A Helpful Guide to Ho Chi Minh City

by Sasha Savinov

After four days of cruising through the Central Highlands of Vietnam on motorbike, we took an overnight bus from Buon Ma Thuot to Ho Chi Minh City, which is still known by its old name of Saigon to many. Actually, both names are used these days – HCMC for the entire city and Saigon for the central part of town that sees most of the tourists.

Many people who come to Saigon treat it as a jump-off point for getting to other places in Vietnam, only staying for two or three days. Being gypsies, we’ve come to cherish time spent in big cities and all the comforts that come along with them. I guess you could say we’re city slickers! Read on to see what we did with six days in the former capitol.

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Sightseeing

As Saigon was the capitol in the days of the war, a lot of the sightseeing is focused on that. One such place is the Reunification Palace, renamed after the North’s tank burst through the gates, ending the war in 1975. Before that it was called the Norodom Palace. It was the residence of South Vietnam’s president during the war. Now, it’s always full of tour groups admiring the architecture and decorations. Some of the highlights are the war bunker in the basement several meters underground, the president’s office, the roof, and the dining room.

Front lawn of the Reunification Palace.

Front lawn of the Reunification Palace.

Some of the many fancy rooms inside.

Some of the many fancy rooms inside.

Helicopters! Look out below!

Helicopters! Look out below!

Down in the bunker under the palace.

Down in the bunker under the palace.

There’s also the War Remnants museum which has old air crafts from both sides on display outside. Inside, there are different displays showing pictures, articles, and letters from during the war and the after affects. Most of them are very graphic and disturbing. It is very one-sided on the Vietnam side, which is to be expected. But as an American, it was very sobering to see what we did there.

Some scenes from the War Remnants Museum.

Some scenes from the War Remnants Museum.

Some scenes from the War Remnants Museum.

Not all sightseeing is about the war, though. There’s also a beautiful old church (the Notre Dame cathedral) and the old post office downtown. The post office has a neoclassic architecture and is still fully functioning. We took the time to write out some postcards to family and send them off all while Uncle Ho was smiling down on us.

Notre Dame cathedral of Saigon.

Notre Dame cathedral of Saigon.

Hanging with Uncle Ho in the post office.

Hanging with Uncle Ho in the post office.

Here’s a map that shows where these famous sights are in HCMC:

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We also did a lot of walking to admire the old French Indochina architecture. As we walked along the river, we noticed all the different river cruise ships getting ready to set off on their sunset dinner cruises. We decided not to join, since it didn’t quite fit in our meager budget.

Old vs. New on display in the architecture of the city.

Old vs. New on display in the architecture of the city.

One of many boats on the Saigon River.

One of many boats on the Saigon River.

One evening, we decided to try and head over to Chinatown to check out the bustling market and a few of the temples. Unfortunately, we ended up wandering around aimlessly, getting to the temples too late, and then finally finding the market on our way out when it was closed. Oh well, you win some and lose some when you travel independently.

Getting lost in Chinatown.

Getting lost in Chinatown.

Eat, Drink, and be Merry

There is plenty of this in Saigon, which suited us just fine. Luckily for us, there was an international food festival happening in the park just across the street from our hostel. There was food from all over the world – Indian, Thai, Japanese, Italian – you name it. It was cheap, too!  One night, high-end hotels from around the city were having a competition to see who could set up the best looking table for the upcoming holidays. It was an interesting contrast to be walking around with super cheap street food, looking at replicas of Christmas and New Year’s dinners that were way out of most people’s budgets.

A few of the entrants in the little competition.

A few of the entrants in the little competition.

The neighborhood possessed a wealth of street food options as well. We feasted on Banh Mi sandwiches and Doner Kebab wraps.

A banh mi sandwich costs only a buck!

A banh mi sandwich costs only a buck!

One of the most exciting gastronomical experiences was the bacon restaurant we stumbled upon, called the Hungry Pig. They had four different types of bacon and a range of sandwiches to choose from. We just had to try their sandwich called the Notorious P.I.G. If you thought it couldn’t get any better, your sandwich order also got you a free beer!

Mmmm... bacon!

Mmmm… bacon!

Best poem ever?

Best poem ever?

Of course we were able to find great Vietnamese food. Tired of the overpriced Western restaurants on the main streets, we wandered down an alley to find a tiny restaurant serving up yummy, cheap local dishes. It was also a great spot for people watching!

Delicious and cheap food down an alleyway.

Delicious and cheap food down an alleyway.

Near the center of the city there’s a big, popular market that is mostly a tourist stop for buying souvenirs but there’s also an amazing ‘food court’ with cheap, local fare. We had some awesome spring rolls, noodles and drinks for only a few bucks!

A tasty and cheap lunch in the market.

A tasty and cheap lunch in the market.

Raging

Our first night in the city was a Friday, so we looked on the local expat website to see if we could find something fun to do. We found a party at a bar within walking distance called ‘Jam for a Cause.’ It was a gathering of musicians to play music and all the profits were donated to help with the relief work in the Philippines. Being lovers of both music and the Philippines, it was the perfect way to get introduced to the city and some of its inhabitants. You could also pay 20,000 Dong (about $1) to sing a song. After a few drinks, I decided I should probably sing. The guitar player in the house band was like a living juke box. Choose any remotely popular song and he could play it. I chose Ace of Bass’s ‘I Saw the Sign.’ Of course Sasha’s hippie ass had to play the guitar himself because the guys didn’t know ‘Loving Cup.’ We were a hit!

Pull up a chair and party down on the backpacker street.

Pull up a chair and party down on the backpacker street.

The backpacker street in District 1 is the place to be any night of the week. The tiny shops that line the street front put small, plastic chairs in rows on the sidewalks, sometimes spilling into the street. Any night of the week they are packed with people drinking super cheap drinks, I’m talking mixed drinks for 20,000 Dong (roughly $1) and beers for about 10,000 Dong ($.50). There doesn’t seem to be any sort of curfew. The small seats are full of travelers and locals alike all night long. We had a few crazy nights there ourselves. I can see why some people wouldn’t like it; it’s really crowded with crazy drunk people, but it makes for a lot of interesting conversations!

Saigon by night.

Saigon by night.

Hanging With Locals

We were fortunate to make a few new local friends. There was a huge response to a message we left on Couch Surfing. (If you don’t know what Couch Surfing is, it’s an amazing way to meet awesome people and get a free couch to crash on as well. Check out their website and try it sometime!) I’ve heard that Vietnamese people can’t really let foreigners stay at their house, but young Vietnamese people are more than willing to meet with foreigners to tell them about local culture or exchange languages. One responder was a cool girl who came and met us at our hostel. She came with us to the international food festival to watch a boxing match and explained some of the different local dishes. A few days later she came and spent several hours helping Sasha on a video about Vietnamese language. We took her out to dinner afterwards to show our appreciation.

Chilling in the park with our new friends.

Chilling in the park with our new friends.

Another group of friends came and picked us up on their motorbikes and drove us to a nearby university to eat delicious street food and wander around a Vietnamese University campus. Then, they drove us back to a park near our hotel where we say and had locally made coffee and juice while sitting on old newspapers. Getting to hang out with locals made our experience in both HCMC and Vietnam in general so much better, and we’d love to get back there and make even more new friends some day.

Going Underground at the Cu Chi Tunnels

Not far from Saigon is the village of Cu Chi where the locals lived in tunnels underground during the war. The tunnels also served as living quarters, hospitals, weapon storage and supply routes for the Viet Cong. It’s a popular day trip from the city and it’s a little touristy but interesting none the less. Upon arrival we watched a short documentary about the creation of the tunnels. Then we were shown how to get in and out of the tunnels and we were given the chance to practice. There were displays showing the type of traps they would make and life-like mannequins to show their everyday lives during the war. They built holes in the ground covered by thatched roofs for dining and making weapons. After a stop at the firing range and gift shop, we were finally allowed to walk through the tunnels! They have been enlarged to hold western bodies but I still felt claustrophobic. I don’t know how anyone ever lived like that. We were told that they mostly ate tapioca during that time so we were given some as a snack. Once we finished our snacks, we were back on the bus to the city.

A little bit of the famed Cu Chi tunnels.

A little bit of the famed Cu Chi tunnels.

 Ho Chi Minh City Summary

Transportation: We arrived in HCMC via sleeper bus from Buon Ma Thuot. The bus cost about $12 each and took around 8 hours to reach the city. Many people, however, get to HCMC by either plane or train.

Accommodation: Our guide for the motorbike trip recommended the Saigon Backpacker’s Hostel (one of them… there are two), which was conveniently located and decent enough. After one night in a cramped room, we were able to upgrade. For $16/night, we had our own big private room with space to work and a nice little porch. Plus, they had free breakfast in the mornings.

Solid room for $16/night!

Solid room for $16/night!

Getting Around: The central part of the city isn’t that big, so we basically walked everywhere. If you’re feeling lazy, though, there are local buses, cabs, motorbike taxis, and even the famous cyclos.

Slightly chaotic traffic in Saigon.

Slightly chaotic traffic in Saigon.

Activities: As far as sightseeing goes, the main spots to hit are the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, and the old buildings like the church and post office. All are either free or dirt cheap to enter. You can also do a day trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels for about $10/person.

Food/Drink: It being a huge city, there are tons of options for wining and dining in HCMC. We thoroughly enjoyed the food festival that was set up near our hostel, as well as the Happy Pig and a few local spots for cheap noodles. You can cool off in the A/C and enjoy an iced coffee in many cafes, such as Highland. For a cheap night on the town, hit the backpacker street and pull up a chair!

Iced jelly coffee - a great way to beat the heat.

Iced jelly coffee – a great way to beat the heat.

Recommended Time: We stayed in HCMC for five nights for two reasons – we were getting our computers fixed, and we were working on language videos. Plus, we wanted to slow down after a crazy couple of weeks. If you’re short on time, however, 2-3 days should be enough.

Total Cost: In terms of our hostel, meals, and activities, we spent $284 total for five days for the two of us. Unfortunately, we were out another $200 for fixing up our computer screens, which cracked on the motorbike trip. HCMC is a very affordable big city, and if you don’t mind hostels and street food, you won’t break the bank at all here.

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