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Saigon Tet: Welcoming the Tiger

Published 06 January 2011   

How an airline can lose your luggage is a mystery seldom solved but the very act of actually catching the guy at the Jakarta luggage counter putting a Singapore tag on his suitcase, when in fact he was going to Saigon, was an auspicious beginning for Thomas Jones’ trip to celebrate Chinese New Year in Saigon. May the good luck continue.

By Thomas Jones

Getting into Ho Chi Minh City, or  Saigon as most locals prefer, is a combination of easy and hard. Easy to buy a ticket, hard to get your visa, easy to get ripped off by a taxi driver, but then easy to be enchanted by the the city itself. Saigon is like tropical time travel with beautiful wide open boulevards, colonial facades, sidewalk cafes and street stalls, history, plenty of shopping and the ever pervading scent of good food and optimism.

I was in Saigon for Chinese New Year, or Tet as it is known locally, and the city was abuzz with excitement. Saigon basically shuts down for the holiday as people return to their home towns and leave it in the hands of the Saigonese for a few days. The streets are crowded with young parents with babies, grandparents, endless throngs of women in traditional Ao Dai dresses, and lovers holding hands, and tourists who all wander up and down through the endless arrangements of flowers, gardens, buntings and tiger sculptures that have been erected and built along Nyuyen Hue Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of the city. The tree-lined streets are closed to vehicles and they are lined with lanterns that light up the night while threatening to drain the national grid.

There are myriad hotels in Saigon, from old colonial style right up to five star tower variety. The Renaissance Riverside Hotel is of the latter  variety and was our first choice so we could look out over the city and take in the expanse of the Saigon itself. This proved invaluable on Tet’s Eve as I had a front row, 15-floors-up, grandstand view of the massive fireworks display that ushered in the tiger. Looking down on the quayside throngs below it was a wise decision to not be at street level this night.

From the hotel you can see for miles up the river in either direction. Boats lay at anchor or in dry dock, cruise ships come and go, ferries travel nonstop across the river and the lights from the wharfs and bridges light up the nightscape with rainbows of light, while the tide flows ceaselessly up and down like blood from a pumping heart.

The Renaissance Riverside Hotel sits right on the waterfront about a minute from Dong Khoi Street, home to all the brand boutiques and the old French style Opera House. It was a perfect location and when I got tired of the heat outside I could easily retire to its rooftop pool and spa, and when I got tired of lazing around it was a just a stone’s throw back to the action.
And that action is so wide and varied in Saigon. Everything is so close and Ho Chi Minh is a great city for walking, and there are stacks of cycle rickshaws should the heat prove too much.

Places to visit include the War Museum, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Reunification Palace, The Opera House, The Notre Dame Cathedral; even the Post Office is a fin de siècle work of art worth checking out. Add to this the great variety of restaurants and historical colonial era icons like the Rex Hotel’s rooftop bar, and an endless supply of cafes and restaurants offering refreshingly cold beverages or uniquely blended Vietnamese coffee, and you couldn’t ask for more to do in a day.

The city is still very French colonial and just looking up as you walk the streets you can get a feel for what it must have in distant times. There are signs of new construction going on everywhere and it won’t be long before much more of the city’s downtown is redesigned and reshaped by shady revisionist, revolutionary capitalists with a penchant for glass and steel, good restaurants and a quick buck. But for now, judging by the time it takes to prepare a cup of coffee, the people are in no hurry.

Saigon is a fast-paced place by all accounts but I didn’t see much evidence of this over Tet due to the fact that it was devoid of the regular populace. This would all change within a day or two I am sure, but for my particular visit I was at peace and in love with the quiet of the city’s streets and the rowdiness of a proud pedestrian populace who had all come out to open the door to welcome in the Tiger.

Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon
8-15 Ton Duc Thang Street, District 1
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tel:  +84 8 3822 0033