The title sounds like a war film, but it’s day 100 for me here in Vietnam and I felt like this landmark deserved a blog post. 100 days may not sound like much, but keeping track of the days here via Instagram posts has made me realise just how much can happen in that relatively short amount of time. Not much has changed since my last post, so I decided to write this one about the city I’ve come to call home.
If I’m being totally honest, 18 months ago I didn’t even know what “Saigon” was. I’d heard of Ho Chi Minh City, but had never given it much thought past GCSE history. Around Easter last year, I begin to look into teaching abroad in a fit of I’m-about-to-graduate panic. My first idea was Japan, but Vietnam also presented itself as an attractive option due to the financial aspect. Teaching abroad isn’t particularly lucrative, but in Vietnam the wage you earn is high compared to the cost of living, meaning I’d be able to set off sooner and maybe even save a little once I got there. I chickened out and put the idea on the shelf for the time being, but it remained in my mind. Once I started working in an office, boredom pushed me towards TEFL once more. I think the moment I truly decided to go for it was on a dark evening sitting in Starbucks with a friend. “The worst that’ll happen is you won’t like it,” she said. I paid the deposit for the course a few days later.
When I first arrived here, I felt like I was on another planet. I had done so much research that there weren’t many surprises, but everything was still so unfamiliar and I was on hyper-alert all the time; I couldn’t see how I could ever feel at home here. I don’t think I could have picked a city more different from Cambridge if I’d tried. A lot of travel blogs have mostly negative things to say about this place, which I think is unfair, but it’s also easy to see why. It takes time to love this place. As a tourist, I think the first thing you fall in love with is a city’s beauty, and Saigon is a lot of things, but beautiful isn’t one of them. It’s ramshackle, chaotic and dirty and at first, it can seem like it lacks culture. A girl on my TEFL course complained (somewhat idiotically) that the city “isn’t even Asian”. Saigon’s culture is not an Asian stereotype: it’s unique and takes time to discover and appreciate. Certainly, the main tourist areas aren’t particularly remarkable: Bui Vien, the party street, is great fun but everyone says Bangkok’s a better night out (I haven’t been there so I can’t weigh in). There are some lovely shopping malls in the centre, but you could find those back home. Saigon is the kind of city it’s much better to live in than visit; most of its charms lie in daily life. For me, street food, delicious coffee, people-watching and endlessly friendly and generous locals really make this city what it is, rather than sightseeing. As a tourist, you want to do remarkable, adventurous things, whereas as a resident you’re more content with low-key leisure, and this is where Saigon really shines. There aren’t millions of famous landmarks here, but there are plenty of cool places to explore and try.
One of the main things I love about Saigon is the it-is-what-you-make-it attitude. Whilst there are many lovely and artistic bars and cafes to visit, the locals don’t need any frills to have a good time, just some plastic chairs and cans of beer. A few times, my friends and I have been invited to join in with some late-night, side-of-the-road revelry, and it’s always a good time. Some of the best nights here have been in bia hoi and goat houses. Both are very basic street joints, the former offering extremely cheap, watered down beer and the latter being a combination of a street-food goat restaurant and a late night beer bar. I think this perhaps strikes such a chord with me due to growing up in a small village; when all you’ve got are two pubs that close at 11pm, you realise that a good time is more about the company than a fancy venue (shoutout to the Hoops crew).
Another thing I read about Saigon is that you’re likely to get ripped off all the time. I definitely haven’t found this to be true- I’ve been short changed on Bui Vien, but it didn’t break the bank and I couldn’t be bothered to argue over the equivalent of 50p. My bag almost got grabbed once by a pair of thieves on a motorbike, but my friend and I had wandered off of the party street to a much quieter one at four in the morning; we weren’t being smart. I grabbed on to the bag, screamed, and the guy let go and fell off of his bike, so no harm done, and I’ll definitely be more careful in the future. It’s important to be smart here, but most people aren’t out to scam you and there’s no reason to feel unsafe.
100 days ago, I was more than a little bit afraid of this city. I felt like it was going to swallow me whole. Now, whilst I could hardly pass for a local, I feel far less clueless and far more capable – or at least only half as likely to make a tit out of myself. Here’s to the next 100 days…