Ho Chi Minh has to be one of my favourite cities in South East Asia. It has the perfect balance of chaos and ease to navigate. It’s one of those cities that every time you go back you will spend an equal portion of time between visiting your favourite hang-outs and discovering new ones – normally purely by chance. So here are my top three things to do in HCM…
1. Pho glorious Pho
I love Asian food but I’ve never quite gotten to that stage where I can bring myself to eat rice, noodles or soup for breakfast. With one exception, HCM Pho. I can Pho for breakfast, Pho for lunch and still have room for Pho in the evening. But I love all food in HCM I’ve a simple rule: the cheaper the better! Why? Simple, HCM has the best street food you will find in SE Asia. So pull up a plastic stall and join the locals. I can’t guarantee you’ll always know what you’re eating… but I can promise it will be fresh, authentic and served with a smile.
For first timers, try the multiple food stalls which litter the side streets around Ben Thanh market. Here Western expats and tourists seemingly blend in with local Vietnamese families having their evening meal. Beer is cheap, some English is normally spoken and your meal should cost no more than a few dollars (not that you’ll ever see a price list!)
If you’re eating on the go, make sure you try a Vietnamese baguette (Banh Mi). Delicious freshly baked bread, introduced by the French during the colonial period, with lashings of pate, pickles, ham or chicken, cheese, eggs, salad and garnished with coriander. The baguettes are always made to order normally starting with the street vendor re-heating the bread in a little oven and then stuffing it with your choice of fillings.
For those wanting something a little more formal, try Cục Gạch Quán or Lemongrass. In both establishments you may be surprised by just how much the prices have jumped from your street Pho but the flavours and experience are well worth the extra dollars.
2. Follow the journalists
Vietnam has a tragic and troubling history most recently with the Vietnam war. A trip to Ho Chi Minh wouldn’t be right without taking some time to understand the trauma that the country has suffered.
During the Vietnam war many journalists were stationed in HCM capturing the war in photos and reporting back to their home countries. If you have a day to spare in HCM then why not follow the journalists for a day.
Take a trip to the War Remnants Museum in District Three. Here you can discover the war through the eyes (lens) of Bun yo Ishikawa a Japanese journalist. In the late 1990’s Ishikawa donated approximately 250 photos to the War Remnants Museum. They are now displayed in a permanent collection along with other photos and stories from journalists covering the war.
The photos are often graphic and they, along with the other artifacts and exhibitions in the museum, often lead visitors to conclude the museum gives a distorted view of the war or even that the museum is anti-American. I will let you each reach your own conclusion on whether the museum is bias but few people deny that it is a though provoking, sometimes shocking but ultimately unmissable museum.
Hint: Check with your hotel reception on opening hours, regardless of what the website says they like to open and close at strange hours on random days!
A favourite way of passing time in Ho Chi Minh is exploring Le Cong Kieu Street. Here lies a strange collection of small antique stores selling mainly old war remnants in particular cameras, photos and small items belonging to soldiers. Anyone with a keen interest in history or photography can find themselves losing many an hour here. The sheer collection of antique cameras will always have me coming back. Some of the antiques may be questionable or overpriced but you never know what you may find and therein lies the greatest pleasure.
No day following the journalists would be complete without a sunset drink at the THE REX HOTEL – Rooftop Garden Bar. During the war this bar was a poular hangout for journalist who would discretely meet here to discuss the key stories of the day whilst enjoying the stunning views.
3. Send a postcard
Before you go home make sure you stop by the old post office and send a postcard. Not only will your friends and family appreciate the gesture but you’ll be privileged to see one of the most beautiful original buildings in HCM.
Hints and Tips:
– HCM is a very safe city but like any other place there are pick-pockets so do keep an eye on your belongings especially if taking a bicycle ride.
– Visas: The only thing I hate about Vietnam! Vietnam does not allow visa on arrival (unless you have an ASEAN passport). You have two options for getting a visa 1) From the Vietnam embassy in your home country 2) A pre-approval on-line from one of the many companies (Google). Please note this is not a visa – it only allows you to board the plane. When you arrive you need to hand in this form along with an application form and a photo with your passport for your visa to be processed.
At HCM airport there is zero order or planning here so depending on the number of flights this process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours. My recommendation would be save time (and money – you don’t pay the agents fee) by getting the visa in advance