I didn’t know what to expect when I first arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam. Both friends and family spanning several generations brought up the war, one of the only things they identified with Saigon. Many had advised me to trek somewhere else in Southeast Asia considering the stigma that remains with the war that occurred fewer than 50 years ago.
I don’t blame anyone for having one singular perception of this bustling city or for trying to derail me, war related or not. Saigon is not the most obvious destination in Southeast Asia. It doesn’t have an Angkor Wat (Siem Reap), a Petronas Tower (Kuala Lumpur), or tropical paradise (Phuket). It doesn’t brim with a large ex-pat community (Singapore), boast ancient temples (Ubud), nor is it home to the happiest people in the world (Bhutan). Saigon lacks an identity, more so because it’s relatively new in existence and still evolving. And so, when it came to expectations, mine were expectedly low. During my trip, however, I discovered what made Saigon unique. It didn’t need an iconic attraction, exotic thrills, or Eat, Pray, Love to make it alluring. It didn’t need centuries-old history, futuristic skyscrapers, or Michelin-rated chefs to make it a top destination. In fact, Saigon is perhaps Southeast Asia’s best-kept, under-the-radar destination. It has tons of charm, modesty, and a progressive pace that’s mostly organic. It’s not swarming with mass tourism (double-decker buses are thankfully few), so expenses are still considerably low. There’s just the right amount of quality street food, shopping, and top hotels, all of which offer visitors a well-rounded experience without rushing, jostling, or stressing. An added bonus for LGBT travelers is that there is a gay scene in this burgeoning city.