As soon as I boarded the plane bound for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), I could feel a different energy from Japan. There was an audible buzz as the passengers, mostly Vietnamese people, chatted and laughed. It was very unlike the ultra-silent Japanese trains that I’ve grown used to. The flight attendants wore shorts, a sign of the heat and humidity that was to come. I was excited as we descended into the city, and I was in for quite an experience. HCMC is a hot, energetic, and chaotic mess of a city, and I loved it. It’s a busy, bustling metropolis with a laid-back atmosphere. We were in HCMC for just a couple days, but in that short time we experienced it fully – the busy streets and markets, delicious food, historic sights, and lively nightlife.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly (and still commonly referred to as) Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam. Situated in the south of the country, Saigon was the center of the American-backed Capitalist state during the Vietnam War. As a result, today it is the economic and commercial center of Vietnam. The city is an interesting contrast of old and new, prosperity and poverty, traditional Vietnamese culture and modern Western culture, with leftover traces of Chinese and French colonial rule mixed in. Shiny modern skyscrapers and fancy department stores tower over dilapidated, trash covered streets with food-carts, shirtless men in flip-flops, and chickens running loose. It’s a wild city, where the traffic never really stops, and all night you hear motorbikes honking and music blasting from cafes. But for being such a large city, the vibe is incredibly relaxed. Vietnam is a country where siesta time still exists, and the pace of life is just a little less hurried. There’s a general ease to the way people comport themselves, and service is usually a little slow, but that’s just fine, because it never feels like there’s any place to be.
I arrived late at night, and started sweating instantly in the heavy heat and humidity. I exited the airport and was greeted by a barrage of men yelling, “Taxi, taxi!” So much noise, so much energy! I secured a cab, and made my introduction to the lawless streets of Saigon. Traffic is absolutely insane. HCMC is aptly nicknamed “Motor Bike City,” in honor of the 7.5 million motorbikes zooming around the place. Cars and bikes speed down the streets with no real regard for lanes or lights or traffic laws, narrowly avoiding collisions and pedestrians on their way. The traffic flows according to no order that I can see, but somehow, it all works. It’s as if every driver has an unspoken understanding with one another. To cross the street on foot, you have to just step right out into the traffic. There will never be a real break, but if you walk into the street with confidence, the bikes will flow around you like water moves around a rock in a stream. I was terrified to cross the street my first night in HCMC, but quickly grew used to it.
We had one full day in HCMC, and man, it was a full day. It didn’t end until around 6 am the next morning, and we walked over 22 miles (36 kilometers) in total. We started off the day nice and easy with a with a Vietnamese iced coffee on a café stoop. Vietnamese coffee is made with a healthy serving of sweetened, condensed milk, and it’s delicious. We hit the major sights of Saigon, stopping at the Chợ Bến Thành Market first. The huge covered market sells everything from spices, fruit, meats, and seafood to counterfeit purses and watches, electronics, and clothing. Next we went to the SkyDeck on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, which offered a gorgeous view of the city. We visited the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica, and the Central Post Office, all impressive buildings constructed during French rule. We wandered down a lovely little street with nothing but bookstores, and found a huge fountain with lily pads and frogs. We grabbed some tasty banh pho xao bo – stir fried rice noodles with beef for a late lunch.
We retreated to our hostel to escape the heat for a little, and ventured out again in the evening. We randomly stumbled upon Tao Dan Park, a lovely, lush green escape in the center of the city. We ate a delicious dinner of kebabs and fresh spring rolls from the street market right by our hostel, and headed out for what ended up being one of the craziest nights of my life, dubbed for the rest of our trip as, “The Night.” Our hostel was on the infamous Pham Ngu Lao Street, aka “Backpacker Street,” which is filled with hostels, bars and clubs, right in the center of the nightlife district. We began with free beers at our hostel, and continued all night, hopping from bar to cafe to club, and making friends along the way. The streets were crowded and the energy was electric. Vendors wandered through, selling trinkets, fruit, and cigarettes, music boomed out from bars, and the party went on until the early light of morning.
The next morning was rough, but some pho and fresh watermelon juice made it better. Half-alive, we dragged ourselves through the blistering heat to the War Remnants Museum. The museum gives a brutally honest look at the horrors of the Vietnam War. It was not an easy or fun experience by any means, but I’m glad I went. Some of the exhibits were almost too much for me to handle, but it did make me so appreciative of how far we’ve come. The fact that as an American, I am able to travel to Vietnam, and am greeted warmly by the Vietnamese people, less than 50 years after our two countries fought one of the most brutal wars in history, is pretty remarkable. It also made me so thankful that I have never had to directly experience the terror of war.
After the museum, we grabbed a bánh mì sandwich and a smoothie, and were on our way to the airport. We were both low on cash and waiting for the banks to open to exchange more, so we managed to make about $8.00 USD last all day, including all meals, drinks, and the museum entrance for two people. It’s really impressive how far a few dollars can get you in Vietnam.
HCMC was a ton of fun, but I felt ready to leave. Two nights was the perfect amount of time to experience the wild beast of a city, and to feel ready to get out. We were ready to see a different side of Vietnam.
We boarded our plane and were on our way to Phu Quoc.
PS – Check out my travel buddy, Peter’s post about Saigon!