Saigon can be intimidating at first. The traffic. The street sellers. The markets and the mayhem. But at 6am the city is waking up. The streets are quiet. And it’s the perfect time to go for a run through Saigon while taking in the old and the new.
Read on in Vietnamese
“Watch out for the dog,” Michael Robinson smiles back at us, “it’s always on the corner sitting on the seat of its owner’s motorbike.” He’s right. As we turn back down Nguyen Binh Khiem Street towards the end of our 6km morning run there he is passively watching the morning traffic build from the seat of his Honda Wave.
Michael barely seems out of breath. That’s because he takes this route through Saigon every Thursday morning. At 6am, as the sky brightens suddenly over the city, the Caravelle Saigon general manager leads a group of hotel guests on this run. Later the same day he sends them a printed (or digital) recap of the route as a souvenir. “We call it the weekly GM run, included in the room rate for all guests,” the New Zealander nods proudly.
And the route, which begins at the Caravelle Saigon opposite the Municipal Opera House and passes through the zoo and along the canal on the fringes of the old citadel, gives a unique perspective of Saigon old and new. “How would I describe Saigon?” Michael asks as we head down Dong Khoi on the home straight. “Utter organized chaos! Millions of motorbikes, a mix of heritage with derelict and modern architectural wonders all rolled into a 10km radius of fun…”
Besides the interesting locations that we pass on this trail, Saigon at this time of the morning is a different city.
There are the women exercising with intimidating-looking swords near the zoo entrance. The itinerant xôi mặn sellers serving their sticky rice breakfasts for a couple of hours on the bridge to Binh Thanh. And the morning badminton games played on courts marked on the pavement that you don’t see in the daytime because they’re obscured by parked cars and motorbikes. The games are so intense that the players barely look up as we run past. But at least the dog seems interested. He jumps down to get a better view of us running past before his owner directs him back to his seat.
How would you describe Saigon as a city for runners? What are the benefits and challenges of running around the city?
Saigon is a great city for runners. It’s pretty much flat throughout the central districts and if you start early enough in the morning the weather is reasonably forgiving. You always need to be careful of motorbikes but that adds to the fun. My number one running tip? Never get in the way of a badminton game, these guys take it super seriously!
The run gives a unique view of the old and new sides of the city. How has Saigon evolved in the four years since you arrived?
Culturally, Saigon has definitely gone through lots of trends over the past four years. That started with the craft beer trend when local breweries like East West Brewing Co. and Heart of Darkness began opening their taphouses. I think that’s stabilized and only the most committed, talented producers have thrived.
Then there was the speakeasy trend. It felt like a new secret cocktail bar was opening almost every week. Some of them closed faster than they opened. Once again only the successful operators like Layla Eatery & Bar survive and they continue to do well with their word-of-mouth marketing.
The F&B scene continues to change and develop within the city and with each year the quality, creativity and atmosphere of Saigon’s bar and restaurant scene continues to elevate to new levels.
For the Caravelle Saigon we are now in the final stages of our renovation, something that has been ongoing for a few years now. The project will be completed by early 2020 with our newly refurbished rooms already available for guest use.
What inspired you to get fit and hit the streets of Saigon every Thursday morning?
For me, running has always been a social activity. It’s a great way to see the city and spend time with friends and colleagues in a fun and healthy atmosphere.
Whilst I’d love to say that running has made my “dad bod” more attractive, at least it has kept me fit and healthy and away from the doctor. As a GM of a hotel, I have also tried to incorporate running into some of our staff activities, and it’s proven a great way to promote interpersonal relationships and a healthy lifestyle to our staff.
What do you think about while you’re running?
Normally, I use the time to speak with my guests that have joined me. It’s a great chance to get to know them and share different running experiences.
How do you handle the feeling of wanting to quit?
Good question! And there’s no simple answer. I do feel that it’s easier to keep going when you are running with someone else. So, if you struggle with self-motivation, I suggest finding a running partner — or come and join me on any Thursday.
What’s your dream run anywhere in the world?
I would like to do the Great Wall of China Marathon in the next couple of years. This has always been on my bucket list and it needs to be ticked off before I get too old…
How do you prepare for your runs through Saigon and how do you wind down at the end?
I always make sure to stretch well before a run, and afterwards I find cold water and Gatorade does the trick. A bottle of each!
Are you for or against headphones? Do you use any other devices on your run?
I’m anti headphones. It’s difficult to run in the city with headphones. You should always be wary of stray motorbikes. But honestly, I have never been a headphones guy. I would rather soak in the atmosphere of the trail or track. I do have an Apple Watch, however, which I use religiously. If I haven’t tracked it, the run never happened.
Can you describe your running route through Saigon and pick out some key places along the way?
We begin surrounded by lots of heritage buildings. This is old Saigon. There’s the Caravelle Saigon, of course, that opened on Christmas Eve 1959. And opposite is the Saigon Municipal Opera House, a French colonial building that dates back even further – to 1897.
We head towards Saigon’s Japan Town. A maze of alleys that at first is a little intimidating to enter, but inside are some amazing Japanese restaurants. Try Mutahiro ramen or Chikara no Gyoza later on. We head down Le Thanh Ton and across the construction on Ton Duc Thang. Then we cut up Nguyen Binh Khiem past the Botanical Gardens to the zoo. During Teacher’s Day and Women’s Day there are flower sellers all along here and it’s beautiful to see the children going to school.
Then we go into the zoo. It’s free at this time of the morning. You’ll see lots of people exercising. We exit through the Nguyen Thi Minh Khai gate. Cross the bridge (and watch out for chaotic morning market at the other side). We go across the street and run along the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal – if anyone’s off the pace they can cut this section out and meet us back on the other side of the bridge.
This loop takes us past the canal-side restaurants like Nikki Tran’s Cau Ba Quan which featured in David Tran’s Netflix show, Ugly Delicious. Places like this have defined modern Saigon as a foodie city. There’s a new boat station here too. It’s fun to take an evening gondola trip on the canal — remember to bring a bottle of wine.
Then we’re heading back into District 1.
Watch out for the badminton players outside Ocean Palace dim sum restaurant. Run along Le Duan – this historic street used to be called boulevard Norodom. At the end of the street you can see the Reunification Palace. Hardened runners can add a few loops of the palace to this route (it’s about 2km each lap). Then we head down Dong Khoi through modern Saigon – you can see the Vincom Center, and the designer stores across the street. And we go past the new Uniqlo store and Thuy Design House, and the famous Continental Hotel. And we’re back at the Caravelle Saigon…
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen.