HCMC, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon; whatever you call the busiest city in Vietnam, nothing can prepare you for what awaits. It’s 11 million inhabitants and 7 million bikes never stop, a 24/7 metropolis that will swallow you up and consume you – and that’s exactly what you should let it do.
My Ho Chi Minh city adventure started at 5am on a Sunday morning, while this would be relatively calm and quiet even in London back home, this was certainly not the case here. Dropped at my hotel – situated just around the corner from the famous Ben Thamh market, each of my senses were immediately overwhelmed; the unrelenting beeping of scooter horns; the unnatural smell of freshly caught fish mixed with exhaust fumes; and the sight of small children carelessly chasing chickens through the unstoppable traffic. My three days here would definitely be an unforgettable experience.
Exploring the city
Take your time in Ho Chi Minh, plan your day in your hotel or a cafe and just walk the crowded streets at your own pace, I found this by far the best way to travel the city. Eager men will sit at every street corner offering you a ride on the back of their bike, which is worth doing once for the experience, but always ensure you barter your price before you set off – otherwise they may try and scam you for extra cash. This highlights another point, NEVER say that it is your first time in the city. The moment you mention this to a local, their prices triple and what would have been a reasonable trip suddenly takes a considerable portion of your budget.
Over three days, my personal highlights of the city included;
Bitexco skybar – head there for sunset for stunning views over the city, with your favourite cocktail in hand! Reasonably priced at 200,000VND (£8), it’s well worth seeing.
Independence Palace – an important part of modern history in Asia, the Independence Palace was famously stormed by the Viet Cong in 1975 to end the Vietnam war. Although now a popular tourist trap, it holds an odd atmosphere where you can tell a lot of important discussions were held there.
Ho Chi Minh statue (top) and post office – a venture around town can open your eyes to the cities many attractions and secrets. Nestled beside the Bitexco financial tower stands the commanding statue of Ho Chi Minh, and around the corner the french architecture of the grand post office.
Like many, the Mekong Delta has for a long time been on my travelling bucket list and I’m happy to say it lived up to all expectations.
Plan your trip wisely though, suffering from a little jetlag I visited the tourist information at 8:10am to find that all of the tours for the day had already departed at 8:00am. Eager to ensure I did not miss it, I ended up paying for a private tour, which cost 2,950,000VND (around £100). A hefty expense for my first trip, but it proved to be more than worth it.
Following a two-hour taxi journey with my english speaking tour-guide, John, we reached the delta and were greeted by a medley of tourists queuing for the many boats across to the famous islands. John simply ushered me past the mass of people though and pointed at my own boat – big enough for at least a dozen people, I was the only passenger onboard.
Showing me the many sights of the locals, we tried exceptionally sweet honey tea, sampled local fruit grown at the delta and listened to Vietnamese music, a great insight into the local way of life.
The trip down the canal itself accounts for about 30 minutes of your trip, expect an overcrowded drop-off area, but once you set off it’s exactly as you imagine. Sit back and relax listening to the various birds and cicada’s hidden in the foliage while taking the stereotypical ‘Vietnamese conical hat’ selfie.
Discovering how they make local coconut sweets and clothes is a nice addition, however the way they overly push their products on you can ruin the experience somewhat.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The historical site of the Cu Chi Tunnels are located just over 90 minutes from Ho Chi Minh city centre. Book an early morning half-day tour for the best possible experience as the site itself does not provide a lot of factual information.
Taking you through how the Viet Cong survived for months underground, lived off local cassava plants and set treacherous traps for the American GI’s, the tour truly captures how horrifying it must have been for US soldiers fighting in the dense jungle against an enemy that couldn’t be seen, yet could cause devastation through ingenious guerrilla tactics.
Another part of my trip I had been mentally planning beforehand was the firing range – with a keen interest in the Vietnam war I knew a lot about the particular weapons used and was eager to fire one.
Be warned though, the Cu Chi firing range is more like a drive-thru McDonald’s than a firing range. Rather than selecting your desired gun and taking your time to fire, you are herded into the gift shop, given 15 seconds to choose your gun – each with a minimum of 10 bullets, expect to pay 500,000VND – shepherded round to your chosen gun, load it, fire, and that’s it. I chose the M60, and even though the entire experience took less than five minutes, it’s definitely one to tick off the bucket list.
The tunnel system itself is great to explore – you can choose between 20-100m of tunnel to crawl through – but after 50m the intense heat even at 3m below ground will make you want to head up for air.
Overall impressions of Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh was never at the top of my list of places to visit in Vietnam, and despite amazing day trips, I left after three days feeling I had seen more than enough of the city. If you are spending a significant time in Vietnam it is certainly worth the visit, and with its close proximity to Cambodia it offers the perfect rest if you are travelling south. that being said, as I was about to find out, Vietnam has so much more to offer as I travelled north to Hoi An…