That one time in… Saigon

And why saying Ho Chi Minh City is the same as Cassius or Toby


My friend Vanessa just returned from Vietnam and did an awesome job taking us along on the journey via her social media posts. Images of lush landscapes, bustling markets, and amazing meals brought to life the sights and sounds of the country. As I watched Vanessa smile gracefully through the oppressive humidity, I couldn’t help but be transported back to my own visit to Vietnam last year, when I took a weekend “Vietventure” to Ho Chi Minh City. Let me tell you what happened that one time in Ho Chi Minh City…er…Saigon.

Two-wheeled life outside of Notre Dame Cathedral

First things first: clearly there is some confusion about the name of Vietnam’s largest city. Is it Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC for short) or Saigon? What’s the diff? Well, there’s a big difference. But it all depends on who you ask. Here’s the short, oversimplified story:

In 1975, the world saw the end of the not-so-little war that we Americans call the Vietnam War. (The Vietnamese call it the American War. Go figure.) It was a fight between the communists in the North and anti-communist factions in the South. The war ended when Saigon — a city in the South — fell to communist forces. The U.S. supported the anti-communist South, of course, so we lost. China and Russia supported the communist North, so winner winner chicken dinner. If you have any Vietnamese-American friends in your life, as I do, they likely fled the country when Saigon fell.

So back to the name. The official name is indeed Ho Chi Minh City, a change made after the war. And Northerners tend to call the city by its government name. But out of respect for my friends of Vietnamese descent, I now use the name Saigon. You probably should too. It’s like having to make the choice between calling a man Muhammad Ali vs. Cassius Clay. Calling him Kunta instead of Toby. People have a right to decide what name they go by, and I believe we are obligated to respect that. I don’t go by my government name. Why should Saigon?

Side note: Now, if you venture north to Hanoi, pay attention to what others say and govern yourself accordingly. As the capitol of the country, I’m sure they say HCMC when referring to Saigon. So respect them and follow suit. Stay woke, but don’t be no fool.

Tribute to Thích Quảng Đức

Speaking of woke, I have to take a quick moment to shout out my wokest Vietnamese friend, Tue Le. (Yeah, I said wokest.) Tue measures your degree of friendship by whether or not you know her government name. I fail at this test. But I still try to soak up every bit of knowledge Tue drops about Vietnam and the efforts her parents took to flee when Saigon fell. She’s super-knowledgeable about the country because she is passionate about her people. So to all my friends to whom I’ve given Vietnam recos, they all came from Tue. You can thank her by dedicating a Tupac song to her. (Passionate about Vietnam. Passionate about Pac. Passionate about the Bay Area. The list goes on…)

The second thing I should address is the fact that I only spent a weekend in Saigon. I was on a business trip in Hong Kong and decided to tack on a couple of days in Vietnam. A weekend is not enough, but it’s better than nothing. So I decided to take in as much of the city as I could in 48 hours.

On Saturday, I designed my own walking tour. I love walkable cities. Many of Saigon’s temples, markets and restaurants are a little far out, but District 1 — the city center — can be tackled on foot. That’s where you’ll find lots of sites, like Reunification Palace, the Ben Thanh market, the Saigon Opera House, and Vietnam’s own Notre Dame Cathedral. Just grab a map and wander. You’ll stumble upon some gems. At night, I grabbed dinner at Hua Tuc, still in District 1, and wandered around a bit more. Before heading back to my hotel, I had a drink at Cobalt rooftop bar, but, frankly, I thought it was a bit overrated. That was the extent of my Saigon nightlife. Womp.

Me on the back of a Vespa…getting my LIFE!!!

Sunday was the big day for me because I did something I’ve never done: I rode a Vespa! I didn’t drive it, but I rode on the back of one as part of a tour with Vespa Adventures. I highly recommend this! Now, if you’ve been to Saigon and seen the crazy traffic, you’re probably thinking, “Girl, are you crazy?!?” But trust me, it’s fun! You get comfortable with the insane traffic really quickly as the Vespa drivers know what they’re doing. And our guide, Diệu, was smart and kind and important (in my Viola Davis from “The Help” voice). Seriously, she was awesome.

The Vespa tour took us everywhere — to temples, where our guide tried to convert us to Buddism (just kidding); to markets, where locals stopped me and two super-tall white guys for photos (because that’s not a site they see every day!); and to the newly developed Thu Thiem area, which has some of the best views of the city. But the most amazing part of the tour was our stop at the memorial to Thích Quảng Đức. Thích Quảng Đức was a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon to protest the religious persecution of Buddhists by the government of South Vietnam. (I guess being against communism doesn’t make you good. Go figure.) The memorial is a beautiful tribute, but the actual photographs of the event, which occurred in 1963, are haunting.

My only regret from the Vespa tour was that I didn’t bring a face mask or scarf to protect me from the air pollution. The exhaust in Saigon is thick than a mug. So thick, in fact, that it severely aggrevated my allergies. When I returned home, I couldn’t speak for a week. And when my voice came back, I sounded a bit like James Earl Jones. So be forewarned. Unless you like a sexy Barry White voice.

Best. Meal. Ever.

My last stop in Saigon was Cục Gạch Quán, a restaurant recommendation from my girl Tue. Whew! For years, when people asked me about the best meal I’ve ever had, I’d tell them about the little restaurant in Rome where there wasn’t much on the menu that I ate. I told this to the waiter and he said, “No problem. The chef,” someone’s grandmother back in the restaurant’s tiny kitchen, “will make you something.” Grandma made the most delicious brick chicken I’ve ever encountered. It’s a great story to go along with my greatest meal…that is, until I went to Saigon. Let me tell you, the claypot fish at Cục Gạch Quán kicked grandma’s chicken’s ass. Unassuming. Simply served. Accompanied by an order of pumpkin flowers. The best meal I’ve ever had, hands down. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Saigon, not to mention the whole of Vietnam, deserves so much more than a weekend of your time. I’m anxious to make a return trip so I can venture out to different parts of the country. But Saigon will still maintain a spot on my itinerary. So, the next time you find yourself southeast Asia-bound, do yourself a favor and go to Saigon. Take a Vespa tour. Have the best meal of your life. But don’t be like me: wear a face mask!

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