Vietnam’s biggest city sees its fair share of tourists, but there are plenty of quirky sighteseeing options that allow you to break away from the pack. Duncan Forgan discovers two tours with a difference.
As our fleet of classic Vespas crosses the canal linking District 1 with District 4, it is clear we are exiting some kind of comfort zone. Behind us, the shiny skyscrapers, bars and contemporary restaurants represent the foreign-friendly face of Ho Chi Minh City, still “Saigon” to most locals and tourists.
Ahead lies territory rarely charted in tourist brochures.
We duck down a narrow street and are assaulted by a barrage of sights, noises and sounds. Food vendors, their stainless steel carts filled with cow tails, lungs and other animal parts dangling from hooks, dish out bowls of steaming broth to their customers. Cafés play host to wizened old men with wispy beards and shirtless young guys with faded tattoos and circular red weals on their back. The marks are the result of cao gio, a traditional Vietnamese medical treatment where the skin is scraped with a spoon or a coin to combat illness. Meanwhile, teenage boy racers without helmets weave through the melee on their souped up Hondas.
“This area used to be called Gangster Alley,” laughs Steve Mueller, headman at Vietnam Vespa Adventures, as our group takes respite from the action at a street-side seafood restaurant where ours are the only foreign faces to be seen. “Some of the more notorious guys are gone now, but it’s still a little rough around the edges.”
It’s true that not every visitor to Saigon wants to chow down on crab claws and clams in a formerly crime-ridden part of the city. However, the emergence of products such as Steve’s “Saigon After Dark” tour is opening windows to the city that have previously been closed to all but the intrepid.
Saigon could never be labelled boring, but it’s a fact that truly show-stopping tourist sights are in short supply. Once you’ve done some shopping at Ben Thanh Market, brushed up on recent history at the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum and visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, you are pretty much done with the banner attractions. For many visitors, that’s the signal to move on up the coast or down to the Mekong Delta, but Saigon is a city that rewards those who choose to dig a little deeper.
Off the beaten track you’ll find hidden music venues, quirky art galleries, boutiques and cafés, and of course the city’s pièce de résistance, its amazing array of Vietnamese eating options.
Saigon After Dark encompasses most of these unsung draws. From his base at Zoom Café in the backpacker epicentre of Pham Ngu Lao, Steve takes his groups on a Vespa-powered voyage of discovery. The four-hour itinerary (US$72) kicks off with two eating stops – the first at the seafood restaurant in District 4 and another at Banh Xeo 46A for Vietnamese-style pancakes. After filling up, you are then taken to two live music venues. The first is an obscure upstairs café where local singers croon love songs to live violin and piano accompaniment. The second is Yoko, a hip, bohemian venue where young Vietnamese and resident expats come to enjoy an eclectic menu of performers which changes on a nightly basis.
Between the stops, you get the chance to experience the pulsing energy of the city at night from a unique vantage point on the back of a vintage scooter.
“We wanted to give visitors the opportunity to experience Saigon the way the Saigonese do,” continues Steve. “It’s a huge, busy city and that can be intimidating and also limiting if you don’t have inside knowledge. A major part of the city’s appeal is its vibrancy and its many facets. That’s what we aim to expose our guests to.”
Picture of the Past
While Saigon After Dark homes in on the freewheeling atmosphere of the southern hub, another offbeat new tour takes a more widescreen approach. Devised by English émigrée Sophie Hughes, Sophie’s Art Tour looks at Vietnam’s tumultuous recent history through the eyes of its artists.
The timeline of colonialism, war and Communism followed by breakneck free-market development is familiar to most visitors to the country, but the art it inspired is generally not.
Sophie spent nearly a year researching the tour, interviewing experts, artists and collectors, and the result is at once a fascinating introduction to Vietnamese art and a compelling history lesson.
The tour does an admirable job of condensing an eventful century into a fascinating half-day tour. Taking place in galleries, private collections, studios and on the streets of the city, the tour takes guests on an epic visual journey. Highlights include impressionistic work painted by beret-sporting sophisticates in French-controlled Hanoi, stirring depictions of agrarian bliss by propaganda artists and contemporary work by a new breed of Saigonese artists. Sophie also sheds new light on neglected geniuses such as Nguyen Gia Tri, whose Spring Garden is said to represent the apex of Vietnamese lacquer painting.
While the artwork itself is the star of the show, the tour is peppered with snippets of context and background. Subjects include self-criticism by artists in Communist training camps and post-war creative exchanges between artists from the north and the south.
“It’s meant to be an introduction, not a comprehensive guide,” says Sophie of the tour. “If people want to find out more about Vietnamese art and the artists then they can come back to all these venues to explore at a more leisurely pace.
“The response I’ve had to the tour so far has been exceptional. Learning about history on its own can be a little dry, so I think that people appreciate the addition of an artistic slant.”
Vietnam Vespa Adventures | +84 122 299 3585
Sophie’s Art Tour | +84 121 830 3742