When we first decided to purchase open-ended tickets and travel to Southeast Asia with our lives and laptops in two massive backpacks, I pictured us staying in a select few number of cities for longer periods, really taking the time to get to know each place and sync up with the local rhythm of life. Slow travel, as they’re calling it.
That was largely our style in our former (and probably future) vanlife, and it seems to fit well with the busy work-life balance that has us happily bent over our keyboards most days of the week.
But as the departure date drew nearer and the list of places we needed to check out for ourselves and things we needed to experience grew longer, I found myself coming to terms with the fact that this probably wasn’t going to be that kind of trip. Instead of visiting three cities over six months like I’d envisioned, we ended up seeing much more of the three neighbouring countries of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
To be clear, I regret not a moment of it. Every spring roll, every bag of seaweed flavoured chips, every beach, every temple, every hotel room and homestay, every exhilarating scooter ride, even the bus rides were memorable, mostly in good ways.
But when, after three months in Thailand and one in Cambodia, we finally committed to “settling down” in Ho Chi Minh, AKA Saigon, in the south of Vietnam, I couldn’t wait to open my hulking, hideous, beetle-like backpack and void it of all the stuff that’d been gathering wrinkles and strange smells deep in its bowels, and organize it into an apartment with a closet and a kitchen. Our apartment, at least temporarily.
The month that followed was one of the most authentic, culturally rich, rewarding and personally challenging experiences of our time abroad, or of my life. With arguably the best cafe culture in the entire world and a healthy expat population, Saigon proved to be an excellent city in which to get to work, and slowing down gave us the opportunity to connect in meaningful ways with some locals and other longer-term travellers living in the city. But traffic like we’d never seen and a consistent level of general life noise I previously thought reserved for EDM concerts had us feeling culture shocked at times. Again, mostly in a good way.
Here’s a quick review of some of Saigon’s highlights as seen through our digital nomad eyes, as well as a few of the challenges we experienced as rookie Vietnam travellers.
The sweet (literally and metaphorically) food
Of course we knew that Vietnamese cuisine went beyond the pho, banh mi and spring rolls we’re almost exclusively offered in North America, but we were still largely unprepared for the variety of foods and flavours we’d end up trying.
Thanks in large part to our kind and thoughtful AirBNB hosts who took us to dinner on three different occasions in three separate parts of the city, we quickly gained a basis for an appreciation of the nation’s culinary offerings and got to decipher some of the menus that were often not offered in English outside of the tourist areas.
One interesting characteristic of HCMC’s eats specifically is that they are often sweet(er) than they are elsewhere. From pho to the popular rice dish com tam (more on that absolute winner of a meal in a bit), much of the food in Saigon is dished up less spicy and sweeter than other locations in the country, or it’s served with a side of sweet fish sauce. We were told that, generally speaking, the further north you go in Vietnam, the spicier things get, and the further south you go the sweeter. Our travels seemed to confirm this.
I wasn’t the biggest fish sauce fan back home, but after two weeks in Saigon I was practically guzzling the stuff and just chasing it with a bit of rice. I swear, some of it tastes like syrup.
3 dishes to try
Banh Mi Op La – Did you know that “banh mi” actually just means bread in Vietnamese, and not “sandwich” like we English speakers interpret it? Well, it does. So, when ordering one of the popular street sandwiches in Saigon or elsewhere in Vietnam, you need to clarify what you want on it. To name just a few, there’s banh mi thit nguoi (pork cold cuts), banh mi chay (vegetarian), banh mi ga nuong (grilled chicken) or, our personal favourite by a long shot, banh mi op la, which is made with a fried egg (op la), sometimes lightly scrambled with chopsticks, a bit of soy dressing and some pickled veggies.
They’re so good and simple that we’re going to be pretty upset to not be able to just pick one up for $1 on the street corner at any hour when we’re back in Canada. So, if you’re a Canadian culinary entrepreneur, please hear our cries and open a cheap banh mi op la near our apartment in Vancouver. Thank you.
Com Tam – “Com” means “rice,” a useful word to know in Vietnam as it appears on most every food menu, and “tam” means “broken.” Made from the busted and therefore imperfect grains of rice, com tam used to be a meal reserved for the poor. But when people realized that the texture of the rice was different and sometimes better, it became a dish for everyone. Served with a variety of items commonly including a grilled pork chop, pickled vegetables, an egg and/or egg cake, com tam can be found on basically every block in Saigon and rarely costs more than 40,000 Vietnamese Dong (around $2.50 Canadian).
Snails – Snails are a Saigonese staple and delicacy in one. If you’ve seen that Netflix Street Food doc’s episode about Saigon, you probably know all about them. If not, understand that there are dozens of different types and even more styles of preparation. For the first dinner out with our host friends, we headed over to Vinh Khanh Street (“seafood street”) in District 4 and prepared to eat snails for the first time in any form other than the escargot dish served at Canada’s steakhouse The Keg (at which, fun fact, I and both my parents used to work).
I’ll admit that it wasn’t my favourite meal in the city, but it was easily the most interesting. We ordered mud crawlers in a coconut sauce, some sweetly sauced snail that was so large it came pre-sliced, and clams that were served on the shell with peanuts and herbs, which we gobbled most of.
The drinking scene, because Vietnamese people really like beer
Thailand has great cheap whisky. Vietnam has great cheap beer. Whether it’s the low-test lagers like Saigon Red (my fav), 333 (Lisa’s fav), Huda or any of the others served to stool-sitting patrons of the street-level beer bars (bia hoi), or the hoppier brews offered by the country’s many craft brewers such as Heart of Darkness, Pasteur Street Brewery or East West Brewing Company, there’s no shortage of places to crush a beer in Saigon.
We won’t bother naming the bia hois here as you can stumble upon those yourself, but we will give a shout to a few of the other pubs, bars and drinkeries we fell for while sipping like locals.
BiaCraft Artisan Ales for a pint
BiaCraft claims to offer the most extensive list of Vietnamese craft beers, and we haven’t been able to find evidence to the contrary. We actually just happened upon their location in Saigon’s touristy District 1 randomly, but after enjoying a view of the city along with a pint of Far East IPA from East West Brewing, we felt like old friends. We should offer a warning, however, because after a few months of drinking the usually low-alcohol lagers popular in Southeast Asia, a 6.5% ale can smack you right in the brain. A friend of ours who lives in the city told us about visiting BiaCraft on their opening night and being grossed out but not entirely surprised by the amount of vomit in the bathrooms. That extra 2 per cent can make all the difference.
Malt for a caesar, Canada’s national cocktail
This popular expat bar serves a variety of Vietnamese beers, including the cheap bottles and plenty of the craft options, but the reason we went to Malt with a fellow Canadian friend and then returned a couple weeks later was because they are, by our count, the only place in the city to get a caesar. What’s that you ask? Why, it’s Canada’s national cocktail, of course, made with vodka, Clamato juice (clams + tomato), Worcestershire, Tabasco, lime and a spiced rim, usually garnished with a pickled bean or olives. So, basically a Bloody Mary but better and with a fishier base. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it. Oh, and they also serve poutine.
Powers Bar in Little Tokyo to feel as cool as a Japanese hipster
Like many of the coolest spots in the city, this little gem is hidden on the third storey of an old building in Little Tokyo. We never would’ve found it if we hadn’t been shown the way by a local expat friend. The ice cubes are big. The bartenders are stylish AF. The draft is cheap. And the vibe is just generally fucking rad. Go here, drink one, and leave about 10 per cent cooler than when you went in.
Cafes, ca phe’s, coffee houses and the only two places you can get decaf
Vietnam has a few impressive sub-cultures. Beer is one, scooters is another, but coffee might be the most prevalent. As a nation, Vietnam is renown for incredibly strong and tasty coffee brewed and served in a variety of ways, and drinking it everywhere all the time. Hanoi may be the coffee epicenter of the country, but HCMC has plenty of caffeine to go around.
The most common brewing method in Vietnam uses a French drip device known as a ‘phin filter’ and some coarsely ground beans, but there are also plenty of espresso machines to be found. The drinks they then make with this coffee are various, strong and usually served quite sweet. Egg coffee, which is currenly making a frothy splash in North America, is one of the standouts.
As is our wont, we gravitated toward those cafes that were receptive to laptop junkies such as ourselves. And in Saigon, there are literally hundreds. Here are a few of our go-to’s.
Billed as a cafe/coworking space, The Workshop is a digi-nomad’s dream space. Speedy wifi, good eats and drinks, a mix of locals and foreigners, an inspiring work space on the third storey of a cool old building, air conditioning to help you focus during those hot mid-day hours; it’s got it all! This was one of the first places we pulled our laptops out at and it set the bar for our cafe working experience.
The national chains
Vietnam has three big national coffee chains, all of which we became familiar with in Saigon and continued to frequent in other cities. There’s Highlands Coffee, The Coffee House and Cong Ca Phe. Our preference based on vibe and juice offerings is Cong Ca Phe, which has a kind of unpolished aesthetic with the staff dressed in dark green uniforms and lots of stone, concrete and wood used in the decor.
Starbucks and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf for decaf
If you’ve Googled “decaf in Ho Chi Minh City” then you know the struggle. While coffee is bigger than Bieber here, decaf is not.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I visited a number of the city’s Starbucks locations to get my coffee fix without the butt sweats I get from a full-caff americano. Also, as we’ve previously stated on this blog, we love Starbucks and aren’t afraid to admit it.
It’s a stylish place, with more clothing boutiques than Lisa could visit in a month
While the popular tourist destination of Hoi An in the centre of the country is undeniably the best place to have a suit or gown custom made, Saigon’s selection of affordable, fashionable, funky, and sometimes just plain strange boutiques make it a top destination to pick up some style.
It seemed like every corner or alley had at least one of these little shops selling quirky t-shirts with grammatically incorrect english words or phrases (“GUCCCI” with three Cs is super in right now), or unique, local-ish accessories. As is the case everywhere else in the world, there were far more shops dedicated to women, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a good number of men’s boutiques as well.
At six-foot-six-inches, I’m far too large for pretty much anything off the shelf, but I did cop a brown corduroy hat from a shop downtown near the Bitexco Tower, and a couple of oversized t-shirts, including one I got at a market in the expat area of District 2 from Royal King Dynasty, a cool expat-run company that uses vintage propaganda posters as design inspo.
As the more dedicated shopper, Lisa scored some stylish wears at Mayhem Saigon, a hip shop with both vintage and new (and import weed at the front counter–just sayin’); a couple cute gifts at the The New Playground, a multi-shop underground mall; and a pair of shirts at William Boutique.
The traffic, however, can be frustrating and frightening.
In North America, parents tell their children to “look both ways before crossing the street.” In Vietnam, it’s more like “pick a spot and don’t stop moving toward it, except if there’s a bus coming.”
I remember seeing the river of motorbikes overflowing through the intersections as we pulled into the city on our first day. So. Many. Scooters. Men on scooters. Women on scooters. Teens on scooters. Teens holding infants on scooters. Grab delivery drivers on scooters. Families of four or five on scooters. Food carts on scooters. Pets on scooters (dogs mostly, but Lisa also saw one man riding with his pet bird on his hand, giving it little kisses at the lights, and another man with a monkey on a leash on his motorbike).
According to the Vietmese Transport Department (as reported by the local, english-language digital publication, Saigoneer), some 8.5 million motorbikes pour out onto the city streets every day, with an estimated 750 additional bikes being registered daily. That stat is impressive, but even more so when you consider the city’s population is only 8 million. So, like sheep in New Zealand, there are literally more motorbikes than people in HCMC.
And they will run you down if you step out in front of them. Even though your average Vietnamese driver has faster reflexes than a professional ping pong player and seems to know where their motorbike begins and ends like it’s an extension of their actual body, they do still crash. In fact, the World Health Organization states that road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for people aged 15-29 in Vietnam.
Even with the warnings and having watched a tutorial on crossing the street, it was a lot at first. Sometimes I’d feel aggravated or frustrated, like I’d had my personal space invaded, but then I’d step back and remember that I was the tourist and it’s all a matter of perspective. Still, I’ve travelled safer roads.
And everything is louder in Vietnam.
I can’t tell you how many times Lisa got visibly scared as a pedestrian when a passing truck, bus or sometimes just an exuberant motorbike sounded its horn directly behind us. Maybe seventeen times, if I had to guess. I laughed at her every one of those times that didn’t also scare me. So, about three good laughs.
The thing is, the horn is a communication tool here that means all sorts of things. Safety things. Things that need to be shared often on these busy roads, sometimes with short punctuated bursts like the chirping of a flightless man-sized bird and sometimes with a lengthy blast like the rending in half of the Titanic.
And I know that this is the way it is in many other places in the world as well, but not the ones I’m used to driving and walking around in. In North America the sounding of a horn basically means one thing and one thing only: “fuck you, buds!” So, when you hear it right behind your head, you’re all but conditioned to react in a negative way.
Anyway, for us, being the sidewalk rights activists of the soft western nation of Canada we are, these sounds were a source of stress at first, but we got used to it pretty quickly. The odd bus horn will still startle us, but I’m no longer buzzing with adrenaline every time I try to cross the road.
But it’s all part of the experience
Yes, it’s loud. Yes, you might get your toes run over by a scooter while you’re standing on the sidewalk. Ya, the snails might make you butt-sick for a few hours. But once you spend some time in Vietnam, you’ll probably, like I did, begin finding comfort in the incessant sounds of traffic and karaoke, or taking advantage of the sidewalk-hopping Grab bikes to get from A to B, or devouring all the street food despite the travel doctor’s recommendations.
It’s all part of the Saigon experience, and I regret none of it.
Have you spent time in Ho Chi Minh City? Or maybe you’re headed there. We’d love to hear about your Saigon highlights for the next time we visit – because there will be a next time – so drop them in the comments below.