Upon arrival in Vietnam, we spent two days exploring Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly known as Saigon. It’s the biggest city in Vietnam. During our time there, we didn’t cover a lot of ground, and spent most of our time just walking around our neighborhood. This was mostly due to the fact that our first few days we were jet-lagged and feeling generally unadventurous. Plus it was really, really hot out. I can tell I wasn’t quite up to the challenge yet because I hardly took any pictures.
For us, the most uniquely fascinating part of city life was watching the scooters. They flow through the streets like a river, parting and reforming around cars and pedestrians. Honks are very frequent, but seem to be used more as a turn signal than a sign of anger. This makes crossing the street an exciting challenge. When the traffic slows slightly, walk at a steady pace across the street and the scooters will flow around you. We didn’t see a single accident, but I still tried to keep Adam between me and the traffic just to be extra safe.
If you get to HCMC only have a little time, visit the War Remnants museum and then eat as much street food as you can while watching the crazy traffic. With respect to food safety, I was nervous at first and tried to avoid ice and uncooked greens. In retrospect, this was a huge mistake. The iced coffee, made with strong espresso and condensed milk is amazing here, and the greens and herbs have been a delicious part of the phở (noodle soup) and on the bánh mì sandwiches. For what it’s worth, I haven’t gotten sick yet.
Aside from the food, the other amazing thing about visiting Vietnam is that everything here is incredibly inexpensive. Our hotels have been in the $20 per night range, and they’ve all been clean, air conditioned, and staffed by friendly, helpful people. A half hour taxi ride runs about $4-5. Dinner for the two of us at a nice, local place hasn’t been more than $10. The only thing that’s not priced quite as well is the beer! A can of lager beer costs 15,000 – 20,000 Vietnamese dong, or somewhere between 75 cents and a dollar. You can also get “fresh beer” or bia hoi, for 3,000 – 8,000 VND, but it’s low alcohol, only 3% ABV. While cold and refreshing, it’s not the tastiest beer we’ve tried.
I made a small map with some of the spots we hit in the city. Our hotel is the one marked with a yellow bed. It’s in district 3, the backpackers district, and most of the sites we saw were there or in district 1. (Here’s a great simple map of all the HCMC city districts.) I was really happy with our location and we walked to most of the well-known city sites I wanted to check out. They’re also marked below.
Of everything we saw in the city, I would most strongly recommend the War Remnants museum. In the courtyard, there are a number of planes, tanks and big guns as well as an exhibit on how the Vietnamese prisoners of war were imprisoned, starved, and tortured. The first floor of the museum focuses on the international objections to the war. Those exhibits felt a little one-sided and weren’t especially interesting. Continuing through the museum to the (fabulously air conditioned!) second and third floors, we saw great but somber exhibits on Agent Orange and on the photography and photo journalists of the Vietnam War.
After visiting the museum, we walked around to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Skip this temple, it’s not that nice and it essentially has a convenience store inside. We also went past the Continental Hotel where Graham Green wrote his book, The Quiet American. We also stepped into the Banh Thanh market, but stepped out almost as quickly. I don’t mind browsing a bit but Adam wasn’t having any of it.
We ate at a bunch of really tasty places, mostly ones we chose randomly from the street. There are sidewalk cafes on almost every street. I don’t think the ones we visited were especially unique and in my sluggish state I did not note their names. Still, everything was delicious. I have a LOT more to say about Vietnamese food, if you’re interested. (I know I said there wouldn’t be any food porn on the blog so I’ll put it all in one post.)
We also took bus tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, which are about an hour away from the city. I’d seen tours of this sort online for $40 so I was very excited to book the tour from our hotel for about $9 a person. Based on our experience and the reviews I read online, I am very sure it was the same tour. It was really easy to book with the tour guide at our hotel too.
At the tunnels, we first watched an old and hard-to-hear movie about the indomitable spirit of the people of Cu Chi during the war. Many people survived by building a complex network of underground tunnels to hide in or fight from. We learned of many war heroes who won awards for killing Americans, and destroying American tanks and planes. It was a little bit awkward.
After the movie, we saw a small hidey-hole you can squeeze into, and passed demos of many of the traps used in the woods to slow down the enemy Americans.
To get the full Cu Chi experience, we crawled through an enlarged version of the tunnel network. It was tiiiight. And also hot and sweaty. Even with the added space, ventilation, and electric lights, it was not a pleasant place to be, even for just a few minutes. After the tunnel, we came to the shooting range where you could fire automatic weapons for a pretty reasonable price. That somehow didn’t feel right to me, and I don’t really like guns anyway, so we passed.
Overall, Ho Chi Minh City was a great introduction to Vietnam and a fun, easy and cheap way to spend a few days. From there, we caught a flight to Da Nang, in the middle of the country, and a taxi down to Hoi An, a beautiful, historic beach town known for more great food, great tailors, and a perfectly preserved Old Town. More on that soon!