Insider’s View. Episode 1 – David Lyonz
As much as I’ve tried, I’m just not making a dent in the huge amount of great sights, activities, food choices and entertainment choices around town. So, I’ve enlisted the help of a few of Ho Chi Minh City’s locals to help broaden the scope of recommendations on my site. This interesting group includes local Saigonese, expats who just can’t leave and overseas born Vietnamese who’ve returned to their homeland. I aim to publish at least one a month along with my regular posts so let me know what you think and who are your favourites.
First off the blocks is Aussie David Lyonz. He came for a short time and still can’t drag himself away four years later. I’ll let you read on below to see why we all love this crazy city so much. He’s also provided a few of his favourite pics to show you Saigon from his point of view. Nice!
Who are you and where are you from?
My name’s David Lyonz. I’m Australian but I wouldn’t really say I was “from” there because as the son of a son of a sailor I grew up travelling so I’m reluctant to define myself as being “from” anywhere except the Asia-Pacific region
How long have you been living in Ho Chi Minh City?
Four years. I arrived for a ten day holiday which blew out to six weeks and eventually nine months before I left to renew my visa and apart from some holidays I’ve been living in Saigon ever since I arrived.
What do you do?
I’ve been an IT guy for years designing websites and running servers mostly, but my educational background is in journalism and I’ve written for various publications in Korea, Vietnam and other countries. My main website about life in Asia is a tongue in cheek comment about how I tend to turn up places and unintentionally just get stuck there after I meet great people and enjoy it. It’s called Stuck In South East Asia.
Why did you choose Ho Chi Minh City to live?
I think it chose me. I always wanted to live in Tokyo, but the cost put me off. I visited many cities around Asia and none of them had the same heart and soul that Saigon had. Friendly, cheap, modern, with fast internet and good hospitals, it’s the best of the old world and the new for me.
What do you love about Ho Chi Minh City?
The primary difference between Saigon and Hanoi for example, is that Saigon is a very laid back place. I mean, people work really, unbelievably hard here seven days a week. But they’ll also sleep on the job. They love a beer. They love to laugh. I remember reading books other media about “The Orient” as a child, and it’s sort of an undiscovered world to westerners so I just love that I’m in one of the weirdest and most unique places on earth and I can live in the “old world” that’s full of gangsters and back alley restaurants and beautiful ladies in long silk dresses, but I can do that whilst still being part of a modern, urban city. This place is so busy that it inspires you to want to be busy too. You live your life fast here and every day seems to zip by and as night falls you call it a day and go out for a beer and then get up the next day and start it all over again. It’s just an amazing, hectic spectacle of life.
Are there any negatives and how can visitors avoid them?
The obvious answer is that you have to watch out for the snatch and grabs. Foreigners really underestimate how determined they are. But it’s very safe. No one is ever going to hold you up with a knife and demand your wallet here. It’s just unheard of. (Editor. My tips for staying safe here)
Less obvious is that if you have money and free time, it’s very easy to live your life to excess here. I’ve seen friends die because they couldn’t stop living “the good life” and that’s really sad. For some people it’s their last port of call in life and they are just scraping by barely existing at all. I think if you’re a single guy especially, you need something to anchor you. You need your work or your wife to be your rock that keeps you coming home at a reasonable hour and not getting too caught up in all the endless partying.
What are your favourite foods and restaurants and why?
I’m not really big on the Vietnamese staples like Pho, but there are some Vietnamese things I really love. Bo kho (beef and carrot soup) is absolutely amazing. Da Dieu (ostrich) meat is absolutely the most delectable red meat in existence. Once you try that, beef just doesn’t compare. But you have to have it cooked well, not at some District 1 street stall. In a good restaurant. My favourite dining experience has to be the amazing Binh Xuyen restaurant in District 8. There’s a bigger one in District 7, but I prefer the original one. It’s not the sort of place you would ever find in a million years unless you knew it was there. Hidden away in a side alley behind a gigantic wall it’s a huge sprawling garden paradise with several thousand square meters of fishing ponds and water wheels and they serve the most amazing food ever. It’s really a dining experience like nothing else.
What are your favourite nightspots?
I’m not really a clubbing person and I certainly wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those dark sleazy “beer clubs” or “vomitoriums” as we call them. Street drinking is where it’s at and I’ve been living literally on the famous Bui Vien street for years now. I do like to get away from Saigon from time to time but there’s really no place I’d rather be than at the well known bia hoi (the local draught beer) place beside my apartment with the lovely 86 year old silver-haired woman serving me a mug of draught in the afternoon. This place gets featured on so many videos and travel clips of Vietnam. But I love the regulars the most. In an interview, the old woman told me she does too. She loves the people who come early every afternoon and sit down greet their friends and just sit and chat about their life. The tourists can be fun too and even if you think you’ve had every possible discussion about foreign politics and culture that you could want to have in life, you still manage to meet more great people and connect with them and then they move on, but often you’re Facebook friends for life. Bui Vien may be considered the “dirty tourist place with all the cheap beer and lowlifes” but to me it’s home. I know all the local shopkeepers and market stall owners and even the security guards and police and we all say “hi” to each other and go about our lives. But the best place to be when I’m not on my balcony is next door at “Ba sau”‘s place puffing on a cigar and laughing it up with an old friend or a tourist over a mug of draught beer.
What are your favourite things to do in your spare time that visitors would love too?
People ask me all the time “What is there to do in Saigon ?” and I am mostly at a loss. There are things to do here, but it’s not a touristy place. It’s a place to live or to watch people live. But we must have about a million restaurants here and you could live your whole life and not eat at them all. But there’s some organised activities too. For me, I think the best thing is just walking around watching the city rush past. The parks are very nice. I love seeing the old people exercising in the mornings or playing with their children in the evenings.
What are the top 5 things you feel every visitor should do when they come to Ho Chi Minh City?
I’m totally not into organised tours. I don’t want to see the war remnants museum or anything like that. Taking a trip up the river is pretty special though, especially at sunset. This is a beautiful city, and seeing it from the river is really special. But one thing that I think is pretty amazing to do here is to see the less fortunate people. Once you see this city and then you visit an orphanage and you see these beautiful children with no families it breaks your heart and you really want to do something. Just going there is enough. I mean, the people here really and look after each other, but when you’ve got nothing it’s really hard to get a hand up, so I think that if you’re lucky enough to be able to come from a developed country and visit here, you should really stop and think about what life is like for people here and how hard they have to study and work to make something for themselves and then imagine what it’s like if you don’t have that opportunity. It takes so little to change someone’s life here and you’ll feel amazing if you go and visit someone who really needs help. Buy a kid a book or something. When you get harassed to buy some trinket or a greeting card from an old woman, stop and chat to them. Ask them where they’re from and how long they’ve been doing it and what their family life is like. The greatest thing this place has its people, so don’t ignore them for the sake of museums and tours. It’s easy to get to know people and it’s really rewarding.
Do you have any insider tips or warnings?
Yeah, stop comparing prices. Look, virtually everything here is far cheaper than it is in the west, but I see these people who get bogged down in “Oh this thing is cheaper in this district”. I get so annoyed when people finally visit the outer suburbs and then come back obsessively talking about how much cheaper a beer or a bowl of noodles is. Of course things are cheaper there because the cost of real estate is cheaper. Everything is so relative here and you should be happy just to be here and enjoy things for an inexpensive price. You can be judicious with money, but for god’s sake don’t get obsessed about every thousand dong difference in price. I hear some people siting at a beautiful rooftop garden bar comment that they can get a lemon juice for a quarter of the price “in District 8” and I think “Oh my god. Look at where you are. You’re on the rooftop of a million dollar hotel enjoying the city skyline. Of course the price of a lemon juice is higher here !” It doesn’t matter. Just keep reminding yourself “It’s five cents. It really doesn’t matter if I pay a few thousand extra to eat in a nicer place”. You came here to enjoy yourself, not to find the absolute lowest, rock-bottom price for a beer or a juice in some seedy back alley. This place is already cheap, just enjoy it and stop bickering about prices. If you pay $5 for a taxi ride or $3 for a tourist map, don’t freak out and start complaining about the price. I really dislike hearing people constantly talk about the price of things. Just relax and enjoy life. Saving every cent possible by being a “Cheap Charlie” is not living your life.
What has been, or is, your NUMBER 1 Ho Chi MIinh City Highlight?
Every day is a highlight, really. It’s hard to pick out any one thing. I guess for me personally, one moment I loved was when I was taking the “big boat” (the larger ferry) back from Vung Tau, and we were coming up the Saigon River in the late afternoon and we reached the city just as the sun was setting and I stood on the deck and by luck I got this stunning photo of the sun setting over the river which was bathed in orange with the Saigon Bridge stretched out across it. It’s the background image on my website I mentioned earlier. That was one of my favourite moments. Living in the suburbs and walking into the city every day was really nice too. Mornings in the park. It’s definitely not some tour or bar. It’s just being here. That’s the highlight.
Is there anything else you think is important for visitors to know?
The most important thing to know about Vietnam is that everything you think you know about this place, is probably completely wrong. Communism is really some long-lost ideal. This is not an authoritarian place at all. This is one of the most free countries in the world. And I’m not just saying that. Vietnam regularly features on the list of the world’s most free countries. The government really doesn’t mind what you do (as long as you don’t talk bad about them). They don’t really censor everything like people think. There’s some corruption, but there’s definitely no police brutality. People are very much accountable for their actions here, but as long as you’re not smuggling drugs or embezzling money or committing fraud, things are very fair. This is a country that looks after it’s citizens, not it’s corporations. People matter here and people look after each other. It’s a really cohesive society and that’s really cool to see. It’ll really give you something to think about when you go home… if you ever go home.
Editors Note: Well I hope you all enjoyed David’s “Insiders View”. I know I did. If you’d like to contribute to this regular series then drop me a line through the contact form or email me at Sharyn@hochiminhcityhighlights.com.
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