Article originally written for Eurochange.co.uk – Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam and Road Survival Tips
The thriving metropolis city of Ho Chi Minh, also known as Saigon, is Vietnam’s cultural hub. It can tell you a thousands stories from its dark past of the Vietnam war and it can open your eyes to a whole new culinary experience. From cheap massage and beauty salons to rooftop bars, there are plenty of reasons to make a pit stop in Ho Chi Minh. It is also bustling with street markets, restaurants and unique ancient pagodas. A sleepless city with a constant backdrop of beeping scooters, it challenges even some of South East Asia’s greats like Hong Kong and Singapore. The mass of honking scooters also make it very challenging to do something as simple as crossing the road safely. Here’s a few top attractions to get you thinking followed by some tried and tested tips to help you cross the road…
The War Remnants Museum
Although horrifically graphic, the War Remnants Museum is a must! It features dramatic exhibits from the Vietnam War. A combination of guns, machinery and photography that document the true horrors of the war. It is the most visited museum in Saigon but has been criticised for being propagandist, with US atrocities as it’s focus. However, it tells a very important story. The photography is graphic with images of napalm burns, torture and the lasting effects of agent orange. It is not for the faint hearted and can take a while to recover emotionally afterwards. It features an outdoor display of large machinery such as aircraft and tanks. There is also a rebuilt mock display of the ‘Tiger Cages’ of Côn Sơn Island where prisoners were incarcerated. A truly unforgettable experience.
Saigon Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral
Nestled in downtown Ho Chi Minh is the Saigon Central Post Office. It was designed by the French engineer and architect, Gustave Eiffel. No prizes for guessing what else he designed! Inside, a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh himself watches over proceedings. The interior is rather beautiful with hand painted maps on the walls and working phone booths. Also it’s a great place to pick up a post card or 2. Directly opposite the post office is Ho Chi Minh’s Notre Dame Cathedral. A red bricked structure very popular with weddings!
Ho Chi Minh has a handful of well known Buddhist Chinese Temples. I headed over to Quan Am Pagoda in Cho Lon district 5, aka China Town! It is the temple of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy in Ho Chi Minh City and is dedicated to the deity, known in Vietnamese as Quan Am, or Kuan Yin in Chinese. The inside is filled with hundreds of burning incense sticks arranged in hanging spirals from its rafters and arranged in large pots. Don’t be too quick to go inside though as the outside is just as impressive. Decorated with fantastic scenes, rendered in ceramic from traditional Chinese plays and stories. It is truly beautiful.
Ben Than Traditional Market
With over 3000 vendor stalls, Ben Than Market is hugely popular with tourists. From ceramics, clothes and handbags to noodle soup and smoothies. It literally sells anything and everything. Not the cheapest market in town but due to its central location and vast choice all under one roof it always attracts the crowds. Bargains can be had though if you are willing to negotiate a deal.
Ho Chi Minh is a great base location for many excursions. Here are a few not to be missed if you have time…
Mekong River Cruise – Grab your conical hat for this one! This was my favourite excursion! Cruise down the iconic Mekong River in a wooden boat with a pit stop at the Cai Be floating markets. Grab a nice refreshing coconut to drink from the fruit vendors then continue your travel along the river to small traditional villages. Here, you can watch first hand how they make coconut candy and popped rice. Even try your hand at making rice pancakes! They make it look easy! See live snakes in cages, presumably in waiting to be converted into snake wine, which you can buy. It has the snake still in it! You can also sway along to the local musicians who sing, dance and act out stories of love. The villages often offer some of the tastiest traditional food from whole grilled fish to Vietnamese spring rolls.
Cu Chi Tunnels – An intricate underground network of connecting tunnels dug by communist guerrilla troops known as Viet Cong (VC), in the Vietnam war. The tunnels span around 200km and include several trapdoors, living areas, kitchens, storage facilities, armoury, hospitals, and command centres. Today it is a very popular tourist attraction. You can even get down into the tunnels themselves and crawl your way through – not for the claustrophobic! It’s very hot down there!
Cao Dai Temple – This is good one to do as a package with the Cu Chi Tunnels tour. It will be one of the most colourful and impressive places you will ever visit! A beautifully decorated temple with colours of red, blue and yellow throughout. It is quite unusual in that pastel colours have been used which are embellished with gold and polished glass. Cao Dai is a new religious movement that emerged in Vietnam in 1926 and embraces different religions and traditions. Worshippers wear colour coded gowns to represent their religion. White = Monks, Red = Confucianism, Blue = Taoism and Yellow = Buddhism. They attend 4 services daily, 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight. The services involve chanting, musical instruments and offerings of incense and food. Be sure to catch one if you can, visitors are allowed inside!
You can pretty much eat anything you like in Ho Chi Minh, the choice is extensive. Many rooftop bars and restaurants will serve traditional Vietnamese and Asian cuisine like Phở (noodle soup), Vietnamese spring rolls and Bhan Mi however, there is so much more to explore. Everywhere you turn there is some kind of food being cooked, eaten or sold on the streets and every other shop is serving food of some kind. From Chinese to French to Indian to European you will never go hungry here. My personal recommendation for a tasty Indian – Baba’s Kitchen, Pham Ngu Lao, District 1. I would go as far to say that it is the best Indian food I have ever eaten and I have eaten a lot of Indians!! It’s even made it to number 14 on TripAdvisor for best eats in HCMC! The naan is thin, crispy and buttery, the curry is flavoursome and the service is great. What more can you ask for?
Tips on how to cross the road in Ho Chi Minh City
To cross the road in Vietnam you need nerves of steel or preferably wings! I can’t say I’ll be taking my little old nan there anytime soon. Scooters own the road and the highway code certainly does not exist so do not expect people to stop for you. You may spot a zebra crossing but don’t be fooled… It may as well not be there! I learnt a few key survival rules to avoid the mass of honking mopeds…
- Step out slowly into the road and just keep walking at a steady pace – make them miss you – hold up your hand if you need to
- NEVER run – You actually have more chance of being hit if you run
- NEVER turn back – Once committed, keep on going!! You can confuse the driver of the scooter and you have more chance of being hit if you are all over the place
- Try and cross on the outside of someone else if you can – yes the human shield technique! This sounds quite bad but I’m a big believer in survival of fittest (or smartest!). If they hit them first you are less likely to be hurt yourself. Many people are often trying to cross at the same time so this is not too hard to do most of the time. A local would be a better shield option than another terrified tourist
- If you do get hit don’t expect anyone to call you an ambulance unless you make it clear you will pay the fee for it. They will not help you until you can prove you can pay – human shield doesn’t sound too bad now right?
- Keep your bag close to you as ‘snatch and grab’ is quite common
- Take advantage of your tour guide – they will often assist you crossing the road as do hotel staff
Nobody wants to be injured whilst on their travels, so on that note have fun, stay safe and enjoy all that Vietnam has to offer.