Visiting Ho Chi Minh City
I consider it fitting that my first blog should be about Ho Chi Minh city, the former Saigon; the setting for ‘The march of the Dragons’. I lived in Vietnam during pretty much all of 2011 and I’ve been back numerous times since. It’s a place which captured my imagination. A very international city it brings a colourful flavour of cultures and while the new buildings quickly replace old, many gems of old Saigon shine through.
Saigon is overwhelming to the new visitor. Every street looks the same, but different. A mish-mash of colours, advertisements hanging from everywhere possible to hang one from, roads crowded with motorbikes and the constant beeping of horns. The first few days living in Saigon I got lost every time I left my apartment; even walking around the block- I figured taking four right turns would bring me back where I started. No.
On many streets every section of pavement has a vendor of some kind. In district 1 they sell largely overpriced trinkets to tourists. In other districts it tends to be more street food. There are plenty of shoe-shiners around; be wary of them, they are cunning and some of will hike the price once they’ve got your shoes off you. You can often find a barber working on the street and get a pretty decent hair cut for a couple of dollars. If you really want he’ll even pick out your ear-wax for you. I’ve seen them wiping ear wax from the utensil onto the customer’s forearms which I found a little disgusting.
One of the first things you’ll explore in Vietnam is the food. I’m sure every traveler will eat a bowl of Pho. There are many varieties and it’s generally pretty tasty. There are lots of other delights to explore. Check out the fruit stands and try dragonfruit or a durian; you’re not likely to find them in Europe.
There are plenty of little restaurants around where you can sit on a tiny plastic chair at a rickety metal table and enjoy local food for a few dollars. The staff aren’t likely to speak much English, but they often have a menu written in English. Mon Hue is a nice restaurant chain; they use recipes from the midlands of Vietnam and at a low price. Lotteria is the Vietnamese equivalent of McDonalds and you’ll see plenty of them around. A few gems in the city are Le jardin for French cuisine, or Black Cat if you have a longing for a burger- and don’t worry, they’re not made from Cats! Beefsteak restaurants are plentiful. I pretty much lived off Vietnamese Beefsteak for a couple months. By far the nicest places to eat are a group of riverside restaurants in Phu Nuan district. They are on the airport flight path, but they offer a nice view of the city and the river. Some of them are pretty quiet. The food is cheap - you can order a banquet of food for a party of 6 for about $30.
There are so many to choose from. I would avoid those featured prominently in lonely planet and other travel guides. They’re fine if you are a backpacker or looking for a wild night of drinking and loud music, but I’m becoming an old git, so my preference is somewhat different.
I used to love a restaurant/bar called Traders which unfortunately, like many establishments, closed down a few years back. We do however have the Lion Bar in district 1 which sells German beer in German-sized glasses. O’Brien’s is the local Irish bar. Bar 5 is popular with expats; I don’t suppose it has much to do with the twenty or so scantily clad women who work there. Bar 5 also sells decent cheap pub food and usually have sport on a big-screen, but it’s not what I’d call a family-friendly joint. Blue Gecko is a nice, rather quiet Australian themed bar. My venue of choice would probably be The Buddha Bar– again popular with expats, it has a more pub-like vibe than many others.
For nightclubs, tourists tend to gravitate towards barsin Pham Ngu Lao street or the famous Apocolypse bar; terrible places packed full of teenage backpackers and prostitutes. The whole of Pham Ngu Lao I’d avoid unless you’re on the backpacker trail. If you’re like me you’re going to be annoyed prostitutes, drug dealers and hippies whose journey of spiritual discovery involves them getting shitfaced throughout Asia. You can buy a litre-sized plastic bottle of home-brew beer at some of the roadside bars for about £1, but just so you know; I’ve seen staff pour the contents of unfinished drinks it back into the vat it was poured sold from.
Expats tend to gravitate toward Lush; I prefer the Spanish themed late-night café next door. There are plenty of nightclubs which the Vietnamese frequent with few tourists or expats. The Daimond club opposite Lush is a good example. Drinks in nightclubs are expensive. Expect to pay 100,000vnd+ for a can of beer- yes, a can! Some nightclubs sell beer on tap by the half-pint, but it’s still expensive and sometimes it’s significantly watered-down. Order a bottle of whiskey at your peril; expect to pay up to 25million vnd for a single bottle.
Perhaps as a lingering influence from the French, Saigon has plenty of café’s. In Saigon alone there must be 50 Highlands coffee shops; the Vietnamese Starbucks. Drink Vietnamese coffee hot or iced; you’ll end up buying packets of it to take home. Try an outdoors café on a street corner to get a nice taste of the city. There are lot of ‘Garden Cafes’ and ‘Piano cafes’ around the city; most are really nice. I’ve been to some which I found were so relaxing and pretty that I just felt I must go back, only to never quite remember how to get there! There are two particularly nice garden cafes somewhere in Phu Nuan district, and a nice piano café in a back-street of district 3. If anyone can recommend a nice garden café please let me know!
Places to visit
There are plenty of things to see in Saigon which feature heavily in tourist literature. I won’t go into them because if you’re visiting Saigon you’ll see them. I’ll point out a couple others though; the Fine Art gallery is very nice. The entrance fee is about $2. It boasts a large and very unique collection of Vietnamese art. Near the fine art gallery on a diagonal side-road heading toward Nguyen Thai Binh street is an antiques shop. It was within line of sight from the balcony of my first apartment in Vietnam. I don’t remember the name of the place, but I assumed it sold a load of fakes, yet surprisingly I saw the same place on a TV documentary about a year ago; the expert on that show was convinced the antiques were genuine, and reasonably priced.
The big museums sell a lot of war-related trinkets. They look authentic but they are all reproduction. You’ll see the same things for sale on the streets. If you make the mistake of thinking they are genuine, you’ll pay well over their value. Also worth a visit if you want to take advantage of a bit of shopping is Saigon Square; it’s about half-way between the fine art gallery and Ben Thanh market. There you’ll find all kinds of convincing knock-offs at rock-bottom prices. An Dong market is worth a taxi ride from district 1.
For kids, they best day out in Ho Chi Minh city is surely going to be Dam Sen Park. A charming theme park which covers quite a significant area. The dinosaur boat ride is fun. They have quasar, a boating lake and Hello Kitty walking around for photo opportunities. The zoo in Dam Sen Park is a little bit depressing; hopefully they’ve cleaned up their act. I wasn’t impressed with how the animals looked to the point of reporting it to PETA; who as far as I know didn’t/couldn’t do anything about it. However, if it’s animals you want, you can head over to the main city zoo where you can feed an Elephant. When I visited they had black bears in an enclosed pit surrounded by a wall. They had a guy stationed there who’d blow his whistle and glare every time some idiot parent stood their toddler on the wall to look down on the bears. A few seconds later another idiot parent would do the exact same thing. The whistle-guy wore a constantly mad expression; as would I in his role.
The real gem of the city is district 7, around the crescent. It’s very modern and peaceful; you’ll feel as much like you are in Singapore as anywhere else. On a nice day you may see a lot of young Vietnamese out for their pre-wedding photos on the bridge.
Places to stay
There are so many hotels; many nice, but it’s often a gamble. I enjoyed staying at Duc Vuong hotel; their service was second to none, but it’s in the backpacker area so as soon as I stepped outside after dark, some bastard would try to sell me drugs.
There are lots of super-expensive five star hotels in the city of which the Sheraton might be the nicest, but I think why spend £100-£300 per night to stay in sterile luxury when you could pay £30 to stay in a 3-star family-run hotel with a home-made breakfast served with a friendly smile. The New hotel was the most recent one I stayed in, and although it was a bit pricey for what they offered at £50 a night, it was a comfortable and pleasant stay.
Hai Long 5 which featured in ‘The March of the Dragons’ was a nice hotel; it’s changed name now though, and I haven’t been there in a few years.
My travel tips for Vietnam
Get lost in the city. Explore by foot. You’re sure to find interesting places you’d never otherwise see. Make sure you write down the address of where you need to get back to so you can use a friendly motorbike-taxi service to drive you back if you get too lost.
Safeguard your valuables. Good advice for travel anywhere because pickpockets can spot a tourist a mile off. I was in Vietnam about two days before my mobile phone was stolen. I suffered a few pick-pocketing attempts after that, but awareness and a little caution should keep your valuables safe. Areas popular with tourists are also popular with thieves.
Get out of the city. There are plenty of nice places within a couple hour’s travel. The Cu Chi tunnels, the floating market of Can Tho, the beach at Vung Tau. Most tourists head north from Saigon, which is fine as there are many beautiful places that way, but the Mekong Delta offers a lot.
Don’t take coach trips! They’re ok if you have no alternative, but you’ll get herded and hurried around to a tight schedule. Rent a motorbike, car or even a driver to show you around.
Befriend a local. Preferably before you arrive. Many locals are very friendly and happy to show you around just for the chance to have someone to speak English with. Most Vietnamese are very trustworthy and the most accommodating people you could hope to meet.