Going Beyond the Guidebooks

My long walks through both Saigon and Hanoi inspired my latest article for the Tuoi Tre newspaper.  Getting out on foot is a great way to take in experiences we might otherwise miss.   Here is the link and should it not work, the text follows.


Whether we call this colorful enigma Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, our sprawling city tells as many stories as it has inhabitants.   We have expats like me living in highrise bubbles safely insulated from the fabric of the city.  Backpackers migrate to Bui Vien Street and congregate in bars and restaurants catering to their every Western need.   Out in the Binh Thanh district, the locals go about their daily business in bustling markets and sidewalk shops a world apart from upscale An Phu just across the river.

Indeed, different communities call our teeming metropolis home, but how often do our worlds cross paths outside of District 1, where HCMC offers the requisite landmarks such as Ben Thanh Market, Vincom Center, the Reunification Palace and more.   But as uniquely Vietnamese as these stops on the tourist trail are, are they truly emblematic in terms of building lasting memories of Saigon in our minds?

The same shops lining Vincom Center beckon shoppers in Tokyo, Los Angeles, London and beyond.   Ben Thanh Market captivates our senses with its bustle and color, but haven’t we seen the same in Bangkok or Borneo?  We can easily succumb to a jaded “been there, done that” mentality and quickly tire of the “same, same but different” offerings of our daily routines if we don’t seek out the uniqueness our surroundings offer.

Each of HCMC’s nine million people has a story to tell, and taking a long walk through our fair city allows us to listen.  Indeed, straying away from the typical expat and tourist trails captivates our imaginations with scenes so different from the reality we each call our own.  Forget everything you know about the place and fall in love with it all over again by exploring the crowded streets anew.

So what is the real Saigon?  It’s the man on the sidewalk fixing flat motorbike tires near the zoo.  It’s the crowd of laughing school children playing badminton near a pig roasting on a spit.  The wizened lady in her conical hat cutting durian stacked next to her battered bike, office workers enjoying an iced coffee at an impromptu street vendor café, and a young woman praying at an altar inside her beauty salon all add depth and character to an already colorful streetscape.

This is the Saigon hidden from the tourist trail and our own expat lives if we don’t open our minds and venture beyond our usual routines.   Looking past the concrete and glass exposes our hometown’s true soul, whose uniqueness builds a lasting impression slow to fade from our imaginations.  Every city on earth is a collection of streets and buildings, but it’s the people who make each dot on the map unique.  I guarantee if we venture deep into this city on foot and just open our eyes to the people around us, each of us will take in experiences making our time in HCMC priceless and one of a kind.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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