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Random Saigon: Little Stools, Big Wires, and Lots of Smiles

On my last day in Saigon, I realized I’d already taken ownership of sorts of the place. I had one last nostalgic visit to “my coffee guy” in the morning before eating breakfast with “my noodle lady”, and doing a number of similar rounds in “my area” of Saigon – a little corner of this big city that I carved out and learned to call “mine”.

And I’d only been there for a week and a half.

As huge, hectic, chaotic, random, and non-sensical as Saigon is – it’s also incredibly friendly, the chaos has flow, and the random-ness is artistic, if not downright poetic.

Here are some random observations I made in my time in Saigon – observations almost as random as the place itself, but that lend a certain sense of explanation to this city with so many edges.

This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

A City for Little People

This has nothing to do with the stereotype that Asians are short, so don’t worry – I’m not going there (sadly, knowing I just did).

lunchtime - on a sidewalk

But when the majority of “street food” stools and tables along the sidewalks – and even in some restaurants – are of the miniature variety, you begin to wonder if you missed the sign welcoming you to munchkin-land.

Granted, small stools and mini tables are more space-conscious, and in a crowded city like Saigon space is premium (heck, “my” bubble tea cafe doubles as a motorcycle parking garage). But my long legs just don’t cope well with the little stools.

big girl, little stool

Webs of Wires

web of wires in Saigon

The webs of telephone wires that hover above the streets are so thick, I think they actually block out the sun in some places. Okay, so that might be a slight exaggeration, but as you can see from the pictures – it’s not that far off the mark.

working on the wires - how can you tell which is which?!

Themed Streets and Stores

If you want a camera, you go shopping on “camera street”. For luggage, go to “luggage alley”. You’ll find coffee beans at “coffee corner” and stereos on “stereo street”. Although these aren’t official (or even remotely recognized) street names, many streets and shopping districts do indeed have informal themes.

It’s handy for comparison shopping, and although I initially surmised that it would be good for keeping prices competitive, in fact store owners (in their easy proximity to one another) simply get together and agree on a price below which they won’t venture so as not to dramatically undercut each other and let the customers in on the “real price”.

Such enterprising folks, they are.

random hairdresser killing time

Stuffed Animal Frenzy

I’m not sure what’s going on, but I detected a mild obsession with massive stuffed animals in Saigon. Maybe I was unwittingly staying on “stuffed animal street”, but it seemed to me that no matter where you go you’re within paw’s reach of a store selling giant stuffed animals. Who exactly buys these stuffed animals, and what they do with them – I’m not sure. Aside from seeing a few on the backs of bikes, I never saw anybody actually shopping for said creatures.

riding with balloons

Adorable Bike Helmets

adorable bike helmets

When Saigon introduced a law requiring people to wear helmets on bikes, there was a small revolt. Women didn’t want to flatten their hair and succumb to such gauche requirements!

So in order to cope with this atrocious law, a market opened up for fashionable bike helmets. From a distance you might think you’re looking at a cute cap until you get up close and realize it’s a cap with sustenance. I absolutely love these lids, although a part of me does question just how protective they truly are. Ah well – let’s not let function get too much in the way of fashion!

funny hats and helmets

Contagious Smiles and Genuine Friendliness

girl smiling

I was really lucky to be staying at Thien Thao Hotel in District 3, which is away from the tourist fray of Saigon. Going for a walk for lunch or coffee revealed a much more local side of the city, and I rarely if ever ran into other tourists. Thus, when I was pulled by the elbow by the smiling “noodle lady” on my first morning and gestured to sit at her sidewalk establishment and sample her fare, I was happy to oblige. She wasn’t a tout flashing a menu in my face – she just wanted to cook for me. (Incidentally, her food was so good, and the charades-based conversations with she and her friends were so entertaining, I ate there many times).

marketplace smiles

 

little girl on bike, smiling

If I wanted to have a more “market-based” shopping experience (buying local handicrafts for example), I had to look harder in District 3, or simply take a taxi to the centre of town where touristy District 1 lies. For these trips I could brace myself for the inevitable barrage of touts and high-pressure sales tactics used to peddle over-priced items. But I always knew I could return “home” to District 3 and breathe a sigh of relief when I got there.

roller skate kids

On my last night in Saigon I opted not to go to the night market (which is very contrary for me; I love night markets) in favour of instead investing further in my area that I got to know over the previous 10 days. Here people didn’t pay me much mind (except to look quizzically or curiously at me, wondering if I was lost); there were no touts, just contagious smiles and genuine friendliness that, for me, characterized Saigon – and Vietnam – as a place I look forward to returning to.

Other articles about the quirks and eccentricities of Saigon that you might be interested in:

How to Cross the Street in Saigon – and other Bike-Centric Observations

Vietnam Food Culture: Coffee, Street Food, and Hygiene

Back of the Bike in Saigon

Also:

6 Weeks in Hoi An, Vietnam

Expat Life in Hoi An

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8 thoughts on “Random Saigon: Little Stools, Big Wires, and Lots of Smiles”

  1. Oh it was! I think the “discussion” about age was the funniest; they laughed in surprise when we (Jeannie and I) told them how old we were (they thought we were much younger), and we reciprocated by “telling” a 60 year old woman that she looks 30 (which actually wasn’t far off – she looked great!). Made her day. 🙂

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  2. Superb…love the details…the noodles must have been superlicious…you look good on that small stool…loll..how did you get to know the store or stall owners will meet to agree on the lowest price bid on a specific item? ineresting strategy

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  3. Oh, I miss Saigon. I loved our little corner of Binh Thanh District.
    I’m looking back to going back again for Tet next January. It will be a lot quieter then, though — hardly any sidewalk cafes will be open.
    By the way, the “stuffed toys” on the back of the motorbike are actually helium balloons! 🙂

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  4. @Baron’s – I so wish I could replicate those noodles; they’ve been a favourite most of my life, but eating them in that context took it to a whole new level!
    As for the store owner strategy, it was something I’d heard from a local. It’s fairly conjectural, but I’m willing to bet it’s accurate!

    @Barbara – Why is January so quiet? Does is have something to do with Tet?
    And yes, it’s quite obvious that those are helium balloons! I didn’t have any pictures of stuffed toys, and I made reference in the previous paragraph to people putting absurd things on the backs of bikes, so I THOUGHT it made sense to put it in there. I’m sorry for the confusion! 🙂

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  5. Oh, and here was I thinking this poor girl doesn’t know the difference between a stuffed toy and a helium balloon. 🙂

    Anyway, Tet falls in January next year. It’s like the Western Christmas, it’s a family time. So everyone goes home and hangs out with their family, eats a lot, naps a long and catches up with their friends. It’s basically a week-long public holiday, with most places shut. Vietnamese businesses often operate seven days a week, so it’s the only holiday small traders get — and they make the most of it.

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  6. @Barbara – LOL: stuffed toys, balloons – I think the two together help to paint the almost cartoon picture of randomness that is “my” Saigon!

    Tet sounds lovely. I guess you’ll be visiting with family and friends yourself. Please enjoy some good food and great friendly smiles for me! I’ll be there in spirit. 🙂

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