Horns, sirens, and voices filled the air as we stepped out of our hostel and into a narrow alley in the heart of Saigon. People and motorcycles buzzed all over while smells and aromas met our nostrils in the morning air.
Saigon (known as “Ho Chi Minh” to the west) is a fast-paced city with Tuk Tuks, motorcycles and scooters zipping around the streets (and sidewalks)! Due to a heave french presence in the past, Saigon is also packed with coffee shops, french architecture and an unlimited amount of things to do!
Like every other major Asian city there are millions of places to get cheap massages, rent cheap motorcycles and eat delicious food.
It feels more chaotic than other SE Asian cities because of a lack of rules regulating 2-wheeled vehicles. During peak driving times it is difficult to walk on the sidewalk without worrying about getting run down by a motorcycle or scooter. Like every new place though, you quickly learn to adapt.
Another thing that makes Saigon feel different is the ever-present aftermath of the Vietnam War. There is no shortage of bureaucracy and brainwashing amongst the museums, but it isn’t so different than American museums… just a different perspective. As an American I was forced to consider the Vietnamese perspective and recognize the dramatic affects of napalm, agent orange, and atrocities committed across the country. Be sensitive to the fact that many people still remember the war and the suffering is still felt today.
In only one day it’s possible to try a Vietnamese pancake, sip coffee in one of the hundreds of coffee shops, visit the Reunification Palace, see the War Museum and finally, catch an opera at the Saigon Opera House by evening!
You can’t visit Vietnam without visiting Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) so here are some things to keep in mind next time you’re there! I would recommend spending at least 3 full days in Saigon!
1 USD = 21,000 Dong (roughly)
Traffic Safety – Saigon is super fast paced and the amount of scooters and motorcycles is baffling! Be careful and try to learn the flow of the road. Motorists are looking out for you, but you need to look for them too. If you’re on the sidewalk, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear.
Petty Crime – Pickpocketing and crime is a little more predominant in Saigon compared to some other places in SE Asia. It’s a huge city with lots of poverty and beggars. Only take what you need when you go out and leave purses, extra cards and money locked in the hotel/hostel.
Things to do:
Cu Chi Tunnels –
The tunnels are a couple hours north of Saigon and it’s easy to find a tour bus to take you (about $5.50 for a half day tour). Some busses will stop half way to the tunnels to show you local art by locals who were affected by agent orange. It feels a bit like a scam but seems like it’s for a good cause at the same time.
At the tunnels you can crawl into a sniper hole, crouch through underground tunnels used by the Vietcong and see booby traps used against americans. Some people can get pretty claustrophobic in the tunnels, but the average person can walk through them with no problem. If the water level isn’t too high, you can go into some of the deeper ones.
Shoot a gun – If you’re into shooting weapons you can shoot a wide variety of guns at the Cu Chi Tunnels. You can shoot an M1, M16, M30, or AK47 (I’ve heard you can even shoot a rocket launcher of some sort). Most of these weapons are difficult or impossible to shoot back home so if you’re interested, it’s a cheap and unique opportunity to do so!
Museums – A few popular museums include The War Museum, Reunification Palace, Revolutionary Museum, and some Art Museums.
I recommend the War Museum, but most of them are similar in theme. With a small addition of propaganda, you will see and learn about the Vietnam War and how it decimated the country and their people. Pick a museum or two and check them out … it’s always good to hear the other side of the story.
District 1 – This is probably where you will end up if you stay in a hostel. This is known as the backpackers district (or tourist district). During the day you can find massages, restaurants, and souvenirs and at night there are fire-breathers, street peddlers and over-priced bars. It’s pretty lively and worth at least strolling through.
Coffee & Food – Because France colonized Vietnam for so long, there was a heavy influence on food, drink, and architecture. It’s always easy to appreciate a cup of coffee so give Vietnamese Coffee a try (it will probably be sweeter and have less espresso than you’re used to). Saigon has all the big names (ie. Starbucks), but also has tons of local coffee shops. Quick tip: Don’t ask for cream unless you like sickly sweet coffee.
I highly recommend chomping down on a Vietnamese Pancake. It’s a local favorite and reasonably priced. It’s made from rice flower and usually filled with shrimp and pork or chicken. Once you get it, cut up the Pancake into smaller pieces and roll them between the lettuce and mint leaves … top it off by dipping it in a sweet and sour kinda sauce.
Mekong River Delta – The Mekong river is a huge river that works it’s way from China through Laos, Cambodia, and ends in Vietnam. The River Delta is a popular 1-2 day tour for travelers who want to see where this huge river comes to an end.
The Saigon Opera House is pretty cool! If you want to see inside though, you will have to buy a ticket to a show because it’s closed to the public. The show I saw was called “AO Show” and was a unique and artsy acrobatic play with a Vietnamese cultural theme. It was very well done, an hour long and a well spent evening.
This building is a pretty good look-alike of Notre Dame from the outside. It’s still used for services and makes for a good picture. The inside is pretty sad though, compared to the real one in Paris.
Bitexco Tower – At 68 floors this place is no slough! I hate wasting money just to use people’s elevator, but if you’re into it I suspect the view of Saigon at night would be amazing from the 68th floor … Saigon is a magnificently bright and colorful city!