Staring outside the window of the taxi, what seemed to be thousands of never ending motorbikes appeared on every street. Horns blaring, people yelling, rows and rows of helmets in every direction. Surrounded by motorbikes and chaos, I found myself in Ho Chi Minh City at last.
As many of you know, I had spent the last four months working and traveling in Thailand. In August, I flew to Sydney, Florida, Colombia and back to Thailand all in the same month. As soon as we stepped foot off the plane from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, I felt a wave of relief – a change of scenery from Thailand and a country I could call home for more than a few days. Sam and I have planned to spend our allotted 30 days up to the very last day in Vietnam, travelling from south to north, starting in Ho Chi Minh City. We spent 5 full days exploring the city, and the visit really opened my eyes to a side of history that was never taught in my classroom.
It’s every bit crazy and chaotic, with heat waves that will send you into a panic. It’s rough and tragic history, caused by none other than my own country, is overwhelming and still visible. But most of all, the people are friendly and inviting to travelers – something I found entirely refreshing after visiting the likes of Koh Samui and Phuket.
We spent many nights hanging out on the main strip of Bui Vein. Drinking beers and meeting new people. We perused the Ben Tanh Markets, both at night and during the day. We went to most of the museums and made it out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I’ve laid out all of the best things to do, see and drink while in Ho Chi Minh below!
How Long Should You Stay In Ho Chi Minh? Depending on your time frame and what you want to see, I would say between 3-5 days would be enough.
How Much Should You Budget: Between the two of us, we spent around $400 AUD in 5 days, including food and accommodation. That being said, we bought the only real big-ticket items we wanted to buy throughout our entire trip, i.e. wallets, purses, watches, gifts. We spent $25/night on accommodation, including breakfast. Meals cost around $8-20 AUD, usually including an appetizer, two main courses and a few beers. Tours, museum entrances and taxis probably all cost around $60 AUD. I got a few spa treatments done that cost $30 AUD in total. Finally, our train tickets to Nha Trang cost $35 AUD each.
How We Got To/From: We flew with Jetstar from Bangkok for $83 AUD per person including luggage, and the flight took an hour. If you’re flying in the country, be sure to apply for a visa on arrival online ($14 USD), print off all of the necessary documents and have a few passport photos on hand. The visa cost $45 USD on arrival at the airport.
If you’re traveling via train through Vietnam, don’t book your trains through the Vietnam Railways website. It’s much more expensive. Instead, book through your hotel, a local travel agent or the train station – much easier and cheaper.
We Stayed At:
Hoang Lien Hotel: We stayed here for four out of five nights. They overbooked when we first arrived and dumped us off to a lower end hotel near by. When we finally checked in, the room was a decent size, good air con, extra fan if needed and clean bathroom. It’s in walking distance to everything you could want. The breakfast was really delicious every morning too, if you’re okay with eating Vietnamese soups! Sometimes the room smelled like cigarette smoke, coming from a vent though. All in all, it’s a decent hotel. I probably wouldn’t stay there again. You can find better hotels for the same price, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t totally terrible.
What To Do:
War Remnants Museum: This was an important attraction for me to visit because my uncle fought in the war. I really wanted to see what it was like from the Vietnamese perspective. As an American, it’s a really confronting and overwhelming experience, but I think every American needs to see it. It’s pretty graphic, but it’s necessary. It’s four stories, and has tons of exhibits, so give yourself at least 2-3 hours to explore all of the floors. Entrance was $2 AUD per person. You can also take a walk over the Reunification Palace as well.
Ben Tanh Market: No matter what you’re looking for, these markets will have it. From Michael Kors purses to Nike knockoffs, you’re in the right place. It’s a crazy experience, being tugged in every direction by desperate vendors, and I had to learn to bargain quickly. We spent a few hours going up and down every aisle and haggling until we found the right price.
Cu Chi Tunnels: The Cu Chi Tunnels are significant to the War in Vietnam because symbolises Viet Cong control in the south. The tunnels once were as long as 250 km. We did a tour for $18 AUD per person, including return bus ride and entry to the area. It was super interesting seeing all of the guerilla warfare tactics, the tiny underground hideaways and the tunnels themselves. We crawled through one of the tunnels (made bigger for “American Size”) for about 100m, and it was so confronting to actually think about how people lived in there. It’s an absolute must for any visit to HCMC.
Where To Eat/Drink:
**Try the Pho, Fried Noodles with Chicken, Vietnamese Beef Stew, Banh Mi (Sandwich), Saigon Green (cheap beer) and 333 beer.
We mainly ate down Bui Vien. There’s lots of restaurants and bars to choose from. Baba’s Kitchen has incredible Indian food. Sam came here two years ago, and found the restaurant by memory! We also spent some time at Dune Café, which had 7000 VND (.50 cent) beers and good food as well.
The Ben Tanh Market has great places to eat at night. There’s lots of good street food vendors to chose from for very cheap. I ate my first Beef Pho there for $2 AUD!
Finally, at the recommendation of our counterfeit Lonely Planet Guidebook, which we bought off the street in HCMC, we ate at Nha Hang Ngon. It had a really great menu for a reasonable price. They had an awesome outdoor seating area, and was a bit more upscale than what we were used to.
Take the Vinasun Taxis. They are the most reliable and always go by the meter.
At the markets, never take the price vendors tell you as the last price. We once got a lady to go from 1.5 million dong down to 150,000 dong. They’re just waiting for a sucker like you to go in and pay the ridiculous tourist price.
If you’re looking to exercise, there’s a nice park on Le Loi Street that has a lot of exercise machines and a nice pathway that goes around the park.
What are your top tips for visiting Ho Chi Minh City?