Crossing the road in Saigon on any normal day is an utterly terrifying act. But with a hangover? It’s like playing Russian roulette.
After some generous vodka on the last night of our Pandaw Cruise along the Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam, I find myself at the infamous roundabout outside of Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market.
In front of me, four main arteries converge in a tangle of trucks, buses, cars, bicycles and motorcycles. This bustling metropolis has over eight million people and almost as many motorcycles, and it feels like they’ve all gathered here to spend the morning doing rides.
For the last five nagging minutes, there has been no interruption in the flow. I just stood there, sweat streaming down my back, the sun’s rays splashing in my eyes, the drinks spread out across the road shimmering like a mirage.
* Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: A Beginner’s Guide
* Expat Tales: Hello, Ho Chi Minh City
* Travel to Vietnam: history and horror featured in the Vietnam War
This morning’s advice from a traveling companion, who has visited Saigon a dozen times, resonates in my hazy brain. Realizing that I have no other choice, I step off the sidewalk. Just like I do, a pair of locals materialize by my side. Without stopping, they walk in traffic with all the confidence of Beyoncé who prances on stage, giving the motorcycles a gesture of “talking with the hand”.
The traffic miraculously separates and flows around them. I rush behind, using them as a human shield until I get to the other side.
To celebrate the completion of this death-defying act, I offer a massage to my aching body. Because my brain has been replaced with needles and it hurts to think, I step into the first massage joint I see.
It has a flashing neon sign, a handwritten price list, and maybe a mess. Nevertheless, the massage turns out to be good. Although unfortunately I miss half of it while dozing for what seems like seconds, but is actually half an hour.
I wake up whispering “the massage is over” in my ear and realize I’m late for lunch. After dressing hastily and being forced to tip almost more than the price of the massage itself, I head to Pho 2000, made famous by Bill Clinton apparently eating his first pho here.
I slip into my seat in an avalanche of sweat and apologies. The fragrant broth, with herbs and noodles arrives in front of me and my God, it saves lives. Forget pizza and burgers: pho, actually Vietnam’s national dish, is here to soothe your alcohol-soaked soul.
With my brain still well extinguished, I take a postprandial walk in the Museum of Fine Arts in Saigon. All hallways and airy verandas, this elegant colonial-era building is home to an impressive selection of Asian art. While this is usually a nice way to spend an afternoon, it’s not ideal when you have five vodka sodas trying to get out of your system.
By the time I leave, it’s raining hard. I decide that getting soaked will be good for my headache, declining the myriad invitations from the cyclo drivers, “Hey miss, where are you going?” My hangover took my sense of direction hostage and a walk that should take 10 minutes ends up taking 60. Fortunately, the best way to see Saigon and its wide tree-lined boulevards and French colonial architecture is on foot.
After many missteps and five flushed-cheeked minutes finding refuge for my soaked body in an upscale department store, I found what I was looking for. The shops on Mac Thi Buoi Street. In Amai, I unearth handcrafted pottery, delicate baskets and linen scarves. In Lam, 20s-style velor trousers and silk jumpsuits. They say never go shopping with a hangover. They’re right. I buy too many things; I don’t think about them. God knows how four fragile cups of tea will get you home unscathed.
Now my stomach is growling again. My traveling companions and I make our way to Secret Garden, a rooftop restaurant on the sixth floor of a former factory building. We sit among the fairy lights and potted plants and walk through a mountain of delicious home-cooked food.
Spring rolls, garlic spinach, spicy tofu and the dog hair I expected, a Vietnamese 333 beer. That’s enough to take me through the 10-minute walk to the rooftop bar of The Rex hotel, which in the 60s and 70s was an infamous gathering place for war correspondents. I gaze at the twinkling lights of Saigon, G&T in hand, finally feeling human again.
Malaysia Airlines flies to Saigon via Kuala Lumpur from each capital for approximately $ 1,100 round trip. See malaysiaeairlines.com
The Renaissance Riverside Hotel in Saigon’s CBD has 336 rooms starting at around $ 190 a night and a lovely rooftop pool. See marriott.com
Wendy Wu Tours offers a range of Pandaw River cruise itineraries. The Classic Mekong Cruise aboard the RV Mekong Pandaw travels from Siem Reap to Saigon in eight days, starting at $ 3,755 per person in a double room. See wendywtours.com.au
Nina Karnikowski traveled courtesy of Wendy Wu Tours and Malaysian Airlines.