“You want moto?” came the cries from the many motorcycle taxi riders as I stepped out of my hotel in Saigon. I had just arrived in the city at the tail end of the rainy season and had put myself up at one of the cheaper hotels in Pham Ngu Lao street.
“Sure” I replied, “I want to go to the American Market”. My driver was a very young guy named Nguyễn, which is nearly impossible for a Westerner to pronounce. He was super friendly and all smiles. He handed me a helmet and we agreed on a price, which was about a dollar. I wanted to go to this market filled with stalls of old American military gear of dubious authenticity. I doubt that any of the Zippos there were “real wartime marine zippo” but there was a sense of history that I was trying to feel.
Saigon is actually called Ho Chi Minh City, though there is almost no one that calls it that. For the traveler, it is an incredibly cheap and fascinating place to visit. My only previous exposure to Vietnam had been as a very little kid hearing people talk about the war, so I had a small bit of apprehension traveling there on a U.S Passport.
I could not have been more misguided. The city’s inhabitants are amazingly friendly. The war is so far removed from most people’s history that it was probably more of a collective national guilt that I had. And I was just a baby when Saigon fell, so why I felt that way is anyone’s guess.
I had made friends with my driver, who spoke fairly decent English and some French also. I negotiated a deal for him to take me around the city for the day. For just 20 bucks, I had a tour guide and driver. And a new friend. He took me to China town and to the Ben Thanh Market, an insanely crowded market where the stalls are so close you can barely walk down the aisles. He even did the bargaining for me for a couple of pairs of perfect counterfeit Levis 501s.
We stopped to eat and I bought him dinner at one of the street stalls. Unlike Thailand, street food in Saigon can be very hit and miss (and the miss will make you very sick) but Nguyễn knew exactly where to go. It’s easy to spot the safe places, just make sure the cook is not also the cashier. The food was amazing, and less than a dollar for both of us. Night was coming and I was ready to head for an evening on the town. I offered to treat my new friend to a night out and he surprised me when he said he had to head home to his wife and two kids. He really looked like he was about 22 years old. He smiled and thanked me a hundred times and said that maybe he would see me outside of my hotel in the morning. I never did see him again, but I thank him for making my first day there so amazing.
This is one of the many pieces that I have written for travel guides around the world. I don’t have an actual link to where this is published, because I think that it was translated into something other than English. Saigon is a fascinating place, changing rapidly with global modernization. It is a must stop for anyone doing a South East Asian tour.