"Ho Chi Minh City (Good Morning Vietnam!)" Vietnam by Martialsk

Vietnam Travel Guide: 12,656 reviews and 31,927 photos

Welcome to the City...

We would be in Vietnam for a month. This was our first stop!

We arrived into Ho Chi Minh City from Manila at midnight after an uneventful flight but a long day in Manila. The visa process and transfer to the hostel was quick and easy but it was gone 2am by the time we got into bed. Even after a lie-in we were shattered the next day!
We spent this first day just wandering around District 1 - the centre of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon to all but the officials!). The City Museum was interesting - both for its exhibits and the number of wedding photo-shoots going on whilst we were there! Like China, wedding photos in Vietnam are always done before the wedding ceremony. In a way, it’s a bit of shame really because the couples always look so stressed & frazzled and I doubt they are ‘enjoying’ themselves!
Ben Thanh Market was much like the Silk Alley market in Beijing - smaller, but definitely geared for Westerners. The Govt-owned shops just outside the market charge less - and their prices are fixed! You could buy absolutely anything in there though but I found the Vietnamese don’t barter like the Chinese - they give up too easily!! I walked out of there with a dress that cost me +/- GBP7 reduced from GBP25! The stall-owner pretty much threw it at me after I paid her - but in all fairness, I was prepared to pay a bit more…she didn’t even barter me up from my lowest offer!

Out and About in this extraordinary city...

The traffic was possibly the most memorable experience for us. Incredible numbers of mopeds and bikes dashing here, there everywhere interspersed with the odd buses/ taxis/ lorries/ bicycles and other random road-going ‘vehicles‘!! A challenge to the senses! We had been advised that in Vietnam, you can’t wait for a lull in the traffic because you’ll be waiting forever, so you must just take the plunge, step out and start walking across the road. Close your eyes and walk. Don’t wait for the Green Man. There isn’t one…and if you may chance upon one, ignore him and carry on because that’s what everyone else is doing!
However, walk in the knowledge that that the mopeds will just swerve around you provided you do not suddenly stop and start dithering around. Once you have taken the decision to cross, you cannot stop or change your mind because then it confuses them and that‘s how you get run over! Obviously, one mustn’t be a complete idiot - don’t step out in front of a bus or taxi!!
I really didn’t want to end up in a Vietnamese hospital…

After our little wander around, we had to go home to our little simple hostel for a little siesta because this place was extraordinarily humid and we were so tired from the travelling the day before. After a reviving nap, we waited out a tropical rainstorm in a bar just down the road. It rained and rained and rained. Solidly. Continuously. Saigon carried on regardless and we sat mesmerised by the constant flow of traffic, people and the rain.
Our hostel was absolutely fine - GBP 7pppn! Clean, air-conditioned, great location & friendly staff.

Ho Chi Minh. So timeless, energetic & full of vitality. Tiny criss-crossing alleyways of the old city, boulevard link roads and huge intersections inherited from the French occupation, bizarre road rules (quite possibly also inherited from the French if their driving is anything to go by!), modern markets organised and paced, ramshackle food stalls scattered about between parked up mopeds, vendors selling absolutely anything you may need, moped drivers taking random naps on their bikes on the side of the street. The list goes on - so much to absorb in this frenetic place.
This city of approx 9 million people is Vietnam’s biggest city and the largest economic driver. It certainly gave us some memorable moments, so visually astounding that no camera can catch each and every fleeting moment, the smells, tastes, frustrations...

Some particularly memorable sights - a woman running a meat stall in the market, sitting up by the chopping board, getting a pedicure…, an upstairs flat down our alleyway tipping out a bucket of ‘godonlyknowswhat’ onto the street below indifferent to the pedestrians (and residents)…, food-vendors clearing their nasal passages out on the street then handling food, or using the toilets that have no wash-basins then handling food…and I can assure you, they don’t use anti-bac sanitisers…!

Our highlight though was spent on a street at the end of our alleyway where we would sit and drink cheap beer on plastic ‘baby’ chairs on the very edge of the pavements whilst soaking up the atmosphere. Pedestrians would have to walk on the street, causing a loud (constant) cacophony of hooting from the mopeds who would have to avoid them - plus those jaywalking across the road! Then, there would be a massive scramble by the owners to move the chairs away from the pavement edge before they get fined by the ‘tourist’ police who patrol the streets every few hours! Their job is to clear the pavements for the pedestrians so they don’t wage war with the mopeds, however, more often they not they accept kickbacks and walk on…Unfortunately, it is required of us to show some semblance of ’obedience’ when they appear, so we would all shuffle away from the edge with our little tables and chairs only to shuffle back 10mins later!

A touch of Reality...

This city has a grim past that only a generation ago had this place in tatters. Remnants of the past remain in the form of old Govt buildings, former GI Hotels and old temples & churches but, the old and the new has blended seamlessly into the city we see today.
Organised Chaos. I loved it!

On Day 2 we started with a visit to the Emperor Jade Pagoda - a temple blending Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Temples are always lovely experiences and this one was no exception. A bit of calm amidst the chaos.

After a lot of walking we stopped in at a local establishment to take a rest before lunch (and wallow in some much-needed aircon…) and it was like stepping into a nightclub at 12am!! The music was so loud and it was that crappy techno-cr*p!… so we had the drink and vacated somewhere a bit calmer and relaxed for lunch! They do like their karaoke over here and they like very loud trashy dance music. Not just loud…VERY LOUD.

In the afternoon we visited the War Remnants Museum, an absolute ‘must do‘ if visiting Saigon. This place and its exhibits had to be up there with Dachau for the OMG factor. Horrific and quite disturbing.
The museum was mostly an incredible exhibition largely showcasing the extent of the USA’s involvement in the Vietnamese civil war primarily taken from the accounts of the victims of US military action. Also displayed was the impact of the First Indochina War, where Vietnam clawed it’s independence from France.
Similar to the wartime photojournalism exhibition we saw in Dubrovnik, there was one here showcasing some the photos taken by Robert Capa and other photojournalists of the time. Killed by a landmine during the first Indochina War, Capa was an incredible photojournalist and along with his contemporaries, exposed the atrocities of war to the greater world through powerful, and deeply disturbing images.

Following that was an exhibition about the effects of the chemical Dioxin (Agent Orange) that the US Military sprayed at will and without reserve all over the countryside during the war. Dioxin poisoned everything - the people (who passed it on to their unborn children), soil, water, fauna & flora etc. The impact is still in evidence today and many rural communities continue to suffer extraordinary disfigurements and other health issues. On our way back from the Mekong we actually saw someone with chronic facial disfigurement caused by Dioxin (think ‘Elephant man’). To see an images of people (especially children) with severe disfigurements is one thing, to see a real person standing in front of you is entirely another.

Feeling distinctly flat and depressed, we walked home to Pham Ngu Lao street via the market for a quick browse around. But we needed beer…so we went to our happy place with our baby chairs. A lot of westerners hang out around here because its close to everything that needs to be ‘done‘ in this town. However, there are many alleyways and little known places to be discovered and it’s not as expensive as we’d expected it to be. Usually places that are geared for westerners tend to hike prices but once you know what you should be paying, you realise where you need to be! Interspersed along the western-type eateries/ bars, were some special little authentic Vietnamese places too. Like anywhere, you just need to find them!
Obviously a major downfall is that where there are westerners there will be copious amounts of vendors…who will sell you anything from rubbishy sunglasses to cannabis…(yes - even at breakfast…)
There was one who reached astoundingly close to getting a slap…Just as well I was sitting away from the pavement and would have had to lunge across my friends to get to him…too much like hard work so I just yelled at him really loudly instead…
I didn’t need his nonsense after what I had just seen today.
It felt good.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Busy, exciting, eye-opening...
  • Cons:Vendors, rip-off mechants, extreme humidity
  • In a nutshell:So timeless, energetic & full of vitality
  • Last visit to Vietnam: Nov 2011
  • Intro Updated Apr 6, 2012
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Martialsk

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