Sometimes I think to myself, “if I were a tourist, I would hate Saigon”.
Expats are blessed with the rewards of time and experience.
In a way, living in Vietnam’s a little like an arranged marriage; strange and uncertain at first, but (given that things go well) eventually increasingly wonderful. Doors open, trust develops and true colours show. Annoyances and darker sides to the city surface with time, that’s for sure. But as you acclimatise you’ll find yourself surprisingly in the know; opening up a world of unique experiences should you wish to take them.
Living here, I’ve got a job, a house, a network of friends, a grasp of the language, a motorbike; I know where the city’s many districts lie and what they’re known for; I know the best places to grab a beer, burger or Bun Bo Hue; I’m up to date with city events, and have tasted its cultural offerings. All of this took time to register. Strip it all away and, like many tourists, I’m left with a confusing concrete jungle.
Alongside general lack of knowledge, there are fundamental problems for visitors to the country:
- Expensive visas make neighbouring Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia more appealing.
- Unnecessary bureaucracy mixed with indeterminate waiting times will make you want to pull your hair out.
- Dodgy infrastructure and dodgier traffic are justified health concerns.
- Lack of viable public transport makes getting around a pain in the ass (try walking in 30-40C heat or haggling with a greedy Xe Om driver every time you want to get somewhere). Not every would-be visitor is ready to drive a scooter on these roads.
- Petty crime has been recently rising. I’ve had my phone stolen, and numerous friends have lost handbags to the wiles of street thieves.
- Corruption. Here, there, everywhere.
There’s a lot that needs to change. The tourist return rate for Vietnam is a depressingly low 5%. This is a saddening figure for a country with so much to offer.
These aspects overshadow what I believe is one of the world’s most captivating countries. Food that is utterly delicious, complex yet cheap as chips is available on the street. Natural landmarks like Ha Long Bay, the Ba Be Lakes and Ninh Binh will take your breath away. The chaos breathes a sense of soul into the country that is irresistible. There is beautiful tradition and an enthusiastic, enterprising youth. Vietnam contains gems of the trendy, progressive thinkers, art in many forms. There’s a gay scene, hip hop scene, parkour scene – fashionistas, DJs, daredevils.
But you wouldn’t know about any of this if you flew in, checked into your Bui Vien hostel and rightly stayed in the backpacker comfort zone. I mean, how would you know? Everyone goes to the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace, and the Vietnam War is still sadly the country’s biggest international fascination. Apart from this, what else is there to do? The city is huge, traffic overwhelming and navigation a difficult task.
However, there is help in the form of guides. One guide in particular is notably useful for the Ho Chi Minh City visitor.
This guide is the CityPass Guide.
CityPass Guide is a guidebook with its finger fine-tuned on Saigon’s pulse. Within its brightly photographed pages lies insight. This insight is informed and dedicated, written by fellow expats who love their city and are donned with the task of making Saigon accessible to those souls who make the intrepid journey over to visit.
Updated annually, the book features the best of the city. The best bars, best restaurants, best nightlife and the best of the rest compiled into definitive sections. Hungry? Check the guide. Thirsty? The guide’s got you covered. Itchy feet? Let the guide show you the way to some entertainment. It’s compact, easy to carry around and store in your backpack for a day trip into Ho Chi Minh City (or Ha Noi, cause they covered the capital too!).
For tourists it’s a worthwhile investment to pick up a free copy and use it to enrichen your trip. Maps and savvy travel tips will allow you to navigate Saigon’s daunting districts with confidence and ease. Keep google maps in your pocket – no-one’s gonna want to nick a book.
As an expat I’ve found CityPass Guide particularly useful for its ‘activities’ and ‘destinations’ sections. Working as a full-time teacher you usually get only one day off per week, so it’s right that that day is spent doing something awesome. The guide features good recommendations on everything from spas to sports to cinemas, which is handy when you’re out and about and in need of a quick read from the guide in your bag. Should I have a few days off lined up, a quick glance at the ‘destinations’ section gives me a brief yet succinct summary of Vietnam’s tourist hotspots. Perfect when the wi-fi’s down due to Saigon’s occasional power-outs.
While it’s not going to solve Saigon’s issues, the CityPass Guide is there to make your journey that much easier. Vietnam is a whirlwind of country. There are things that piss me off, granted, but I look at it as part of the experience. It’s got adventure, class, soul, beauty and a hell of a lot of fun on offer. You just need a bit of a nudge in the right directions.