“Our resistance will be long and painful, but whatever the sacrifices, however long the struggle, we shall fight to the end, until Vietnam is fully independent and reunified.”Ho Chi Minh
Whenever I think of the places in the world that excite me to travel to, Asia rarely makes the list. I get caught up in thinking about the North American cities I’ve missed or want to revisit, or European countries with centuries of charm laid into their old town streets.
I’m not sure why I don’t ever get too excited by Asia; I’ve been to Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Macau and none of those were terrible trips. In fact, Japan is the place I’m dying to go back to and I had one of my favourite holidays ever in Hong Kong.
But I mostly don’t feel the pull of adventure in Asia and I can’t quite figure out why.
I chose to go to Vietnam for several reasons – firstly, it was cheap and secondly, it was only a relatively short flight. Thirdly, Halong Bay was one of the places in the world I wanted most to see, so it seemed to be as good a time as any to consider going when I got notification of a Jetstar sale. I booked a AUD$340 return flight and set about planning my holiday with few genuine expectations, apart from the fact most people who went there spoke fairly highly of it.
By the time I finished in Vietnam, I spoke fairly highly of it too.
I’m not a beach holiday person; as much as I love sand and salt and the sea, I can’t lie down by the ocean for eight hours a day a feel relaxed. I crave culture and newness and low-key adventure; I want to see every museum and every landmark, feel the hustle and bustle of a place. Vietnam did this for me and in every city I went to, I felt there was always something exciting to explore. Of course, if you’re looking for a beach holiday, Vietnam has that too. Or maybe you can combine some version of both.
In more ways than almost anywhere else in Asia except Hong Kong, I felt the European influence. The grand architecture in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it was once known) was a throwback to the days of French colonialism and often were it not for the heat and humidity and hum of motorcycles, you could of been standing in one of those old European capitals.
I spent just under two weeks travelling around Vietnam and I loved it. I’ve recommended it to so many people – apart from being amazing value for money, it’s just such a wonderful place to explore with an incredibly rich history. The cities are diverse and it’s interesting to watch the gradual change in the feel of places as you move from the north to the south or vice versa.
Of the two main cities, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi, HCMC was my favourite – though most people seem to go the other way. I just preferred HCMC’s modernity and found it easier and fresher than the northern hub. That said, both are great and are different enough that I think any trip to Vietnam warrants a visit to both.
And maybe one of them will make you fall in love with Vietnam a little bit too.
Where to stay.
The main thing for me to tell you about accomodation in Vietnam is that you can stay in some fabulous hotels for (comparatively) very very cheap prices. I stayed at the Silverland Jolie for under AUD$100 per night and it was fantastic. The rooms were small and the decor had a touch of old fashioned elegance, but otherwise they were really well appointed. The Silverland Jolie was located in the Ben Nghe Ward (District 1) and I’d recommend this area if you are looking to be able to walk to all the main attractions. I didn’t end up catching any kind of transport in HCMC apart from coming in from the airport, because everything I wanted to see was so accessible on foot. The more west you can stay in the district the better I think because you’ll be closer to the main CBD area, but you’re really just saving yourself another 5-10 minutes walk. I also found this area well populated and it felt safe to walk through at night.
Where to eat.
First things first – if you are any kind of coffee lover at all, then you’re going to want to have 9468 Vietnamese iced coffees during your stay. Condensed milk with hot coffee poured into it so it melts, then the whole thing is put on ice. They are incredible and I was drinking several a day.
Now, food. One of the best recommendations I got was to do the Intrepid Urban Adventures street food tour. It goes for just over three hours and a guide will walk you through the city and you’ll sample food from about half a dozen places. I’m both allergic to shrimp and a bit overawed by street food sometimes, so this was the perfect way to make sure I was testing it out in a really comfortable environment. Because the tour was relatively short it didn’t take up my whole night, I got a great walk around the city with a knowledgable guide, and I got to meet a few people too. We ended up at this bar/cafe in an old building about four floors up – not somewhere I probably would have found by myself. The tour is super worthwhile and costs less than AUD$50 so I really couldn’t recommend it enough. I actually ended up doing them in every city I visited in Vietnam, they were that good.
I terms of places I tried myself, I went to Quan An Ngoc in District 1 for my second night’s dinner. The place is absolutely enormous, super airy (which is great in the humidity) and gets packed out – though people move through pretty quickly. The traditional Vietnamese menu is huge and well priced, so you’ll definitely find something good to eat here. I think I paid about 15 bucks for what amounted to almost mountains of food (the spring rolls were to die for).
For a drink, you can’t go past the rooftop bar at the Sheraton Hotel. The cocktail list is great and reasonably priced, they’ll bring bar snacks, and you can try and escape some of the oppressive humidity of the city. The night I was there, there was a cracking thunderstorm and I got the best view of the incredible light show over the city.
A friend also gave me some recommendations but with only a few nights I didnt get to try much out. Top of her list was Cuc Gach Quan, followed by Koto Saigon, SH Garden, Au Parc and Chill Bar.
What to see and do.
The majority of sights within HCMC itself are all within a fairly small area, so it makes it the perfect city to walk around in. It’s easy to get between places and I really found there was no need for taxis or other transport if you were happy to stroll for a bit.
The main thing to be done in the city is the War Remnants Museum, which charts the history of what is referred to here as the ‘American War’ but called the ‘Vietnam War’ pretty much everywhere else. This is a confronting museum. Something you should definitely know before you go in. The photography and exhibits are fairly brutal (there’s a deformed foetus in a jar for example) so I think it helps to be prepared for that and to decide if it’s something you’re comfortable seeing. I wouldn’t say the museum is an enjoyable place to visit but it’s certainly educational and very much gives the local perspective on that war and it’s ongoing effects in Vietnam.
From there it’s an easy walk to the Independence Palace (also known as the Reunification Palace). It’s set in beautiful grounds and you can go inside and have a wander through. The building is not particularly grand inside but it’s a good way to spend an hour or so. From there head to the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, the famous pink church of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a great example of the mark the French left on the city’s architecture. Sadly it was closed for renovation during my time there so I didn’t get to take a peek inside. Then you can cross the road to the Saigon Central Post Office, which is a glorious throwback to another time. It’s such a beautifully grand building inside and out with it’s French colonial architecture and it’s been really well maintained. There’s gorgeous old telephone booths and clocks telling the time at cities all across the world. Definitely step inside and check it out.
For those who are right into markets, then Ben Thanh Market is the place to head to. It’s the ideal place to buy souvenirs, local handicrafts, and hundreds of other random things you could ever want or need. It also has food stalls so you can keep your energy up while you’re wandering through – the market is absolutely huge. It’s open from 6am until 10pm so is good to visit at pretty much any time of day or night.
Some of the best aerial views of Ho Chi Minh City are at the Saigon Skydeck, otherwise known as the Bitexco Financial Tower. It’s the tallest building in HCMC and the viewing deck is 178m high. It’ll cost you about 200,000 VND to go up, so it’s a super cheap way to get some amazing views and photographs across the city and Saigon River. The area around the tower also had some great shops, including an enormous bookshop that I spent about an hour browsing through.
You’d also be remiss to vist HCMC and not do a day trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were used during the Vietnam War as a base for the Viet Cong and provided integral supply routes and hiding places during the war. You are able to crawl through the tunnels at various spots (tough some are a very tight squeeze and definitely not for the claustrophobic) and they have been preserved as part of a larger war memorial park. There are plenty of tours available to take you out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, I booked mine through Intrepid Urban Adventures and it included the bus trip there and back, a guided tour through the tunnels, and a visit at a local home to see rice paper being made. It cost just under AUD$60 and I was really happy with it, so would definitely recommend booking through them. The tour goes for at least half a day and there’s always the pressures of the immense Saigon traffic to deal with, so I’d make sure you allowed the full day and didn’t book too much in the afternoon. From memory we left about 7.30am and got back into the CBD about 3pm.
Where to shop.
I wouldn’t suggest Ho Chi Minh City is a huge mecca for shopping – while there’s a lot of smaller random local stores, it’s very much not a Western style shopping experience. I also like to check out spermarkets and drug stores while I’m overseas to see what the local products are, but I didn’t find a heap of either of these about.
The markets at Ben Thanh are probably your best place to buy any local goods or souvenirs that you’re after. Across the city are smaller local stores but this has the best concentration of goods anywhere in HCMC. There’s also small convenience stores throughout the city for snacks, toiletries etc that you might need.
In terms of shopping mall style places, there’s a couple. The Vincom Center in Ben Nghe is probably the most accessible to the District 1/CBD area and has a lot of chain stores such as Zara, H&M and so on.
Ho Chi Minh City: a snapshot.
How long should I stay: If you have two days in the city you’ll be able to get to all of the main sights, plus add an extra day to do the trip out to Cu Chi Tunnels. At a pinch you could get away with just the one full day to wander around the city but two will make for a more relaxed experience.
Getting around: I walked everywhere. The only thing I didn’t walk to was the Cu Chi Tunnels. I think HCMC is a really easy city to get around the main attractions on foot, it felt safe and after a while you can pick up the rhythm of the swarms of motorcycles and cross the road with a little less fear. The only time I caught a taxi was coming in from the airport, it’s worth noting most hotels do pretty price competitive pick ups and drop offs.
When to go: I visited in October, it was still humid and hot and there was the odd storm but overall it was bearable. December to March is traditinally the dry season but keep in mind it will always be some level of warm weather when it comes to Vietnam.
Key places for first timers: War Remnants Museum, Central Saigon Post Office, Ben Thanh Markets, Saigon Skydeck and then definitely Cu Chi Tunnels if time permits.
Underrated gem: I loved the architecture and colonial feel of the post office.
If you could only eat at one place: I can’t recommend the street food tour enough, we got plenty of food and got to try and really diverse range of things. Plus it was such a nice just wandering the city and getting to meet new people.
Best photo opportunities: The view from the Saigon Skydeck or Sheraton Rooftop bar will give you the perfect city skyline shots, otherwise the Central Saigon Post Office is a classic HCMC landmark.