If you only experience one Vietnamese city on your travels, make sure it’s the place formerly known as Saigon. Here’s why…
There are few places left in the world that are so different to the one in which you live that you experience culture shock – or as I prefer to call it, cultural excitement. This, after all, is the reason why travel-lovers get on a plane in the first place: to go somewhere else and experience something completely new. There is nothing quite like being in a foreign country, surrounded by people who speak a different language, sampling food made with different cooking techniques, ingredients and flavours, and shopping in crazily crowded markets with masses of fresh vegies and strange-looking fruit to try, and just taking it all in.
Travel makes you more accepting of other people, question your own assumptions (they are not always correct!), and much more open to adventure.
THE HISTORY: Ho Chi Minh’s History Museum has exhibits on Vietnamese history from prehistoric times, through to the feudal monarchy of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945). There are also interesting examples from other cultures, including Cambodian stone carvings, and antique cannons from the French invasion of Saigon in 1859.
Those more interested in modern military history will be intrigued by the War Remnants Museum.
PHOTO OPPORTUNITIES: Vietnam offers terrific photo opportunities wherever you look, and a trip to Ho Chi Minh will require more than one SD card (to be on the safe side, pack an external hard drive for backups!). The first thing you’re likely to notice is the traffic, which positively throbs with motorbikes, bicycles, cars, small trucks and pedicabs (and you thought Bali was full-on).
Speaking of which, it’s good to know the etiquette of taking photos featuring people. Street vendors, in particular, make for evocative holiday snaps in Ho Chi Minh City. Each vendor usually sells just one thing – wicker baskets, plastic bags full of goldfish, flowers, fruit, anything you can think of – all strung up on their bicycles. Curbside hairdressers look fantastic too. But: please don’t just snap away. While a candid shot from ten feet away may be fine, if you want to take a portrait, please ask if it’s okay first, even in mime.
The proximity of traditional and contemporary buildings can also make for a great shot. For example, the Bitexco Financial Tower is an oddly-shaped glass structure that rises 68 floors above a surrounding landscape of low-rises. Head up to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor to get fantastic 360-degree cityscapes against the Saigon River. The tower is open from 9.30am to 9.30pm daily, so you can capture colourful long-exposure night scenes too. Bitexco Tower > 2 Hai Trieu St, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.
THE FOOD: As in most Asian countries, street food is often the best food – and it’s always the cheapest. If you are unsure of where to go, the best idea is to take a food tour. I recommend Saigon Street Eats, which is run by a local couple – Aussie expat Barbara and her Vietnamese partner Vu. Their morning tour sees you eat pho for breakfast, then visit a fresh-food market.
The journey ends with a traditional Vietnamese hot pot. There’s also a quick Street Food 101 tour that will familiarise you with local delicacies so you can then go on to choose your own during the rest of your trip.
For traditional Vietnamese rice-paper rolls and other simple lunchtime snacks, try Wrap and Roll. While it is a chain restaurant that can be found in multiple locations around Vietnam, the food here is fresh, clean, cheap and delicious. Order the cha gio con tom (shrimp spring rolls) or the banh xeo (crispy fried rice-flour pancakes with savoury filling).
For fine dining with fab views, head back to the Bitexco Financial Tower, where Eon51 is located. It’s best to book online well in advance of your trip for this special dining experience.
You’re unlikely to crave Western food when there’s so much yummy local fare around.
Do you often find yourself gasping at the price of a beer? Well, with a Saigon or 333 hovering around 15,000 VND ($0.70 USD), Ho Chi Minh City is a beer drinker’s Shangri-La. Walk down any street and you’ll find a spattering of little plastic chairs on sidewalks. Take a seat with the locals, and enjoy some of the cheapest beer in the world. From back alley dives to four story canal-front joints, a dirt-cheap, ice-cold glass of beer is never far away.
The coffee in Vietnam is world renowned, and in Ho Chi Minh, it’s difficult to walk 50 feet without stumbling upon a coffee shop. This city couldn’t be more proud of its coffee culture. Whether you prefer your daily jolt of energy at a high-class establishment or somewhere with a dirt floor and exposed wiring, Ho Chi Minh has it all. Order a Cà Phê Sữa Đá, and taste some of the most delicious coffee money can buy.
With a fortress of new skyscrapers constantly jockeying for the top spot, this city is bursting with development. Buildings, bars, restaurants and parks open at such an incredible pace that it can be hard to keep up. This metropolis allows you to witness change and evolution right before your eyes.
After a day of exploring in the inescapable Vietnamese heat, nothing beats relaxing with a cold drink in hand. If a glass of beer on the street isn’t for you, try out one of the city’s many rooftop bars. A cocktail or beer enjoyed from above will generally set you back a bit more—100,000–200,000 VND ($5–10 USD)—but the views alone are worth it. For a hip, younger vibe, check out Chill Skybar. If calm, quiet and peaceful is what you need.
Bui Vien is best described as Khaosan Road before Khaosan Road became self-aware. It’s Ho Chi Minh City’s version of a sleepless backpacker street. Spend a night bar hopping beneath the neon lights, and soak up the grit and sin. From locals and grizzled old expats to travelers stopping through, Bui Vien offers some of the best people watching in all of Vietnam. The street’s central location is an ideal jumping off point for those visiting town. Whether you’re looking for that party that won’t stop or just want to be a spectator in the action, Bui Vien has it all.
Ho Chi Minh has some 10 million motorbikes buzzing through the streets—more than any other city in the world. You could spend hours sitting and watching the organized chaos and even longer growing the nerve to cross the street. The cargo aboard the motorbikes jousting for space along Ho Chi Minh’s streets is worthy of its own reality TV show—families of five, refrigerators, ovens and roll top desks. Whether you decide to take part in the madness or remain a sideline observer, make sure to keep your head up; bikes in this city have a penchant for traveling the wrong way or even down packed sidewalks.
The vast majority of travelers only stop by the centrally located, sprawling Ben Thanh Market. But to avoid the incessant hassle of touts, head elsewhere. You can buy textiles in Tan Dinh, pick up kilograms of spices in Chinatown, or immerse yourself in a neighborhood street market like Vo Duy Ninh in Binh Thanh.