Vietnam is a country of contradictions and contrast; possibly more so than many other countries that I have visited – and here in Ho Chi Minh City the differences really stand out.
In the beginning I took some time to warm to Vietnam, but as soon as I acknowledged this juxtopostion (the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect) I settled down and I viewed the country and its people differently and I began to appreciate it. And to like it.
Take Ho Chi Minh City for example.
Many people think that Ho Chi Minh City is the capital of Vietnam. It isn’t – Hanoi is the capital city but it is understandable how HCM can lead you into forming this opinion.
To add to the confusion (or it confused me anyway) Ho Chi Minh City was formally know as Saigon but was renamed in order to honor Ho Chi Minh who led the country and defeated the Americans in the war. The name Saigon is still widely and fondly used in all circles – and at the risk of offending some people, you do have to admit that it sounds somewhat more romantic than Ho Chi Minh City.
With 8.2 million people Saigon is more populated that Hanoi. The roads are CHAOTIC. In fact the roads are so chaotic that the scooters have rat-runs along the pavements in order to beat the blockages at the junctions-. You have to keep your wits about you as sidewalks are used as bike-parks, shop fronts, street food eating areas and roadways.
It is steamy and sultry and hot in Saigon. People live side by side all crammed on top of each other with chaos and noise in a tropical sticky atmosphere. The pollution is horrible and the noise is dreadful but there are many reasons to visit this city.
The attractions of Ho Chi Minh City
First and foremost the best things has to be people watching and the coffee culture. Vietnam has the best coffee in the world and here in Saigon you can find coffee everywhere. It is served in the best coffee shops or for the best atmosphere sit on a tiny child-sized plastic chair on the pavement. Wait for the caramel, thick liquid to drip through your battered tin filter cup and ponder on the little known fact that Vietnam is the biggest exporter of coffee in the world.
The water puppet theatre
This was a real cultural gem. We had already seen shadow puppets in Laos and now we went to the theatre in Ho Chi Minh City. Musicians and singers lined the edge of the stage which is dominated by a shallow tank of water. Like the shadow puppets show in Laos I didn’t really have a clue about what was happening but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole event as the skilled puppeteers manoeuvred their puppets in the water, splashed us in the front row and dragons, dolphins and farmers acted out a story in front of our eyes.
The War Remnants Museum.
This museum was hard to deal with but I believe is a very important part of any visit to Vietnam. It tells the story of the Vietnam/American war with a lot of photographs and a lot of personal accounts.
Apparently the story used to be very weighted in the favour of the Vietnamese (but why not – it is their story to tell) but I understand that it is presented in a slightly more balanced way now.
But no matter because war is horrific no matter what side you are on and atrocities are always committed by both sides and it is important to see the pictures and hear the first hand accounts.
I was walking down to the river one evening with some friends and we came across a tiny little shop jam-packed with very odd things in jars. We got chatting to the owner and it turned out that some of the jars contained snake wine – used to treat a variety of ailments in the Chinese traditional way. Egged on by each other we drank a glass of the wine. Trying not to think about the snakes coiled up and festering in the jars I drank mine, only to discover that we had been given some ancient recipe similar to Viagra.
Cu Chi Tunnels
These tunnels are a minivan trip away from Saigon but are well worth the trip. Yes, they are touristic, yes they are busy but they also give you an excellent insight into certain elements of the war and I truly appreciated the hardships that the occupants of the tiny tunnels had to endure. You can marvel at the ingenious ways that the people disguised their tunnels and even more so, how claustrophobic the tunnels must have been.
Central Post Office
This vast hall is worth a peep inside just for a fantastic photo shot of the rather special ceiling. It often feels that there are more tourists than customers inside but you realise why once you are there with this glimpse back at this building with its origins in the French occupation.
There are green spaces everywhere and people use them. You will see pairs of children playing a game where they kick a large badminton shuttlecock to each other and circles of teenagers playing keepsie-upsie with a rattan ball. There are of course men and women of all ages practising tai chi, we saw a salsa dance club and men playing Chinese chess under the trees. In a city where the pollution levels are so high, the parks are a welcome relief if only visually.
Walk along the riverbank
We wandered along the riverbank several times. At night the grassy banks were packed with courting couples sitting and cosily sharing picnics on their blankets. During the day Gosia and I got terribly lost when we crossed one of the bridges and turned right instead of left. As usual, we got lost in a down-at-heel, dodgy area where I guess few tourists wander. The people were rough around the edges, living in wooden and tin shacks and growing vegetables in the earth underneath the motorway but we were not robbed or beaten and they couldn’t have been nicer as they laughed at us and pointed us the way out of their area and back to the mainstream city.
Ben Thanh Market
This market is enormous. Under cover, it is a rabbit warren of stalls piled high with everything that you could ever need. At night, the streets that surround it attract more vendors firing up their burners and heating oil to sizzling point in their woks whole flies are attracted to their bright lamps in their millions.
The narrow lanes of District 1
Behind the chaos in District 1 which is one of the most popular areas for tourists, there is a labyrinth of narrow lanes where it seems that time stands still. Immediately after plunging into one of the alleyways the noise from the traffic is muffled. As you walk past tiny little homestays and bars you can’t help but peek inside homes where grandad is sleeps on a mat on the tiled floor and girls huddle over their homework surrounded by boxes from the family businesses.
Where did I stay?
As usual, we stayed in a backpackers hostel. Gosia and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City without any accommodation and then had to walk for a couple of hours in the heat with our packs trying to find somewhere that wasn’t full (but was within our budget).
We finally came across the Hang Out hostel which had only been opened for a short while and was just perfect for us. It included a complimentary breakfast and free beers every evening and was a major hub for people gathering to buy and sell their motorbikes (next time I also want to ride the length of Vietnam under my own steam).
I stayed at this hostel each time that I visited Saigon and I would do so again. It was perfectly positioned with the myriad of interesting little lanes behind them and the vegetable market that set up on the pavement outside early every morning.
I hope that this article gives you an idea of some of the things to see and to in Ho Chi Minh City. Sadly I never got further south to the Mekong Delta and I never got up into one of the sky bars but I had a great time.
If you fancy travelling with me in in Malaysia and you want to join in the fun, check out my travel buddy information here. But remember, as this is a 1 to 1 experience it is strictly first come, first served so if you are at all interested, drop me a line and find out more.
And to round off this article I shall leave you with a few more pictures of the chaos that is Saigon.