We arrived in Ho Chi Mihn City, or Saigon, as the natives still call it, yesterday.  We both still have nasty colds and are somewhat bedridden which makes things particularly frustrating, as the city looks so exciting.

Just the cab ride from the airport to our hotel told us this is an amazing city. We see rows of tall thin buildings in pastel colors like Neccos. Their geometry is reminiscent of both Mondrian and Miami Art Deco style, but are often much more baroque. Some have round porthole windows, spiral staircases, grids of square windows or a grid-like courtyard on top. There is an interesting scale to these structures — architectural details (of which there are plenty) are miniaturized, perhaps to give the illusion of a wider space. This miniaturization is something I see repeated in other types of buildings and in the organization of interior space here. It seems like this modern/deco style may have originated with the French, but many of the buildings look newly constructed.

We also see a few French Colonial buildings, and plenty of charming outdoor restaurants with lots of palms and jungle plants jutting out.

Neatly organized shops are completely open to the street late at night and everyone is outside — life is on the street. Cheap Britney Spears-style clothing is for sale, as well as lingerie, bahn mi sandwiches, electronics,etc. French-looking striped awnings abound. To my untrained eye, it seems as though some of the newly built street aesthetic continues to have the fused influence of French and local culture. The careful organization of space is inviting.

Armies of cyclos (motorcycles) with headlights blazing round the bend look like they’ll use our cab for a speed bump. Chic teens and twenty year olds complete with spikey heels, grandmas, families of four with tiny children are all balanced cyclos. There are so many, every street looks like some motorcycle enthusiast’s parade.

We see old and new government buildings adorned with hammer and sickle. Logos and posters out front are reminiscent of Russian Construcivism and Swiss Modernism. Some are simpler.


But this feels like a capitalist country. During dinner at the hotel, no fewer than five touts, selling incredibly carefully xeroxed and bound copies of Dan Brown, Michael Moore and Steven King books, come by our table. If you make eye contact with someone from your table, you’ll often be offered hammocks or fake antique zippo lighters. A few women are also walking by with the traditional Vietnamese conical hats and some of them are wearing masks because of pollution. We see more traditional dress here than in Bangkok.

Dinner is quite good, with French Vietnamese food — Corn bacon chowder, chicken skewers and vegetables in a delicate brown sauce.

Our hotel is absolutely lovely. The proprietors are friendly, and the space is thin and vertical. The open air restaurant downstairs is charming with its liquor shelf sculpted like an old fashioned ship, and canned food/cleaning products artfully arranged on the walls like some French bodega. A tree sculpture masks the water pipe and power cables — the tree continues all the way up to the fifth floor of the building. The tree segment in our fourth floor walk up room has a phone jack, some power cables, and a water valve, as well as some fake leaves up top. Our room is a charming combination of French, Vietnamese and improvisation, with slightly Art Nouveau looking beds, a primative-looking Vietnamese mandala on the ceiling, inlaid wall details, and a bathroom constructed to look like a little red-tiled building complete with windows. There is a terrace with a luxurious shower for two and sauna. All this for $45 per night.