How to See Saigon like a Local
October 16, 2018
by Julia Montague
Saigon! It’s formally known as Ho Chi Minh City, but many of the 8.5 million locals residing here still refer to it by its pre-American war name (and yes, they call it the American war over here).
The city is notorious for its bustling motorbike traffic, roadside food vendors that stretch as far as the eye can see, and the magnificent French colonial architecture that intertwines with narrow, winding alleyways amongst other unique features. Whatever it is that you’re after, there is undeniably an abundance of rich culture to be discovered here for the traveler who is willing to delve into (sometimes vastly) unfamiliar territory.
Saigon can appear incredibly hectic to the first-time visitor, so here are some recommendations and tips for if you do decide to visit this incredible city.
Cross the street, carefully
Traffic here is relentless, especially as office workers commute home around 6 pm. Be prepared to face busy streets that seem as impermeable as a front line, but have no fear! You will quickly learn how to cross the street in Saigon.
Here’s how it’s done: walk straight and slowly across the street, no need to wait for green on the traffic light (if there even is one). When I say slowly, I mean slowly. If traffic is heavy, I find myself crawling a few inches at a time. Look the oncoming traffic directly in the eyes; they will go around you as long as you move–I’ll say it one more time–slowly! 99% of the time, they will act as if you are just another obstacle in the road. Do be wary of the occasional 1% driver who isn’t paying attention and might not see you.
Relax! Get a massage
Thailand may be the country most infamous for its luxurious and budget-friendly massages, but Vietnam comes in at a close second. You can find massages on Bui Vien (the infamous backpacking street) for about $10 AUD, but these are targeted at tourists and not always up to standard. I recommend getting out of the tourist district (D1) and expat district (Thao Dien) and finding a spot where the locals go. You can get a fantastic full-body massage with oil for the same price at a spa in a local neighborhood (and yes, the ladies there will walk on your back). The menu might not be in English, but hand gestures get you quite far here.
Sample the interesting street cuisine
Vietnam is well-known for being the land of noodle soups (usually bun or pho), broken rice (com tam), and single-serving baguette sandwiches (banh mi), but there are also some out-there street delicacies that you can easily find; some examples include snails and whole grilled frogs. I recently tried some partially developed quail egg (cut lon xao me) and duck egg (hot vit long).
You likely won’t know how to order, so just point. You may also have no idea of what you’re putting in your mouth, making street-stand hopping an exclusive hobby for the culinarily adventurous.
Catch a caffeine buzz at a cafe
Saigon is packed with cafes where you can get an amazingly strong cup of Vietnamese coffee. The most popular options are cafe da (iced coffee with sugar) and cafe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk). I might personally be a bit addicted to the latter. Some other favorites include egg coffee and coconut coffee, but these are both rather heavy for a regular morning pick-me-up. It’s important to note that these cafes are not like Starbucks in the west–they generally do not serve food, and nobody is ever in a rush in Saigon, so they are not the place to stop for a quick bite to eat.
Cafe culture in Saigon is strong, and throughout the day you will see older men sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes, and playing board games or simply chatting. It is a true testament to the way laid-back culture of the land. (Did I mention that everyone takes a nap in the middle of the day, with moto taxi drivers often snoozing atop their parked motorbikes?!)
Check-out authentic Vietnamese parts of town
Ba Chieu local market in Binh Thanh District is a great place to start. Unlike the touristic Ben Thanh Market, you will be able to experience the way that the locals really live and shop. The vendors don’t speak English, but you can ask for the price using a simple “bao nhieu” and barter by using your fingers. Keep in mind that prices in VND are generally in 10s or 100s of thousands.
One of the most charming qualities about Saigon is the vast network of alleyways that connect the entire city. Learn the art of the alleyway–you can have a meal, get your haircut, have your nails done, buy local produce, have a cup of coffee, and more, all at an incredibly reasonable price. Just be careful when walking narrow alleyways as motorbikes go wherever they want in this city, and sometimes they can catch you off-guard when going around corners.
Talk to the locals
Your taxi cab driver doesn’t know where he’s going and doesn’t speak any English? No problem. It’s totally acceptable here to ask strangers for help! Younger Vietnamese tend to speak at least some English and will be able to relay your message to your cab driver for you. Vietnamese youth are very eager to talk to locals in English–our language is a commodity in this part of the world, and lessons are very expensive for the average Vietnamese person. You may be surprised by how eager they are to have a conversation with you, so don’t be afraid to start one! Can’t find your Airbnb? Odds are there’s an old man sitting out on the street who sees the distress on your face, magically knows exactly where you’re going, and can point you in the right direction. The Vietnamese are incredibly warm and hospitable people, so don’t be afraid of the language barrier.
- Buy a rain poncho. They cost less than $2 AUD and all the locals have them for a reason. Trust me, you will need it! That nice Patagonia rain shell from home will not stand up against Saigon rain, especially when on a motorbike.
- Get a sim card (I recommend Viettel). You can buy it at the airport. Data is incredibly cheap and reliable in Vietnam, and you will most likely need it to get around the city.
- Download the Grab App on your phone; it’s the Uber of Southeast Asia. You can identify a grab motorbike driver by his adorable green Grab helmet and matching jacket. Grab cars are also available. Taxi drivers will often try to swindle foreigners, but the Grab App locks in the price before you hop in (or on), meaning no negotiating and no getting ripped off.
- Bring Cash. The currency used in Vietnam is the Dong (VND). Vietnam is a cash-based economy and most establishments will not accept your Visa or Mastercard, and, if they do, there will be a foreign transaction fee. The same fee dilemma goes for local ATMs.
- Bring your skincare products with you. Vietnamese beauty standards idealize white skin, so it is incredibly difficult to find sunscreen, moisturizer, and similar products that don’t contain skin-whitening ingredients. (You might also notice that women tend to conceal their entire bodies from the sun, especially when riding motorbikes, for the same reason.)
- Bring your preferred feminine products with you. They do not sell tampons in Vietnam, although pads are easy to find at any convenience store.
Whether you are planning on traveling to Saigon as a tourist or moving here as an expat, this wonderfully diverse city will no doubt produce some amount of culture shock to a first-time visitor. Prepare yourself for the traffic and manageable chaos, and you will no doubt have a lovely trip to this city that is full of delightful surprises down every alleyway.