I was expecting subtle differences going from Hanoi to Saigon, but instead I felt like I had entered a different country.
I was already anticipating a different experience than my time in Hanoi simply because I would no longer be a volunteer living with the locals, but rather a backpacker staying in the tourist district. Upon my arrival in Saigon, I had such an odd feeling because I was accustomed to living in Cau Giay (Hanoi), where everyone always stared at me thinking I was a lost tourist in their neighbourhood. I recall getting looks of shock and awe as I jumped off the moving bus with the other locals, weaved my way through traffic, and headed into the residential neighbourhood everyday after work. When I got out of my taxi in Saigon, I was expecting the usual stares from the locals, but no one even looked at me!
I dropped my bags off in my dorm room and began to make my way out as I noticed signs posted all over the hostel:
“Watch your bags after midnight”
“Don’t carry too much money in your wallet”
“Keep belongings close to you”
Anxiety took over, as I suddenly felt like I was in this very foreign country – as if I hadn’t been living in Vietnam for the last 5 weeks! With fear of the unknown, I obeyed the warnings posted in the hostel and followed their instructions. I made my way onto the main strip and didn’t even get about 10 feet before I had people handing me flyers for tours and discounts to restaurants, all while the people standing across the street were calling me over to their restaurant. What I found most surprising was that they were all speaking English! I couldn’t believe it. I began to notice that English was everywhere – All of the city signs were in both Vietnamese and English. In Hanoi, I had only seen a handful of English signs in the entire city.
While walking another few blocks, I tried to digest what was happening in my immediate surroundings and also overcome the shock of realizing that I was a walking target for potential sales. As the wheels were turning in my head, I stepped out onto the street to cross the road and a car screeched to a halt just inches away from my feet! Well, that certainly made me snap out of my daze. My initial instinct was to look at the car and throw my hands up, but I just quickly ran to the other side of the road. I stopped to look back at the road and realized why I almost got hit. There was an intersection, with a crosswalk and traffic lights…and it even had marked lanes! I couldn’t believe it. I knew I was going to do something stupid like that after living in Hanoi – the moment I was faced with controlled traffic, I didn’t know what to do. I was used to Hanoi, where I crossed the “street” wherever and whenever I wanted to.
What I found a bit unfortunate about Saigon was that the city catered to, and essentially lived for the tourists. It seemed like a place where tourists could go for a vacation, and just have a bit of home in a different country…enough to make them feel like they were travelling, but not to the point where they had to embrace another culture. The absolute worst part for me was that every single restaurant, even the authentic Vietnamese ones, had half a menu’s worth of Western food! Hamburgers, pizza, and pasta at Vietnamese restaurant? C’mon…
Clearly, I love Hanoi. Its beauty was its simplicity and the way the locals enjoyed the simple pleasures in life. It was a very social place where you could admire their customs and their respect for family. Personally, I didn’t experience any of the traditional “Hanoi Charm” in Saigon. Perhaps I’m a bit biased, but I will always have a special place in my heart for Hanoi J