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 liberal vodka pouring on the last night of our Pandaw cruise along the Mekong river from Cambodia to Vietnam, I find myself at the infamous roundabout outside Saigon's Ben Thanh Market. Before me, four main arteries are converging into a muddle of trucks, buses, cars, bicycles and motorbikes. This bustling metropolis holds over eight million people and almost as many motorbikes, and it feels as if they've all gathered right here to spend the morning doing laps. For the past five head-throbbing minutes there hasn't been a single break in the stream. I've simply stood here, sweat trickling down my back, sunbeams squirting into my eyes, the drinks stall across the road shimmering like a mirage.
Walk out with confidence and, whatever you do, DON'T STOP.
This morning's advice from a travel companion, who has visited Saigon a dozen times, echoes in my fuzzy brain. Realising I have no other choice, I step off the curb. Just as I do a pair of locals materialise by my side. Without stopping they march into the traffic with all the confidence of Beyonce prancing out on stage, giving the bikes a "talk to the hand" gesture. The traffic miraculously parts and flows around them. I scuttle behind, using them as a human shield until I arrive on the other side.
In celebration of completing this death-defying act, I treat my aching body to a massage. Because my brain has been replaced by needles and it hurts to think, I walk into the first massage joint I see. It has a flashing neon sign, a hand-written price list, and is possibly a brothel. Nonetheless the massage turns out to be good. Although sadly I miss half of it by dozing for what seems like seconds, but is in fact half an hour.
I wake to "massage is finish" being whispered into my ear and realise I'm late for lunch. After dressing hurriedly and being bullied into tipping almost more than the price of the massage itself, I lurch around the corner to Pho 2000, made famous by Bill Clinton apparently eating his first pho here. I slide into my seat on an avalanche of sweat and apologies. The fragrant, herby, noodly broth arrives before me and my goodness, it is lifesaving. Forget pizza and burgers: pho, effectively Vietnam's national dish, is where it's at for soothing your alcohol-soaked soul.
Brain still switched firmly off, I take a postprandial walk through Saigon's Fine Arts Museum. All airy corridors and verandas, this elegant colonial-era building houses an impressive selection of Asian art. While it would usually be a lovely way to pass an afternoon, it's not ideal when you have five vodka sodas trying to squeeze out of your system.
By the time I leave, it's raining hard. I decide getting soaked will be good for my sore head, refusing myriad invitations from cyclo drivers, "Hey miss, where you go?" My hangover has taken my sense of direction hostage and a walk that should take 10 minutes ends up taking 60. Luckily, the best way to see Saigon and its wide tree-lined boulevards and French colonial architecture is by foot.
After many wrong turns and five cheek-reddening minutes finding refuge for my soaked body in a high-end department store, I find what I've been looking for. The boutiques of Mac Thi Buoi Street. In Amai, I unearth handmade pottery, delicate baskets and linen scarves. In Lam, '20s-style velvet pants and silk slips. They say never to shop with a hangover. They are right. I buy too many things; I do not think them through. Lord knows how four flimsy tea cups will make it back to Australia unscathed.
By now my tummy is grumbling again. My travel buddies and I head to Secret Garden, a restaurant on the sixth floor rooftop of an ex-factory building. We sit among fairy lights and potted plants and plow through a mountain of delicious home-cooked food. Spring rolls, garlic spinach, spicy tofu and the hair of the dog I've been waiting for, a Vietnamese 333 beer. It's enough to get me through the 10-minute walk to the rooftop bar at The Rex hotel, which in the '60s and '70s was an infamous gathering place for war correspondents. I gaze out across the glittering lights of Saigon, G&T in hand, finally feeling human again.
Malaysia Airlines flies to Saigon via Kuala Lumpur from every capital city for about $1100 return. See malaysiaairlines.com
The Renaissance Riverside Hotel in Saigon's CBD has 336 rooms from about $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 over eight days, from $3755 per person twin share. See wendywutours.com.au
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Wendy Wu Tours and Malaysian Airlines.
See also: 20 reasons to visit Ho Chi Minh City
See also: Where to find Vietnam's best street food
Traveller Tours: Join our experts on an exclusive tour of Vietnam and Cambodia
Traveller is inviting its readers to join us on a special tour of Cambodia and Vietnam. For the serious traveller, this is a match made in heaven, and based on the two nations' turbulent and tragic histories, one, at times, of hell, too. Yet it's the impossible-to-ignore aspects of these two beautiful and exotic countries.
Traveller and our expert travel partner, Wendy Wu Tours, have created a 16-day exclusive tour that will be lead by specialists:
- David Brotherson, an archaeologist and member of the Greater Angkor Project
- Lindsay Murdoch, Southeast Asia correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, three-time winner of the Walkley Award
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- Jimmy Thomson, journalist and author of three books set in Vietnam, including Tunnel Rats
The tour will includes visits to the temples of Angkor, a cooking class in Hoi An, visits to the imperial cities of Hue and over night cruise on Halong Bay and more. Each participant will be offered the choice of one of these exclusive experiences as a complimentary inclusion: footmassage in Siem Reap; rooftop cocktail in Saigon; historic Hue by cyclo and afternoon tea in Hanoi.
To book: Phone 1300 852 958 (Saturday, 9am to 4pm; Sunday, 10am to 2pm, and Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm)
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