*I spent 3 days in Ho Chi Minh City in February 2014 and I really enjoyed it! In this blog post, I am going to give you an overview of the city, and provide travel tips and recommendations for things like culture, attractions, food, nightlife and more. Everything you read is based off my own experiences.
Ho Chi Minh City, commonly referred to by it’s former name of Saigon, is a complex city that sort of threw me off guard when I arrived. It was my first visit to Vietnam and I didn’t quite know what to expect. With a shockingly 10 million inhabitants, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the most populous and busiest city in the country.
What confused me the most was all of the different areas of town. Some areas reminded me of New York City, whereas other parts of the city reminded me of Cambodia. In other words, some areas were really modern and others had high levels of poverty.
Vietnam is extremely cheap.
Along with the Philippines, I think Vietnam is the cheapest country in Southeat and Eastern Asia. Their currency is the Vietnamese New Dong (VND) and it’s very inflated — $1 = 20,000 Dong. It honestly feels like Monopoly money.
Most of my meals were between 20,000-60,000 Dong ($1-$3) and the street food is even cheaper (like 25 cents to a dollar). Local Beer is 50 cents and it’s actually pretty decent. Taxis are very cheap as well.
The first thing that blew my mind was the insane amount if motorbikes on the streets. It’s no joke that Saigon is referred to as the motorbike capital of the world. Due to the fact that there isn’t a metro/subway system, nearly everyone drives a motorbike around town. There is something like 6 million motorbikes in this city of 10 million people. Every taxi, bus or car is entirely overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands of helmeted bikers on the road around them.
The biggest adjustment that I had to make was crossing the road. There is never a moment where hundreds of motorbike weren’t zooming by, so I learned to be aggressive and dart across like Frogger, so the bikers could weave their way around me.
The Vietnamese government recently forced drivers to wear helmets (the good news), but children under 16 aren’t required because their heads are too small… How backwards is that?
Alright, let’s get into some quick facts:
– Currency: Vietnamese New Dong (VND)
– Language: Vietnamese
– Population: 10 million (metro)
– Over 3 million tourists visit HCMC every year
– Under the name Saigon, this city was the Capital of the French Colony called Cochinchina, and eventually of the Independent Republic of South Vietnam from 1955-1975
– Ho Chi Minh himself was a communist Prime Minister of North Vietnam from 1945-1969
– There are more motorbikes per capita in HCMC than any other city in the world
Culture and People
Vietnamese culture is pretty different from anywhere else I went in SouthEast Asia.
The people, as expected, are very friendly and always smiling. The most interesting thing about Vietnamese culture is that they are always outside hanging on the streets! People are seen hanging outside on their doorsteps, in public parks, and sitting on the sidewalk on tiny plastic chairs.
There seems to be no laws or enforcement in Saigon, even though I saw many “cops” in the street. I put “cops” in quotations because they might have been fake cops. Things are a bit sketchy and you never know the kind of things that are happening around you without you noticing.
Now, here is a little recap of the intense history of Saigon, in case you are unfamiliar:
South Vietnam used to be a Capitalist and anti-Communist country, until they lost the War against Communist North Vietnam and the VietCong. The city was renamed to Ho Chi Minh (the former Prime Minister of North Vietnam) since the fall of Saigon in 1975, and is rapidly gaining in popularity today. The population is expected to more than double by 2020.
So, I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and make some new local friends in Saigon! Click this link to learn the Top 10 Vietnamese Words to keep in your back pocket 😉
What to Do?
Despite there not being a whole lot of “typical tourist attractions” in Saigon, there are lots of things to do to keep you busy.
I spent most of my time roaming around the city and soaking up the culture. One of the most popular things to see is the Vietnam War museum and the Cu Chi tunnels. I learned a lot about the War that I never knew before. Another cool thing to see is the French-style Church of Notre Dame (shown in pic) and the Grand Palace.
I recommend hanging out in the park, roaming around on the streets and discovering new areas. You will definitely keep occupied with things to do, people to meet and places to see. In all corners of the city, the atmosphere is positive and lively.
For a more complete list, check out my post on 10 Awesome Things to do in Saigon!
Vietnamese Food is fantastic. The most famous dish, as I’m sure you all know, is Pho noodles. Most other Vietnamese dishes are noodle and broth based, along with rice and meats.
There is an absurd amount of street food that is all delicious and cheap! You will find street vendors on nearly every busy corner and all along the backpackers district. Also, make sure to check down the hidden alleyways because those are the hidden spots for the best food!
Fresh fruits are commonly found everywhere, as well as tasty smoothies. Vietnamese coffee is incredible and really really strong.
If you want to know more about the best local foods in HCMC, then check out my post on Top 7 Vietnamese Foods to Try.
The nightlife is HCMC isn’t anything special. Like I mentioned before, everyone casually hangs out and drinks beer on the street in little plastic chairs. There really aren’t any clubs or crazy popular bars around town.
Don’t get me wrong, people love to drink, but they aren’t party animals like elsewhere in Asia. The center of nightlife is on Phom Ngu Lao street where you’ll see thousands of people drinking outside on little plastic tables.
Also, Vietnamese people don’t like to stay out late, so the streets start clearing up around 12-1 AM.
Thanks for reading my guide to Saigon! Have you been before?