Do you like food? Do you like shopping? Do you like living on the pedestrian edge? Then let me tell you about a day in Saigon in southern Vietnam.
First up, while renamed for its previous leader Ho Chi Minh, locals still refer to the city as Saigon. That is, unless they don’t trust the person with who they are conversing and then it is Ho Chi Minh City. Want to win brownie points on the ground? Can I hear you say Saigon? Saigon! Saigon!
Depends on the time of year you are visiting the city, but HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) can either be very dry and hot or 100 per cent humidity and hot. It’s South-East Asia – cool temperatures are a myth.
I don’t know what it is about the locals and if it is the French influence, but the city boasts a whopping number of cafes. The Vietnamese love their milky morning beverages. So you need brekky – then take your pick. There is 30 million people in HCMC (Oh what? The whole of Australia in one city? Yes, that is correct.), everyone has to get their caffeine fix, right? Hit the ground running after a delicious morning wake-up.
Wait. Before you get coffee, you’ll need to cross the street. No biggie? Wrong. It is an art form. The elite go unscathed and the hesitant will not survive. Confidence is key; forget everything you know about etiquette, giving way, red lights and pedestrian crossings. Step off the curb, put one foot in front of the other and stride away. Whatever you do, do not falter.
You’ve finished the heart-racing experience that is playing chicken with traffic; enjoyed a coffee, noodles and a croissant; and now you are ready to hit the streets. It’s time to take a walk and visit some cultural kapows that HCMC boasts.
First up, The War Museum. This is a humbling, confronting and emotional experience. The Vietnam War was the first war to bring back images of the front – so you will need to ready yourself. It is an integral part of the country’s history and cannot be missed – but it is not pretty and you need to be prepared for that.
You then have Notre Dame – shout out to the French again – the post office, the opera house and the palace. All can be visited on foot. Going by foot is great but if you are even remotely like me and humidity is your number one nemesis, then it is time to roll with those thousands and thousands of scooters that locals are hooning and beeping their way around on. Now unless you are severely lacking a sense of self preservation, you will not get behind a scooter to get amongst it.
Instead, enjoy the royal treatment and become part of the traffic on the iconic cyclo. Old-school, laidback charm, a cyclo ride is a great way to see the sites of Vietnam without the terror that is interacting with the traffic. Grab yourself a fan and smugly smile down on those suffering at the hands of humidity while a guide weaves you in and out of the scooter bedlam.
More Vietnam inspiration:
Lunchtime. There is so much to choose from so make your way to Ben Tanh Market. If you love shopping and a good haggle, Ben Tanh is the place but before you step foot into that rabbit warren of wonder, you need noodles.
Located right next to Ben Tanh Market and the famous roundabout of the same name is Pho 2000. Renowned in HCMC for treating President Clinton to some damn good pho (noodle soup), it has since become one of the most affordable, tastiest shops in town. Located on top of a coffee shop, you get a great view of the chaotic roundabout – that and Clinton’s face. It only appears 27 times on the walls. Great pho is worth that face though.
With a belly full of noodles you are now ready to head into the heart of Ben Tanh Market. An assault on the senses, it is the perfect place for an experienced haggler. If you are a novice in the world of bartering, fret not. Whatever the seller asks, go for 50 to 70 per cent less and work your way from there. Fifty per cent less is usually a good settling price.
The market houses some beautiful trinkets, clothes, shoes, food and, finally, fabrics. If you weren’t already aware, closely following coffee shops in abundance in Saigon are tailors. The tailoring skills of the Vietnamese are very famous and a 24-hour turnaround is standard for a three-piece suit. So keep your hand on your bag, take a deep breath and dive head first into Ben Tanh and its market inhabitants.
Once you’ve got the haggling out of your system, it’s time to freshen up because during all that shopping and sightseeing, you will have worked up a sweat. Put on your stretchiest eating shoes – that’s right, shoes- because you’re about to do a walking street food tour.
There is no better way to immerse yourself in a different and exciting new culture than by sharing a meal with a local. You need an open mind, an easygoing attitude and a love of food, obviously. HCMC has some delectable goodies on offer for next to nothing – so jump aboard a tour and try everything from prawn and pigs-ear spring rolls to sizzling pancakes. I highly recommend using a tour otherwise it can resemble Delhi belly roulette.
The night is still young! There is still so much to do but more importantly see - specifically from a rooftop bar, with a cocktail. There are some fantastic rooftop bars hidden among the heights of HCMC, so put on your dancing shoes and enjoy live bands, exquisite cocktails and a marvellous view. Whether you call it quits after a nightcap or party on into the wee hours you will not be disappointed. My personal favourite? The Saigon Saigon.
Say hello to Ho Chi Minh City – it has something for everyone at any hour of the day. If you are looking for an interesting, delicious and cheap Southeast Asia escape, Ho Chi Minh City is it.
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