They are called xe ôm—literally “hug vehicles” in Vietnamese. They are scooters no different from the millions that swarm and whiz through Saigon’s streets, make its cities a busy hive of churning motors, and threaten to sting pedestrians who dare cross streets, as they stop for neither people nor traffic lights. But instead of ignoring road rules and befuddled foreigners desperate to cross the street, the xe ôm and their drivers wait patiently at corners and at the roadside or slow down to one’s pace, greet you with pleasantries and solicit you in English for a ride at the back of their motorbike. There seems to be more than one xe ôm for every tourist in Saigon and their friendliness is incessant as they vie for precious passengers.
Those familiar with going around Southeast Asia such as I—I’ve ridden at the back of motorbikes to get to the temples of Borobudur in Central Java, Indonesia and the stunning Lake Sebu in Cotabato, Philippines—confidently keep our hands free to take pictures with our camera even as our steed snakes its way through congested city streets and up dirt roads with daredevil panache. For the other foreigners clinging on to the waist of their motorcycle driver for dear life however, the “hug vehicle” truly earns its name.
But even with my experience, I found xe ôm a daunting challenge—a far cry from the comfort of Vietnam Airlines’ modern fleet of jet planes, the convenience of its online ticketing, and reliability of its code sharing with other reputable airlines. After being pampered with such care on my way to Saigon, I found that I had to haggle for the price of my ride on the xe ôm. Vietnam’s taxis are no different. Each cab company competes with different fare rates.
No standard rates for taxi fares and currency exchanges. Traffic rules are mere suggestions. Every shop has two prices for each merchandise: the local price and the far steeper tourist price. With all these, Saigon may seem like a place where foreigners must be on constant guard against being hustled. The xe ôm seems indicative of Saigon’s character; a city can suffer from too much freedom. But it’s also easy to fall in love with Saigon’s libertine ways. After all, it is these same xe ôm drivers who keep enticing me with a ride and wooing me with smiles.
The heart of Saigon
Officially named Ho Chi Minh City after the great leader who liberated this former capital of South Vietnam and unified the nation, Saigon—as it is more commonly known to both locals and tourists—is a city that still possesses its French colonial charms as well as the neon-lit honky tonk attractions that harken to America’s wartime involvement decades ago. Above all this, waving constantly are the triumphant banners of red with a star of glorious gold, and amid them are edifices to the man whose name the city now bears—a proud proclamation of a people who bested a superpower and made peace with itself. It is this melange of contrasting sights, sounds and tastes that makes Saigon exciting and unique.
Too many tourists know Saigon simply as a stopover on the way to the capital to the north, Hanoi; a jump-off point to the beaches of Nha Trang, Phu Quoc Island and Danang; or one leg of a Southeast Asian backpacking tour that includes the ancient temples of Cambodia and the hedonistic pleasures of Thailand. But this bustling city is an attraction all by itself, as I found out for myself. Despite all the other attractions that surround it. I had every reason to stay in Saigon.
The French connection On one end of Le Loi Street, amid the elegance of the posh hotels such as the Caravelle, or the VinCom Mall, and the towering glass spire of the Bitexco Financial Tower (the highest building in the city), are buildings of exquisite French colonial filigree and pomp. Most notably, these include the Hôtel de Ville (today known as the People’s Committee Hall), the Opera House, the City Post Office, and the Notre Dame Cathedral.
All within a short walk of one another, many of these monuments to French colonial splendor have now been counterpoised with monuments to Vietnam’s proletarian revolution. For example, the elegant Hôtel de Ville is now graced with a well-manicured bonsai and flower garden that has as its centerpiece a sculpture of Ho Chi Minh. Atop its highest spire flutters Vietnam’s red flag.
In contrast, it is gorgeous brides-to-be in flowing white wedding gowns that enliven the brick walls of Notre Dame Cathedral. At all times of the day, there are couples having their prenuptial pictures taken beside this historic hallowed ground.
Beside the Notre Dame Cathedral is the enchanting City Post Office. In this age of instantaneous digital connectivity, mailing handwritten postcards to loved ones within this colonial monument to the written word, is a quaint and heart-warming experience. The City Post Office has a row of souvenir shops with many great finds, among which are reproductions of communist propaganda posters and postcards.
Bargains and backpackers
Down the road at Le Loi Street are the nocturnal food stalls that sprout nightly by the Ben Thanh Market, the steals and bargains to be had at Saigon Square, and further on are the mazelike den of backpacker’s hovels and honky tonk bars at Pham Ngu Lao. This is where buses disgorge their globetrotting budget travelers. These hostels are narrow buildings where tourists can rent rooms in the upper floors while the hosts sleep on the ground floor. They are cheap, but you get what you pay for.
Many seek out bargain hunters’ Northface backpacks and jackets. This acclaimed American brand of outdoor gear manufactures many of its goods in Vietnam. However, it is still best to buy genuine article and any item with a price too good to be true is perhaps an imitation.
It is far better to patronize Saigon’s traditional crafts. There are lacquered boxes of exquisite artisanship; intricately detailed sailing ships, miniatures still large enough to fill up a room, delicate pop-up paper cards that depict pagodas, ferris wheels, dragons as well as many of Vietnam’s own famous landmarks; viscous and elegant silk shawls and blouses; and even metal wire works that depict everything from the quaint “cyclos”—Vietnam’s iconic reverse tricycle where the passenger sits at the front instead of the rear—to ones depicting Hollywood monsters such “Aliens” and “Predators”; and lamps, furniture, and even water pipes finely crafted from bamboo. All these are products handmade in Vietnam—a testament to its people’s skill and artistry.
Food for the soul
There is a virtual smorgasbord on the streets of Saigon. From the ubiquitous “Pho 24”—the Vietnamese fast food franchise that has gone global—to roadside eateries that feature fresh shellfish, Saigon offers a wide array of genuine culinary delights. Not to be missed are the eateries at Ben Thanh’s night market. Bun bo hue (Hue beef soup) and Banh xeo (Vietnamese omelette) are delicious gourmand experiences.
An essential activity in Saigon is drinking Ca phe sua da—Vietnamese iced coffee. The very opposite of a hurried shot of hot bitter espresso, Vietnamese coffee is for those who are willing to wait and savor this sweet cool experience. Hot water is poured into a stainless steel French drip filter that fits above a glass coffee cup. Inside the glass cup is a generous dollop of sweetened condensed milk. It takes about 15 minutes for the coffee to drain into the glass cup. Once it does, you mix the coffee and the milk, and pour it into a tall glass filled with ice. Enjoying one on a hot night in Saigon, I could understand better the psyche of the Saigon native, perked up to engage a hurried city, yet taking time to enjoy the sweetness of life.
The triumph of history There are numerous historical sites that enrich one appreciation of Saigon’s history. One such is the War Remnants Museum with its impressive collection of captured US military war machines and disturbing documentation of atrocities. Tanks, helicopters and jet planes testify to the hubris of technology as well as the indomitable spirit of people seeking national unity. This museum makes a worthy counterpoint to all the Hollywood Vietnam war films that have sought to rewrite history.
Another essential historical site is the Reunification Palace that preserves the moment, the style and the architecture when the US-backed South Vietnamese government fell to the North and the nation became whole again. Once the office of the South Vietnamese president, the Reunification Palace has on its grounds a Russian-designed, Chinese-made T59 tank—the same as the one that crashed through the gates of the presidential palace on April 30, 1975 and ended the war. Today, the tank still points its gun directly at the palace.
For all its well-manicured flower gardens, glittering modern towers of glass, and pristinely maintained colonial architecture, Saigon’s most precious attraction are its people. Quite remarkable is how they, unlike most Asians who keep to themselves, will be the first to strike up a conversation and chat with perfect strangers. There are svelte Vietnamese damsels gliding along elegantly in silken gossamer Áo dài—the Vietnamese traditional dress. There are both elderly women and school children in uniforms practicing martial arts in the park. More than a showcase of both history and modernity, Saigon offers a candid peak into the daily lives of its citizens. And the best way to experience the city is to go where they go, eat as they eat, and travel as they travel.
To enjoy one’s stay at Saigon and other locations, it is best to understand human nature. Though metered rates are potentially cheaper, the tendency is for drivers to go in circles to lengthen the ride and increase the fare. It is far better to negotiate a fixed price before boarding a taxi at an airport or hotel where one has an English-speaking barker or bellboy who can translate for you the price, location, route and the need for a receipt. Regardless, it is always best to get a tourist map or download one on your smartphone, and know your route as you go along.
The most trustworthy money changers with the best rates are those at the airport. Confine all essential online communication to emails as the social networking site Facebook is blocked at public wifi networks. Weather in Saigon can be humid and hot, but can turn into a sustained downpour on a turn of a dime, as I myself experienced. Bring a raincoat and a bag for your camera as you venture into the streets. Though I had no untoward incidents in this friendly city, locals constantly reminded me to secure my camera. The xe ôm may be persistent. But one only has to smile and politely say no and they will leave you alone.
Xe ôm maybe a necessity when negotiating Saigon’s busy roads, but to get in and out the city, it is best to rely on the safe, speedy, reliable and luxurious planes of this nation’s national air carrier, Vietnam Airlines. A member of SkyTeam airline alliance, Vietnam Airlines also code shares with those affiliated with Oneworld alliance as well as many individual airlines. These strategic partnerships allowed me the convenience of riding a Philippine Airlines jet from Manila to Saigon with my Vietnam Airlines ticket. Departing Saigon for further adventures in Hanoi, I experienced firsthand such remarkable hospitality and comfort with Vietnam Airlines own fleet of modern airplanes. With all the demands of making the most of one’s stay in such a glorious city as Saigon (and there is never enough time to visit such a multi-faceted city such as Saigon), there is no sense in arriving worse for wear with an hours-long bone-jarring train or bus ride.
I leave Saigon with a belly full of good food, a bag of exquisite handicrafts and the fondest memories on my mind. I only wish I could hug this entire city back on a magical xe ôm ride.