“This feels just like India”, were the first words to come out of my mouth as we made our way out of the bustling Ta Son Nhat international airport in Ho Chi Minh city. The mad rush of traffic, lights, sounds everything reminded me of India. So, it is no surprise that I felt right at home! It was a bit different for my husband though who has lived out of India for a long time now and prefers order to chaos. But, there is a strange beauty and energy to this chaos as well – and that is something that only people who have lived or are living in cities in developing countries will appreciate. It is an acquired taste, if you will. Our friendly cab driver gave us a crash course in the current happenings in HCM and seemed very fascinated by Bollywood and the Indian education system. Talk about covering both ends of the spectrum! In all my travels so far, Bollywood has sort of been the conversation starter on many occasions. I think I will start using that as a standard response to questions posed in unfamiliar languages on my travels henceforth.
We stayed at Nikko Saigon which is a great hotel if you want to avoid the city centre. Taxis are available right at the hotel so travelling within the city was never an issue for us. There is also a mall attached to the hotel which makes it easier to give directions to cab drivers. Plus, it is a Japanese establishment so we said hello to our dearly missed and oft remembered Toto. We had no complaints from the hotel and would highly recommend it. There are lots of hotel options closer to the city centre but it is also a lot more crowded and noisier there, so, it boils down to individual preference.
We usually plan our travels extensively – from things to see and do to where and what should we eat, but this time around we decided to just wing it! Equipped with a city map and loads of sunscreen we started our day with a French breakfast in a cafe near our hotel. French occupied several parts of this area till early 1950s so there are lots of quaint and cosy cafes in the city that serve great croissants, sandwiches and baked goods along with fresh coffee. Avoid going to Starbucks and instead go to one of these unique joints.
Read on for our Guide to Ho Chi Minh City
1. Visit the War Remnants Museum
Few things can be more sombering than visiting a museum dedicated to war. The War Remnants Museum in HCM contains exhibits covering the Vietnam War as well as the period preceding it which involved French Colonialists. The pictures in the aftermath of Agent Orange and other chemical attacks are quite disturbing and while room after room is filled with images and records from the war, many people feel that it tells just one side of the story. Regardless of that, this museum should be on your must visit list to get a sense of the history of Vietnam and if nothing, reinforce your faith in the fact that wars are futile.
If you are a machine lover, the display at the entrance to the museum will interest you. We were strolling around the tanks and aircraft when unexpectedly, a local tv crew asked us to join the shoot. We just had to nod a lot and listen intently to the guy giving an explanation of these collections. I thrived in this situation (channelling my nerdy school days persona) but it was hilarious to see Sid trying hard to look serious.
2. Lunch at Hum – vegetarian Vietnamese fine dining at its best
Just a short walk away from the museum is Hum – a beautiful vegetarian restaurant that serves Vietnamese inspired food among other cuisines. The décor is stunning and the service good. We went around noon and had to sit outdoor because the place was booked. So, word of advice – make a reservation in advance just in case. We enjoyed the food thoroughly and had we stayed longer, would have made a few more trips to Hum.
3. Reunification Palace
After a filling lunch, we set on foot to our next destination – the Reunification palace. What should have been a 15-20 min walk turned out to be longer because we made frequent stops to drink fresh coconut water and make conversation with the coconut vendors who were always ready for a photo op! The palace is right on the road and hard to miss given the huge grounds it is situated on. I didn’t particularly find the palace interesting – there are well preserved meeting rooms and information boards that narrate stories of who met in these rooms and under what circumstances but after a point it got repetitive for me. Worth a visit if you have keen interest in Vietnam’s history.
4. Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office
Just across the road from the palace is the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral. More than a century old but well preserved, the architecture is stunning to look at from the small garden across the church.
Located just beside the cathedral is the Post Office. At first, we weren’t sure why the place was so crowded but on entering the building we felt like we were transported to some bygone era. A time when people carefully picked up postcards and wrote on them before posting them to loved ones. The building itself is quite pretty from the inside and there are small stalls selling wares but we spent some time just observing the workings of a post office and reminiscing our childhood days.
5. Backpacker’s Street
After a day filled with sightseeing, we decided to head to HCM’s popular Backpacker’s Street. Filled with backpackers obviously, this part of the city is also home to numerous eating joints, and shops selling souvenirs, paintings and other knick-knacks. We spent some time just exploring the place before grabbing some dinner. We called it a night quite early given we had an early start to the day and were tired from all the walking, but if you are in the mood head out for a fancy dinner or enjoy the city’s night life.
1. Saigon Square: Located a short walk away from the more famous Ben Thanh market, Saigon Square is an air conditioned street market which sells clothes, shoes, accessories and souvenirs among other things. It is less crowded and touristy compared to Ben Thanh which means you can browse around more comfortably and discover things to buy at your own pace. The clothes here in particular are of higher quality than the other street market stalls we visited. For a better understanding of where to shop in HCM, take a look at the link below
2. Ben Thanh Market
Chaotic in more ways than one, Ben Thanh Market is the mother of street markets in HCM. Popular among tourists for the wide variety of clothes, accessories, paintings, food etc. available for bargain here, Ben Thanh is not for the faint-hearted or for those who can’t handle crowds. But, if you let go of those inhibitions, it is quite a fun place to explore. The prices are naturally a bit jacked up, so be prepared to bargain hard. If you like something and are unable to close the deal, don’t worry. Most of the stuff sold can be found in other shops in the market, so get a feel for the prices before you decide to make the purchase.
We are not very spontaneous when it comes to eating during our travels because we are vegetarian. More often than not we leave our hotel room equipped with a map with all veg friendly eateries marked on it. Surprisingly, we decided to wing it on our second day in HCM. Luckily for us we stumbled upon a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant just next to the Ben Thanh Market. Phuong Mai Vegetarian restaurant is a small establishment on a street across the road from the market. We had amazing veggie pho here and also gulped down some fresh coconut water and fruit juices – all of which were reasonably priced. Highly recommend this place.
4. Dong Khoi
An upmarket shopping street lined with malls and high-end luxury brands, Dong Khoi is every window shopper’s paradise! Jokes aside, do check out some of the malls for cosmetics which I found to be a tad bit cheaper than in Singapore.
5. Saigon Opera House:
This was a happy discovery for us when walking along Dong Khoi street. A large ornate building that is hard to miss – the Opera House is a beautiful building that regularly hosts theatre performances. We did not get a chance to watch a show but if you have the time, this could make for a perfect evening outing.
6. Indulge in some spa therapy
While not as popular and conveniently found as in other south east Asian tourist hot-spots, spas in HCM are still cheaper when compared to Singapore. Plus, we are always looking for excuses to get our spa on whenever we are on holiday so after a bit of research we decided to go to Indochine Spa which is located a short walk away from Ben Thanh. We were impressed with the service and hospitality of the staff there and the massage was quite good. After all the walking in the hot sun, the spa was the best way to get all the tiredness out of our bones and we were so relaxed that we slept like babies that night.
Our short getaway to Vietnam was more enjoyable than I expected. It was hot and tiring but the friendly people, the lovely vegetarian food, the shopping and more importantly seeing a vibrant young city in its glory more than made up for it. While we just went for a two day holiday, there is so much to see and do in Vietnam beside Ho Chi Minh City that I can’t wait to start planning a second visit to the country. The picturesque Ha Long Bay beckons!
Travel tip: Getting a visa to Vietnam isn’t as straightforward as some other countries in this region. There are lot of third party websites that will help you procure a visa on arrival letter but none of these are officially authorized by the Vietnam embassy. Being the rule following people that we are, we went personally to the Vietnamese embassy in Singapore and dropped off our passports for the visa. Our approach also cost us a bit more but that’s just the way we roll! Do your due diligence or talk to people who might have used some of these online services to make a well informed choice. Happy travelling!