You get real flavor once weird mixture of ancient western pop-culture hits in the radio, american TV-shows from 80's and Christmas rush finds a way into your head. What else would you expect in the capital of Socialist Republic of Vietnam?:)) History is still present (not only in media). Old name Saigon still functions in relation to the core of the city, despite official line of nomenclature paying respect to the hero who unified the nation: Ho Chi Minh. War Museum screams with propaganda and twisted version of history, showing pictures of disfigured victims of Agent Orange and Napalm bombings to play on emotions of westerners fed with Hollywood version of Vietnam war. It's footsteps are like a track for the train of the future and build cultural kaleidoscope of this contradictory Asian Moloch. Vietnamese seem to not notice all the intrusive reminders of their difficult past though. All you encounter is smile, inquisitiveness and friendly approach, which leads to business or sales propositions but without hassle or aggressiveness I have encountered in Phnom Penh. Red flags, kitsch communist posters and green police uniforms are the only hints you barely notice indicating that this is a Big Brother's playground. It looks like a facade made for tourists though.
Main backpackers quarter located around Bui Vien/De Tham junction is mainly equivalent of Red Lights District where sugar daddys hunt for smooth and fresh bodies of local geishas with their thick wallets. Entire area is decorated with flashing neons of countless bars and restaurants like a giant Christmas tree. It's an Asian Pandora's Box squeezed to the size of two streets, loud, vibrant and without moral barriers.
Just north from this timeless zone is a park where evenings bring exercise freaks practicing tai-chi, volleyball (nearly as popular as in Cambodia) and đá cầu - Vietnamese equivalent of jianzi (or foot badminton) - highly acrobatic, spectacular and fun to watch national sport without Olympic certificate. Atmosphere is relaxed and interactive, people talk (and they love to talk just like Chinese), laugh and enjoy their time. It's another social asylum, decompression chamber from a chaotic world around. You feel like being in NYC rather than Vietnam only everybody speaks in a different language.
You see yet another dimension once you move out from Saigon and visit Mekong Delta. Over 20ml people live here, 25% of the entire country, mainly in run down, wooden shacks. Now you get boat traffic instead of motorbikes but it's equally crazy. Fishing villages still exist despite industrialization but they live off tourist and floating markets mainly.
First impression makes you confused. Highly developed city with traffic without rules where you can't afford to buy your own apartment (there is no mortgage institution in Vietnam, you pay cash within a month for every property that happen to be available, prices are insane even in European standards but you own it for generations), backward western pop-culture spiced with exotic mentality, democratic society in a socialist country and food that reflects it all. What is going on?! Welcome to Vietnam!