How To Have A Great Time In Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon)
A guide to Ho Chi Minh City, one of Southeast Asia’s busiest and most exciting cities
As a famous writer once said, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In the case of Vietnam’s famous capital city, this definitely applies. Some may call it by it’s old name, Saigon, while others go by its newer title, Ho Chi Minh City. Whichever moniker you prefer, this is one of the most exciting cities in Southeast Asia.
With friendly locals waving and shouting out greetings of “Xin chao!,” the Vietnamese people are some of the nicest you’ll meet. Don’t be surprised if strangers approach you, just wanting to strike up conversation and practice their English skills. Many would be happy to point you in the direction of the best bowl of pho or where to get the cheapest, coldest glass of 333. Take advantage of the local kindness to really get a feel of hat HCMC is all about. If you’d like to show your appreciation in their language, a simple Xin Cam on (sin gahm un), or thank you, goes a long way!
Explore your surroundings
When the imagination drifts, dreaming of National Geographics descriptions of busy Asian cities, Saigon is exactly everything you hoped for. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in Saigon. Streets melt into alley ways, twisting endlessly, as crowded as the sidewalks you just left. Markets pop up where you least expect them, and delicious coffee and sandwich stalls are everywhere. You could spend a lifetime wandering, and never see it all. So maybe instead, spend at least a day or two.
Learn the history
It’s often said that there are three sides to a story: his, hers, and the truth. It’s always good to learn about every side of history, so that we can understand it better. Saigon played an intrical role in the Vietnam War (or as it’s called here, the American War). The War Remnants Museum is a good place to start. It was formerly known as Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the Vietnamese stance on the war is clearly not in fond memories. The galleries in the upper levels are graphic, showing the effects and aftermath of the conflict. Though it can be a bit biased, these recent events still affect the country today, and should be remembered.
Another important area of interest are the Cu Chi Tunnels. Two sections have been recently opened to the public, and are introduced with a fairly outdated propaganda film. Carved by hand, starting during the French occupation in the 1940’s, the complex was used by the people in the area as a defensive standpoint. They continued to be used against the US Army. Incredibly impressive, citizens were able to survive underground throughout the bombings and raids. You have the opportunity to go down into the tunnels, but be warned, it is not for the claustrophobic. Some of the tunnels are less than a meter tall!
Eat the food
Vietnamese cuisine is not only some of the best in the region, but throughout the world. Tradition blends well with French, Indian and Chinese influences create a taste explosion you need to try. The Vietnamese are incredibly proud of their food, and each dish is meant to evoke all five sense. The concept of ‘yin and yang’ is very important in dishes here, balancing hot and cool elements. Though there are variations of of style and flavour throughout the country, HCMC has some of the best assortment you can imagine. Some must haves include:
Phở satế – Rich broth, thinly sliced steak, handmade rice noodles, topped off with peanuts, cucumbers and chili peppers: what more could you possibly want?
Bánh xèo – You’ll never think of pancakes the same way after trying them in Vietnam. Thin, crispy, stuffed with pork, shrimp and vegetables, dipped into traditional nước chấm sauce, don’t be surprised if you end up ordering seconds (or thirds!).
Ca phe trung – Vietnam is quickly rising in the world of coffee, the java here is strong and rich. Ca phe trung is somewhere between breakfast and dessert, with a thick whipped egg cream on top. Even those who aren’t a fan of coffee may soon find themselves a caffeine addict thanks to these.
Bun cha – If you follow the locals at lunch time to see what they’re digging in to, you’re bound to end up at a stall clouded the delicious smell of cooking meat. Pork belly roasted over charcoals until crispy and tender, served up with fresh herbs and nước chấm, it’s the perfect Vietnamese meal.