Sleepless in Saigon

April 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm 2 comments

A weekend trip to Saigon, for me, was something inconceivable, given my distaste for plane rides and filthy hotel bed sheets.

But in February, after battling thoughts of  tragic airplane food and carefully picking out a decent-looking hotel, I flew to Vietnam with my boyfriend, armed with aspirins and a borrowed backpack.

Upon arrival at the Tan Son Nhat airport, we were greeted by a grinning man who, from a few of his hand gestures, we made out as a cabbie. We threw our backpacks in the backseat of his sedan and hopped in, only to discover another Vietnamese in the driver’s seat– a chain-smoking businessman with an old suitcase crammed on his lap. The cabbie sped off and from outside the car windows, our first glimpse of Saigon was a blurry haze muddled with thick Vietnamese vowels and cigarette smoke.

Of course the cabbie ripped us off (who also turned out to be driving barefoot) and my boyfriend’s unmistakable Vietnamese features didn’t help at all. At the hotel lobby, we found the bellboys, with their shoes strewn across the carpet, snoring on the stained Victorian couches. The unsmiling receptionist took our passports and pointed us to a rickety elevator with a waiting bellhop. A fat Caucasian was slumped on a bar chair, bored. A faint, blue light radiated from a muted television.

Hungry, we went out for noodles only every single shop was closed. It was a Friday night but Saigon was dead to the world. Wolfing instant ramen at the hotel steps, we watched a pimp in a motorcycle pick up his girl, a blonde Oriental in a tiny blouse worn as an even tinier dress. She had dirty feet, visible underneath her glass slippers. Then Cinderella sped off in her coach, the small of her white back, sort-of beautiful.

With empty cups, there was no choice but to jump into the sheets and sleep. My disappointment was mounting. And I could not be bothered to wake up early the next morning.

Fast track to the day after, and the chambermaids’ loud pig-latin babbling outside the door prompted us to hop in the shower and hop out of the hotel, fast. A black cloud of disappointment was still hanging above my head but with a faint sense of excitement throbbing underneath my skin, I was hopeful.

And. Saigon. Is. A. Dream. This realization hit me straight smack in the teeth as soon as I step out of the four walls of the hotel (the bellboys, this time, were aligned by the doors like bright nutcrackers). Vespas speeding off left and right, leaving behind a trail of smoke, colors, fruit smells. Banh Mi and Pho vendors with their tiny stalls peopled the sidewalks and locals on their lunch break stooped low on steaming noodle bowls, the smell of food communing with words and laughters and more words. Fruit and flower farmers with their conical hats, riding their bikes for a day at the market. And of course, white tourists everywhere. In Saigon, 11 out 10 people are white.


Saigon is a street food haven; every corner presents a surprise: Baguettes warming on improvised coal-heated grills; fruits pickling in brine, flavored with red salt; buckets of clam thrown in bubbling pots, rice cakes spooned generously on banana leaves.

I had about three bags of Vietnamese Coc fruit, sold pickling in clear square jars. The lady-vendor would pepper the fruits with chili-salt, which she would happily pack an extra if you really want it hot-salty.

And, of course, Pho. The vegetables thrown in the white-hot broth are so fresh, the delicious crunch between your teeth is unmistakable. Sold everywhere in Saigon, from humble corner-shops to commercialized Pho chains, the warm weather is never an excuse to not savour a hot bowl (I can have two in one sitting. Three, if I really want to).

Pho makes everything all right

In the middle of the all the dust and the sweat and the chaos of a Saigon Saturday, we chanced upon a group of old girls chowing chicken in the middle of traffic. This is this. You don’t see it everyday, in your capitalism-driven, democratic skyscraper-jungle of a country.

 I wish to return. One happy day.


Recommended Film:

Canh Ba Ba (Turtle Soup) (2011)


Entry filed under: food, travel.

I told you I’d be back

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. leamuse  |  April 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Thank you for the beautiful photos. It has been ten years since I spent a month in Vietnam and it is one of my favorite places to visit.

    • 2. Lou Lou  |  April 8, 2012 at 6:13 pm

      Thank you for dropping by! Vietnam will never go anywhere; you can always come back. Cheers.


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