Once again we've been travelling, this time to busy Saigon in south Vietnam. If you think we've been going to Vietnam a fair amount you're right; we visited Hanoi last year and Saigon some years ago. We enjoy the country and we like the food.
Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC, is one of the two major cities in Vietnam, along with the capital city of Hanoi in the north. When we visited Hanoi last year, the city felt exotic, almost alien at times. Saigon is more international, with many foreign companies and many more foreign visitors.
On one hand more people speak English, plenty of restaurants have English menus and more people are used to foreigners. On the other hand, we were scammed or nearly so several times in Saigon, but not a single time in Hanoi. You have to check the change you receive every time, and you really want to avoid taxis if you can. On our way to the airport at the end, the driver — hailed by the hotel and from one of the "safe" companies — tried to scam us with a furiously running meter. He probably figured that we have a flight to catch and not have time to do anything about it. Only when we repeatedly and loudly demanded that he go right back to the hotel and annul the trip did he give up and turn off the meter.
Hotel Continental Saigon
The Hotel Continental is famous. This is where Graham Greene lived when he wrote his novel "The quiet American". News agencies had their offices there during the Vietnam war. Surprisingly, it's quite affordable to stay there. It's very well kept, with rooms that retain the ambience of an old-style hotel. But the traffic can be noisy and the colonial style is not to everybody’s taste. Also, I suspect that they actually make much of their business from conferences, wedding parties and things like that; the hotel bit is perhaps as much to keep the atmosphere as much as anything else.
Of course we went to a cooking class. It's a fun, simple holiday activity, and it meshes perfectly with our interest in food. And really, who's not interested in food? We took a small class — only me and Ritsuko — and we covered some classic Vietnamese street food dishes.
A lot of life is lived right on the street. Restaurants and businesses spill out on to the sidewalks. Many small tradesmen set up shop on the street itself. People sit outside in the air and the light rather than in dark, hot indoor rooms.
Ho Chi Minh City seems to be in the middle of a building boom. Lots of new, sleek high-rises are coming up, and they're even planning a whole new financial center on the other side of Saigon river. Fortunately there seems to be at least a nod toward preserving the old city atmosphere; the building across the street to the Continental hotel, for instance, is a shopping mall, but looks for all the world like a colonial-era building. And to keep the building height down, the mall is actually several floors underground. The street atmosphere is perhaps Saigons greatest asset and I'm happy to see they do try to preserve it.