I arrived in Ho Chi Minh midday to enjoy a taxi ride from Uber from the airport to the hostel for only $5.50 CAD. As I watched the city go by and the hundreds of scooters and motorbikes surround the car, I was already liking Ho Chi Minh more than some other places I’d had been. It gave me the feeling of being truly submerged in the Vietnam culture and I had yet to step foot outside the car! The Uber driver, who looked much younger than someone who should be driving a car, drove right to the hostel door, though there was a slight miscommunication because I did not realize that the hosteling company had more than one location and I ended up at the wrong one!
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Things to know before you go:
Get your shots! I luckily had mine done a year before my trip for another trip I did and I am sure glad that I did! You never know what is on your food or in your food so it is best to be safe! Only a few times I had an upset stomach, but nothing compared to what some other people I was with had!
Always ALWAYS ask for a price first. For anything from tours to food or drinks, it can sometimes feel uncomfortable your first couple of times asking, but make sure that you are comfortable with paying the prices. Generally any price they initially give you can be haggled down to half (especially in tourist areas and closer to closing because they want to get their last sales in).
Food is always smaller than it looks in the pictures. It is literally physically smaller than they show in the menus or leaflets they give you.
Average prices for a dish from the street vary from VND 10 000 to VND 50 000 (CAD$0.50 – $2.90) and in a restaurant from VND 45 000 to VND 200 000+ (CAD$2.50 – $11.30+), if you are paying more than that, in my experience it is not very authentic or very tasty! There are even some amazing buffets from VND 150 000 to 180 000. Eating or buying from a restaurant or store has a more set price, they are not willing to haggle and they are usually more expensive. If you are not willing to pay the price walk out before eating or buying anything.
Be wary of the Ice, if you are drinking something with ice in it, make sure the ice is relatively clear (not white) as this will tell you that the ice has been boiled first. Make sure to check out The Difference a Dollar Makes in Ho Chi Minh.
Google for massage places or at least as your hotel or hostel for recommendations. I got turned away several times before realizing that they were “special” massage places. My friend ended up in one and paid more than they planned before we realized these special places don’t appear on google. If you are unsure, you can also look up reviews for a place, usually it will be pretty clear.
Ride a motorcycle at least around town! You don’t have to take your bike up the coast like we did, but it is still an experience you will never forget!
Download the Grab app onto your phone. You can use this for several countries around asia, it is sometimes cheaper than Uber especially during peak hours. On the other hand, Uber will definitely be available (though it may take longer as there are less drivers), but I found sometimes Grab drivers would refuse me a ride requesting more money, I didn’t have a problem with Uber.
Do not cross infront of a car! When crossing the road… you should look both ways, but it wont help you much! Sometimes there are street lights and crosswalks and sometimes they don’t obey them anyway, slowly start making your way and all the bikes will go around you, but do not go infront of a car! In Vietnam, the bigger the vehicle, the more right of way it has. A pedestrian is the smallest, so no one cares, though it is unlikely they will actually hit you as everyone drives at pretty slow speeds, they will sure let you know that you crossed at an inappropriate time!
Where We Stayed:
The Difference a Dollar Makes in Ho Chi Minh for more details on where I stayed.
What We Did:
Backpacker Street I was informed that the area I was staying was quite a touristy part of the city and that if I wanted to see something more, to just take a walk in any direction and I would find a more local experience. As I began wandering, I came across Backpacker street, which was the epitome of the touristic aread. It was lined with bars, massage parlours, restaurants, small shops, convenience stores and ATMs. The massages along this street were pretty cheap in comparison to other parts of the city, but the restaurants and bars were much more expensive. I was looking for that truly authentic Vietnamese experience of eating at a restaurant where food costs a dollar and drinks not much more, but alas, you will not find cheap drinks and food on this street, but you will find some pretty amazing bars and things to do! If you do go to a bar, try a NOS Balloon (read the full story for details)! Caution: continuous use of NOS balloons can lead to real mental and physical health issues.
The Flower Market when I started to wonder more and headed west from my hostel to stumble upon the flower market. It happened to be around Women’s Day (March 8-10) and the market was pretty busy, but also quite empty by the time I had gotten to it! Lots of flowers had been packaged and sold for the special weekend. They decorate the flowers with sparkles and place them for sale street side.
Chu Chi Tunnels It was about a two hour motorbike ride (and ended up costing us VND 500 000 (CAD$28.50) which doesn’t seem like much, but for Ho Chi Minh, it was a lot). Hearing lots about the tunnels, I decided to venture to them with another backpacker I had met who was planning to go. We hopped on the back of the motorbikes. (I suggest going via tour, but for more information check out the Full Story section below.)
The War Museum is a facsinating part of Vietnam’s history and they like to show it off for the tourists. Though it seem geared mostly toward American tourists it was still very fascinating to see and understand how the Vietnamese survived and what went on globally during the war. However, Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and if you are only going to see one War Museum, your best bet is in Hanoi!
Notre Dame Imitation with Vietnam’s close relation to French history, it was no surprise to find a Notre Dame replica in the middle of Ho Chi Minh’s historic area. It is next to Ho Chi Minh’s Train station, so if you traveled by train, pretty big chances you will see it, but if you are walking by foot from the backpacker area, it is a good 25 minute walk, but along the way you will bump into so many of HCMC’s other attractions.
Pagoda is a Hindu or Buddhist temple or sacred building and they are all over the place in Vietnam. I was very fascinated by the structures, the colouful lanterns and the carved statues of this Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. The statues usually give you an indication of which kind of religious temple it is as some have Hindu statues while others have Buddhist statues. Heads up: outside this particular Pagoda, there were some homeless people demanding for you to buy their incense as this is common form of prayer, but it is not necessary for you to buy it. You can wonder through the temple so long as you are respectful, do not go inside during prayer times (unless you plan on understanding what they are saying and praying as well) and remove your shoes if you do go inside. The largest Pagoda in Vietnam is in Ninh Binh Provence.
Ho Chi Minh Square; Saigon was renamed in 1975 to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) thanks to Ho Chi Minh himself who led the Vietnamese people to defeat the French Union in 1954. This new Communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam showed it thanks to the leader by placing monuments of Ho Chi Minh all around Vietnam and in almost every city you go to, there is a Ho Chi Minh Square, each one with its own unique characters but all of them stating how important he was in the independence of Vietnam. HCMC is actually not the capital of Vietnam, though many people think so (or wish so), but Hanoi is in fact the capital of Vietnam.
Ao Dai Exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is a unique exhibit that showcased the how the Vietnamese people welcomed international cultures through their traditional dress. I showed the different colours, flowers and textiles that are featured by the different countries.
Book Street and Train Station Though nestled quite closely to Notre Dam, I did not find anything incredibly fascinating about either the train station or Book Street, but I was still happy to see them as I walked around. Perhaps I missed something? (Let me know in the comments below!)
Oasis Spa located at 59/17 Nguyễn Du, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam; this quaint little spa nestled down a long alleyway opened up to a beautiful tree and a shop with a glass door. The thing that caught my eye is what I like to call ‘the fish spa’, little sucker fish eat all of the dead skin on your feet! Though I was very vary to try it the first time (in Bali and Malaysia they have them everywhere), I did it every single day after I did! It makes you feel like you are walking on a cloud afterwards! It is ticklish at first, but one 30 minute treatment costed VND 90 000 (CAD~$5.00) so you really can’t go wrong! If little fishies eating the dead skin off your feet isn’t for you, they also offer manicures, pedicures and massages. With a 5 star rating on trip advisor, it sure earned its moment! I highly recommend.
Where We Ate:
Everywhere! We did go to a street market close to our hostel, but it was certainly nothing special as there are several places that offer great amazing food! One of my friends was very scared of street food, but it is nothing to be afraid of, just avoid ice. One of the reason I can not say where we ate specifically is because most places either have names that you and I can’t pronounce or they didn’t have names at all, but we did notice a trend of restaurants and cafes with years as the name, so we visit one;
The 1985 Cafe is actually a Japanese cafe which specializes in deserts styled like Japanese deserts. This cute, Insta-worthy cafe is wedged between two Vietnamese style shops which made it really stand out to me. Once we entered the cafe, we picked out our treats and wandered upstairs, there was a Japanese style sitting area, but we opted for the cute couch by the window to enjoy women’s day! With brightly colours cakes and tarts, it was a difficult decision, but I opted for a mousse cake with jelly on top and a green tea bunny tart. They served us a jasmine tea (I think), along with our treats which made it extra special.
How We Got Around:
We either walked or got an Uber or Grab bike or car (Promocode: GRABGQHGET3J for a free ride!)! Initially the idea of riding on the back of some guys’ bike is slightly daunting, but you get use to it fast because it is your main form of transportation.
When We Went:
In March. Vietnam is north of the equator and there are parts that can be quite chilly if you go during this time of the year. I recommend one pair of jean pants, a long sleeve and a rain jacket and pants (if you are riding) or an umbrella (if you are not riding). Ho Chi Minh City was the warmest and driest of all the cities we went to, we ran into rain quite a few times in the other cities and they were much cooler.
The Full Story:
Andrew and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh exhausted from our travels, but as soon as we left the airport we were excited to get started! The Uber ride gave us a glimpse of what was in store for us. We found our hostel, dropped our bags and started our Vietnam adventure! We grabbed food at the street market near the hostel. I couldn’t tell you what I ate if my life depended on it! I think I had a chicken stick… Anyway, we met a nice man from Chicago at the street market who told us we just had to try a Vietnamese Iced Coffee. I am not a big coffee fan, but after being spoiled in Australia with their fantastic coffees I am told that Vietnam is not all that fantastic, but it will do! He also told us that this area was super touristy and that if we wanted to experience the real Vietnam, we would have to do some wondering. After we were refreshed from the coffee, and said goodbye to our new friend, we stumbled around the streets some more to find Backpacker street; a crazy busy street covered with bars, restaurants and massage parlous. We decided that later that night we would try one of the bars with a rooftop to see if we could get a good view. We met another backpacker at the hostel names Luc (@lucloewen) who tagged along with us to the rooftop bar. At this bar, we had our first NOS Balloon experience. First of all, if you suck it like helium, your voice goes super low. The idea of the balloon is to hold it in as long as you can before breathing out, this is supposed to give you an interplanetary high for a few seconds. I was told several different ways of doing it and though I tried a couple different ways it didn’t work on me, but I also didn’t try holding it as long as possible. Some of the other guys did and it worked for them! Caution: continuous use of nitrous oxide can cause mental and physical health problems. After our night out and testing the balloons, off to bed with us it was set for an adventure the next day!
Our next days adventure consisted of checking out the Chu Chi Tunnels. It is a two hour ride on the back of a motorcycle, which we opted to try, but there are also bus tours that go there. Our tour guide at Chu Chi Tunnels was less than enthusiastic to take us around (and you must go with a tour guide); he was not keen on waiting for us to take pictures, but we got in some photos and videos anyway! If you go, I suggest you go with your own tour, it is cheaper than making your own way there (unless you have already rented a motorbike) and they may be more interested in showing you around. These tunnels are historic to the Vietnamese war and they are what kept Vietnam fighting for so long and ultimately winning the war. The tunnels were built deep underground by the Vietnamese so that they could get from place to place without being seen or heard. Their techniques were very well thought out and complex. Any dirt they dug up, the moved it very far away so that it was not detected. They had rooms underground which they used for sleeping, eating, making weapons and traps. They never made a trap which would kill someone, they only wanted to injure them because they didn’t want to have to clear away a dead body. If someone was injured from the other side, the otherside would try to remove the body themselves to take them to get medical care. When the Viet-Cong would have a fire to cook food or make weapons, they would trap the smoke and release it farther away to make it less detectable and they even used hills of dirt that looked like ant hills as ventilation. These tunnels are now preserved and one of them is dug out so that tourists can go inside them, however, there is some tunnels where you can practice your hiding skills, though if you are a little rounder in the middle or a little bulkier, you won’t fit! Watch the video to see what I mean!
After our tour we rode back to HCMC, Andrew had the taste of the road and the wind in his hair! So when Luc asked, “hey man, you want to bike across Vietnam with me?” Andrew was 100% ready to go! After much debate, deliberation and an argument or two, Luc had convinced Andrew and I to go on a motorcycle trip across Vietnam with him. I said I would ride half way and then send my bike back (unless of course I felt like continuing, spoiler alert… I did not feel like continuing!). We linked up with one more member to our group and we were going to set off in a few days.
We used a company called Dragon Bike Tours to rent bikes. For more information, check out Everything You Need to Know About Motorbiking in Vietnam for all the best advice and information I can give to you if you are also struggling with this decision like I did! We started our trek… first mission to get out of HCMC!…. (to be continued)