Seeing as I’d never been to Vietnam before, the chaotic capital of Ho Chi Minh caught me off guard as Kyal and I exited the airport. I knew Saigon — the city’s former name — was full of hustle and bustle. Kyal had told me. Lonely Planet had told me. Any and every other travel guide had told me. But when the taxi drivers swarmed towards us, I truly understood what everyone meant.
The city is racing in fifth gear while I’m dawdling in second. Well, not literally. Because of the high population, congestion is insane but also mesmerising. The streets are organised chaos: pedal bikes, scooters, trucks, cars, tourist buses, local buses and pedestrians weave together. No hassle, no fuss. Just a quick honk of the horn to let people know you’re present.
We stayed at three hotels during our five days: Anh Dao Guest House, Hanh Chuong Hotel and Town House 23 Saigon. While the first two were slightly better in terms of location, Town House 23 was far more habitable with its modern decor. If we’d had known about them prior to the trip, we would have easily stayed there for all five nights.
We also used our time in Saigon to go on tours, like the Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong River. Unfortunately, while we’d booked the tunnels, we ultimately had to get a refund. They were running two hours late, we were running out of time to find another hotel and we didn’t want to waste any more time waiting around.
There were heaps of nooks and crannies I adored. Problem is, in a city so chaotic, it’s hard to keep tabs as to where you went exactly. But without a doubt, here are some of my favourite spots in Ho Chi Minh that I’d definitely experience again.
Bùi Vien Street, District One
Ho Chi Minh’s biggest wonders are their lively streets. In particular Bùi Viện, also known as the Famous Backpacker Street. Lucky for us, our first two hotels we’re just around the corner, so we often hit the town to join in on the antics. Bùi Viện is packed with cheap hotel and hostels, souvenir stores, travel agents, cafes and (of course) bars. Lots and lots of cheap, bustling bars. You’ve got your bigger establishments, like Crazy Buffalo, and then there are your tiny street bars. While they won’t offer a large menu, their booze is ridiculously cheap. They’re easy to spot with their unique furnishings: tiny plastic chairs crammed on the sidewalk. While it’s not an inviting sight, squeezing into a bar is a great way to meet fellow travellers and admire the city’s unique and buzzing nightlife.
Seeing as Kyal had an amazing Christmas in Saigon a few years ago, we were keen to check out the atmosphere on New Years Eve. We started out at a hostel on Bùi Viện, drinking cheap beers in between the vanilla vodka shots that were going around. Other backpackers wanted to check out Chill Sky Bar, but upon arriving we realised none of us met the dress code. Instead we trekked to Vietnam Inn Saigon’s rooftop bar. With Strongbows in our hands we counted down the final seconds of 2016 and welcomed 2017 with the worst playlist imaginable. That was our cue to leave.
By chance we arrived back on Bùi Viện. It was busier than usual, but what was bizarre was a mosh had taken up the entire street outside of Donkey Beer. Curious, we headed deeper into the crowd. Glitter covered faces, string spray stuck to shirts and no one was without a drink in their hand. It took us a while to wriggle through the crowd to grab our own drink, but the adventure was worth it.
Without hesitating, we stayed at Donkey Beer for a solid few hours. Queuing for the loo and battling for bartenders was challenging, so we made sure we had a drink in each hand at all times. This meant we could enjoy more time dancing on the “stage” (aka the sidewalk). Without a doubt, it’s the best New Years Eve I’ve ever experienced, and I hope one day I’ll have the chance to celebrate it on Bùi Viện again.
War Remnants Museum
Growing up I’d heard of the Vietnam War, but honestly I knew nothing about it. As a result, my trip to the War Remnants Museum was eye opening to say the least. You assume that any war is filled with terror and brutality, and the Vietnam War is no different. However what separates this museum from the WWI and WWII museums I’ve visited in Europe is that it doesn’t beautify or shy away from the reality that the Vietnamese suffered.
Outside they display the US vehicles and weapons as well as replicas of the horrific living conditions and torture methods prisoners had to endure, such as the “tiger cages” that often resulted in paralysis and even death. The ground level was entirely dedicated to the international support for the Vietnamese during their Resistance War. Posters, letters and newspaper snippets in multiple languages adorned the walls. It was heartwarming to see so many countries, including my own, coming together to support a nation in strife.
The most shocking exhibition focused on Agent Orange, a harmful herbicide used by the US military. Not only did it destroy hectares of forest (which also affected reforestation and animal species diversity), it damaged human genes. As a result, those affected often produced offspring with deformities. Not only did the museum dig into the facts about Agent Orange’s role in the war, it also exposed its impact by revealing images and the stories of those who suffered.
The Vietnam War is another shocking war in human history. While WWII and the Korean War lasted just over three years each, the Vietnam War extended over seventeen years. During that time, almost 15 million tonnes of bombs and artillery shells were used compared to WWII’s 5 million tonnes. Not only was it a war that wasted time, it wasted money, costing over $US 650 billion. And for what? 58,159 deaths and 304,000 injuries.
It was pretty daunting to confront three entire levels of cruelty and suffering, but the experience reminded me of just how compassionate, and how barbaric, humanity can be. And during these trying and terrorising times, I feel like it was a well needed reminder. An ideology or religion may be unfamiliar, but its foreignness isn’t the threat. The real danger is the individual who distorts its principles.
Street Food 101 with Saigon Street Eats
What better way to spend your last night in Vietnam than by stuffing your face with the cuisine you’d fallen in love with? Our tour with Saigon Street Eats started out in District Three, a local region of Saigon, where we kicked off with Vietnamese pancakes. This meal was so intriguing as it was prepared so differently to the pancakes we’d had days earlier in Hoi An. Before we moved on, it was time to test our taste buds with a Vietnam delicacy: three-day-old duck eggs. While I wasn’t a fan of the texture, the dipping sauce was bursting with flavour.
We headed further down the road for a more palatable specialty, bánh mì, also known as Vietnam baguettes. Usually made up of pork belly, pate, cucumber, carrot and coriander, bánh mì is an edible artifact from Vietnam’s colonial French history.
Up next on the menu were a selection of meat dishes. Pork, beef… even frog legs (which actually looked like garlic cloves). Half the time you had no idea what you were eating because the scents and flavours were so enticing.
What followed was a taste of Vietnam seafood. Now my version of seafood is fish, calamari, a crab stick and maybe a pineapple fritter. Well nothing from my “seafood” essentials was found at this little street vendor — not even the fish. Instead, we had delicious scallops, mussels and octopus to name a few. The dish that stood out most was the garlic marinade. Sweetened by condensed milk, the left over sauce was divine when we used baguettes to soak it up. A quirky tradition when eating seafood in Vietnam is chucking your empty mussel and scallop shells on the ground. A messy floor means that the food was sensational.
Last but not least were the desserts. Seeing as I’m an ice-cream kind of gal, their desserts were very different to what I’m used to. Merging northern and southern Vietnam traditions, we had rice cakes and warm tea (usually consumed in the north where the weather is cooler) as well as fresh fruit, which is served in the south where it’s warmer.
The Street Food 101 tour was incredible, and exposed me to meals and hidden eateries a tourist like me would easily overlook. Plus, you have the chance scooter through the hectic streets of Saigon (riding back of course). Kinda terrifying, but absolutely exhilarating!
- Make sure to try out their iced coffees! Instead of using full cream milk they use condensed milk, which adds a sweetened twist
- If you’re staying in a hotel/hostel that has a cafe/shop/travel agent for a ground floor, check that you can access your room late in the evening. On our second night we made the mistake and stayed out late, only to find the roller door and grated fence shut. We later figured out that our hotel had a doorbell used for tenants after hours, but just check with your place of accomodation.
- Check out Smoothie Factory on Đề Thám (in between Phạm Ngũ Lão and Bùi Viện). Awesome fruit smoothies that are to die for!
- Bến Thành Market is a great place to visit. Your best time to barter is early morning. This is because locals are superstitious that if they don’t complete their first sale they’ll have bad luck selling for the rest of the day. There’s also a set price area located on the outskirts of the market. Peep in there first, as it’ll give you a rough idea on how much you should be paying for items.
- Hard Rock Cafe fan? Same here. Thankfully there’s one in Saigon and it’s within walking distance of the backpackers hub. While it feels like a bit of a trek (especially if you’re craving a burger and cocktail) it gives you a great chance to experience the city at ground level.
- When crossing the chaotic roads, walk at a slow, even pace. The drivers in Ho Chi Minh are pretty flexible and will drive around you. Just don’t rush across the road too fast and don’t suddenly stop!