Tag Archives: Ho Chi Minh City

Top pagoda experience in Saigon

It took us a while but we eventually found it.

Lost in Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinatown, we ended up relying on the locals. When they saw us walking up and down the streets frantically checking our Lonely Planet guidebook, a few women would put their hands together in a prayer sign and then point across the road, to the left or to the right. Ok, they have figured out that we are looking for the pagoda, and we clearly aren’t the first tourists who get lost in the area….

Outside the Khanh Van Nam Vien pagoda
Outside the Khanh Van Nam Vien pagoda

The Khanh Van Nam Vien pagoda isn’t even mentioned in my edition of the Rough Guide, and if it wasn’t for my friends Adrian&Lynette (who joined me a couple of days ago) I would have never got there.
And I would have missed out on one of the best experiences in my travel life!

This pagoda is said to be the only pure Taoist pagoda in Vietnam and is unique for its colourful statues of Taoist disciples. It also operates a home for several dozen elderly people who have no family.

When we got there it was Sunday late morning, and following some female voices chanting inside the pagoda we reached a room where some ceremony was taking place.

Five women (nuns, I’d say) where sitting around a table, praying and singing and preparing offerings, while three more women in the back of the room were playing some traditional music.

All their costumes were reminiscent of Chinese/Tibetan tradition, and all their prayer books were written in Chinese.  Food and drinks were on the table. Incense sticks burning everywhere in the room.

We were initially directed upstairs. from where we could follow part of the ceremony.  But we were soon invited to join a group of local people in the same room where the ceremony was taking place, so we sat with them for some time. It was absolutely incredible!

Khanh Van Nam Vien pagoda
The ceremony

When we left we wanted to know more about the ceremony. Unfortunately none of the locals could speak English.

This will definitely remain the “top pagoda experience” of my travel life so far :-)

Impressions of Saigon

First of all let me explain why I insist on using the old name ‘Saigon’ instead of the city’s post-war name of ‘Ho Chi Minh City’. It has nothing to do with its significance in history. It’s just shorter and quicker to say/type. End.

Regardless of how you call it, this incredibly chaotic and buzzing with life metropolis is the most modern and quickly expanding of all cities in Vietnam. It reminds me of Bangkok.
But my very first impression on my first visit here last December was: “Omg, and now how do I cross the road?!”.

And now how do I cross the road?!
And now how do I cross the road?!

It was quite terrifying! Hundreds of scooters, motorbikes and cars swarm around you as you try to make your way to the other side. Traffic lights and pedestrian crossings are ignored in equal measure. Crossing the road becomes a fearless act of faith: if I believe that I will make it safe to the other side of the road, I will! And as you start walking slowly but at steady pace amidst the traffic, you realise that drivers are so used to avoiding pedestrians that the risk of being hit is actually quite low. And what initially seemed some sort of mission impossible easily turns into a mission accomplished.

Being back here after three months since my first visit is strange. The receptionist at the guesthouse still remembers me from my first visit, making me feel at home. Pham Ngu Lao (the backpacker area) and the city centre look so familiar. I still managed to get lost a few times while walking around town, but there’s something interesting to see at every turn so it’s not all bad!

Here’s some more photos.

Saigon – Talking with the tourist

It all started with a: “Are you English? Do you have some time to speak with us?”.
This afternoon I was strolling down Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker area in Saigon, on my way to Ben Thanh market when I got suddenly surrounded by a group of Vietnamese students, like I was some sort of movie star.
“Why not?” I thought. After my catch up with some Vietnamese friends in the morning I had no real plans for the rest of the day. So I sat on the pavement with the students and for almost an hour I was bombarded with questions about my job, my home country, my opinions of Vietnam. My not-married status, together with my age, (yes, these were some of the questions too) shocked some of the girls but I will survive….

With some of the students who interviewed me
With some of the students I spoke to

Although only a handful of the students around me actually asked me questions, there were at least fifteen of them eagerly listening to everything I had to say. They also showed me photos of Vietnam, told me about their studies and their hometowns.

“Talking with the tourist” – as these University students explained to me – is an initiative that gives students in Vietnam the opportunity to practice their English with tourists.  They even have a website (click here) and a Facebook group!

The Saigon group uses the Pham Ngu Lao park as its area of action. As I looked around while sitting with them I realised that there were at least another 5-6 backpackers in the same situation as me.

These students also hand out a self-made booklet with some Saigon travel tips, from price lists to how to find toilets, how to cross the road, some useful sentences in Vietnamese (which I was unable to pronounce properly…), and a small map of the city centre. And at the end of my ‘interview’ they even gave me a small gift – a handmade bracelet – to thank me for my time.

What a great idea from these kids, and what a nice experience for us foreigners too :-).

So if you are in Saigon and keen on spending some time speaking English with local students, head to Pham Ngu Lao!