One. You say Saigon….
Really, it doesn’t matter what you call it. Saigon will always be “Saigon” to me, but I get that there’s a history, and I get that…. No. Seriously, fuck it: no city name should have five syllables! Vietnamese history is complex enough without adding three extra syllables.
My sense is that you are not going to offend anyone by using either “Saigon” (Sài Gòn) or “Ho Chi Minh City” (Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh). Hell, half the buildings and businesses are called Saigon-something-or-other. The airport call-sign is still SGN, the river is still the Saigon River, it’s the Saigon Train Station, and so on.
Just use some sense. If your Củ Chi tunnels guide is clearly from the north, is standing next to one of the traps, and uses “Ho Chi Minh City,” then be nice and do the same.
If you’re going to lose nose skin over it, then you probably shouldn’t have come in the first place.
Thuy Nguyen is a friend, and also a fabulous guide. She brought the tour through the Củ Chi tunnels to life in a way that was poignant and respectful of both sides. Not an easy feat! Here, she’s describing one of the hidden punji stick traps.
Two. Xe ôm
Forget traditional taxis. Unless it’s raining, but even then, the rains in Saigon tend to come and go quickly. Sit back down, have another coffee, and wait ’til it stops. Saigon Time is relative, anyway, and follows the French tradition of being fashionably—and frequently appallingly—late. You’ll be glad you waited because otherwise, you’d miss out on a whole lot o’ fun: xe ôm is the only way to fly!
Xe ôm (pronounced say-ohm; mnemonic: Say, ‘ome!) are Vespa taxis. My understanding is that xe ôm means “motorbike hug,” or “hug the driver.” Either way, it’s a great term! Xe ôm are nimble and they’re a great way to meet kids! (You know, at traffic lights; kids find farang on bikes highly amusing). Before you know it, you’ll have learned that Saigon traffic isn’t the mayhem you first thought it was on your way in from the aeroport. Well, it is, but there’s a method in the madness. Truly.
Also, there’s the cool factor. Like the first time you canter bareback on a horse (ask a horse friend; they’ll understand), that moment when you realize that you don’t need to hold on for dear life and you can sit back and relax like a pro.