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Saigon: pulse of the rising dragon

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The Boeing 777-300 makes its final descent through the afternoon haze, over rice paddies and a jigsaw of narrow buildings like slices of layer cake. We are just a stone’s throw from the delta of the mighty Mekong, whose brown waters I had seen eight months earlier in Laos.

Closer to the ground I spot one pagoda amid the rooftops, then another. I imagine streets heaving with motorcycles, the din of their engines almost deafening. As our wheels hit the runway at Tan Son Nhat, patches of iridescent grass come into view – a comforting reminder that I am back in Southeast Asia.

Our driver is remarkably young, with dark copper skin, kind eyes and a disarming smile. “How many times in Vietnam?” he says in polite, halting English. “First time,” I respond, and he doesn’t mask his delight. Bubbling with fervent enthusiasm, he earnestly tries to describe the rush hour traffic until words fail him.

Eventually we come across the glass spire of Bitexco Financial Tower – 68 storeys high and built in the shape of a budding lotus. It’s a fitting symbol for Vietnam’s economic aspirations, as it treads in the footsteps of its powerful neighbour. We pass upscale boutiques and restaurants; a brightly lit mall emblazoned with the Burger King logo looms over the streetlamps, hung with red banners sporting a single socialist star. Hanoi may be the political and cultural capital of Vietnam, but booming Saigon is its city of opportunity.

The driver turns to me briefly when we stop at an intersection. “I live in Saigon. But my family… from Nha Trang. You know Nha Trang?” I nod and mention its famous beach. His eyes widen and he flashes me a wide grin. A few blocks later I ask him about Bia Hoi, the beer brand illustrated above a roadside restaurant. “From Hanoi,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “Now, a lot of people from Hanoi come to Ho Chi Minh City. Businessmen.” He rushes through Saigon’s official name, at once a jarring contrast to the original before that fateful day in April 1975.

I sit in silence, observing the thundering motorcycles speeding past. Saigon strikes me as a composite of cities that I already know. I see reminders of Kuala Lumpur in the spreading palms and optimistic neon, now sizzling to life after dark. Its mad traffic is reminiscent of Jakarta, as is the exhilarating buzz that pervades the moist evening air. The language too, is strangely familiar. A neon billboard advertising Vietnam’s Southern Bank reads “Ngan Hang Phuong Nam” – Nam Fong Ngan Hong in Cantonese.

The next day we stand in the observatory at Bitexco Financial Tower, 49 storeys above street level. Across the sweeping curve of the Saigon River, a vast tract of vacant land marks the future location of a brand-new business district. A tunnel has already been bored beneath the languid waters, emerging in a ribbon of concrete that will eventually lead to a new airport. Through the glass panes I marvel at the sheer energy rising from a burgeoning city of eight million souls. Young, dynamic and fearlessly optimistic, this is the heartbeat of modern Vietnam.

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Above the Saigon River

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The State Bank of Vietnam

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Moving on up

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The last remains of Thu Thiem village

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Leisure boats on the quay

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Visions of the future

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Ship shape

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Reminder of a bygone era

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Heart of the city

27 Comments Post a comment
  1. Now I have been to Saigon, thanks to you! 🙂

    February 12, 2013
    • You’re welcome Bente! I can say the same thing of your posts on Norway. 🙂

      February 12, 2013
  2. Great post! I visited Vietnam last spring and your words really brought me back. It’s an incredible place:)

    February 12, 2013
    • Thank you TCK! Next time I’ll have to track north towards Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.

      February 12, 2013
  3. This brings back some memories of my trip to the city back in summer 2011. It was interestingly safer than what many people said prior to my visit, and quite overwhelming at some points – especially dodging those swarms of motorbikes. It’s quite amazing to realize how fast the country has moved on since the heavy bombing three decades earlier, and for the last few years its economic growth has consistently outpaced its neighbors. Nice shots from the observatory, by the way!

    February 12, 2013
    • Absolutely Bama – I too felt relatively safe there, despite all the talk about watching your personal belongings. Crossing the street was an adventure in itself! I loved that brimming sense of optimism in Saigon, it was practically contagious.

      February 12, 2013
  4. Ah, Vietnam. I want to go back so badly!! 5 hours definitely wasn’t enough!

    February 13, 2013
    • 3½ days was just enough for Saigon – but I would have liked another day to go out into the Mekong Delta. Next time!

      February 13, 2013
  5. I went in 2008, and loved Saigon! This really does bring me back!

    February 19, 2013
    • I wonder how much it’s changed since – would be interesting to hear your observations the next time you return!

      February 19, 2013
      • Well I was actually planning a trip to South East Asia later this year so if I make it back there I will deffinately be taking lots of photos for my blog.

        February 20, 2013
  6. It’s always neat to see other travelers’ perspective of a city that I’ve been to myself. My experience in Saigon was a little bit on the ‘meh’ side. I think it might have had something to with the continuous rain while I was there 🙂

    February 19, 2013
    • I guess I was there in the middle of dry season, so that would explain the complete lack of rain. Saigon was hugely fascinating, had I more time I would have visited parts of the surrounding countryside. 🙂

      February 19, 2013
  7. Most of these photos were taken looking down? Were you on a high-rise building? Or the plane?

    February 21, 2013
  8. *sorry, the first sentence was meant to be declarative 🙂

    February 21, 2013
    • No worries, James. These were all taken from the observatory of Bitexco Financial Tower, up on its 49th floor. 🙂

      February 21, 2013
  9. Superb photos James. The excitement is almost palpable! Our daughter and even her two boys surprisingly liked Saigon better than Hanoi!

    February 23, 2013
    • Thanks Madhu. 🙂 The optimism in Saigon was contagious; you really did get the feeling that it was on the up!

      February 23, 2013
  10. Although my visit to Ho Chi Minh City was far too short, I loved seeing and experiencing the dichotomy between the past and present Saigon, and what it might mean as a representative “slice” to an insight to Vietnam. I loved the people, the rush, and the food there. It made me want more: to see more, to taste more, to talk more, not only in Saigon, but for the rest of the country. Thanks for your post: I loved how your photos and words brought all those feelings of my visit come right back to the fore.

    May 23, 2013
    • You’re welcome Henry, Saigon left me feeling much the same way. I didn’t expect to enjoy Vietnam as much as I did (it does seem to have a poor reputation among many travellers) but the people and the food were wonderful. One of my dream trips would be to traverse the entire country from the northern border with China to the southernmost tip of the Mekong Delta – preferably over three to four weeks!

      May 23, 2013
      • Exactly, James: a month-long trip from north-to-south (or the other way) would be a very interesting journey to see the different parts of the country. I didn’t have many expectations visiting Saigon, but I left with expectations for what I’d like to see in the future.

        May 23, 2013
  11. Absolutely loved your take on Saigon! Great post.

    I have just discovered your site and I’m so glad I did, it’s nothing short of inspiring.

    I am currently living in Hanoi, teaching English. I traveled SE Asia before arriving in Vietnam. After traveling the length of Vietnam I decided on Hanoi as a place to live but I have been back to visit Saigon first and this post brought back a lot of lovely memories.

    My blog is all about travel in SE Asia and life in Vietnam, if you have a chance to check it out:
    .
    http://overdueadventure.wordpress.com/

    Soon, I will travel to China which I am very excited to experience and write about!

    Thank you

    Siobhan

    September 14, 2013
    • I’m flattered, Siobhan – thank you for the lovely words!

      There’s still so many places I haven’t seen in Southeast Asia… Hanoi, Hue and Hoi An are on the wishlist, as are Kampot and the temples of Angkor. Even now I miss the coffee and food of Saigon, with so many delights I honestly wonder how there aren’t more overweight Vietnamese!

      Best of luck for your China trip. 🙂

      James

      September 15, 2013
  12. Such a cool way to see Saigon! I’ve seen the city but not from this perspective. Thanks for sharing!

    August 5, 2014
    • Thanks in turn for reading. 🙂 I’d definitely recommend visiting Bitexco Tower for the views!

      August 6, 2014
  13. Ari Vanuaranu #

    I always find it sad that I’m the only person in my circle who absolutely loves Ho Chi Minh City. The others just hate it because of the bad experiences they have there (read: petty theft). But I’m not shy in confessing my love to the city, I love everything from the tasty street foods to the crazy motorbikes!

    August 28, 2014
    • I too loved Saigon – the effervescent energy was contagious and the people there were far friendlier than I expected. Both you and I were lucky to avoid the scams and pickpockets; I made it a point not to wear anything too flashy when I was out and about.

      August 28, 2014

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