I spent Tuesday, 6 March 2018 in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. I like the city’s pre-war name better (not a political statement—I just think it’s prettier ☺️), so I’ll use that throughout the post. Most of the signs around town used "Saigon" rather than HCMC, and some of the locals I spoke to called it that too, so I think it’s kosher.

As with Beijing, I was also excited for the food, to get a sense of daily life, and of course to build my mental map of the city.

Key takeaways:
  • Vietnam seems to be positioning itself as a next big market, opening itself up to global business and cooperation in the international market. More interestingly, normal people seemed enthusiastic about this.
  • Vietnam's relationship with China is important to understanding how it sees its history and where it stands in the international community.
  • Saigon is a great walking city, despite its heat: fine-grained urbanism; delicious and cheap food; interesting, beautiful, and diverse architecture; and narrow, walkable streets.

Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works offered a useful framework for thinking about Vietnam’s place in the global market. (Thanks to @mengwong for the recommendation.)
In the 1980s and 1990s many in the West came to believe in the myth of an East-Asian economic miracle, with countries seen as not just development prodigies but as a unified bloc, culturally and economically similar, and inexorably on the rise. In How Asia Works, Joe Studwell distills extensive research into the economics of nine countries—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China—into an accessible, readable narrative that debunks Western misconceptions, shows what really happened in Asia and why, and for once makes clear why some countries have boomed while others have languished.

Something striking was that almost all English-language content I found about the country was about the Vietnam War. Typing "Vietnam" into the Google search bar always auto-suggested appending the word "War" at the end, and almost all of the books Amazon suggests are about that era too. But from talking to people living in Saigon, the war doesn’t seem to be front of mind (or even really back of mind!) as they go through life. Instead,

I didn’t come across as many great books on Vietnam as I did with China, so if you have recommendations please send them my way!

Saigon at night
We arrived at around 2am that Tuesday, but the streets were still alive with activity. I was surprised by how active it was, but then realized that in a place with so much tropical heat and humidity it probably makes sense to shift your schedule to take advantage of relatively cooler evenings. (The following nighttime pictures aren’t mine, since I forgot to take any on my way to the hotel… but these will still give a sense of what it was like.)

An extroverted Vietnam
I got an early start after a brief nap at the hotel, since I knew the tropical heat would be uncomfortable later in the day. Saigon was hot and humid with a high of 30 ℃ (86 ℉), but it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I expected. The tree cover and well-aired public spaces made it easy to get around and to rest.

The hotel gave me a first taste of something I noticed throughout the day as well—Vietnam seems to be very outward-focused. It seems to recognize that development over the next few decades is contingent on trading, interacting, and developing positive-sum relationships with the world. Studwell argues that Southeast Asia’s failed states share a common characteristic: they are all "politically and economically introverted".

In varying degrees, these countries are re-learning the old lesson of pre-1978 China, pre-1989 Soviet Union and pre-1991 India: that if a country does not trade and interact with the world, it is all but impossible to get ahead in the development game.

The Vietnamese seem to have taken this to heart, including individuals on the street and not just the leaders and business people. The people I spoke to were generally very positive towards the outside world. I met up with a friend from Twitter named An Le while in Saigon. I asked him what his attitude towards the country's history with Americans and colonialism was, and he said that he and other Vietnamese don't see the point on dwelling on that. He said, "We just want to move forward and cooperate to make our lives better."
Free markets are more popular in Vietnam than in America

Dawn from the hotel window

The hotel was hosting the uGlobal Investment Immigration Expo. Its Eventbrite description begins with " In light of Vietnam booming as one of the fastest growing markets for high net worth individuals…"

Vox points out, "China and Vietnam are outliers in another way, too: they have an almost unique combination of economic growth mixed with incredible optimism about the future".

The major exception to this extroverted optimism was negativity towards China. Several people brought up the South China Sea dispute with a look of disgust on their face. An was a bit more moderated than some in a message when we were discussing the topic recently:

I have never come to China. I think it's a beautiful country, and one of the most powerful country in the world. Today they can make almost anything. But one thing I don't like China is they have occupied our islands for years, and today they even want more

Some interesting thoughts on the matter from South China Morning Post:
Many people find it surprising that the Vietnamese are more forgiving to the Americans than the Chinese, despite the millions of deaths caused by the Vietnam war…

Recent opinion polls have suggested that the US is the most favoured country of the Vietnamese – and China the least favoured. Last year, a Pew survey found 84 per cent of Vietnamese viewed America favourably, up from 76 per cent in 2014; only 10 per cent of them viewed China favourably, down from 16 per cent…

Apparently, many Vietnamese see the threat from the US as being in the past, and are happy to leave it in the past. But they see the threat from China as being in the here and now. Memories of the brief but bloody border war in 1979 linger – as do memories of China’s seizures of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which Vietnam claims as its territory.

Many Vietnamese point out the US invasion lasted just two decades, while Vietnam’s tensions with China have persisted for thousands of years, from a millennium of Chinese rule to the confrontations of the past century. Hanoi’s aim may be to leverage the two powers to maintain its non-aligned diplomatic status, but the balance of the scale appears to be tilting towards stronger relations with Washington than with Beijing.

Links I found useful on the topic:

Scooter City
Scooters are by far the dominant mode of transportation in Saigon. If we were to play a word association game and you asked me to name the first word that popped in my head for Vietnam, it would without a doubt be "scooter".

My best guess as to why is that the city is very large (809 sq mi compared to San Francisco’s 47 sq mi) but has no metro system (though one is under construction) while also having low per capita income ($8,000 in 2014), so travelers need personalized transport that is faster than a bike and cheaper than a car.

This isn’t a totally satisfactory answer though, because doesn't explain why scooters are so dominant. Jakarta can be described in similar terms, but the had more diversity in its modes of transport, in particular a slightly more even split of cars to scooters. (Both of these are from direct experience of being on the street—would be curious to see data on the question to see if they match!) Jakarta is quite a bit richer ($17,374 per capita in 2017), so that may explain the higher prevalence of cars.
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Scooters were strewn everywhere on the sidewalks

Cool makeshift scooter truck

The future Saigon Metro

Saigon Traffic Rules from Anna Wickham's blog:
  1. Just because it looks like there’s no room for you in that lane, doesn’t mean there’s not.
  2. There’s no such thing as a one-way road, even if it’s a one-way road. Always look both ways.
  3. One inch is a perfectly acceptable following distance between motorbikes, especially during rush hour.
  4. It’s always rush hour.
  5. No place is sacred for pedestrians.
  6. Crossing the road: "Be like a rock in a stream."
  7. A red light is just a suggestion that you could stop. If you want.

A fun part of the trip was seeing all of the different modes of transport you can order through Uber. My favorite was trying uberMOTO to ride a scooter around Saigon.

15,000 VND = 0.66 USD and 32,000 VND = 1.41 USD as of March 2018

Granular urbanism ♥
I loved Saigon’s fine-grained blocks. They gave a lot character to the streets, and there was so much "there" there. Every block had dozens of cafes, restaurants, homes, shops, and more. Some buildings were so narrow I’m not sure how people got furniture to the top floors!

At first I thought these narrow buildings were just a quirk or a consequence of being an older city, but as I went through the day I saw increasingly extreme examples that made me think there must be something else going on.

Some quick googling surfaced an answer—taxes, of course! It turns out that property taxes were (are?) based on the street frontage of a building. Unsurprisingly, this had some unintended effects. Since people were taxed by the width of the front of the building, they minimized that dimension and maximized the other two.

Apparently, this especially apparent in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Yet another reason to go back to Vietnam for a second trip!

A frontage tax in the Netherlands had a similar effect on Dutch canal houses.
I wasn’t able to determine whether these taxes are still in place from my (admittedly quick) research. If not, they’ve undoubtably had a long-lasting effect on the built environment of Vietnam.

The key design challenge is ensuring that the interior receives enough light, despite being surrounded by buildings on all sides by a narrow sliver at the front. Many homes include mini courtyards through the middle of the homes to improve the flow of air and light. These tall, skinny houses with shafts are so common that the Vietnamese have a specific name for them: it’s called "nhà ống", which roughly translates to "tube house".

Modern residences are still shaped by these laws, and the design of these tube houses can be really clever. The house in the pictures below is just 3.5 meters wide!

This one isn’t my photo, but it’s an incredible example of the narrow buildings throughout Vietnamese cities.

If the taxes are no longer around, I suspect consolidation will occur in the future, resulting in a larger average lot size. Economies of scale kick in, especially when private developers have to deal with more regulation and politics.

Food (a.k.a. why I had trouble fitting back onto the plane)
The food was some of my favorite from the entire trip. It’s cheating a bit, because a lot of it was familiar. I grew up eating this food, since my boyfriend in high school was half Vietnamese. His mom always had awesome pho, spring rolls, sweet rice, and more at the house. Needless to say, I hung around their place a lot…

This guy was making some kind of avocado rice mash. Wish I’d asked him about it!
My best food experience was definitely eating pho while looking out onto the Reunification Palace that was built on the site of the previous Palace of the Governor-General. It tasted the same as the dozens of times I'd eaten pho on Castro, but there was something especially great about eating such a familiar food in the place it originated.

One question: Why do Vietnamese put so much sugar in their coffee? I noticed this when I lived in Panama too. Is it a tropics thing or just a coincidence?

Walking in Saigon
It was a hot day but surprisingly pleasant to walk around the city. Saigon is draped in trees, and most of the streets are very human scale. The best part is that it's just so darn colorful! So much to look at on the street, so much stuff going on.

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BRT! Didn’t get a chance to take a ride, unfortunately.

Protected moto lanes. Great infrastructure for scooters! It would also be good for cyclists, I imagine, but I didn’t see any bikes.

Saigon may be the most colorful city I’ve ever seen.

The old Post Office building. The French colonial architecture was stunning.

Interesting to see references to hippy culture / Vietnam War protests at the Reunification Palace gift shop.

The Reunification Palace (also called the Independence Palace) had super modern architecture.

Saigon felt much more familiar than Beijing. This surprised me, because from afar it seems further from American cities in n-dimensional space of economic/historical measures. Perhaps the reason for this was a history with more French/European/American influence. It also may have been as simple as "I felt more physically comfortable there due to the reasons I noted above", which has less to do with similarity and more to do with comfort. Whatever it was, I generally felt more "at home" in Saigon than I did in China's capital.

An said that Hanoi has more traditional architecture than Saigon. I heard this repeated by several people, and I'm unclear if by traditional they meant French colonial architecture or historically Vietnamese. Either way, I'm now curious to visit Hanoi as well to compare the experience of being in the city.

I primarily stayed in District 1. I would’ve liked to experience more of the other districts, but I didn’t have particular destinations in mind and didn’t have a ton of time. Curious to compare notes with people who have spent more time outside of District 1!