Extra time in Saigon, Vietnam

Guest expert Clare Kendall shares photos and tips on things to do and places to see in the busy city of Saigon, Vietnam.

Being pushed in a bath chair into a sea of oncoming motorbikes isn’t quite how I imagined my first experience of sight-seeing in Saigon would be but this is exactly how it feels in a Vietnamese cyclo in rush hour.

A cyclo is a curious affair with a bucket seat in front and a high seat from which to pedal at the back. However, white-knuckle terror quickly gives way to exhilaration as what seemed like imminent death doesn’t materialise. Within a few minutes it feels like the only way to travel.

I think it would be fair to say that Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh city, under communism, either seem acceptable) is a city in transition and as such it’s a great time to visit.

Old style buildings with crowded, cluttered shop fronts are rapidly giving way to smart, swanky boutiques and familiar Western designers. Expensive hotels mimic art deco and art nouveau styles as if harking back to a former Saigon from a by-gone era.

It’s possible that this influence has come from the French who were colonial rulers here until WWII and whose influence can still be clearly appreciated in the shape of Saigon Central Post Office (surely one of the most elegant Post Offices in the world) built by none less than Mr Eiffel himself.

Adjacent to this is Saigon Notre Dame Basilica, based on its famous namesake, which stands before a small square enclosing a statue of the Virgin Mary which brought traffic to a standstill in 2005 when it was reported to have shed tears.

We cyclo our way through steadily more and more expensive shops until we arrive at the river. There, boarding a giant illuminated tuna, we take to the water. Nowhere is the scale of development more apparent than from the Saigon River.

River boat dining is clearly an executive must here as a bejewelled array of new and imaginatively lit sky-scrapers rise above us, clearly built to impress from the water. The tallest being the Bitexco Financial Tower with its slightly dubious-looking helicopter landing pad.

Just as riveting, further downstream (and several fantastic seafood courses later), we pass Saigon’s thriving docklands and watch as ships of unimaginable size unload their cargos in the darkness.

Walking back through the CBD towards our hotel we find brand new designer shops sitting beside old fashioned hardware stores. Saigon is a city brimming with self-confidence, entirely comfortable with itself and in absolutely no doubt about the direction it’s going in.

Former press photographer Clare Kendall worked for The Daily Telegraph in London for seven years and now freelances out of Wiltshire. She is a regular contributor to Geographical Magazine and many others, combining both writing and photography on many trips. Clare specialises in environment, social justice issues and ecotourism. She says: “You think you will get a point with travel where you become sated but the truth is, if anything, your wanderlust gets worse the more you do because the world is just such an endlessly amazing place.”See more of Clare’s adventures at http://clare.photoshelter.com/.

For more information on tours and holidays to Vietnam, please visit http://www.onthegotours.com/Southeast-Asia.

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