Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
What do you do six weeks after buying your first apartment? Fly to Vietnam of course! My boyfriend and I had both started new jobs in early 2013 and by October, we needed a getaway. Why Vietnam? We could fly there from Perth in eight hours, neither of us had been there and we love Asian food.
For a 10 day vacation, we packed a lot in. A few nights in Ho Chi Minh City, a night on the Mekong River, a few nights at Can Tho and the heavenly island of Phu Quoc before returning to Ho Chi Minh. It felt so good to be immersed in a completely different country and culture, and while there were plenty of tourists, Vietnam wasn't overrun.
Even if you can only stay a few nights, I highly recommend Ho Chi Minh City. It's a vibrant, bustling metropolis with extraordinary history, culture, shopping and food. The masses of motorbikes are unlike anything I've seen before, with entire families on the move. We did a lot of walking in Ho Chi Minh, which was perfect to admire the stunning French colonial architecture and every day life.
Here are my tips and highlights!
Ho Chi Minh City is a sprawling city divided into 24 districts. Thankfully, most tourists will be happy in the central area of District 1 where you'll find the majority of attractions and hotels. The backpacking area of Pham Ngu Lao Street is just south of Ben Thanh Market (see map below), while you'll find a cluster of luxury hotels to the north-east towards the river.
District 1 is about 30 minutes from Tan Son Nhat International Airport, but can vary greatly depending on traffic.
where to stay
Ho Chi Minh offers all levels of accommodation, from budget hostels to world-class hotels. We chose a five-star hotel for the start and end end of our trip, staying three nights at these two properties:
Hotel Nikko Saigon
At around AU$190 a night, Hotel Nikko is expensive compared to other options in Ho Chi Minh but it's a steal by international standards. We started our trip here and were lucky enough to be upgraded to a room on one of the highest levels. The room was more like a luxury penthouse, twice the size of our own apartment! Staff, service and all amenities were exceptional and the Club Lounge was very good too. I liked the light, modern aesthetics and minimalist style. The location was good but as there wasn't much immediately outside the hotel, we took short taxi rides to most places. Cabs were cheap so it wasn't a problem. If you're after a luxurious start to your holiday, I highly recommend this hotel! More info: http://www.hotelnikkosaigon.com.vn
Hotel Sofitel Saigon Plaza
The Hotel Sofitel was perfectly located for the end of our vacation! Tourist attractions such as the War Remnants Museum were only 15 minutes walk and there are plenty of restaurants and cafes nearby. The Club Lounge was first class, with lots of variety at breakfast, an open bar during the day and cocktails at night. One morning we had breakfast at the Mezz Restaurant and the buffet selection and quality were outstanding. I preferred this hotel's pool area over Hotel Nikko, however the rooms were a little smaller and more traditional. It's about AU$220 a night, although I'm certain we got a much better deal through a third-party website. More info: http://www.sofitel.com/
What to do
If you only have a day in Ho Chi Minh, spend it at Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. They're right next to each other and throw you head first into Vietnam's war history. Reunification Palace is a classic 1960s government building where the President of South Vietnam lived and worked during the Vietnam War. The site, also known as Independence Palace, is where the war ended on 30 April 1975 when a North Vietnamese tanker crashed through its gates. I can't remember whether a guide was optional or required, but it's worth it. Our tour lasted an hour or two and the highlight was seeing the old war rooms beneath the palace, complete with 1970s technology. Entry is 30,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND) or AU $1.70 / US $1.30 and it's open 7.30am - 11am and 1pm to 5pm. There's a website but it's not helpful.
The nearby War Remnants Museum is three stories of harrowing history. From images taken by war photographers to a exhibition showing ongoing birth defects from Agent Orange, there is nothing subtle about this place. Entrance is 15,000 VND (or less than AU $1) and it's open 7.30am - 12pm, and 1.30pm - 5pm. More info: http://warremnantsmuseum.com/.
I loved walking around Ho Chi Minh. Yeah, it was humid and noisy but I love concrete jungles. Once you've ticked off the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace, it's an easy stroll to Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office. I wasn't impressed enough by enough to take a photograph, but I did meet a man selling coconuts who encouraged me to pose with his wares. I really liked looking at the colonial architecture around this area and it's best done on foot.
3. Cu Chi Tunnels
If you have two days in Ho Chi Minh, make one of them a day trip to these tunnels. We had limited time so booked a private tour to the popular Ben Dinh site about 40 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh. It was one of the best things we did. From memory, it was about AU$50 each and lasted 5 - 6 hours (90 minutes travel each way, tour and lunch). Even if you're claustrophobic, seeing the tunnels and jungle first hand is extraordinary. You'll learn how the Vietnamese survived in the complex tunnel system, and expanded the network. Our tour included a simple lunch of local foods. Afterwards, you can fire an AK-47 and other guns for a fee.
If you don't want to do a tour, the area is accessible by public transport and the entrance fee is 90,000 VND (AU $5). More info: http://en.diadaocuchi.com.vn
Holidays and retail are like my peanut butter and jelly, and Ho Chi Minh is no exception. I was in awe of designer boutiques in stunning colonial buildings, and also had fun wandering in mid-range malls. The high-end Diamond Plaza is conveniently close to Notre Dame Cathedral, or about 10 minutes walk from Independence Palace. I bought some M.A.C. products here and the colours the salesperson recommended are still some of my favourite!
The Ben Tranh markets are on most sightseeing lists, but I found them underwhelming in terms of size and goods on offer. Instead, I got my nails done at one of the nearby salons.
Food & Drink
The best part of a foreign country is sampling the food, right? If you're staying in District 1, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants around. We were spoilt with breakfast and canapes at our hotel, but still enjoyed coffees, street food and a few meals out. Some key Vietnamese specialities are:
- Pho: a soup made from beef or chicken stock, with thin slices of meat, rice noodles and fresh herbs
- Banh Mi: a baguette made with rice and wheat flour, filled with meat, cucumber, herbs and pickled vegetables. Note that 'banh mi' in Vietnamam refers to all kinds of bread, while 'banh mi thjt' is the meat-filled bun most Westerners associate with banh mi.
- Vietnamese coffee: it's sweet and strong! The French introduced coffee but the lack of fresh milk resulted in the use of condensed milk.
As well as casual dining, we had a five-course tasting menu at the elegant Xu Restaurant. The food was very good, they catered for vegetarians and at around AU$60 each plus drinks, it was great value! I'm yet to visit Noir where you dine in total darkness with blind or visually impaired staff, but have heard excellent things.
Want a drink with a view? Chill Skybar is perfect way to soak up Ho Chi Minh's skyline and it offers outdoor seating. We had a few drinks here on our first night, with cocktails around AU$15 and beers for AU$10. At the complete opposite end, head to the backpacking area of Pham Ngu Lao Street for 10 cent mugs of beers while sitting on milk crates! It was an easy walk from Hotel Sofitel and I loved strolling the city at night. I always felt safe too, but stuck to main thoroughfares.
As mentioned, Ho Chi Minh is easy to get around on foot. Be warned when crossing the road - hundreds of motorbikes will fly past, making it seem impossible! Motorists aren't discourteous but it's important to be assertive. Pick your moment, cross quickly and don't stop until you're on the other side. This will seem simple and obvious until you're there.
When walking wasn't an option, taxis were cheap and plentiful. From memory, we used the meter and didn't have any problems although we did carry our hotel address in Vietnamese to aid drivers.
There's no easy way to remember this one. One Australian dollar (AUD) equals about 17,500 Vietnamese Dong (VND). However, we only used cash for small things like taxis, museum entrances, beer and street food. Most hotels and department stores accepted credit cards and ATMs were widely available. Just check those numbers! Or download XE Currency. As a rough guide:
- 1 AUD = 17,500 VND
- 1 USD = 22, 500 VND
WE ALMOST FLEW TO VIETNAM WITHOUT A VISA! Having bought a house and hurriedly thrown our trip together, my boyfriend remembered to check entry requirements a week before we flew out. Thank goodness! We had to mail our passports and from memory, the visa cost $65 each. Luckily, I could collect it in person a few days later.
For a short holiday, we got an excellent feel for Ho Chi Minh and saw a good amount of southern Vietnam too. If you have time, consider flying to Phu Quoc island. We only had two nights but in late 2013, the island was building its first five-star hotel and was about to start international flights. My boyfriend and I will absolutely return to Vietnam, to check out Hanoi and Halong Bay along with central Vietnam... and no doubt round two in Ho Chi Minh!
QUESTION: If you've been to Vietnam, what were your highlights?