Expat life in Saigon vs Phnom Penh

After recently moving to Saigon after 2+ years in Phnom Penh, I’m now being asked what the differences are between life in the two cities. This got me thinking – what are the pros and cons to living in each? And which is the better place to live? Having only been in Saigon a couple of months I don’t have a full understanding of how this city ticks, so my observations may change after living here a little longer. But for now, these are the main differences I’ve encountered:
Size
Phnom Penh is like a big country town and Saigon, an Asian NYC! In Phnom Penh (let’s just call it PP) everything is close, there’s no ‘commute’ as such, and five minutes after leaving home you’re at your bar/restaurant/shop/market/friend’s house of choice. Assuming you don’t live in Toul Kork or over the Japanese Bridge, that is! Meanwhile in Saigon, the crazy traffic and vast distances mean you can sit in a taxi forever just trying to get from A to B. Which brings me to my next point…
Transport
After grappling with motos and tuk-tuks in PP (and having to bargain each and every time – it gets so old), Saigon has a refreshing alternative – metered taxis! Not only is an air-conditioned taxi much more comfortable than a breezy, bumpy tuk-tuk (the fun factor dries up after the first few rides) but I no longer have to deal with the bargaining issue. And unlike Thailand, you don’t have drivers who try and get out of turning the meter on.
People
There are marked differences between Cambodian and Vietnamese people, but not wishing to offend I’m not going to go there. Instead, let’s talk expats. In PP it seems easier to meet people. Just go to a first Friday party at Elsewhere or prop up the bar at Rubies and you’re bound to form some fast and firm friendships after not too long. In Saigon, though, the sheer number of bars and expat hangouts means the scene seems more disjointed than PP’s. Where to even begin?! There are also a lot more NGO workers, creative souls and wandering hippy types in PP, while Saigon seems to attract a more professional, business -minded breed of expat. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it also changes the vibe of the cafes and bars. Saigon’s don’t have as casual a feel as PP’s.
Food & Drink
Both cities are excellent ‘food’ places. Vietnam’s sheer number of options are overwhelming and there’s much better street food here in Saigon, but PP has some truly excellent cafes and restaurants (that I miss!). More Saigon sampling is required before I can really compare the two!
Housing
Both cities are over-priced (in my opinion) – rents can be similar (or more) to those in Sydney, which doesn’t really make sense. In both places it can be hard to find a place that’s not badly designed or ridiculously tacky (think ugly patterned tiles, even uglier chandeliers, kitchens with no windows…). In Saigon there are lots of tall skinny houses that sound great in theory (5 bedrooms! 5 bathrooms!) but may also have 5 levels of steep stairs to contend with and again, no windows in the kitchens or bathrooms. I’ve come to a compromise with the bathrooms (both ours are windowless) but now have a kitchen with lots of bright natural light flooding in via a room length window – yay!
I could go on and on…but basically, Saigon wins in terms of transport (but I wish there was also a subway) and street food, while it’s a tie for other food and housing. And PP wins for people (for now!) and size – although I usually love large cities so perhaps Saigon’s size will grow on me. I think I’ve been spoilt (or become really lazy) living in a smaller place where things are easier to find and get to. At least the two cities are close enough that I can visit PP when I get too homesick for all my old favourite haunts!

Singapore Fling: Little Arabia

The mosque by day…

And by night – when the streets took on an Arabian fairytale quality
One of the coolest neighbourhoods we visited in Singapore was Little Arabia. I think I loved it so much as it was something a little more unique, having visited many a Chinatown and several Indian neighbourhoods (and India!) before. With a huge mosque as its focal point, the area (known as ‘Kampong Glam’) had rows of streets lined with shophouses, with evocative street names like Kandahar, Muscat and Baghdad.
Similar to Singapore’s Chinatown, some streets seemed a little more ‘local’, like those lined with fabric stores, while others had a bit more of a contrived, touristy feel with ubiquitous souvenirs. Mostly though, the area was charming, particularly as the sun went down, the mosque was lit up, and we dined on delicious Muslim fare (at Sultan’s Cafe Corner) outdoors under palm trees and twinkling lights.
Delicious chicken murtabak

A highlight of the area was hip Haji Lane – aome to cute and highly unique clothing stores, Middle Eastern eateries, pokey stairways leading up to treasure troves of vintage goods, and pavements lined with mats and shisha pipes.

 

The lane seemed to attract photographers, black-clad arty looking guys, and even teens dressed like Harajuku girls – this was a Singapore a world away from its often conservative image.

The trip definitely opened my eyes to a side of Singapore some people don’t realise is there – one that’s not all about endless shopping malls and skyscrapers, but instead, unique and colourful neighbourhoods with pockets of quirky, cool places, like the Arab Quarter’s Haji Lane and Ann Siang Road in Chinatown. Overall – a great place for a weekend or mini-break!

Singapore Fling: Little India

Visiting Singapore’s Little India was like stepping into a scene straight from the sub-continent, with abundant colour, noise, crowds, chaos, lights, flowers, spices…the area was full of life and reminiscent of our explorations of India a few years back. It actually made me want to go back, despite my love/hate experience at the time.

Being a Sunday, the area was teeming with predominantly Indian (and Bangladeshi and Pakistani) men – supposedly the itinerant workers from the sub-continent head there on their one day off for a taste of home. The atmosphere was festive as it was Deepavali (or Diwali), the Indian festival of lights, so there were colourful banners and neon lights adorning the main streets.

We randomly picked a restaurant for one our all-time favourite dishes – dosais. The restaurant was called Sakunthala’s and was totally packed. It had a frenetic energy as staff buzzed around delivering plate-loads of tasty Indian fare served atop bright green banana leaves. Our masala dosais were suitably massive and very authentic, though a paper dosai (a crispy pancake minus the potato filling) may have been all that was needed to soak up the tasty chutney and sambal accompaniments.

Singapore Fling: Chinatown



During our Singapore long weekend we not only stayed in Chinatown but spent a bit of time exploring its colourful streets, checking out the shops, and of course, sampling the food. The area seemed to consist of several parts – the touristy part hawking souvenirs seen all over Asia (and every Chinatown around the world), the local area with great kitchenware shops and bustling restaurants, and the boutiquey area around and including Ann Siang Road.


Ann Siang Road was loaded with character – from Chinese clan houses to ornate tiles on the exterior of the buildings, to its mix of fashion boutiques and quirkier shops.

One of my favourite shops on Ann Siang Road was Asylum (at no. 22), selling magazines, travel books, lomo cameras and unique homewares. The other was a fantastic bookshop called Books Actually (at no. 5). Along with a great selection of books, the shop housed retro accessories, some cool photography (more lomo action) and there was even a little ‘cat viewing gallery’ – glass windows looking out to a teeny courtyard home to one very pampered looking cat.

 

We ate dinner at a nearby food centre (like a hawker centre – but a small version) called Tion Shian Eating House. The seafood with crispy noodles we tried was delicious yet the sauce quickly turned the noodles from crispy to soupy. The highlight was a plate of chicken wings accompanied by a red hot chilli dipping sauce and a small lime to suck afterwards if the heat got too much (according to the vendor). The wings were some of the best I’d ever tasted – crispy on the outside with tender meat – and all for the sum of a few dollars.

Singapore Fling


We ate, we shopped, we saw…Singapore! So after asking in a post ‘Is Singapore really boring?’ I’ve decided it’s not – well at least not for a long weekend, it could be a different story if you live there and have seen and done the cool areas to death.

For our four day Singapore fling we stayed in Chinatown at Hotel 1929. A series of old shophouses restored and converted into a boutique hotel, it was definitely cute but was not without its flaws – the rooms are TINY (though we came prepared for that) and the building is in need of some serious soundproofing – all night we heard the roar of cars hooning past and people yelling, screaming and partying literally til the sun came up!

That aside, the decor was retro modern, with a great chair collection in the lobby. The location was also fantastic – the street was lined with brightly painted shophouses and we could walk to other parts of Chinatown, including Ann Siang Road (perhaps my favourite spot of the trip)…

What I wish I knew when I moved to Phnom Penh

As promised, here are some things I wish I knew when I first moved to Phnom Penh – those little bits of information that might help save you the time and effort involved in finding things for yourself (and if you’ve already suffered disastrous haircuts, painful pedicures and fruitless searches for obscure groceries you may find this useful!).

  • For hair and nail primping head straight to Lucky Salon, above Lucky supermarket on Sihanouk Boulevard. They offer the best manicures and pedicures in town and the most hygienic – how often do you see PP parlours putting their nail equipment in a steriliser? Not often enough, say my friends with the foot fungal infections! And they use OPI brand nailpolish with a huge selection of colours. The haircuts are also excellent – and male friends attest to this as well. I recommend bypassing the local $1-2 haircut joints – while they seem so fun and cheap and cheerful at first, you soon discover they’re just cheap.
  • For obscure grocery items look no further than Thai Huot on Monivong Boulevard. It’s here I’ve found filo pastry, harissa paste, arborio rice, chicken stock and lots of great dairy produce – if you need thickened cream or sour cream (and these can be hard to come by in PP) head to the Huot. Added bonus – the alcohol selection is great and slightly cheaper than the selections at Pencil and Lucky. Oh, and there’s lots of chocolate goodness as well.
  • Fabric street near O’Russei Market has the largest selection of cotton fabrics for getting shirts, skirts, dresses and more tailor made. It runs the southern length of the market (on the street outside that is) and there’s another street that runs off this with more, which is particularly good for men’s shirt fabrics. Bargaining is essential (but easy) and you can usually get good quality cotton for around US$1.50-2 per metre. There’s lots of crazy, glitzy, slinky, shiny (read: crazy) stuff among the finds, but it’s fun to look at! The 2nd floor of Olympic Market has lots of good fabric too, and it’s undercover and a little more orderly.
  • Boom Boom Room on Street 278 is a great way to buy music. While this will sound obvious to PP residents it took me a while to stop buying CDs at Russian Market and instead get with the times and purchase MP3 files at BBR – much cheaper, and they can fit around 9 albums onto one CD which you can then copy onto itunes. Or you can get them to put the music straight onto your ipod. The music selection is updated frequently too.
  • And a few favourite food places: The Deli Bakery for bread, The Shop for lunch and dessert (especially dessert – OMG!), Le Duo for pizza (bar the decor!), Pop Cafe for lasagna, Romdeng for Khmer, Boat Noodle for cheap and cheerful Khmer or Thai, Sam Doo for dim sum, Mekong Village for duck pancakes, Sher-e-Punjab for Indian (go for the tandoor offerings), Cafe Fresco for coffee (illy), Garden Center 108 for burgers, shakes and great service, and finally, one of my favourite ‘secret’ places is a little find called ‘Khmer Thai’ – the food is great, the setting is chic, the prices are cheap and for some reason it’s off the expat radar. To find it – head along Mao Tse Tung (inland that is) and turn left just before the wat near Russian Market. Head upstairs to sit on Thai cushions and feast!
If I think of more will do a Part 2 post but this should be enough PP inspiration for now! Ok, back to Saigon….

A Girl in Asia on About.com

I recently discovered that comprehensive website About.com has a Southeast Asia section containing travel advice, forums and a blog spanning a wide variety of topics regarding travel in the region. Some Phnom Penh advice from yours truly appears in the latest post by blogger and writer Mike Aquinohere. Of course, it’s shopping and restaurant oriented – just doing my bit to spread the Phnom Penh word! Speaking of which – I still can’t believe I’ve left Cambodia. Living out of a suitcase (or 10, actually maybe more) in a hotel room in Saigon is only fun for so many days. I’m really looking forward to finding a real place to live, and soon!

Though we’ve just moved to Vietnam we’re still off to Singapore in a week’s time, a trip we booked ages ago. I found a few ideas about places to check out on the About.com Singapore page, and now I need to find some cool Singapore blogs for more. It’s interesting that a few short years ago mainstream guidebooks were the main go-to source of travel information. These days a combination of in the know guidebooks (like LUXE city guides), blogs and picking up expat magazines or street press on arrival are how I (and presumably many others) prefer to get my travel tips.
And speaking of which – my priority (besides house-hunting, Singapore trip planning and a million other things) is to get my head around everything Saigon has to offer – after knowing where to go and what to do in Phnom Penh inside out, this will be a much more challenging task!

Leaving Phnom Penh

After a whirlwind week of farewells, packing, baby minding, working and entertaining visitors all at the same time we’ve bid farewell to Phnom Penh. We created many memories during our time there, made some amazing friends, had some great travel experiences and developed our careers, though it helps that some of our best friends have left or are about to leave, and that there are exciting prospects and adventures ahead in Saigon!

Pchum Ben – Festival of the dead

Offering food and money to the monks

On the weekend Steve’s staff let us tag along with them to a pagoda to make offerings as part of the lead up to Pchum Ben. Pchum Ben is a religious holiday where Cambodians remember their deceased loved ones, and in the two weeks prior to the holiday Cambodia’s temples and pagodas are packed with people bringing food, money and offerings to the monks. Read more about it here.

Our friends decided to go to a poorer pagoda a little outside Phnom Penh, since they figured that those in the city will receive alot of visitors hence alot of money and food – good thinking! We headed across the Japanese bridge then out of town for a while to reach the temple. We certainly attracted a bit of attention (in a good way) and as usual our baby was a hit! There were people videotaping us and cute little toothless old people taking our photo.

Here are some more photos from the morning (by the way, I didn’t realise females are supposed to wear white so I’m wearing a hot pink t-shirt! Being a clueless barang I think I was forgiven).