Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) also known as Saigon was our first stop in Vietnam and our entry point into South East Asia. Neither of us had been to Vietnam so we were unsure what to expect. Once we got past the madness of the motorbikes, the constant beeping of horns and learnt how to cross the road HCMC turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant place. On reflection, this was one of our favourite spots in Asia.
We ended up staying in HCMC on 3 separate occasions which gave us a lot of time to explore the city. It was not our intention to be in HCMC so often but it is a convenient city to transfer to different places in Vietnam.
During all of our visits, we stayed in District 1 just outside of the main backpacker area. District 1 is the most central location and is walking distance to most things you will want to see and do.
Apart from just enjoying the general vibe of the place the city does offer several things to do, once you have mastered crossing the road…
Crossing the road
One of the first things that become apparent is how many motorbikes there are in HCMC. Most of the time it is a never-ending swarm of bikes thundering along the main avenues making crossing the road somewhat of a challenge.
Crossing the road involves doing what you are told not to do elsewhere – step out into the traffic. Yes, scary at first but after a few attempts, we got the hang of it.
The things to remember;
- Do not walk backwards
- Move at a steady pace
- Make no sudden moves
If you follow the above, the bikes will generally just move around you, although they will get pretty close to you.
What to see and do
On our first day in the city, we did very little due to jet lag but once we recovered we set off to explore the city. We started with a general wander around to see what the city had to offer beyond the backpacker area.
Right in the middle of town is the main market of Cho Ben Thanh Market. It sells most things from food to clothes to sunglasses and watches. Behind the market is a night food market which is worth going too as it offered a range of cheap eats from various parts of Asia even if it is a bit touristy.
If you still want to keep shopping the head along to Saigon Square on Le Loi Street. As Vietnam is the sweatshop of the world when it comes to clothes Saigon Square is the place to go to get a bargain. Be prepared to haggle to get a good price. The general rule we found is to half their first price then go up another half if needed. If in doubt walk away, if they follow you then you have won, if not then you have gone too low. Don’t worry, most places sell the same things so you can try your luck elsewhere.
2. Revolution palace
If you are into architecture then it is worth going to the Revolution Palace (aka Independence Palace). This was the Palace for the President of Southern Vietnam before reunification. The place has been maintained and kept how it was at the time of use. As I love architecture I really enjoyed visiting the Palace.
3. War Museum
One of the most interesting but harrowing places to visit in HCMC is the War Museum. The Museum explains the horrors of the war from Vietnams point of view. This shows the Americans being painted in a very negative light which tends to not be the case in our Western history. The museum highlights the horrors of agent orange and provides graphic details of the aftermath.
4. Cu Chi Tunnels
If you have the time it is worth doing the day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels north of the city. Most hostels will offer this tour for about d80,000-d120,000. Once at the Cu Chi Tunnels you will spend the first 20 minutes watching a video on the purpose of the tunnels and how they were dug. After a visit to the traps set up in Cu Chi, you get the chance to walk in the tunnels.
Tip: If you are tall or do not like small spaces this might be the part to skip but there are exit points every 30m if you want to give it a go.
5. Notre-Dame Cathedral and historic Central Post Office
One of the best colonel buildings in the city is the Notre-Dame Cathedral. The Cathedral built by the French sits in the middle of a small square adjacent to the historic Post Office (also worth a look). It does seem that the Cathedral is closed most of the time so you are unlike to see inside. The Cathedral and Post Office are both located at Cong Xa Paris.
Like most cities, HCMC has a huge range of food choices from traditional Vietnamese to more western food. No matter where you go you can get cheap food as there are countless restaurants set up on the streets. Generally, you can get dinner for a few dollars.
We tried a range of different places all over town and had no real complaints. One of the main dishes to try is Phở which is a Vietnamese rice noodle soup usually served with chicken (ga) or beef (bò). Pho also comes with fresh herbs, lime and mung beans! Yum! However, one soup Katie ordered came with livers and kidneys so be careful!
One of the things we loved about Vietnam is the coffee. It is strong, so if you really want to enjoy it you need to drink it like a local and have it with ice and condensed milk. If you try to drink it black it will be extremely bitter. Prices vary across Vietnam, sometimes it’s d50,000 and sometimes it’s d3,000 but generally, it tastes the same, which is good!
If Vietnamese coffee is not for you, there are plenty of coffee shops in town offering expresso. We particularly like SNOB Coffee, yum coffee and cold air-conditioning!
In and around the backpacker areas you will find many bars aimed at tourists and they are all pretty similar. The city has a number of rooftop bars available but the prices of the drinks are at least triple and are more like western prices. If you are on a budget stick to backpacker bars or local bars but if you want great views of the city check out one of the rooftop bars. It might also pay to dress up a bit when going as they were pretty trendy!
We did find one bar called Vinyl Bar on Pasteur Street that had an endless beer session for 3 hours during happy hour for d100,000 Dong. Not that we are encouraging heavy drinking but it is a good offer if you like a lot of beer. They weren’t afraid to keep bringing it either, as they seem to think when you have half a beer you are ready for another!
HCMC seems to offer an endless supply of accommodation, especially for budget travellers. Out of the places, we stayed our favourite was Long Hostel in District 1. This hostel seemed to be the best value as it offered 2 free beers each evening and a free pancake breakfast in the morning. The room was also really nice.
Free breakfasts aren’t always good. We did stay at one hostel which offered a ‘free breakfast’ that turned out to be just bananas and coffee…
Getting to/from the airport
HCMC has started a new limited stop airport bus that runs from outside the International Terminal to District 1. Bus number 109 started in 2016 and is cheap, frequent and yellow so you can’t miss it. The bus travels between Cho Thai Binh and the airport via Cho Ben Thanh bus station (downtown). We used it once form the city to the airport and had no problems.
We did, however, get a taxi when we first arrived. As you exit customs there is a number of taxi company desks which will arrange a taxi for you. They are charged at a fixed fee but it is generally recommended as you are going to end up in a legitimate taxi.
Top things to see and do
- Wander around to get a feel for the place;
- Eat street food, particularly Pho;
- Drink Vietnamese coffee just like a local – with ice and condensed milk!
- Visit the War Museum; and
- Shop at Saigon Square to find a bargain
Coming from Central America HCMC was a change of pace for us which took some getting used to. After struggling at first we slowly got into the swing of things and started to enjoy the city more.
Overall, we really like HCMC and found it a much easier and more enjoyable place than Hanoi.
For more on Vietnam, check out;
- Da Nang Airport to Hoi An on the cheap
- Realities of our trip #5.. The downside of Asia
- Realities of our trip #4 – Good morning Vietnam!