3 Things to Do and 4 Travel Tips
Alas, we arrived at the final stop on our Southeast Asia honeymoon: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. If you’ve been following up to this point, you know we first adventured throughout Thailand and Cambodia for more than two weeks. From trekking with elephants and witnessing sunrise at Angkor Wat, to feasting on street meat and indulging in a 22-course meal at world-renowned Gaggan in Bangkok, every day was overwhelmingly impressive. Siem Reap particularly blew us away, and we were staunchly convinced it couldn’t get better.
But, it happened. We unintentionally saved the best for last. Ho Chi Minh City is dynamic, chaotic, fast-moving and ever-growing, housing nearly 9 million people – a larger population than the bustling city of Bangkok. Most apparent, the key mode of transportation is via scooter, with an estimated 8.5 million bikes in Ho Chi Minh City alone. It’s an unbelievable sight to see, especially around rush hour, although crossing the street is nearly impossible. You’ll see high-heeled, well-dressed females riding; ginormous boxes and objects on the back of bikes; and sometimes, several people on one bike (SIX on the one pictured here).
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon, although locals still reference the name) is the commercial hub of the communist Vietnam – a once war-torn nation, now visibly thriving. In its 300+ years, the city has been a Khmer seaport, a French regional capital, the wartime state of South Vietnam’s capital, and the U.S. military’s headquarters. The blending of its complex history and these diverse roles give Ho Chi Minh City its unique character and charm.
More specifically, the city is divided into 24 districts (how “Hunger Games” of Vietnam!?): seven named urban districts, seven numbered districts and five outlying named suburban districts. Each has its own personality and distinctiveness. Most of the action is in District 1 (considered the ‘center’ of the city) and District 3; you’ll want to stay in either to maximize your time. Fortunately, the city doesn’t sleep (like Bangkok), so you can take advantage well into the night (heavy drinking culture, lots of karaoke).
The biggest mistake of our entire honeymoon was tacking on Vietnam at the end – and for only two full days! Rest assured, we had the most action-packed 48 hours of sightseeing, eating, drinking and exploring. In fact, for my fellow adventurous foodies, I dedicated an entire post documenting our quest to eat and drink as much as possible in Ho Chi Minh City in 24 hours here. Spoiler alert: We exceeded disgusting expectations.
Food and beverage aside (I know, an uncommon phrase), here are three activities we recommend in Ho Chi Minh City and beyond, including those we didn’t get to per time constraints (SIGH).
1) Explore the History
If you’re well-versed with war history, you may know a thing or two about the conflict that plagued now-Vietnam from 1955-1975. The Vietnam War pitted the communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern allies (Viet Cong), against South Vietnam (present-day Ho Chi Minh City) and the United States, its principal ally. The United States withdrew in 1973, and Vietnam unified under Communist control in 1975, concluding the long, costly conflict. More than three million were killed throughout the war.
Accessible from Ho Chi Minh City, two key remnants of the Vietnam War are worth exploring. We unfortunately didn’t get a chance to visit either.
- Cu Chi Tunnels: These are an immense network of connecting (and claustrophobia-inducing) underground tunnels, used as operational headquarters by Vietcong guerillas during the Tet Offensive (1968). They were leveraged as hiding spots, communication and supply routes, hospitals, and living quarters for North Vietnamese soldiers. The Cu Chi Tunnels played a key role in defeating American forces during the Vietnam War.
You must take a guided tour, and you can opt to fire an AK-47 on-site if you choose (no thanks). From what we’ve heard, this tour is NOT for those who are sensitive to tight spaces.
- War Remnants Museum: Located in District 3, the museum houses exhibits relating to the Vietnam War and the first Indochina War with French colonialists. Ultimately, we heard the history portrayed is a bit one-sided yet interesting nonetheless. Not for the faint of heart.
Jumping back before the war, in the mid-1800s, the French were involved with Vietnam for nearly 100 years. Saigon was the capital of the Cochinchina colony during the French colonization, and many of the architectural treasures from the time still stand. We didn’t miss these iconic structures from the 1800s (in between our 10 meals):
- Central Post Office: Contrary to many beliefs, the post office was not designed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, of the Eiffel Tower). It’s said to be the work of Alfred Foulhoux and Auguste Henri Vildieu. Inside, don’t miss the two painted maps, which were created just after the post office was built (~1892).
- Saigon Notre Dame Basilica: Dating back to 1863, the city’s Cathedral is an impressive structure with two bell towers, reaching 190 feet high. It’s adjacent to the post office, so you can kill two birds with one stone.
2) Shop at the Markets
We enjoy checking out local markets to get a glimpse into daily life, not to buy unnecessary items; although, we did bring home a ton of Vietnamese coffee! If you’re interested in the shopping or people-watching, here are three recommended markets. For all, make sure you bargain.
- Ben Thanh Market: Located in District 1, Ben Thanh has roots in the early 1600s. It was destroyed by a fire in 1870 and rebuilt to become the largest market in Saigon. An important icon today, the tourist attraction houses everything, from textiles, handicrafts and souvenirs, to coffee and fresh food items. At night, Ben Thanh offers a ‘food court’ with several authentic stalls outside the complex. It’s as crowded, fast-paced and hectic as you’re imagining.
- Binh Tay Market: Situated in District 5 (Chinatown), this market mostly serves the local population. It’s also a popular breakfast spot, serving Chinese delicacies and Vietnamese staples.
- An Dong Market: This craft market is a four-story indoor (YES!) complex within District 10, offering fashion wholesale items and handicraft stalls.
3) Take a Day Trip
We reserved one full day to explore the lush, vibrant Mekong Delta before getting on a plane home later that evening (talk about a whirlwind). The region, considered the lifeblood of Vietnam, is home to the happiest, most relaxed locals we’ve ever encountered – and of course, incredibly fresh food. If you have limitless time, stay overnight; the delta encompasses nearly 16,000 square meters. Check out my post here to read about our full-day adventure.
Another day-trip option is Can Gio Island – also known as Monkey Island! The UNESCO recognized biosphere comprises scenic, swampy mangroves and water coconut forests, overtaken by an odd duo: crocodiles and monkeys. You must be extremely careful with your belongings, as the monkeys tend to be mischievous and persistent. If interested, the easiest way to visit is by taking public transportation – two buses and a ferry.
Traveling to Ho Chi Minh is extremely rewarding but can also be slightly chaotic. Here are a few tips for first-timers.
1) Obtaining your visas
This was a huge challenge for us, as public information wasn’t consistent online. As of January 2017, here was our process, traveling with American passports (although entering from Cambodia).
Option one is to work with an American embassy in person and obtain a visa. If you don’t live near one (check here), you have the choice to mail in your passport, payment and postage, and cross your fingers everything arrives back to you – and in time for your trip. We weren’t a fan of this option.
Option two is to receive a visa on arrival (VOA) at the airport. You won’t risk losing your passport; however, lines can take several hours. If you choose this option, keep in mind that you must get an official approval letter from a VOA agent (we used My Vietnam Visa), which you receive via email a few days after payment is submitted alongside an “entry and exit form.” This is NOT your visa, however; this is what you hand to the VOA counter.
Many agencies combine several names on one approval letter; therefore, you may see strangers, as well as their passport numbers and personal information. We were not comfortable with this, so we paid extra for private letters through our agency. To save time when you arrive, have your letter ready, in addition to your filled out, printed “exit and entry form.” Remember to have a passport-sized photo and cash on hand ($25 USD) when you reach the counter. Once your name is called (hopefully not hours later), you’re cleared to go through immigration.
Apparently, there’s a new e-visa process, but we haven’t heard too much about it. Check it out here if you’re interested in researching.
2) Using the currency
The currency is DONGS (hysterical, I know). The problem is that there’s nearly 23,000 dongs to $1 USD. Have the formula available in your phone if you can’t calculate this math in your head readily, as you won’t have bargaining power if you don’t comprehend the number you’re throwing out there! Oh, and most ATMs accept American debit cards, providing dongs in return.
3) Crossing the street
With millions of motorbikes overtaking the roads, crossing the street can be a dangerous feat. I can’t personally provide a strategy for you, as I honestly closed my eyes and was pulled by my husband each time the task arose. Use serious caution.
4) Minding your valuables
Typical for any large city, crime is prevalent. With so many motorbikes, fast-moving snatchers are the most common. Do not wear flashy jewelry, and ladies, wear your bags across your body. I even invested in a Travelon Anti-Theft bag (cool, I know), which cannot be slashed or unzipped easily.