Saigon isn't exactly pedestrian-friendly. The city's many broken sidewalks often double as motorbike parking lots.
In heavy traffic, they triple as emergency lanes.
The tropical climate (hot and/or wet) isn't conducive to strolling, but the political one is changing.
A no-nonsense campaign has kicked off in earnest, scraping sidewalks clear of everything from police shelters to illegal signs.
Grab a bottle of water and step out into the brave new pavement.
Leafy April 30th Park offers a place for young people to eat, sing and snack.
Begin in their midst and proceed past the sprawling consulates lining Le Duan Boulevard to the front entrance of the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
If you get arrive at the right time, you may just get a chance to stop in and feed the giraffes. Otherwise, follow the breeze toward the river.
Traffic remains perennially light along this shaded section of Nguyen Binh Kiem thanks to a double-row of towering dau rai trees.
Pham Duy, perhaps the country’s most prolific songwriter, rhapsodized how their falling leaves led young lovers to the nearby Trung Vuong High School, which initially served as a hospital for French military officers.
Finish your walk by popping in to check out the awesome dinosaur mural that flanks the back wall of the museum of Geology, which feels more like a museum of a museum.
Catinat Building at 26 Ly Tu Trong
Begin under the dense (and doomed) canopy on Ton Duc Thang street and walk south against traffic.
You’ll soon find yourself standing in front of Children’s Hospital 2, one of the oldest in Asia, according to Tim Doling, author of the walking guidebook Exploring Ho Chi Minh City.
“Set amidst lush gardens and shady trees, Children’s Hospital 2 has been cited as a prime example of how good architecture can make a healthcare environment welcoming to patients and their families, rather than treating them as victims in a stark and sterile space,” Doling wrote on his site, Historic Vietnam,
Further down the street, drop into the Catinat Building [26 Ly Tu Trong] and explore the galleries, cafés, restaurant, clothing stores and a cooking classrooms that cling to the stone building’s winding stone staircase. According to Doling’s research, the building sits just next door to the CIA office, where helicopters once swooped down to evacuate agents in the final hours of the US-backed regime.
Sadly, visitors aren’t permitted on the roof and the Catinat is slated for “re-development.”
Proceed further down sidewalks shaded by tamarind trees and dip into alley 177 for fresh cut fruit, crushed ice and yogurt (AKA Trai Cay To).
Start at Tao Dan Park, a 10-hectare park at the center of the city that contains everything from ancient tombstones and a popular morning hangout for songbird enthusiasts. You could literally spend all day here, doing aerobics, playing tennis and swimming laps.
The narrow grid of streets immediately west of the park offers a wonderful density of beautiful colonial-era villas and mansions, many of them crumbling, a few threatened, but a few more mercifully restored.
The jewel in the crown may be the multi-million dollar Phuong Nam Mansion, which occupies an entire block at the corner of Vo Van Tan and Ba Huyen Thanh Quan.
In the evening, the area’s significant density of cafes and bars fills with young folks out in search of noodles and live music.
Pop in to the always-packed Acoustic Bar (on Ngo Thoi Nhiem St.) and slowly eat your way to the relaxing and cozy Yoko Bar (on Nguyen Thi Dieu St) for a cold beer and some original tunes.
Leave your smart phone at home and take a step into the frenetic Vuon Chuoi Market, a two-story concrete structure packed to exploding with people in search of everything from cheap clocks to fresh seafood.
Tents extend from the market’s rear exits into the twisted guts of Saigon’s sprawling Ban Co (“Checkerboard”) neighborhood.
Step gingerly through the frogs, vegetables and meat laid out on the ground behind the market and get lost amid the slender homes, temples and restaurants utterly insulated from the chaos and noise of the city—a labyrinth in want of a Minotaur.
Families living in these “matchbook” homes tend to leave their front doors open for insulation, so the casual stroller quickly becomes an observer of lives: lunches eaten, arguments had, naps taken.
The place is a voyeur’s paradise—a Mobius strip of daily life.
The whole thing seems like it may go on forever and ever, until you emerge, dazed and confused, into the noise and movement of an actual street.
Nhung Nguyen - Calvin Godfrey