Ho Chi Minh City, the city with more scooters than people… or so it seems
We arrived to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) expecting yet another dusty, capital city in Southeast Asia. What we found was something far greater. Ho Chi Minh City has an official population of approximately 9 million people, however, as the government only counts people with official residence permits, it is thought the population is closer to 13 million, with many residing in the city illegally. Consequently, the traffic is ridiculous; it almost seems as though there are more scooters than people.
Arriving from Can Tho, we were dropped in District One, the tourist area in central Ho Chi Minh. After braving the streets and walking the 2km to the backpacker’s area, we settled into a guesthouse and took off exploring. The hustle and bustle was a stark contrast to the quiet, relaxed atmosphere we had experienced in both the Mekong Delta and southern Cambodia. After a short while, we found ourselves nestled into a small alleyway, ordering Pho from a small street stall and quietly observing our surroundings.
Ho Chi Minh City was previously known as Saigon and boasts an interesting history. Previously the capital of South Vietnam, the first act of the communists was to rename the city after their famed leader, Ho Chi Minh. Throughout the Vietnam war Ho Chi Minh City was a safe haven for the US troops, and is home to the Rex Hotel where the military famously held their 5pm Follies; in a stark contrast, it is also where the monk Thich Quang Duc made the ultimate protest, burning himself to death and drawing international attention to the war.
Today, Ho Chi Minh is the city of contrasts. The rich and the poor, the old and the new, the eastern and western cultures all thrown together in utter chaos. We loved our time in Ho Chi Minh City and had the privilege of exploring several different corners, gaining more insight into Vietnamese culture and lifestyle.
We have become a bit blasé with our accommodation, with very little planning or forethought before we arrive at a new place. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, we used the Lonely Planet as a guide; heading to the area they indicated had several hostels. We ended up staying at Dai Huy Hoang Hotel for the duration of our stay. They served a basic breakfast (toast, tea, coffee and bananas) that we usually skipped in favour for the delicious Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup) from the friendly lady on the corner. It was a great location that enabled us to walk to all the main attractions throughout the city.
We continue to be impressed by the food in Vietnam. While the concept seems strange, we are both really enjoying the noodle soup for breakfast. It is taking a bit to get used to eating hot soup in such a hot climate but we are enjoying the change.
We completed both a food tour of Ho Chi Minh City and I did a cooking class (Jimmy opted out of that one), which really gave us great insight into the food.
I was amazed by the number of cafes throughout Ho Chi Minh. Coffee is a daily ritual here and consequently Ho Chi Minh City boasts a café scene that rivals inner Melbourne. We went to The Workshop Café that had us both salivating and cursing our meagre budget. Not only was the décor fantastic, the aroma wafting from the roasting chambers was indescribable. We optimistically also visited L’Usine, a shop full of beautiful clothes, bags and shoes with a coffee shop and restaurant upstairs. Yet again, we left feeling like the poor relatives and resumed our search for a budget-friendly coffee shop.
After getting a glimpse of the best in the business, we were ecstatic to find Cong Caphe, a quiet café with an artistic atmosphere and some of the best coffee we have had to date. We happily spent a quiet afternoon here enjoying both the coffee and the atmosphere.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
Ho Chi Minh is a bustling, thriving city, bursting with things to do. We spent six days here exploring the wider Ho Chi Minh area, surprising ourselves by really enjoying the big city atmosphere.
War Remnants Museum
One of our first stops was the War Remnants Museum in the centre of District One. I was surprised as we walked in to see tanks, helicopters and small aircrafts surrounding the museum. My surprise soon turned to shock as we entered the museum building. Essentially, this museum is a building full of pictures telling the horrific story and lasting legacy of the Vietnam War. As we entered we were greeted by images of protests throughout the world, with hundreds of people demonstrating to show their disapproval of the US involvement in the war. Not only were the people calling for the US to withdraw, many governments worldwide also openly voiced their objection to the US involvement in the war. From here, the photographs became grimmer, essentially telling the story of US troops abusing their power, killing hundreds of civilians (including women and children) both in the North and the South. The photographs were taken by various journalists who travelled to Vietnam to accurately portray the war to the rest of the world. Many of these journalists died, some of their photographs taken only seconds before they were killed.
The museum has a whole section dedicated to Agent Orange, a herbicide widely used to destroy the Vietnamese food sources and eliminate any cover they had from the jungle. Not only did they succeed in clearing large portions of the foliage, they created a legacy that continues to affect people today. Agent Orange had high levels of Dioxin, a chemical that is extremely toxic to living organisms. The soil, wildlife, marine animals and people were all heavily affected. Today, young families are still forced to face the consequences as children continue to be born with genetic disabilities and deformities caused by Agent Orange exposure. An estimated four million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, with three million suffering illness as a consequence of this exposure. It’s heartbreaking to see the pictures of these families so heavily affected by events that happened 40 years ago.
After researching the Vietnam War quite extensively, I was fascinated to visit the museum and see the war from a completely different angle. While majority of what I read was quite neutral, or even implied the US involvement had a positive influence, the display at the War Remnants Museum shows a brutal display of the horrendous acts that occurred in the name of war. Another stark reminder of how lucky I am to have had a safe and peaceful childhood.
A Walking Tour of Ho Chi Minh City
After visiting the War Remnants Museum, we continued on one of our signature self-instigated walking tours, visiting the Independence Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office , Ho Chi Minh City Hall, The Jade Emperor Pagoda and Saigon Opera House. We really enjoyed wandering through the city, checking out the different sights and experiencing Ho Chi Minh City. Each of the buildings are notable and easily visited by foot over the course of an afternoon.
We completed ‘the foodie’ with XO tours. We spent nearly five hours on the back of a scooter, weaving through the Ho Chi Minh City traffic with our respective guides and loved every minute of it. Dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothing, the young women showed us a completely different side of Ho Chi Minh City and fed us some incredible food along the way. First stop was a tiny noodle shop where we started with a beautiful noodle soup. It was completely different to the noodle soups we had tried previously, with a lovely strong lemongrass flavour and beautiful fresh, thick rice noodles.
After driving through Chinatown we reached one of the main Ho Chi Minh markets. It was explained to us majority of the vendors buy their goods here in bulk before marking up the price by around 300% to sell to tourists. While I knew the tourist markets were expensive, often starting at more than double what they will sell for, it was great to learn this from the guides and it will certainly help us when we are bartering!
Our second food stop was at a Vietnamese barbecue where we had goat, beef, prawns, frog and ladyfingers freshly cooked over hot coals. The meat had been marinated beautifully and we were learnt the correct herbs and dipping sauces for each meat.
On our way to the third and final food stop, we dropped into District 7, which is the new, expatriate area in Ho Chi Minh. We were shocked to see the contrast as soon as we turned into the area. Instead of the usual onslaught of motorbikes (and the constant tooting that comes with them), we were met with quiet, tree-lined streets and multiple cars cruising around. You could have been transported to any newly developed area in any city without knowing. The head guide explained to us District 7 is too costly for most Vietnamese people, unless they are incredibly wealthy. While rent for a furnished two-bedroom apartment is around $300 USD per month, this is far too much for majority of the locals. Consequently, many young people aspire to live in District 7 as it symbolises success. The other surprising thing we were told is many wealthy Vietnamese people buy the apartments with no desire of ever living there, or even renting them out. People see it safer to put their money in property than in the bank. Fascinating stuff!
Our last stop was largely seafood, beautiful scallops with a peanut sauce, followed by some clam soup before we finished off with some palate-cleansing coconut jelly. We had the opportunity to try ‘scary food’, a 14-day-old duck foetus. The challenge had been set by my parents and there was money on the table if we gave the egg a try. Up for the challenge, Jimmy was first to go, with the plain egg put in front of him, he had a shot of the amniotic fluid before diving into the egg head first, literally. Struggling, he managed to keep it down and attention was turned to me. I opted for the egg with tamarind sauce. Trying to focus on the sauce rather than the egg, I did my bit for the team. I don’t think it is something I will try again in a hurry!
We were really impressed with the tour, our guides were excellent and added so much value to the tour. We felt really safe on the scooters, even as we weaved through the peak hour Ho Chi Minh City traffic. It was a great way to see the city from a different perspective. It was also reassuring to know security guards were following us as we travelled around to ensure our safety.
Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc
Growing more fascinated by the Vietnamese cuisine, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in a cooking class in Ho Chi Minh City. I chose the highly regarded Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc and completed the half day gourmet tour, visiting a market with the chef to collect ingredients before returning to the cooking school to prepare our incredible feast. While we have been to many markets, it was great to visit with the chef, who explained what many of the various fresh foods were used for. Most fascinating were the frogs, one particular lady caught my attention as she skinned a whole bucket before trimming them into the various cuts. It was slightly creepy to see the legs still kicking even after they had been detached from the rest of the frog!
Returning to Hoa Tuc, I was impressed by the organisation and careful preparation that had been done for us. I wish someone could come and prepare like that for me every night! The chef was incredible, taking us through each step and providing extra guidance when necessary. We made three courses, each embodied Vietnamese food and were beautifully simple. First up were the mustard leaf rolls with crunchy vegetables and prawns. I really enjoyed these, the flavours were perfectly balanced and it was nice to use mustard leaf instead of rice paper. Next, we made sticky rice fritter stuffed with pork and carrot. Yet another delicious treat, I was amazed to learn these fried fritters were gluten free. It’s surprising how much of the Vietnamese food is made with rice or rice products. Lastly we made char-grilled beef wrapped in betel leaves with fresh rice noodles, rice paper and fresh herbs. These rice paper wraps were yet another example of the deliciously fresh Vietnamese food. We were served a passionfruit mouse for dessert, this was absolutely incredible and I could have easily devoured two or three more.
I really enjoyed the class; it was amazing to cook after four months out of the kitchen. The best part was it opened my eyes to a completely different way of cooking. I will definitely be taking these recipes home and look forward to trying them again.
Cu Chi Tunnels
We booked a half-day tour to the Cu Chi tunnels at one of the local travel agencies with a company I believe is called Delta tours. We opted to do one of the cheapest tours as we had stretched our budget thin with other tours. After spending over an hour picking up other people for the tour we began our drive to the tunnels. With about 45 people on the tour our guide struggled to explain the history of the Cu Chi Tunnels. This didn’t bother us; we were more interested in visiting the site and exploring the tunnels.
When we arrived we toured some of the forest area where the Cu Chu guerrillas fought the US troops. The tunnel network is fascinating; it’s incredible to think people participated in open warfare before retreating to their safe haven underground. Throughout the forest there were displays of various booby traps that were used strategically during the war to maim and capture US troops. Other displays demonstrated how North Vietnamese troops reconfigured unexploded ordnance to make grenades and land mines. Lastly, we reached a stretch of tunnels that have been left open for tourism purposes. We entered the first section, which has been enlarged to allow tourists the opportunity to crawl through, but when we reached the smaller section we both opted for the exit. Not only was it ridiculously claustrophobic inside the tunnels, the heat and still, stale air made for an extremely uncomfortable journey.
It was remarkable visiting these old war grounds. I was amazed by the different methods of warfare used and the extreme survival skills these men and women must have had. After also visiting the War Remnants Museum it is fascinating to see even more aspects of the war.
Mekong Delta Tour
Lastly, we completed a day trip to the Mekong Delta. While we had visited Can Tho and had an incredible time there, we decided to spend another day exploring My Tho and Ben Tre. I was careful (or so I though) to book a smaller tour to allow us a better experience. The agency I booked with ensured me there would be no more than 20 people on the tour. I was surprised when the same tour company as Cu Chi, I think they are called Delta Tours, picked us and over 40 others up before embarking on the drive to My Tho. The tour was a complete fizzler from start to finish. Our guide was rude, obnoxious and obviously hated by the locals at the various places we visited. I was amazed by his horrendous behaviour throughout the day. We spent the day tripping around by boat, visiting a honey farm, coconut candy factory, fruit farm and listened to some traditional music. One of the musicians had an incredible bamboo instrument with only one string. The music he produced was outstanding!
There were a few highlights, including the coconut candy factory and a ride along a canal in a long boat. Unfortunately, this experience was negatively tainted by multiple locals travelling in the opposite direction telling us to tip and pay the people rowing the boat. Our guide had also encouraged us to tip before we got on the boat, however, it wasn’t necessary. It didn’t sit well with either of us to be told to tip in that manner. We refused (our frustration with the tour didn’t help our generosity) and it was interesting to see the guide pay them. It was clear the tipping is encouraged so he doesn’t have to pay them, consequently keeping the additional money to himself.
After completing this tour, another ‘budget’ option, it became abundantly clear to us that you get what you pay for. Unfortunately, we have champagne taste and a beer budget!
PEOPLE & CULTURE
It is remarkable a city the size of Ho Chi Minh City continues to seep so much culture, a true testament to the rich Vietnamese culture. I really enjoyed talking to the guides on the XO tour. It was really interesting to learn about their backgrounds and their lifestyle in Ho Chi Minh City. My guide came from a small town in central Vietnam, moving to Ho Chi Minh City to study and work. She joked about coming to the city to meet a husband before potentially moving back to her hometown to have a family. Something very few young people in Australia or New Zealand would admit.
I’m really enjoying having more of an opportunity to learn about the Vietnamese way of life. There are various differences between the lifestyle of a young person in Vietnam and the lifestyle we had at home. I think when we return to Australia it will take a bit to readjust.
WHAT WE LEARNT
For me, the big learning curve was the tours. While we have been able to tour most of Southeast Asia ourselves, it seems majority of Vietnam is only accessible on a tour. We enjoy the smaller groups as they allow a better learning experience. Unfortunately for our budget the smaller tours are usually the more expensive tours. I think the trick for the rest of Vietnam will be picking the right tours to splash out on and scrimping and saving where we can.
Thankfully we won the bet with mum and dad, which covered the cost of the XO tour and means we are still relatively on track with our spending in Vietnam so far. Eating so much street food is definitely helping the cause.
From here, we will travel to Mui Ne to spend a few days checking out the sand dunes before we continue north to Nha Trang and Dalat. We are looking into a motorbike tour through the central highlands from Dalat that will no doubt break the budget but looks incredible!