Before going to Saigon, we had heard some pretty mixed things about it. A couple we had met down the road in Hue had been there for several days and hadn’t liked it at all. So, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it reminded us of Hanoi, which we enjoyed a lot. We had thought that the scooter population in Hanoi was remarkable, but scooter traffic in Saigon kicked things up a notch. Scooters flood streets, sidewalks — everywhere. And riders are young, old, parents with children on the scooters, people dressed up and not, people carrying every type of cargo imaginable, and Grab Scooters (Grab is the Asian version of Uber) looking for someone to pay them for a ride somewhere. Watching them, especially from a story or two above the street, their movement seems almost liquid, with scooters filling in every possible space. Crossing streets in such a place is pretty intimidating, but we soon learned to look for the tiniest break in the flow, then step confidently into the street, moving steadily but slowly. Remarkably the scooters do go around us. It’s a little like stepping into water and having it flow around, but not touch.
Estimates seem to vary regarding the number of scooters in the city, but some are as high as nine million scooters in a city of nine million people. A scooter is an easy choice to make in a place like Saigon, where this cheap transportation can be bought for around $2000 USD with no taxes to pay. A car, on the other hand, costs $25,000 to $30,000, and up, with tax rates of 100%. In a place where the average wage is under $6,000 a year, the only people purchasing cars are those who use the car to earn their living, such as taxi drivers, or the very wealthy.
A night at the Bamboo Circus
On our first night in town, we bought tickets to a show called The Bamboo Circus, mostly because it was staged at the Saigon Opera House, a beautiful late 19th century building designed by the French Architect, Eugene Ferrett. The Opera House didn’t disappoint – it’s beautiful, inside and out – and neither did the Bamboo Circus. The show was clever in its use of props limited almost entirely to — you guessed it — bamboo. This was wordless entertainment, accompanied by live musicians playing traditional Vietnamese music, and following an entertaining and funny storyline that took us from the days of hill tribes and simple, agrarian living, to the current day big city, jam-packed with scooters and dense housing. This is a very acrobatic show, reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, and we thought it was great fun.
Other places we enjoyed
We also enjoyed a tour of Independence Palace in Saigon, the former presidential palace, famous for being the site of what we call the Fall of Saigon, but what our tour guide called the Liberation of Saigon. Built in the 1960s, the building is architecturally undistinguished with lots of kitschy interior touches. The most interesting part, in our estimation, was the bunker below with its tunnels and now-dated technology.
We also made a quick trip to Saigon’s famous Notre Dame Cathedral, which was closed for renovation, and the French colonial era Central Post Office. This was followed by the War Remnants Museum, which tells about the Vietnam war from the mid-20th century, through the lens of the current, North Vietnamese communist government.
We didn’t take a walking tour of Saigon, but did take a nice walk around a few neighborhoods and the Saigon River at twilight one evening.