Visually Ho Chi Minh was quite different to what I had imagined. I don’t know what exactly I pictured, but after spending a few weeks travelling down Vietnam I didn’t expect to see a skyline dominated by skyscrapers in a city so modern and developed, more so than Hanoi and rivalling even Bangkok.
Ho Chi Minh is a big city that’s made to feel enormous by how long it takes to get anywhere in a car or taxi. The traffic in this place is extraordinary and it can be a nightmare to get around if you’re not on foot (though if you are then not getting run over is a task in itself). It took us over an hour to make the four and a half mile drive from the airport to our hostel as the city was in total gridlock. Also, I mentioned in my Hanoi blog post the madness of the mopeds on the roads there… I now know this is child’s play compared to Ho Chi Minh. There are even more mopeds here and they literally do what they want, i.e drive up the wrong side of the road or up on the paths if there’s space. People will speed past you driving one handed with an ACTUAL BABY in their other hand. I saw one woman whizzing around with four tiny kids on the back of her moped, no helmets… it’s scary.
The most important thing to do in Ho Chi Minh is to visit the War Remnants Museum. This isn’t nice at all but being in Vietnam I felt it was necessary to educate myself more about the Vietnamese/American war. The museum in Ho Chi Minh is about how the Vietnamese people have suffered both during and since the war and it’s really hard to see – pictures of the aftermath of Agent Orange shocked me so much I had to walk out of the exhibit, but it’s vital that the stories are heard. A really harrowing experience but it should definitely be visited by anyone new to Ho Chi Minh.
A more typically touristy thing to do is to go up to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower. We’ve avoided doing the equivalent to this in other cities as it’s usually about £15+, but as this was only £7 we gave it a go. You get a 360 degree view of Ho Chi Minh City, and we went up at night so it was really cool to see the city illuminated in colour, plus the whole deck was pretty much empty. The tower is located in the financial district, and is surrounded by expensive restaurants and designer shops. Walking through here felt like we could have been in London or New York, so far removed from anything else we’d seen in Vietnam.
Another place I really enjoyed was the Ben Thanh indoor market. Now, I’ve seen more than my fair share of markets since I’ve been in Asia, they’re EVERYWHERE and they’ve kind of just begun to blend into one. This one’s a bit different though, they sell absolutely everything rather than just the usual tut, and being indoors the noise and atmosphere is buzzing. There’s so much crammed under one roof that you have to side step down the narrow aisles to get through the maze of shops. The women on the clothes stalls are super pushy but so funny – one of them literally dragged me into her shop by my arm which would usually make me angry, but I ended up buying a knock off Nike sports bra from her because she was so nice (plus I was feeling guilty about not working out for two months).
Other interesting things to see are the Notre-Dame Basilica, a really beautiful cathedral from the French colonial era, and the nearby Reunification Palace that’s known as the site of the end of the Vietnam war. The Palace has somewhat random opening times though; we arrived at 11am just as it was closing for a few hours, so we never got the chance to go inside as this was our last day!
In terms of nightlife I’d say Ho Chi Minh isn’t as good as Hanoi, but I only went out in the backpacker’s area of both cities so my experience is limited. I think Hanoi is definitely better for meeting other people on the travelling circuit though. Even the bars on Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien (the main backpacker’s streets in Ho Chi Minh) seemed to be full of old white men with young Vietnamese or Thai girls which is always horrible to see. I thought this was most rife in Thailand but I haven’t seen it anywhere as much as in Ho Chi Minh. I can’t even think of any bars to recommend there as I just wasn’t that struck on any!
Despite its disappointing nightlife, I loved Ho Chi Minh and would go as far as to say it was my favourite place in Vietnam. Definitely not the place to chill out, but if you love cities it’s got all the makings of a great one!