Happening Ho Chi Minh City

My first time in HCMC, Vietnam! When I visit a city, I like to rate it across some criteria which gives me a comparison. You can check other city reviews at the end of today’s post.

Ho Chi Minh officially replaced Saigon in 1976, after the Vietnamese leader who asserted independence from France in 1946. Saigon was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina from 1859 to 1945 and then the capital of the independent republic of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1975. Many of us associate Saigon with the long war in that region. Today the city, the largest in the country, is a vibrant metropolis and tourist hot spot.

All photos are by C Maneedul and for the reason why I am in a sling check out my January 20 post: Travel insurance Rocks!

Aesthetics: 7 out of 10
Most tourist activity takes place in District One, one of 24 districts across the city. This is essentially downtown Saigon.

The City isn’t as built up as say Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur but the city is going through a period of rapid development with construction sites everywhere. Modern buildings sit cheek to jowl with thatched shacks and Colonial structures. Street cleaners in bright orange uniforms keep elegant wide boulevards and footpaths spotlessly clean. There are many statues and parks that honour Vietnam’s past.

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The streets are busy, with motorbikes making up 70 per cent of the traffic. The rest are largely taxis and buses with a few private cars. The quality of the air is still good. There are pavement vendors selling food, clothes and souvenirs all across the city.

A lot of life takes place along and on the very pretty but very polluted Sai Gon river.

The suburbs are more dull with less greenery than the downtown area. Many new shopping completed are opening up across the city which may change city life.

Culture: 9/10

Saigon is considered to be one of the best street food cities in the world. Food (see Top Ten List below) is amazing.

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If you want to learn to cook, there are cooking classes all over the city. I must admit, I am too lazy and would prefer to get someone else to shop, prepare and cook! You can also learn to make rice paper, learn bonsai and how to give a massage!

HCMC has a great range of movie (Mua Ve) theatres, many of which show English and French films in their original languages with Vietnamese subtitles for $US3 to $US5 a ticket. Concerts, plays and other events take place year-round. The city has a good range of interesting museums (see below) and a fantastic Fine Arts Museum as well as smaller art galleries.

Karaoke is a national pastime, and we saw brightly coloured Karaoke signs everywhere! The Vietnamese take it very seriously. Alternatively, there are many places to listen to traditional and popular Vietnamese music.

 

Crime and Safety: 9/10

Ho Chi Minh is a very safe city with low crime rates. As tourism grows so does petty crime against tourists. . There are lots of warnings about the city all the time. it’s hard to know if the fear stories are fact or urban myths. There are rumours of bag snatching by people on motor bikes. We also heard tales of such thieves being set upon by locals and the goods being immediately returned, As per usual, be wise. Remember, the average Westerner earns 30 times the average Vietnamese person. Watch ostentatious jewellery, cameras and or having lots of money visible.

We heard dire warnings of being ripped off or not being given change. We found the opposite. People went out of their way to ensure we were properly charged and compensated.

The most amusing sight is that of westerners trying to cross the road. The traffic is crazy in HCMC but there is an almost musical way of crossing roads. Wait for a gap in car and bus traffic and walk at a steady pace from one side of the road to the other without stopping. Look BOTH ways. Cars sometimes drive on the wrong side of the road. Motorbikes veer around pedestrians. Having said that, the traffic fatality rate is very high when compared to European countries. Many cars lack seatbelts and driving is “very creative” at times. You may see a “Tourist Police Officer”. They provide directions, and help with crossing the road than helping with crime.

Key numbers are: 113 – Police, 114 – Fire and 115 – Ambulance/First Aid.

 

Liveability: 6.5/10

Eight million people call HCMC home. This is expected to grow to over 13 million in a decade. The city covers almost one per cent of the land surface of Vietnam. It is 102 (63 miles) long and 47 kilometres (29 miles) wide. Population density is 3,590 people per square kilometre (29,294 per sq mile). This is about the same as Los Angeles (3,176/km2), ten times more crowded than Sydney, and not as crowded as Bangkok ( 5,300/km2 ).

HCMC is a tropical city with a cooler dry season from December to April when temperatures may drop as ow as 16 degrees celsius (61 F) at night! May to November is the rainy season. All in all, it rains for 150 days a year! In July, August and September, you can count on rain most days.

The Economist rated HCMC 126 out of 140 of its most liveable cities in 2010. The cost of living in Vietnam is very low. Numbeo estimates that the cost of living is 45% that of living in New York City. Sample prices here.

 

Transport: 7/10

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There are over 130 local bus routes around the city. Many of the buses start and finish at the Ben Thanh bus station next to the market. Buses are air conditioned, have a driver and cost around 10 to 20 US cents a trip. People are very helpful. Bus 152 connects the airport and 149 the train station. Bus maps are posted at some (but not all) bus stops.

HCMC is building a metro system which will hopefully open around 2017.

Metered Taxis are an incredibly cheap transport option. The two best companies are Vinasun (white cars with red and green stripes) and Mailinh (green cars or white and green cars). They have unformed, knowledgable drivers who seem to drive calmly and effortlessly through the most unbelievable traffic chaos. You will sometimes see taxis with close approximations of these taxi companies. If the driver does not have a meter, does not have photo ID and does not start the meter, hop out. Many hotels have their own taxi companies contracted and these can be a little more expensive but usually very reliable.

Men standing by their motorbike at the roadside will ask you continually if you need transport. Saw many locals blithely hopping aboard and zooming through the streets. Not for the faint hearted but definitely cheap!

 

Vibe: 9/10

HCMC is a vibrant, exciting almost 24/7 city. You cannot get bored!

 

Overall Verdict: 85%

My 33rd favourite city in the world- just after Amsterdam!

 

Top Ten

1. Walk and Watch

Exploring on foot is easy, and a great way to observe city life. people, discover, and learn more about their culture. There is plenty to occupy you in district one and well worth the walk. Plus you can get a massage for your feet anytime (see below).

Relax and enjoy the ever changing panoramas from the workmen playing card games in the street to the granny serving soup to office workers sitting at low tables on the footpath.

For variety, take a taxi or bus to district 5- Chinese District of Cholon or go to the gentrifying District 8.

 

2. Shop

There are numerous small shops and some large boutique stores. The place to go is a Cho (Market). Cho Bến Thành located in District one, is the best known and busiest. It is an undercover market with narrow paths through tightly packed stalls selling everything: coffee, souvenirs, clothes, knock off handbags and watches (genuine Rolex-I give good price to you)

Cho Lon is a Chinese market which is more focussed on the locals. There are other smaller markets across the city, again with fewer tourists.

Wherever you go, people will call out to you: hello. What you like? What you buy? Whether browsing or buying, treat it as a game. Polite firm “nos” will stop shopkeepers grabbing you by the hand and taking you to show their wares. Bartering is the way of life in these markets. Prices will not appear on goods. Check out this brilliant guide to bargaining and enjoy it!

3. Eat

I love Vietnamese food anywhere but Vietnamese food in Vietnam is even more fabulous! The Vietnamese rely on fresh ingredients to produce delicious tastes. Saigon is considered to be one of the best street food cities in the world. We loved eating where we saw few tourists and lots of locals!

Eating well in HCMC is ridiculously cheap. Baguettes with fresh fillings including pate, meat and vegetables can be had for under $1. Pho soup will cost you not much more. You can buy them on street corners or at the two main chains Pho 24 and Pho 2000 (the Ben Thanh Market branch is where Bill Clinton ate his fill in 2010). Amazing Bakeries produce breads and cakes of a quality that exceed anywhere outside Paris!

 

4. Break for coffee

Photo 2013-12-28 17 57 30I had no idea that the Vietnamese are coffee freaks! Ca phe da (Black coffee with ice) is available nearly everywhere from small streetside vendors to coffee shop chains such as Trung Nguyen and Highlands. Condensed milk can be added, giving you coffee milk ice, or ca phe sua da or you can ask for fresh milk. Or go for my favourites- the iced coffees and chocolates!

All coffee shops seem to have some wifi so they make an ideal blogging break.

 

4. Massage

For more of a break, try a face and head and/or foot massage. Or a manicure/pedicure. Prices are ridiculously low but be warned. Quality can be mixed. Ask around for a good massage- and yes you can avoid the “special” massages by going to reputable places.

 

5. Colonial Grandeur

  • Hotel de Ville (City Hall)- built 1902-1908 , it is not open to the public. It is well worth looking at the outside day or night. A statue of Ho Chi Minh is found in the park opposite City Hill
  • Opera House or the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, built in 1897 and restored in 1995- seats 800
  • City Post Office – Designed by the Gustave Eiffel– elegant interior with a vaulted glass canopy ceiling – well worth seeing
  • Notre-Dame Cathedral– neo-Romanesque Cathedral built between 1877 and 1883. Two 40-metre (131 feet) high square towers tipped with iron spires dominate Ho Chi Minh’s government quarter. It had some very odd opening bours and the best times to see it were during mass.

6. ChuChi tunnels

Very popular with tourists, this 110km (75 mile) underground network of tunnels were built by the Viet Cong and used during the war to hide from the US. You will see traps set for American soldiers, and hidden entrances. A highlight, for many, is the opportunity to shoot an AK47. Many tour companies run excursions here.

7. Museum Musts: Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum and Fine Arts Husum

The Reunification palace was the main government building in Colonial and Independent Vietnam. on 30 April 1975, communist tanks crashed through the gates, symbolically marking the end of the Vietnamese war. Set in large parklands, its is an interesting way to spend an hour or two and get a glimpse of the history of Vietnam. The rooftop gives you a good vista over a part of the city. Check out the bunker rooms!

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The War Remnants Museum includes a very full on display of the victims of napalm bombings. War weapons and equipment plus pictures of protests against the war, all go to make up an interesting Vietnamese view of the war.

The Fine Arts museum was a relaxing meander in a lovely old mansion.

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Nb Opening hours are usually punctuated by a three hour lunch break.

 

8. Visit Your Tailor

For a few dollars, a tailor can whip up a suit, dress or shirt for you based on your design or a copy of more famous designs. Quality is generally good and the tailors take pride in their workmanship but ask around.

 

9. Parks and Gardens

Day and night the parks of Saigon provide an opportunity to rest and watch. Often tourists sitting in aorks will be politely accosted by students wanting to practice their English! This can be a very rewarding way to discover the city. Check out the small Zoo and Botanic Gardens or Central Park near Bến Thành Market.

10. Bitexco Financial Tower.

For its first year, this 68 storey 262.5 metres (861 ft) was the tallest building in Vietnam. It has now been relegated to second place. The building is the 124th tallest building in the world. Designed by Ecuadorian architect Carlos Zapata, the skyscraper’s unique shape comes from the Lotus flower (Vietnam’s national flower).

There is an observation deck but a faster and cheaper option is to go to Alto Heli Bar on the 52nd floor. Entry is free. At sunset, drinks are half price for happy hour. Well worth a relaxing hour.

 

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