes going up as well as extensive renovations throughout the city. We’ve seen signs saying “coming soon” everywhere we looked so we dubbed Saigon the Coming Soon City.

AFF Suzuki Cup 2018

The cup was on when we arrived in HCMC and as it turned out, Vietnam was in it and doing pretty well. We found a wonderful local bar, where a bunch of regulars met every match-night to watch and drink (lots of) beer. So we watched the semifinal and final matches there, drinking a lot of cheap beer and making friends.

The night Vietnam won the cup was wild. The streets were full of people on motorbikes with huge flags, honking and cheering until early morning. We tried to catch a ride to District 1 to party with them but there were no taxis available.

Moto-taxi

Motorcycle taxis are the best! I had only one experience with them in Bangkok a couple of years ago but it wasn’t as much fun as in Saigon. The first ride was one of the most memorable – day two of our stay, after a couple of beers and one of the AFF matches won by Vietnam. The atmosphere on the streets and being slightly tipsy added extra fun to the ride.

Moto taxis are also the cheapest way to move around the city. We used Grab, Be and GoViet – they usually had some promos going and we often paid nothing, or under $1 for the rides.

99% of my rides were happy (especially when there were 4 of us and the drivers were trying to race each other). There was only one terrible ride when my driver was road raging a big taxi and then angry-cruising the busy streets. After that ride, I was in need of a stiff drink at 11am.

Craft beer

Going to Saigon, I had no idea the craft beer scene is so developed. I was in craft beer heaven and even my birthday cake was replaced with a tasting paddle in my favourite brewery. We were regulars in some places, feeling great when instead of the usual “Welcome” we heard “Hello guys! Welcome back”. I even worked for a few hours out of a brewery and am happy to announce that brewery-office is as good (if not better) as cafe-office.

The downside of all that fun was the prices – fancy beers cost a lot.

Bad food

5 weeks and not a single bad meal. We might have had some less memorable ones but not one that I would call bad and regret trying. Every Vietnamese dish seems to be tasty and nicely balanced – there is always something soft and crunchy as well as sweet and spicy.

Also, pork, which we missed a lot in Kuala Lumpur, is everywhere and it’s hard to find a place that doesn’t serve it.

While pretty much everything we tasted was really good, what helped a lot was research. Checking out blogs, cross-referencing it with Google reviews and Instagram photos, making a list of places I want to visit and dishes I want to try. It comes in handy when you’re hungry but don’t know where to go – you just open the list or map and see what’s nearby. If you’re not prepared there’s a danger of falling into tourist traps which are aplenty.

Hidden

Saigon likes to hide its best cafes, restaurants and bars. Some of them are located in old buildings and either have hidden, unmarked entrances or you need to get through a maze of small alleys to find the right staircase. Some stairs lead to a bunch of resident-kitties (so I was all up for entering dodgy-looking buildings) and some have surprisingly pretty views.

Cash

There are a lot of zeros on the banknotes and it’s hard to wrap your head around the exchange rate in the beginning. Unfortunately, most places don’t accept card payments and we had to deal we cash. Also, similar to Indonesia, everyone with a $100 in the local currency is a millionaire.

Some places had a sticker on the wall saying “we prefer MasterCard” but then when it came to paying it turned out to be a cash-only kind of situation.

Pyjama party

Pyjamas count as appropriate attire in HCMC. It’s not just kids, but also adults who walk around in their pyjamas. And it’s not just downstairs to pick up a delivery – they go like that to shops, restaurants and ride on motorbikes. Most of the pyjamas look comfy and are family-friendly but there was at least one girl in our building, walking around in sexy silk sets.

Crime

Before going to Saigon I read somewhere that the most touristy areas of District 1 are frequented by thieves on motorbikes and that tourists should be careful with their phones, cameras and wallets – especially near busy roads where the thieves can easily snatch something out of your hand and drive away on motorbikes.

One day, while crossing a road, I had my phone in my hand and was checking a map to make sure we’re walking in the right direction. A non-Vietnamese guy passed us on a bike and yelled: “Be careful with your phone!”. That, combined with what I read, got me paranoid. I was stressing out every time I had to look at my phone. As the days passed and nothing happened, I got more and more relaxed. And then, when Juli and Sam visited us, we witnessed how this motorbike snatching works first hand. Thieves in red t-shirts vs Sam 1:0. Then, a few days later we spoke to someone who lost their phone the same way.

So I would say be careful, maybe not to the point of being paranoid but keep your phone in your pocket when crossing the street.

Language

The hardest one yet. Not only the words do not sound similar to any language we know but also the pronunciation is tricky. You may think you’re saying one word but in reality, when pronounced slightly differently it may mean something completely different – for example, pho may be a soup but also a prostitute or cam on may be thank you but also shut up.

It’s hard to learn it such complicated language in 5 weeks. I mastered a list of food-related words (as usual) and was very proud of myself when reading labels in a supermarket or menus in restaurants I was able to understand something. Also, thanks to the words you say before drinking (mot, hai, ba, yo! = one, two, three, cheers!) I learned how to count to three. Well done Aga, you’re two years old.

Prices

Vietnam is cheap, as long as you don’t go to speakeasy bars and craft breweries almost every day. You don’t even have to look hard for inexpensive food – it’s everywhere, it’s fresh and it’s delicious. It’s easy to do Vietnam on a budget.

Exchange rate

In December 2018 1 000 000 VND cost us around 58 AUD (at the same time, it would be around 43 USD).

Grocery prices

We didn’t cook much, only some breakfasts when we were craving bacon and eggs or Vegemite. Our grocery shopping consisted almost exclusively of buying slabs of beer and snacks. The big supermarkets in Ho Chi Minh City we visited: Big C, Auchan and Co.opmart.

How much we paid for our groceries? For example:

  • 6 eggs: 15 600 VND = 0.94 AUD
  • 250g pack of cherry tomatoes: 20 900 VND = 1.23 AUD
  • 200g of bacon: 46 000 = 2.70 AUD
  • Beer, 333 (24 x 330ml can): 226 500 VND = 13.24 AUD

How much you should expect to pay for:

  • a flat white in a cafe: 50 000 – 95 000 VND = 2.99 – 5.66 AUD
  • a pint of craft beer: 75 000 – 175 000 VND = 4.55 – 10.62 AUD
  • a good restaurant lunch for two with drinks: 400 000 VND = 24 AUD
  • a banh mi: 15 000 – 22 000 VND = 0.90 – 1.32 AUD
  • a bowl of pho: 40 000 – 90 000 VND = 2.40 – 5.50 AUD

How much we spent in 5 weeks (2 people)

Accommodation: 29 915 000 VND = 1 782.41 AUD
Groceries: 2 672 322 VND = 160.31 AUD
Eating out (we went out for meals, snacks or ice cream 90 times): 16 203 850 VND = 979.85 AUD
Coffee: 3 663 250 VND = 219.61 AUD
Alcohol: 16 260 221 VND = 985.09 AUD
Transport (public transport, Grab, Be, GoViet): 2 530 000 VND = 152.30 AUD
Entertainment (tours, museums etc): 3 742 600 VND = 223.81 AUD
SIM: 370 000 VND = 21.75 AUD

Total: 75 357 243 VND = 4 525.13 AUD

Random thoughts

People

Some of the nicest people we encountered during our travels. They were smiling a lot, saying hello as soon as they saw us and even tried to teach us the proper pronunciation of the name of the dishes we were ordering. Some, especially the moto-taxi drivers, were visibly excited to see us and some were asking to take selfies together.

Karaoke

Everyone seems to e a little bit crazy about karaoke. No matter if in the middle of a big city, in a vegetable shop while they have no customers, in a cafe just before closing for the day or in a village with friends – it’s always good time to sing.

During one of our bike tours, we stopped for a beer (I’m still not 100% sure if that was a restaurant or someone’s house) and the locals asked us to sing for them. One Yellow Submarine and few ABBA songs later we were free to go.

Motorbike transport

We learned you can transport just about anything on a motorbike: a whole 5-person family, a table, a couple of large speakers, 10 huge bottles of water…full, guitars, suitcases, 6 crates of beer, 4 TVs, a fridge, a washing machine. Everything is possible.

Happened this month

My birthday

I had a great day. We celebrated with a beer paddle, a nap and a night street food tour. In one of the restaurants we visited that evening, I got a small cake from the guides and everyone around joined in singing Happy Birthday.

Xmas & NYE with Juli and Sam

Not only we spent 10 days together, went on adventures, found some cool bars, drank a lot (some of us too much) and explored the Mekong Delta but we (Hubby and I) were very excited to have people to talk to. It’s always just us two, we don’t go out and make friends easily so we rely on each other when it comes to human interaction. Having friends in our Airbnb was a great change of pace.

The NYE was one of my favourites too – we watched the most spectacular sunset from our balcony with cheap Saigon beers in hand, went to one of the restaurants we discovered by mistake for dinner and “partied” in a quiet cocktail bar drinking G&Ts and playing shuffleboard. Low key partying at its best.

Bike trips

Exploring new places on a bike is one of the things I would like to do more so I’m very happy we went on 2 bike trips this month. One in the Mekong Delta that we organised ourselves, one in a calmer part of Saigon organised via Airbnb. We got some exercise on, went to places we would go by bus, car or motorbike and had a blast doing so.

Tips

Saigon Lifestyle Guide has some great articles and recommendations on places to see and things to do. It may be a good idea to follow them on facebook where weekly deals and special events are published.

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