People watching is one of my favorite activities wherever I am – at home or traveling. In my opinion, it’s totally underrated as “a thing to do”. Sergey doesn’t really agree with me – he gets restless from sitting around in any one place for too long. Meanwhile, I can go on for hours – sometimes I actually even get tired if I have been people watching for too long.
Taking off for months of travel at our own pace has been the most luxurious experience we’ve ever had. Not having to see the ‘best of’ a country in 10 days, meant that we had plenty of days where we didn’t check out any new cities or places, didn’t fulfill any “must do” activities off our list, and didn’t step foot inside a museum / temple / place of interest. What we did do is immerse ourselves in local-only, non-remarkable activities and pace of life. Coming off a few days in the backwaters of the Mekong Delta we chose to get our fill of big city lights in Vietnam’s second city – Ho Chi Minh, better known as Saigon.
We whiled away a few days doing nothing in particular – in between only paying a visit to the requisite War Museum (GO), and participating in a Saigon City Tour with local student organization, HotPot.
For the most part we devoted plenty of time for my favorite activity: people watching. Now, in my humble opinion, those with patience (or laziness) enough for this pursuit are more richly rewarded in Saigon than in perhaps any average city, thanks to pretty high diversity ration – young, old, hipster, conservative, wealthy, and those just making the ends meet, expats, average urbanites, whathaveyous – are all well represented.
Here are some suggestions on where to catch some of Saigon’s most interesting people:
The street, doH
Absolutely number one recommendation is to get yourself into a plastic chair in any of the street dining or coffee operating establishments. Just sit yourself down, get some pho or Vietnamese café dai and watch the world go by. *This one is kind of cheating since it’s pretty obvious – but I felt that this number one recommendation can’t be ignored. So calm down, sit down, and enjoy people watching at its purest. It’s just so.good.
Just sit and watch – there will be plenty of Vietnamese around you, doing their Vietnamese thing – transporting ungodly amounts of this and that on the back of their bikes, beautiful little ladies in conical hats peddling their wares, whatever else you can imagine – it will probably happen. Saigon, Vietnam.
Indie Coffee Shops
On the opposite end of the spectrum from street stool theater are the Saigon’s ‘hidden’ coffee houses. Located inside grand old apartment buildings, off hidden alleyways and frequently requiring trips through private courtyards, these coffee houses are total gems. We found out about Saigon’s indie coffee shops via Vietnam Coracle blog, which kindly provides reviews and directions to these places! Over the span of a few days we hung out at Café Vung Oi, Moi Ra; Ngoi Na So 7; and Things Café and were amazed as much by the clientele as by the awesome décor and excellent coffees.
Cuc Gach Quan restaurant
Do yourself a favor and get a reservation / or get in early for a lunch or dinner at this restaurant. Nothing hidden about this spot, although it does require slight diversion from the touristy center. Cuc Gach Quan is quite famous for feeding Brangelina – people watching points through the roof! We didn’t have any luck spotting the famous couple (or any other celebrities) the day we went, but the restaurant was packed with well-heeled locals and expats, and we thoroughly enjoyed lunching in this fine company.
Extra Credit Points: We’ve had many delicious meals in Vietnam, and would be hard pressed to single out any one food experience. BUT MAN THIS FOOD WAS OUT OF THIS WORLD. You know what else is cool about Cuc Gach Quan– the interior, someone with a very good eye was in charge of setting up this place.
Entrance to the Cuc Gach Quan restaurant in Saigon, Vietnam. Source.
Tao Dan Park
Here’s an interesting fact about Vietnam – its full of bird enthusiasts. Don’t quote me on this, but I am pretty sure that birds must be Vietnam’s number one domestic pet. What’s really cool about this phenomenon is that doting owners of the birds take them out to socialize and maybe learn a new song or two, which allows the rest of us – non-bird owners – to get in on enjoying this peculiar aspect of Vietnamese culture. Every morning, dozens of motorbike riders strap their pets to the back and make their way to specialized cafes and parks for a hanging out sesh. So, if you want to get off the beaten path in Saigon, make your way to Tao Dan Park one early morning. Get a cafe dai, maybe bring a book, but I doubt you would get more than a few pages of reading done — the people / bird watching is just excellent.
If you would like a slice of everyday, local life for those young in Saigon look no further than Turtle Lake. A traffic circle in the first district close to the Reunification Palace, this place was brimming with students when we were there on a random afternoon. And wherever there are students, there are vendors with lots of delicious Vietnamese street food. Also ice cream. Get yourself some. You can easily spend an hour around here, climbing up the lotus statue and people watching. It is very likely that a bunch of sixteen year olds will ask you to take pictures of them. or with you. or both.
DOWNTOWN & LE LOI PARK
During 4-5 days that we spent here, it felt like all of Ho Chi Minh city descended onto these two public meeting spaces to show off their motorbikes, exchange gossip, and socialize with Western tourists. We found that a good number of Vietnamese young people are actively looking to practice their English skills, so if you like to engage locals in conversation – traffic roundabouts by the Saigon Opera, Le Loi park and really anywhere around tourist attractions – should do it.
Rooftop happy hour
Our last recommendation is for drinks at Saigon Sheraton, Level 23 Wine Bar. The place isn’t really ideal for people watching per se. But the 180-degree bird eye view is the best that we’ve found in Ho Chi Minh City, and while taking in the views you can reflect on all of the people watching you’ve done that day. Or you can think of Vietnam past and present, which the view makes pretty easy to do seeing how Vietnam’s tallest building – the Bitexaco Tower, is right on the same view plane as the historic Rex Hotel. In the 1970s, the Rex Hotel played host to US military and war correspondents who would gather round for the nightly “Five O’clock Follies” – pressers by the US military on the progress of the War. In 1976, Rex Hotel held its last press conference announcing reunification of Vietnam.
So there you have it – if you are looking to just soak in the local life in Saigon, these are good starting points. Have you been? Where would you recommend? Would love to get more recommendations for our next visit – as we for sure plan to be back!