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Ho Chi Minh City

Photo by Ron Emmons

Ho Chi Minh City Itineraries

A Stroll Down Saigon’s Main Street

They still call it Saigon

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Though its name was officially changed in 1976, Ho Chi Minh City is still referred to as Saigon by its inhabitants, an example of lingering resentment towards the party leaders in Hanoi. Though only a couple of centuries old, the city shows strong influences from an eclectic range of cultures, resulting in a unique ambiance. Saigon is Vietnam’s biggest and busiest city, and the frantic pace of life on the streets can be disorienting, but most visitors get into the swing of things after a couple of days.


Ho Chi Minh’s Ancient Origins

The oldest parts of the city are its temples, most of which are designed along Chinese lines. The most important of these is the Jade Emperor Temple, located to the northeast of the city centre, where streams of supplicants arrive each day to make offerings and pray in front of the altars. The greatest concentration of old temples, however, is in Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown, a few kilometres west of the centre.

The stamp of the French is also unmissable, particularly in builidings like the Notre Dame Cathedral and the former Hotel de Ville, a lavishly adorned structure that now functions as the headquarters of the People’s Committee. An impromptu stroll through the city’s backstreets also reveals Hindu temples and Islamic mosques, which testify to Saigon’s multicultural make-up.


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City Museums

Many of the city’s main attractions are inevitably related to the Vietnam War (the American War to the Vietnamese), as Saigon was the last city to fall to the forces of the north in April 1975. The Reunification Palace, which symbolizes the end of the conflict, seems to have been frozen in time and makes an intriguing, if eerie, way to start an exploration of the city.

Of the hundreds of war museums throughout the country, none is more effective in conveying the horrors of war than the War Remnants Museum—definitely not for the squeamish. Saigon’s other big museums, including the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, the History Museum and the Fine Arts Museum, are also worth seeing for the grand, colonial buildings in which they are housed as for their intriguing content.


Ho Chi Minh City: District 1

Saigon comprises 24 districts, which sprawl far and wide, but most visitors hang out in District 1, where the city’s main street, Dong Khoi, is flanked by exclusive shops and restaurants as well as historic hotels such as the Continental. The city centre is also home to several shopping malls, and few visitors leave without picking up some memento of their visit. Ben Thanh Market is a good hunting ground for souvenirs such as conical hats, lacquerware, coffee and T-shirts.

Vietnam may claim to be a classless society, but its visitors certainly aren’t, and while the well-heeled check in to hotels around Dong Khoi, those looking for cheap accommodation inevitably head to the budget enclave that radiates around De Tham Street, about a kilometre west of Dong Khoi. This area caters mostly to backpackers, with cheap eateries and bars that stay open till the small hours.


Day Trips from Ho Chi Minh City

If this heaving metropolis starts to feel oppressive, the best move is to take a day trip out of the city, and there are several options. Most popular is the trip to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, an amazing legacy of the war between north and south. Located to the west of Saigon, it can be combined with a visit to the spectacular Cao Dai Holy See, the headquarters of a quirky religious sect. Other possibilities are a trip to floating markets in the Mekong Delta or a hydrofoil trip to the beach at Vung Tau.


When To Go

Since Ho Chi Minh City sits at a latitude of 10 degrees north, it experiences a tropical climate, and has only two distinct seasons—wet and dry. Temperatures range from 20 degrees to 40 degrees, though they often hover at around 30 degrees. The coolest time of year is from December to April (though it’s still pretty hot!), and this is also the dry season, so humidity is lower, making it more comfortable to move around. The rainy season lasts from May to November, when humidity is also higher. However, the temperature difference between these seasons is very little and rainfall often comes in sudden downpours, so the rainy season is not such a bad time to visit.

How Much Time To Spend

Some visitors spend just a couple of days in the city, then rush off to the beach or mountains. While it’s possible to see a few of the major sights in this time, you’ll need more like a week to take in all the city has to offer in terms of attractions, and to discover some of the city’s superb restaurants and its buzzing nightlife.

High and Low Season

The high season in Ho Chi Minh City is from December to February. At this time hotel rates peak and availability of rooms can be a problem. At other times it’s possible to get discounts of 30%-50% from the advertised rates, and tourist attractions are less crowded.

Events and Holidays

Though there are ceremonies and festivals taking place throughout the year in Vietnam, there’s only one that visitors really need to be aware of—the Tet, or New Year holiday, which takes place in late January or early February. At this time of year it can be very difficult to get hold of tickets to travel and most offices close for a week or more, so it’s best to travel before the holiday and then settle in to enjoy the festive spirit.

What To Pack and Wear

There’s no need to stuff your bags full of clothes for your trip, as you can buy all types of clothes in Ho Chi Minh City at much cheaper rates than you’d pay back home. So take advantage and travel light in the knowledge that you can pick up anything you need while you’re there.

What it Costs

What do you get for your money?
In a word, lots, which is one reason that Vietnam in general and Ho Chi Minh City in particular are so popular these days. Where else can you find a luxurious hotel room for $30? A gourmet meal for $5? A glass of beer for 25 cents? Or a day trip out of town for $10? You’d be hard pushed to find such good value anywhere in Southeast Asia, and in Europe or North America, forget it.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Admission prices:
$ = less than 50,000d
$$ = 50,000-100,000d
$$$ = over 100,000d

Sleeping:
$ = under $20
$$ = $20-$50
$$$ = over $50

Eating:
$ = under $5
$$ = $5-$10
$$$ = over $10

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Transport costs
If you plan to travel to other cities in Vietnam, you’ll be glad to hear that domestic flights to almost anywhere are regular and
inexpensive. Few flights cost over $50. Trains and buses are also cheap, but
hardly worth the savings involved.
For getting around the city, you can save money
by renting a bicycle or motorbike, but you need to be brave to deal with the
chaotic traffic, and most taxi rides across town cost just $2-$3. Local bus
routes are not really for tourists unless your hotel receptionist has written
your destination in Vietnamese and you can actually find the bus stop for the
number you need; fares start at 3,000 dong per ride.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Exchange Rates
Some people get confused by the exchange rate, which is approximately $1 to 20,000 dong. However, there are plenty of big denomination bills, and when you exchange just $50, you’re suddenly a dong millionaire!

Currency: Dollars or dong?
You’ll find that in general more expensive items such as hotel rooms and silk dresses are priced in dollars, while budget hotels and cheap souvenirs are usually tagged with a price in dong (usually written as ‘d’ or ‘VND’). The simple advice is to pay in whatever currency is quoted, or the vendor is likely to use an exchange rate that’s favourable to him or herself. This means that you need to carry both currencies at all times, which isn’t too difficult as long as you have two sections to your purse/wallet. Just keep around $20 value in dong and the rest in dollars. There are a few coins of value 200d-5000d, though these are rarely seen.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping
As in most of Southeast Asia, tipping is an alien concept, but the Vietnamese are beginning to tune in to the fact that tipping is common practice for Westerners, so they are unlikely to refuse if offered one. As for amounts, there’s no need to fuss about 10% or 15% or whatever—just leave the change from a meal or purchase if you’re happy with the service.

Transportation

Getting there

By air
Most tourists arrive in Ho Chi Minh City by air at Tan Son
Nhat Airport, about 7km north of the city center. From here most people
take a taxi to the city center, a journey which takes around 30-40
minutes, for around $7-$10. Make sure the driver switches on the meter,
as many drivers will try to negotiate a rate of $25-$30. To avoid
arguments and hassles, arrange a pick-up by staff from your pre-booked
hotel; most hotels charge the same as taxis, while a few offer the
service for free.

The #152 bus runs between the airport and the
Ben Thanh bus station, which is just a short walk from the budget
district hotels, and is a cheap option if you don’t have much baggage.

By bus
Regular buses from Phnom Penh in Cambodia pull up on De Tham, in the
heart of the budget district. Ben Thanh bus station is in the city
center, just opposite the Ben Thanh Market, serving the airport, train
station and Cholon. Mien Dong bus station serves destinations in the
north of the country and is located 5km northeast of the city center.
Mien Tay serves destinations to the south and west, and is located 10km
west of the city center.

By train
Travelers who think the journey is more important than the destination
often arrive in Ho Chi Minh by train from Hanoi after spending nearly
two days chugging down the coast. The station is located 3km northwest
of the city center, from where it’s a short taxi ride to most hotels.

Getting around

By metro
It’s not finished yet, but work is going ahead apace
on the construction of the Ho Chi Minh City Metro, and the first lines
should be open by 2020. When complete, the result should be beneficial
for the city’s horrendous traffic and will certainly be useful for
tourists, though in the meantime, road works are causing long delays.

By taxi
A typical taxi ride costs no more than a few dollars, but consult with
staff at your hotel, or you might end up sitting for hours in a
mind-mashing jam. Mai Linh (tel: 08 3838 3838) is one of the more
reliable companies.

By motorbike taxi
If you’re alone, and need to get somewhere fast, this is the quickest and cheapest way.
Called ‘xe om’, they are popular among locals, but you need to agree on a
fare first, wear a helmet and hope you’ve picked a rider who doesn’t
drive dangerously.

By cyclo
Once the most common form of transport in the city, the cyclo
(three-wheeled bicycle with a covered seat for passengers in front)
is now used almost exclusively for tours of the city center. If you want
to try one out, arrange it through your hotel as few riders speak English,
and disputes over misunderstood rates are frequent.

By rented car, motorbike or bicycle

Given Ho Chi Minh City’s chaotic traffic, this is not a good option,
though manyexpats who live here learn how to get around on a motorbike.
Self-drive cars are not available, but daily rates for a car with driver are not
extortionate; ask for info at your hotel desk. Motorbike rentals cost
around $6 a day and bicycles around $2, though the latter are not so
easy to find these days. No doubt staff in your hotel will help you to
track one down.

On foot
Fortunately many of Ho Chi Minh City’s sights are within walking distance
of each other, particularly in the city center. Get hold of a good map and
go explore. There are two things you need to watch out for when walking
in Ho Chi Minh City; one is bag-snatchers on motorbikes, and the other
is crossing the road, which can be a difficult task as vehicles don’t stop for pedestrians.
Look for a gap in the traffic, then step out and walk at a steady pace,
and you’ll find that cars and motorbikes flow round you.

Background

History

Compared to 1000-year-old Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh is but a spring chicken, having
been established as a city in the 18th century by the Nguyen lords, who named
it Saigon. However, what the city lacks in terms of longevity, it certainly
makes up for in terms of intense struggles for control through the last couple
of centuries. First the French took over, proclaiming Saigon as the capital of
French Indochina in 1861, then after the French had gone it was the turn of
the Americans, who sprang to the aid of the Republic of South Vietnam in the
mid-1950s. Eventually the North Vietnamese Army captured the city in 1975,
bringing about the reunification of Vietnam, and re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh
City.

To find out more about the history of this beguiling city, head for the Ho Chi Minh
City Museum, located on Ly Tu Trong in the city center.

Cuisine

In recent years, Vietnamese cuisine has enjoyed an explosion in popularity worldwide, but if you haven’t tried it yet, you’re in for a treat. A vast variety of vegetables, herbs and condiments are used to produce soups, stir-fries, salads and barbecue dishes. A good place to start is by tasting a bowl of pho, the national dish (eaten for breakfast) that consists of noodles and beef in a delicious broth. One of the most popular dishes in Ho Chi Minh City is banh xeo—rice flour pancakes stuffed with prawns, pork and beansprouts.

Religion

The great majority of Ho Chi Minh City’s residents profess to be Buddhists, though there’s a large contingent of Christians here too, as evidenced by the Notre Dame. There are many temples scattered around the town, some very old, and all displaying an amalgam of characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The most important one near the town center is the Jade Emperor Pagoda, and there are several atmospheric temples in Cholon (Chinatown) district as well,

Language

If you’ve been travelling in other Southeast Asian countries, you might be pleased to see what looks like a decipherable script on arriving in Vietnam. Called quoc ngu, this Romanized script was invented by Alexandre de Rhodes in the 17th century, but there are lots of tone marks and other puzzling squiggles added that make most words sounds nothing like they look to the eye of a native English speaker.

Art

There’s plenty of art on display in Ho Chi Minh City and a good place to begin exploring is at the Fine Arts Museum on Pho Duc Chinh, just south of the Ben Thanh Market and bus station. If you’re looking to buy, you’ll find everything from super expensive canvases by the country’s top artists in exclusive galleries on and around Dong Khoi to cheap reproductions of famous paintings in small shops in the budget district.

Music

Most traditional forms of Vietnamese music, such as Hat Cheo and Hat Tuong, do not fall well on the Western ear, so you might be forgiven for paying it scant attention. However, if you’re curious, the Conservatory of Music on Nguyen Du occasionally features performances by the HCMC Youth Chamber Music Club.

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