Author Cain Nunns Photography Christian Berg
DAY THREE | I start the day with eggs Benedict at the InterContinental Hotel, then head out to Hai Ba Trung, a bustling shopping street festooned with streams of power lines. Every couple of steps I have to jump over a mat bearing knockoff Ray-Bans or dodge a woman selling peanuts, flowers or fruit from a bamboo basket. A few doglegs later, I’m at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum.
Housed in what used to be a wealthy Chinese trader’s mansion, the museum has an ornate yellow facade, its entryway flanked by blue-green columns. Inside, I meet Sophie Hughes, a British expat who has had a hand in Saigon’s burgeoning art scene for a few years and now runs Sophie’s Art Tour.
As we file through the high-roofed halls, Hughes tells the stories behind early Vietnamese artists’ use of oils and lacquer and how propaganda art was used by both sides during the war—but her job is complicated by my hangover. “There’s a real edge to this city right now,” Hughes says, amused by my condition. “It’s like the Roaring ’20s.” We stand on a balcony for a while, gazing down on a courtyard containing two statues that are doubling as poles for a badminton net, before I mutter an apologetic goodbye and head outside for something to eat.
There are few cities in the world that can do street food like Saigon. For about $3, I get delicious bánh mì sandwiches and fresh pineapple juice, which I eat while sitting in a ’70s-style lawn chair at a small plastic table. Soon, Nam Viet Hoang, a bespectacled artist with a flowing ponytail, pulls up on a Vespa. I jump on the bike and we zip down Hai Ba Trung and through District 3, slowing down to look at the electric pink Tan Dinh Cathedral, its huge jagged spires pranging the sky.
We push on to Binh Tanh, a district peppered with auto repair shops, DVD stores and anonymous clothing boutiques. We cross a bridge over one of the area’s refurbished canals, then pull into the nondescript alleyway 86, where we are served coffee by an old Chinese man, one of the city’s few remaining streetside coffee pourers.
“Everybody is welcome here, ” Viet says. “It’s the country’s most open place and always has been.” To underscore his point, he gestures at the passing businessmen in fancy suits, schoolgirls reading manga comics, chatting women, 50-somethings in tennis outfits and the perpetually smiling Chinese coffee pourer.
Viet heads back to the city, and I grab a taxi to Tan Binh District, a gritty neighborhood that’s home to the 271-year-old Giac Lam Pagoda. Visitors stroll around the temple’s peaceful gardens or play Chinese chess in the courtyard, but the real highlight is the cemetery, each of its graves marked with a colorful, stylized mini-pagoda.
Dinner is back in District 1, at the Refinery, a trendy bar/restaurant located in a former opium factory (hence the poppy motif above its wooden doors). I have salmon carpaccio, followed by barbecued swordfish, parsley mash and roasted peppers. It’s a simple meal, but they do simple so well here. I head out of the restaurant satisfied and happy.
Outside, teenagers straddle motorbikes while off-duty office girls crisscross between cafés. I pause before the Saigon Opera House, a compact, elegant structure built in 1897, now restored to near-mint condition. I pop inside to see the ÀÔ Show, an energetic, acrobatic performance that uses dance and bamboo props to explore Vietnam’s history.
The show finishes to riotous applause. “Brilliant, just brilliant. Wasn’t it?” says a robustly earnest American with copper hair and searching eyes. Before I can answer, an old food seller in pajamas appears from nowhere, handing me a custard apple on the house.
I end the night a few blocks from here, at Lush, a small nightclub decorated with anime prints. I stand on the wraparound balcony and watch the people below. The mood is celebratory, indicative of Saigon’s economic surge, but also of this city in general. This is one of the things I love about Saigon—the smashmouth optimism, the sense that the past bears weight only to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with today, or our anticipation of the days that will follow.
Freelance writer Cain Nunns attempted to follow in Graham Greene’s footsteps, and he’s still nursing a nice hangover.