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Like a Water Buffalo in the Mekong: Ho Chi Minh City Research

February 26, 2011

Dedicated to Y.

One of my best friends is popping over to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) from Singapore for a mini-holiday (and yes, I am a little bit jealous). Let’s call her Y for brevity’s sake. Y is one of those travellers who has a guide book, is always prepared, is up for most anything and is basically a treat to travel with. Despite Y’s admirable organisational skills, however, she has asked me if I could do some research for her if I have the time. As I’m currently unemployed (someone please give me a job already!?), time is one thing I do have a lot of.

So I figured that if I’m going to be collating research for her trip, I may as well post it here just in case anyone else is interested. I have to just state at this point that I’ve only ever been to Hanoi and Halong Bay; I’ve never been to HCMC. The information below is solely based on research I’ve done. Hopefully, Y will give me some feedback later… maybe even write a guest post afterwards (hint, hint). This is all I have for now, but I’ll continue to add more over the next day or two.

 

GENERAL INFO

With nicknames like ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and ‘Paris of the East’, it’s hard not to expect quite a lot from Vietnam’s largest city and economic centre. The centre of this city formerly named Saigon is located along the banks of the Saigon River and is home to over 9 million people. The city was renamed after the eponymous late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in 1976 although many still refer to the city (especially the urban districts) as Saigon. Over 90% of Saigonese (local inhabitants) are ethnically Vietnamese and about 80% of Saigonese are Buddhist.

The climate is tropical and there are two seasons: the wet (May to November) and the dry (December to April). The average temperature is 28°C and the average humidity is about 75%. International banks in HCMC include ANZ and HSBC.

 

MUST SEE’s & MUST DO’s

Reunification Palace:

Location: 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street

Hours: open daily from 7:30am – 11:00am and then 1pm – 4pm

Price: Entry costs 15,000 VD and free tours are available

Info: Built between 1962 and 1966, the palace was formerly the presidential palace of South Vietnam. The tank sitting out front is a replica of the one that crashed into the gates during the war. A trip back to the kitschy 60’s awaits within.

Cu Chi Tunnels:

Location: 35km outside of HCMC (around an hour and a half away)

Hours: 9am – 5pm

Price: depends on the tour you take

Info: this incredible underground maze of tunnels was constructed as early as the 1940’s and used by the Viet Cong during the war. It provided them with shelter, somewhere to sleep, eat and work. There are traps throughout the tunnel that are still in place and that is reason enough for guided tours to be mandatory! The tunnels are over 250km long and stretch all the way to the Cambodian border. There is also a shooting range there where you can test your aim with a range of guns including AK47s, M16s and machine guns.

Giac Lam Pagoda

Location: 118 Lac Long Quan, District 11

Hours: 7:30am – 5pm

Price: Free, but donations are welcome.

Info: Supposedly the oldest pagoda (1744) in HCMC, the Buddhist Giac Lam Pagoda has gilded statues and a 32m tall stupa. Don’t know what a stupa is? Don’t worry, I didn’t either (click here). It is regarded as a minor pilgrimage site for Buddhists.

Ben Thanh Market

Location: District 1

Info: Saigon’s most famous market, but leave it till the evening/early evening when things really pick up and come alive with food stalls and much more.

Benh Tay Market

Location: Thap Muoi Street in Cholon, also known as Chinatown (district 6)

Info: Here at Saigon’s biggest market, you’ll be hassled much less than elsewhere as many vendors are wholesalers. Have a look nonetheless and maybe grab a bite to eat from one of the food stalls (on the right as you face the entrance).

 

Other markets: Saigon Square (Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, D1) – on offer are clever copies, dvds, shoes, clothes, you get the picture. Tan Dinh Market (Hai Ba Trung, D1) – come here to experience a genuine wet market where the locals shop. An Dong Plaza (Tran Phu st, D5) – cheaper than Ben Thanh, here you’ll find mainly shoes, clothing and fabric.

 

MUST EAT’s

Bânh mi: oh god, now I really am feeling the jealousy. Bânh mi is the most delectable sandwich. I swear. The bread is a hearty nod to the French baguette and the filling generally contains grilled pork, do chua, coriander, chilli and mayonnaise. Do yourself a favour and pop by a roadside stall for one. You simply must have one whilst in HCMC… if not two or three. You’ll thank me later.

Ngon Restaurant: located on Pasteur Street (District 1) – good, traditional Vietnamese fare.

Banh Xeo 46A: located at 46A D Dinh Cong Trang (District 3). They serve one dish and one delicious dish only: banh xeo (Vietnamese rice-flour crêpes filled with prawns, pork and bean sprouts).

 

TRAVEL & TRANSPORT

HCMC’s airport is called Tan Son Nhat International Airport (or Ho Chi Minh City Airport) and is located about 7km north of the city and takes about 20 minutes to get to. To get there from the city or to get to the city from the airport, you have a few options: metered cab (make sure it’s a reputable company like Vinasun or Mai Linh and that they turn the meter on!), minibus, cyclo (motorcycle taxis) or a bus (bus 152; cheapest option although apparently not the most punctual).

Cyclo: rates are around 36,000 VD per hour. Make sure to bargain with the driver and clearly agree on both the price per ride (not per person) and the destinations before getting on! Tipping is appreciated.

Scooters & Motorbikes: If you’re interested in travelling like so many of the locals do, why not rent a scooter or a motorbike? You can also pay a guide/driver to take you around whilst you hold on for dear life behind them. Either way make sure you get a helmet and that it’s a decent one.

City Look Bus: this tourist bus will take you to HCMC’s most famous sights. There is a guide and the information is given in English. The tour operates on a hop-on, hop-off system, so you can spend as much time as you want at whichever sights interest you. Buses are air-conditioned and come by every half an hour, tickets cost 75,000 VD and can be bought onboard and the tour runs from 8am to 5:30pm.

ONE FINAL PIECE OF ADVICE:

When crossing the road, just go for it. As Kevin Donnelly was told by his scooter driver, Tran, “Don’t ever stop, don’t rush and don’t look at the oncoming traffic. Walk confidently and like a water buffalo in the Mekong, the current will flow around you.” (The Australian, 2010)

N

SOURCES & FURTHER READING:

Donnelly, K., 2010. Chaos Theory in Ho Chi Minh City. The Australian, [online] April 24th 2010.

Wikipedia

Lonely Planet

Travel Fish

Bootsnall

Come and Go Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City Airport Guide

iFly (airport guide)


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