My eighth Asian country, and I am proud to say, I have officially got my Vietnamese passport stamp! First stop, Ho Chi Minh.
I have been looking forward to my trip to Vietnam for so long, but unfortunately, Ho Chi Minh, not so much. I’ve never enjoyed cities, always opting for the island life instead. I’m not one for crowds and I hate a hectic nightlife. Bangkok was my idea of a nightmare and I think I’m the only person to ever say they didn’t enjoy New York City (twice!!).
So let’s just say my expectations for the Southern Vietnamese city weren’t all that high. However, after spending two full days in Ho Chi Minh, packed full of activity and sight-seeing I’m happy to say I really enjoyed my time in the largest city of Vietnam.
The Crazy City of Ho Chi Minh
Speaking of HCM’s vastness, the population is a staggering seven million, with around 1.5 million motorbikes enter Ho Chi Minh every single day! The city also has around 25 motorbikes for every one car. This should give you a rough idea of the craziness of the city!
Where to Stay
The city is divided in to 24 districts, 19 central and five suburban districts.
We stayed in District 1, the most central district, with lots of accommodation options for backpackers. Our hostel, Town House 373 Saigon, was central and clean, with a bed in a mixed dorm costing €10. A private double room set us back €18.
If you’re looking for a little more luxury I had a friend in Vietnam the same time as me who stayed in the Myst Dong Khoi, which came highly recommended.
Getting from the Airport
District 1 is only 8km from the airport, so it should only take about 20 mins to in a car. Download Grab beforehand and use it to get a cab to your hotel. Otherwise you can book a taxi at a stand inside for USD10, about VD200k. Alternatively you can chance your luck with the metered taxis outside.
However, these drivers are quick to scam and often shepherd tourists into “luxury” cars or “express taxis”, where the cost is 5x the price of a normal taxi. Be sure to check the starting price on the meter first. It should start on about VD7,000. If it starts on VD100k, get out immediately. Unfortunately, I speak from experience.
Ho Chi Minh War Museum
A well rested night and a good breakfast of Vietnamese coffee and Banh Mi, we set off ready to explore. Number one on the agenda for a new place is usually rent a moped ASAP. However, HCM traffic is intimidating! Even crossing the road is no easy feat, so we ditched the bike idea and followed our Google Maps on foot.
First stop, the Ho Chi Minh War Remnants Museum. Having studied the Vietnam War in school, concentrating on the topic for my final year exams and studying war photojournalism during my journalism degree, I was eager to visit the museum. Even if you don’t know much about the war, I’d still encourage you to go, and read up some facts on the war the night before so you’re informed.
The cost of the museum entrance is VD40,000, and you could easily spent two-three hours wandering around reading everything. Walk by foot to get here, it’s easy to follow on Google Maps, and you will take in a lot of the city this way.
The museum is very one-sided (obviously as it is Vietnam), highlighting the atrocities committed by the American army against the peasants and villagers of rural Vietnam. There is not much said of the Viet Kong resistance and their involvement in the devastation of the war. Overall, 58,000 Americans were killed and three million Vietnamese. Here are some pictures taken of quotes and stories from the museum, which can be found all over the walls.
There are different sections of the museum focusing on the different aspects of the war, including the bombs and heavy ammunition used by the US, unexploded mines and bombs still found around rural Vietnam and the devastation they still cause, the effects of Naplam and Agent Orange and the effects generations on, and the photojournalism section, which was vivid, shocking and purely devastating.
The photos taken by journalists embedded in the war are far too graphic to show here on the blog, but they were interesting to see as they showed the true effects of the war. I would urge people not to bring children to this museum, as we saw a few a parents ushering their kids away from pictures of bloodied remains of bomb victims and decapitated bodies (yes, it’s that graphic).
The Reunification Palace
Tip: Don’t bother with the taxis outside the war museum, they overcharge and don’t use meters. Walk instead!
Just a short fifteen minute stroll from the war museum is the Independence Palace another historical landmark in the city. It was the site of the ending to the Vietnam War in 1975 when north Vietnamese troops stormed its gates.
Entrance fee is VD40,000. The palace is very busy with a lot of tourist buses and tour guides. Being the ultimate history nut I wish I had a tour guide while walking around the building to explain all the extravagant rooms. Instead I whipped out Wikipedia and Google Translate and gave it my best shot being my own historian!
Cu Chi Tunnels
Tip: You will hear people saying you can get a half day trip to the tunnels for as little as USD10. These trips are on big tour buses with up to 30 people. Spend the money and invest in a better, ore personal tip to the tunnels!
The reason I came to HCM was to visit the tunnels used by the Viet Kong during the war. It is said that only for these tunnels, the war would have fallen into the hands of the US soldiers.
There are two locations you can visit the tunnels, Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. I had heard mixed feelings about the tunnels. Some said they were great and others say they are a tourist trap, over-crowded and too commercialised. These tunnels are the Ben Dinh tunnels. They are popular due to their close proximity to the city. They also encourage tourists to buy bullets to fire at the shooting range, something that is very peculiar to me to find at a historical war-torn landmark.
On the other hand, the Ben Duoc Tunnels, located some 70km away from Ho Chi Minh, are less touristy and commercial, giving you a more authentic experience of life in the tunnels underground. I will do a more in-depth post about my day at the tunnels and the company I used…spoiler: they were AMAZING!
Where to Eat
Street food is plentiful around Ho Chi Minh, but being a vegetarian and picky eater at the best of times, I struggle with street food. I did however, take a liking to Banh Mi, a baguette dish introduced by the French and personalised by the Vietnamese vendors.
At night we decided to get dressed up (to the best ability our backpacks would allow!) and head to a rooftop bar for some views. A few minutes from our hostel was the View Rooftop Bar, which was a gorgeously decorated bar with lots of lanterns, a good menu with a mix of Vietnamese and Western, and best of all, cheap Happy Hour cocktails!
How long to spend in Ho Chi Minh?
Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time in HCM, three nights is certainly enough. This gives you two days to spend sight-seeing with a flight/bus out of the the third day. Like all tourist destinations, you could spend longer here, but with so much to see and do in Vietnam, don’t take up too much of your time in the city.
Whether you’re finishing your Vietnam trip, or just beginning, Ho Chi Minh is a must-see to soak up some modern history and learn about war that shocked the world.