The other day, driving back from work something hit me. I’m not sure if you ever felt it before, this intense desire, need and longing. Not for a person, but for a place. A distant, humid, hot, tropical place. I almost felt the mango scent in the air, the smell of fresh coriander and pho soup, hot strong flavored Vietnamese coffee all mixed together in my nostrils.
I’m not entirely sure what triggered this nerve in my brain and what made me remember Vietnam. Maybe the fact that I am planning my next vacation, or maybe it is getting close to the date I left for the sunny city of Ho Chi Minh one year ago, or maybe I just missed the crowded crazy streets, the clear blue water, and white sandy beaches, the only thing I know is I fell into a deep trance. And the fact that I was driving did not help, did not help at all.
I had mixed feelings about Vietnam. When we decided to go there it was only as a second choice, only because Thailand was too hot in April and because neither of us had been to Vietnam. One long stop in Belgrade and another short one in Abu Dhabi and many hours later, we found ourselves in the city of Ho Chi Minh. It was something entirely different from everything I had experienced up to that point but I had my heart and soul open to take it all in.
The thing that struck me the most in the first hour after landing, apart from the deep humid hot weather was the traffic. Even though we were sitting in the back seat of a taxi, once we got in the first crossroad, we felt like all the mopeds in the world were coming towards us with the speed of light. Not only once, I thought we will hit someone, fearfully covered my eyes not to witness the unstoppable horror.
In the days to come, we felt like newborns: we learned how to cross the street, we learned how to speak/understand Vietnamese English, we learned how to ride the bus with the locals, how to bargain for Buddha statues in the central market (Ben Thanh), how to savour the incredible Vietnamese cuisine (which I absolutely adore and seek out everywhere I go now) and coffee with thick sweet silky condensed milk.
We stayed in the backpackers area and enjoyed all the bars, all the fuss, and music playing all day and all night long, but could not stay away from luxury (knowing me, it is really hard) so we spent some evenings at the rooftop swimming pool at the 5 star Rex Hotel in the French district. I had here the best mango smoothie in the whole world and the best Vietnamese massage and scrub ever! My skin was in deep need of exfoliation after one week spent in the sun and the coconut scrub did exactly the trick!
What you might need to know about Vietnam before visiting:
- people are very friendly and hospitable, you won’t ever be in any danger (I will come back to that in a future post) and they will go out of their way to make you feel welcomed in their country
- it is still a Socialist Republic, but not in the way we Romanians were used to the regime
- prices are really low and a meal can cost you around 5-10 EUR (depending on your appetite)
- if you think that a day at the 5-star pool located in walking distance from the central market would cost you a fortune, better think again. Even though it offers great service and a most exceptional view of the skyline of Saigon, a whole day of relaxation and pampering would cost you only around 7.5 EUR. Here you can find more information about the location and if you maybe want to book a staying at the hotel.
- gecko lizards are everywhere, you don’t need to fear them, just accept them as your friends against insects
- the same goes for rats :)) they are everywhere
- people might not have the same manners as those you were used to so don’t be scared if you might see someone peeing in the middle of the street or throwing fruit, plastic bags, glasses on the street
- there is air conditioning anywhere and everywhere, from every single taxi to supermarkets, hotels. And they like it cold! So if you are sensitive, it might be good to have a jacket just in case
What to do in Saigon
Come prepared for shopping
Wake up early in the morning and head up to the Ben Thanh market, ready to practice your bargaining skills. Just keep in mind that if you are really early and the first customer you won’t be able to come out empty handed since it is considered to draw bad luck to the shop if the first customer does not buy anything.
2. Go fancy at one of the many sky bars
Be it the exclusivist and very expensive sky bar located in the tallest building of Saigon, Bitexo Financial Tower or any other of the so cool and lively sky restaurants and bars, this is a must do in Saigon. Pick your preferred one from the list below:
- Chill Sky Bar – Address: AB Tower, Tầng 26, 76 Lê Lai, Bến Thành, District 1, go out for a fancy dinner or simply for a night out above the city on the 27th floor of the AB Tower in District 1, the Chill bar looks amazing and offers great modern cuisine
- Breeze Sky Bar – Address: 1 Đồng Khởi, Bến Nghé, District 1, located in the Majestic Hotel, this place is not that high in the clouds (located only at the 5th floor) but it still offers a unique view over the river at any time of the ay or the night, since it is open 24/24
- Air 360 Sky Lounge – Address: 136-138, Lê Thị Hồng Gấm, Nguyễn Thái Bình, District 1. The pictures say mostly everything about this place
- EON 51 Heli Bar in the Bitexo Financial Tower – Address: Bitexco Financial Tower, 2 Hải Triều. located on the 51st floor, this place is the highest bar there is, offering a breathtaking view over the entire city. Please note that it is rather an exclusivist and frequented by business people coming from the financial area of the city, thus a more fancy dress code might be required. Take into consideration also the fact that a cocktail here costs around 10 EUR and a dinner well, much much more. The cheaper version would be to go there for lunch and admire the town view and a Vietnamese meal at around 7.5 EUR.
Tip: if you just want to admire the view from above Saigon at the 49th floor of the skyscraper, you can only take the “tour” up to the Saigon Sky Deck, which will cost you around 9 EUR.
- Rom BBQ Restaurant – Address: 2, Lưu Văn Lang, 1, BẾN THÀNH. A nice place with a nice view, conveniently located close to the central market, here you can grill your own barbecue. You get to choose what you want to eat and have the pleasure of cooking the meal yourself on the bbq in the center of your table.
3. Have a day of fun at the Aquapark
For me only getting to the Dam Sem Water Park has been an experience in itself. Getting the bus from the end of the line in the center of the city and crossing the whole city to get to the park, it is quite unique and offers you an insight into the life of the locals and offers you the chance to see the not very touristic places of Saigon. We were not very lucky (or inspired to check online before going) and went to the park on a day when it was closed. For you to avoid that, keep in mind that every Tuesday the park is closed.
4. Taste and learn all about the incredible tropical fruit Vietnam has on display
From ripe juicy mangoes to pink dragon fruit and intense passion fruit, don’t miss out on anything. Jackfruit, durian (the smelly fruit), avocados, pineapples, are only a few others you need to try during your stay here. Unfortunately, only in the last day, I have found the Happy Juice Bars with a display of tens of juices and smoothies prepared on the spot, incredibly tasty and refreshing.
5. Visit the historic places
Notre Dame Cathedral, War Remnants Museum (focusing on the Vietnam War), Ho Chi Minh City Museum (focusing on the struggles for independence, developments in the city and revolutionary movement), Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (well, the name sais it all, don’t miss it if you are into that or at least curious), Reunification Palace should all be crossed off the list.
6. Do a bar crawl
If that is what you’re into, you don’t need to necessarily drink your way to the city, but it can be a fun way of meeting a lot of people from all over the world.
7. Taste the Vietnamese cuisine
All sorts of soups, from the thick ones to the very light and spicy ones; spring rolls, hot pot dishes, you name it! And you will love it! Also because being rice based, it is really light and you can eat all you want to without gaining weight.
8. Get seduced by one of the many Pagodas and temples
Emperor Jade Pagoda, Giac Lam Pagoda, Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, Ba Thien Hau Temple, Mariamman Hindu Temple and so on, the list could go on forever, the only thing you need is time and patience to stir out the city.
9. Vietnamese Spas and massage
It is impossible to miss out on all the spa’s and I am not making any reference to the “all inclusive” message, I wouldn’t care about that. I personally have tried the 5-star spa in Rex hotel and a foot massage in one of the salons in the backpackers’ district. You will need this after a day of hustling and bustling for life in this big city. So here are a few places you could try in Ho Chi Minh.
What about Transportation?
Landing at the Ho Chi Minh Airport you will have one good and efficient option for getting to the city center or wherever you have arranged your accommodation: taxi! The prices are decent, also at the airport and you can find several representatives just as you exit the airport, you can’t miss it.
During your stay in the city, you can choose to walk, take the public transport (yep, as expected, cheap) or take the taxi 🙂 Oh, and let’s not forget about the most common manner of transportation in Vietnam: the moped. But I guess you can rent one and venture in the hectic crowd only if you are really confident in your driving skills. If not and still want the adrenaline rush, there is always some Vietnamese guy willing to take you from one place to the other for a few VDNs (local currency).
Best time to visit?
Vietnam is a really big country having huge differences between the North and the South regions and Ho Chi Minh, located in the South has a rather tropical climate, thus making some periods of the year really rainy and humid while still incredibly hot.
The best time to visit is during the dry season lasting from December until April.
But that does not mean that you cannot take a leap of faith and try visiting from May to November. While the weather during these months can get really hot, rain does not typically fall for long hours and a big plus is the prices which will, of course, be lower that in the dry season.