April 23, 2012

My last blog post came to you from Thailand. In the meantime I have moved onto Vietnam, which is only a 75minute flight away from Bangkok. I arrived in Saigon, today called Ho Chi Minh City, to attend a little known tradeshow and visit a vendor that I had in sight for over a year.

This is my first time to Vietnam, a country I knew only from pictures and stories that my family brought home. It would be too ambitious to say too much about the bustling city of Saigon and more so about the country. I can only convey a first impression. I have been to quite a few large cities in developing countries which all boast their own level of madness and chaos. Saigon is not any different and by that not any worse. Except for one thing: The number of motorbikes clogging the streets.

Saigon's Motorbke Invasion

Motorbikes as far as one can see. 
Given the maneouverability of a bike and the hundreds of thouasands buzzing around, it is the perfect vehicle to flaunt traffic rules even the most basic ones. At the red lights that are actually somewhat respected motor bikes typically stand 20 to 30 rows deep before the first car. The moment the light turns green the noise of accelerating bikes turns into a deafening roar. The intersection belongs to the bikes. Cars come second.

Trying to cross one of the many boulevards that cut through city – a reference to the time when the French held Indochina as a colony – might appear as a game of Russian roulette. It certainly looks terrifying but it is actually possible and that’s where the system within the chaos comes to play. The basic rule is to move slowly but steadily across the street. Like magic the bike traffic even though without slowing down will move passed you. Imagine the flow of water that splits before you and merges again right after. The worst thing to do is to stop walking out of fear that a bike you have spotted coming right at you will hit you. That’s when it becomes really dangerous. Why? Once you stop you become unpredictable to the bike drivers. Unpredictable because now they don’t know any longer what the projected path is you will be going and when you will start moving again. Despite the sheer mass and density of bikes that move around I never saw one bike even touching another one.

Motorbike Parking

This shot was taken in front of an office building. No need to offer car but rather plenty bike parking.

By no means is Vietnam defined by crazy motorbike traffic. The people in the streets are pleasant, friendly and willing to help despite their very limited knowledge of English.
Hereafter find a few impressions of todays Saigon. A city that seems to be in a hurry to catch up with the rest of the world. High rises are popping up everywhere unfortunately often at the expense of colonial style buildings. A few still stand and give you a glimpse into the past when Saigon was considered the Paris of Southeast Asia.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame cathedrale, a testimony to the French colonial times.

Opera House

Yes, the French even built an opera house. Hard to imagine that one can go see La Traviata in Vietnam.

Colonial Street Corner House

This type of building with colonial time architecture is disappearing fast. Modern glass buildings are popping up everywhere.

The vendor I mentioned earlier set me up in a boutique hotel called Villa Song. It is located on a quiet stretch of the Saigon river. It might not be the most refined boutique hotel I have been to and I would have done a few things in regards of décor differently,  but the setting and the knowledge of residing in an old colonial villa offsets the shortcomings by far. The staff is extremely friendly and genuinely care for their guests. How refreshing.

Villa Song from Terrace

Hotel Villa Song: The old Lady where I stayed in Saigon.

View from Window

View from my room onto the hotel terrace and the Saigon River

Hotel Lobby
 The hotel lobby. Everything is open to let the air flow through as the temperatures easily reach a 100F with 90% humidity.

Salon Villa Song

The salon of the hotel with original tropical wood floor.

Have a look at a few decor finds that I came across during my stay. Lacquerware is a specialty of Vietnam. While it tends to be a bit overbearing it can be a very pretty accent if designed with restraint.

Lacquerware Box

This lacquerware box makes it obvious that Vietnam was very much influenced by China in the past. 

Lacquerware Tray

This modular tray that makes for colorful centerpiece is made from lacquer as well. Lacquer is a technique where layers of special paint are applied to a wood base like bamboo.

Rice Container

This container made from Bamboo and hand painted was used in the past to store rice. I can see this as a nice decorative accent in various places of a house.

My trip is coming to an end. I am leaving Vietnam for Hong Kong. If time allows I will make short journal entry from the Pearl River Delta. Diving into Hong Kong is like diving into a different world. This city is all about efficiency, fast public transporation and making money. Stay tuned.  

Written by Patrice Gerber

Co-founder of KOUBOO LLC


Photographs © Patrice Gerber

Blog post © KOUBOO LLC. All rights reserved.