I am currently on a trip in Ho Chi Minh City with a friend. I wanted to go on a long holiday during the summer break, so we decided to visit Vietnam as we have never been there before.
Vietnam is a country in Southeast Asia that has a population of over 91 million people. Because of the infamous Vietnam war, more than 2/3 of the current population were born after 1975, the year in which Saigon collapsed and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the former North Vietnamese leader. Vietnam is still one of the few remaining communist countries in the world to date. The country had a lot of rebuilding to do after the reunification, but it has an abundance of natural resources and agriculture to both sustain itself and export out. Tourism is also an important factor in accelerating Vietnam’s economic growth.
Our plan is to remain in South Vietnam throughout this trip. So far, it has been a mixed experience here in Ho Chi Minh City, but the experience has been eye-catching nonetheless. In this post, I will share some of the main attractions in Ho Chi Minh City and offer some tips for tourists travelling here for the first time.
Ho Chi Minh City is made up of 19 urban districts; Districts 1-12 and 7 other districts with proper names (e.g. Binh Thanh). District 1 is the main district and commercial area in Ho Chi Minh City. A number of the popular attractions like the Independence Palace, Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and Ben Thanh Market are located in this district.
Some of the top attractions in Ho Chi Minh City are focused on the Vietnam War. The Independence Palace and War Remnant Museum offer a lot of exhibits and information on the Vietnam War, especially on the atrocities committed by the American forces.
Cu Chi Tunnels is a highly popular day tour out of the city area to learn more about the ingenious methods used by the Viet Cong to hide from their enemies and lay traps.
Bui Vien Street, also known as Backpacker’s Street, is a street in District 1 packed with eateries, pubs and discos. This street is unsurprisingly most vibrant at night. However, people that don’t like the partying scene will not like this street. The place is extremely packed at night; the perfect setting to get pickpocketed. The discos blast deafening music onto the street too. You will also find many massage parlours along the street with scantily-dressed women coaxing guys to come in, a clear sign that “special services” are provided inside. This street could easily be described as a mini Pattaya as guys that frequent this area are typically looking to get a fling with Vietnamese women.
Ben Thanh Market is the most vibrant shopping area here as it is packed full of food, clothing, souvenirs, accessories and so on. Haggling is required in this marketplace and be prepared to face very stubborn and dramatic shopkeepers if you try to walk away.
Ben Thanh Street Food Market is located nearby and it offers a large variety of cuisine from Southeast Asia and beyond. But don’t forget to try the popular Vietnamese dishes like Pho (Soup noodles), Banh mi (Baguette sandwich) and Banh xeo (Crispy pancake).
Speaking of food, beware of buying food from street vendors along the road. I have asked a number of locals here and they warned me about street side vendors using contaminated water to make ice and improper storage of food in their cart. You don’t want to risk getting any foodborne illnesses during your holiday. If uncertain, just eat at restaurants and cafes instead since food in Vietnam is cheap in general.
There aren’t really more must-visit attractions in Ho Chi Minh City. Most tourists won’t want to stay here for too long as there are a number of interesting cities around Vietnam. So lets move on to some important tips for tourists coming to Ho Chi Minh City for the first time.
Unfortunately, scams are rife in Vietnam and you need to pay close attention. Probably the most common scam in Ho Chi Minh City is the taxi scam. The only reliable taxi companies here are Vinasun and Mai Linh. Once you enter the taxi, make sure the driver turns the meter on before driving off, otherwise he could charge you a ridiculous fee when you reach the destination.
I encountered a scam right after landing at the airport. A taxi driver walked up to us, claimed he was from Vinasun and lead us to his taxi, which had the name “Saigon taxi”. Obviously, we didn’t agree to take his taxi. I also noticed that some taxis changed their name slightly (e.g. Vinataxi instead of Vinasun) to match the reputable taxi companies here. Be alert when leaving the arrival hall because there will be a number of people calling out at you to hire a taxi or buy a SIM card.
If ever in doubt, just walk away and ignore the potential scammer. They don’t continue to harass you if it appears that you are aware of their tactics.
Also, Vietnamese Dong comes in huge denominations. $1(SGD) is worth ₫17,000+ while £1 is worth ₫29,000+ as of today. Therefore ₫50,000 and ₫100,000 notes are quite common. Pay close attention to the change you receive as you could be given a ₫10,000 note instead of a ₫100,000 note since both notes look similar.
One of the first things you will notice after leaving the airport is the absurd number of motorcycles and scooters in Ho Chi Minh City. And apparently, it seems like traffic rules don’t exist here. These riders will beat the red light, not slow down for pedestrians and even divert onto the pavement to detour the heavy traffic. So even when crossing a one-way street, be aware that some rider might come the other way.
Although the riders appear to have no consideration for others and are very aggressive, they do know what they are doing (hopefully) and have no intentions to run over you.
Crossing the road is a serious pain for first-time visitors in Vietnam. If you choose to wait until the traffic is clear before crossing, be prepared to wait forever. You should take the following steps to cross a road in Vietnam:
1) Look out for a pocket of space within the traffic. This is the window of opportunity to cross the road.
2) Start walking across the road. The riders will NOT slow down for you, but they will try to ride past you. You should not hesitate and make sudden movements forward or backward.
3) Expect to be beeped at. I noticed that riders tend to use their horn to notify you of their presence, not necessarily to force you to move out of the way. But if you don’t want them to beep at all, then….
4) Hold up your hand and look at the oncoming rider. This shows that you acknowledge their presence and you are aware that they are headed towards you.
Ho Chi Minh City will only open a metro network in 2020. For now, you will be relying on a lot of walking or using taxis (Motorbike taxis in particular). Grab bike and GO-VIET bike are the most popular motorbike taxis here.
It can be a bit intimidating to be the pillion rider on a motorbike especially in such chaotic traffic, but the ride within the city area is quite smooth. All you need to do is type your destination into the app and the required payment for the trip will be displayed clearly, so it doesn’t matter if the driver can’t understand English.
Overall, Ho Chi Minh City is a vibrant and unique city, but some of its unpleasantness can really shock tourists. It ‘s better to be mentally prepared before visiting, otherwise your holiday might easily be ruined and you may end up hating the people there (which will be a real pity).