Ho Chi Minh: The beating pulse of Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City Hall | Photo credit: Lyn Gateley

Ho Chi Minh City, located in the south eastern region of Vietnam and 1,760 kilometres south of Hanoi, is the largest city in Vietnam and was the capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). As the throbbing commercial heart of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is always in a hurry, and the heat, noise and crowds can be overwhelming. But don’t give up: Ho Chi Minh City, (commonly known by the abbreviation HCMC) rewards patient visitors with a fascinating glimpse of Vietnam — as it was, is, and will be.

As the 13th most populous country in the world, it’s not surprising the streets of Vietnam are choc-a-block with cars, people, motorcycles, scooters and cyclists. And as the country’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City– still called Saigon by many – is no exception. The streets of this bustling, 24/7 city really are something else. Just try to cross one on foot and you’ll soon see what we mean, as a seemingly impenetrable wall of two-wheelers heads straight at you.

But once you reach the safety of the other side, no doubt with your heart in your mouth, there’s plenty of time to stop and soak up the atmosphere of this unusual place as life carries on around you. And life here is fascinating.

Much of the city’s life is lived on the streets and it’s not unusual to see people eating, drinking and sitting around on plastic stools as if they were in their kitchen. And quite often they are – complete with swinging light bulbs overhead and an assortment of steaming pots laid out in front of them, full of delectable pho and other delicious local dishes.

But although the people are a fascinating part of the colourful canvas that is HCMC, there are also plenty of beautiful French colonial buildings, narrow Vietnamese shophouses, and ornate temples and pagodas to satisfy the camera of any sightseer. So steel your nerves, watch for a gap in the traffic and plunge straight in for an unforgettable experience.

Did You Know?

  • The city was known by its original Khmer inhabitants as Prey Nokor. Prey Nokor means
    “forest”, or “wood” in Khmer. After Prey Nokor was settled by Vietnamese refugees
    from the north, in time it became known as Sài Gòn. Immediately after the communist
    takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, a provisional government renamed the city
    after Ho Chi Minh, the former North Vietnamese leader. The official name is now
    Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, abbreviated to Tp. HCM. In English this is translated as
    Ho Chi Minh City, abbreviated HCMC, and in French it is translated as Hô Chi Minh Ville.
  • The city was once known as the ‘Paris of the Orient’ due to the classical French-inspired architecture that sprang up during the colonial era.
  • Ho Chi Minh City is the most important economic centre in Vietnam as it accounts for a high proportion of Vietnam’s economy. There are some 300,000 businesses, 6 daily newspapers and several television and radio stations.
  • About 20 banks have offices in the area of Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Nguyen Cong Tru, Ben Chuong Duong, Ton That Dam, Ho Tung Mau and Ham Nghi streets in District 1. This is considered the financial centre or “Wall Street” of HCM City. The HCM City Securities Trading Center, Vietnam’s first stock market is also in this area.
  • The daily English newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City is the Vietnam News

How to Get Here  

Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) is the largest airport in Vietnam. It is located 6 km north of the centre (District 1) of Ho Chi Minh City.

Getting from Ho Chi Minh City Airport into the city couldn’t be easier thanks to the official taxi service operating from a desk straight ahead of you as you enter the arrivals area. Simply pay for a ticket at the desk and you’ll be lead to a waiting taxi outside.

Most hotels will send a driver to collect you if you contact them in advance. This offers peace of mind during a long haul flight knowing that life will be easy on arrival. There is also a regular airport bus into the city.

Vietnamese Dong

The dong is the currency of Vietnam. ATMs frequently offer 2 million dong withdrawals. This takes some getting used to. You will learn to count zeros backward from right to left to determine if you are holding a 1,000 or 10,000 dong note in your hand. U.S. dollars are accepted in most locations, but you’ll have a better time negotiating a good price if you stick to the dong.

The easiest way to obtain local currency is through ATMs, which are found throughout the country in towns and cities. ATMs only dispense dong, never U.S. dollars. Banks and better hotels also offer exchange services, but the rates won’t be as favourable.

For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.

All major credit cards can be used in more upscale locations but are rarely accepted in smaller shops and restaurants. Credit card transactions may incur a surcharge on the purchase price. As ATMs become more widespread, traveler’s cheques are becoming less negotiable and may be subject to a surcharge where they are accepted.

Do spend down all your dong before leaving Vietnam, because dong cannot be converted back into American or Canadian currency, nor is it possible to exchange dong for the currency of any neighbouring countries.

Do not change money on the street.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

Ho Chi Minh City is in the tropics, and very close to the sea, so its climate is steadily warm to hot all year round. The region has a distinct dry season (November to April) and wet season (May to October). Average temperatures range between 25 and 30c. During wet months, heavy and short downpours may occur in mid-afternoons.

Getting Around

Cyclo drivers wait for a fare | Photo credit: Flickr user amrufm

A favourite choice of visitors, aside from walking short distances to attractions close by, is to take a ride in a cyclo. These three-wheelers, one wheel at the back and two at the front with a seat (yours) in between, are everywhere and may be pedalled by ex-soldiers who were unlucky enough to fight for South Vietnam during the war. Cyclos are a great way to see the city – if a little terrifying when you’re in the front seat and faced with several rows of traffic heading straight at you – as the drivers know every inch of the city. Most of them speak fairly good English and can provide a running commentary about the sights you are passing. There is a tendency to overcharge tourists, or add a few extra dong on to the fare, so confirm the price before you board, and remain firm at the end of your trip. You can hire cyclos for short journeys or by the hour.

Motorbike taxis are another exhilarating (translate – breathtaking) way to see the city. You hop on as a pillion passenger and your driver zooms off into the throng of traffic, with you clinging on for dear life. Fares are similar to cyclos, but motor taxis are a lot quicker. You can usually find them around street corners shouting, “Moto? Moto?” as they wait for a fare. Make sure the driver has a spare helmet for you or you could get fined by the police.

There is a public bus service in HCMC, but it has only recently been invested by government. The intent is to reduce the cyclos traffic – they’re seen as a slow-moving nuisance on busy roads. A fleet of bright green buses now run along several routes – but ask at your hotel for advice. A good choice for visitors is the City Look bus. Modern, air-conditioned buses travel between eleven points of interest around the city, and a loudspeaker gives a brief run-down of each as you arrive. Buses set off from Pham Ngu Lao Street in the Backpacker Quarter.

Taxis are a familiar sight on the streets of HCMC – flag one in the street or ask your hotel to order a taxi for you. Several companies service the city, and they’re relatively inexpensive. They’re probably the best way to travel if the waves of traffic might cause you a breath-taking moment. Only ever get into a licensed taxi.

International driving licences are not yet accepted in Vietnam, so hiring a car may not always be possible. Many people hire a car with a driver, which is inexpensive, especially if there are a few of you.

What not to miss …

World Heritage Site(s)

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. Currently, there are five World Heritage Sites in Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City is glorified with temples and pagodas, but one of the oldest is the Giac Lam Pagoda. It dates from 1744 and remains relatively unchanged from when it was first built. The compound is a place of great serenity and is home to a handful of monks. Ornate tombs, gilded figures and exquisite decorations both inside and out make this a memorable visit.

About 65 kilometres northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi Tunnels are an elaborate underground community made up of over 320 kilometres of tunnels and chambers below the city. The tunnels were dug with simple tools and bare hands in the 1940s, during the French occupation, and further expanded during the Vietnam War in the 1960s as a base for guerrilla operations against the Americans and South Vietnamese. Despite intensive American bombardments in the area, the people of Cu Chi were able to continue their lives beneath the soil, where they slept, ate, planned, healed their sick, and taught their young. Some even wed and gave birth underground. Multiple agencies in Ho Chi Minh City offer tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Be prepared to get dirty if you want to crawl through the tunnels yourself.

The Mekong Delta, known in Vietnamese as the “Nine Dragon River Delta,” is the primary waterway of southern Vietnam and the centre of the country’s rice production. If you’re seeking one of the iconic images of Vietnam-women in their conical hats tending emerald green rice paddies, you’ll find it here. Boat tours are available with an almost infinite variety of itineraries: afternoon cruises, overnight trips, or 2-3 days tours, which can be particularly rewarding. It’s even possible to sail to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Ho Chi Minh Museum This museum, housed in a French colonial-era building on the Saigon River, tells the life story of the father of modern Vietnam. The site is important as well for being the place where the young Ho Chi Minh first set sail for Europe in the early 20th century.

Reunification Palace, built between 1962 and 1966, is a frozen-in-time look at the home of the president of South Vietnam at the time Saigon fell to the North on April 30, 1975. A replica of tank #843, which crashed through the gates of the palace that day, now rests on the lawn outside. Be sure to see the impressively kitschy recreation room, featuring a circular sofa, and the eerie basement, full of vintage 1960s phones, radios and office equipment, supposedly left exactly as they were found when the North took over. A film about the North’s victory runs continuously in various languages. Tours are available and free, but are not necessary. There is a nice café on the grounds outside the palace.

Whether you’re interested in the history of the Vietnam War or not, the War Remnants Museum is a must. Formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, it is a heartbreaking reminder of what wars do to civilians. Exhibits show – graphically – the effects of measures used during the war, so be prepared. A sobering place, it’s an interesting, educational experience – albeit strictly one-sided.

City Hall Built between 1902 and 1908 as the Hôtel de Ville, this striking cream and yellow French colonial building, now formally known as the People’s Committee Hall, is beautifully floodlit at night.

Notre-Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh| Photo credit: Torsten Ståhlberg

Notre Dame Cathedral This neo-Romanesque edifice, a towering reminder of French rule, was built between 1877 and 1883 with imported bricks and stained glass from France. Note that it’s open only on Sundays for services, which are in English and Vietnamese.

The Fine Arts Museum is interesting if art’s your thing, but don’t expect the types and sizes of collections you’d find in other such museums or galleries elsewhere around the world. Here you’ll see a strange mix of politically correct art, contemporary pieces by local and international artists, and an older collection that focuses on the resistance to colonial rulers over the years. Even if the exhibits don’t appeal to you, the building is worth a photo.

One of the most beautiful buildings in HCMC houses the Museum of Vietnamese History. Built in 1929, it contains more than 30,000 artefacts and relics that tell the story of the country’s historical and cultural past dating back to the Bronze Age. The Botanical Gardens are nearby, as is the ornate Temple of King Hung Vuong.

Cholon is the thriving warren of streets comprising the Chinese district of Saigon, first settled by the Chinese Hoa merchants at the end of the 18th century, and now home to the biggest ethnic minority community in the country. The difference in environment is immediately noticeable. The cluster of Chinese-signed streets is a fascinating labyrinth of temples, restaurants, exotic stores, medicine shops and markets. The best place to experience the bustle of trade is at the crowded Binh Tay Market where the corridors are filled with stalls offering a variety of exotic produce, from live tethered ducks to nuts and seeds, as well as other household items. There are several temples of interest in Cholon, including the colourful Emperor of Jade Temple, the Quan Am Pagoda with its ornate exterior, Phuoc An Hoi Quan Temple, its roof exquisitely ornamented with dragons and sea monsters, and the Thien Hau Pagoda dedicated to the goddess of the sea.

For the kids …

A water puppet show is a must if you’re in Vietnam. This ancient tradition dates back to the 10th century and it’s not just for kids. Shows – which feature large wooden puppets – tell stories of daily life in rural Vietnam, and act out legends and festivals. The puppets ‘perform’ on water, accompanied by music and singing from the hidden musicians and puppeteers. It’s more famous in the north, but shows are held in HCMC at the Ho Chi Minh City Puppet Band in District 3.

Binh Quoi Tourist Village is located 8 km out of town and is popular with families thanks to its many amusements including boat rides, a swimming pool and tennis courts. It was built to resemble a traditional village, with thatched cottages, lotus ponds, and lanterns strung between clusters of bamboo hedges. The village stages cultural shows, along with traditional weddings, folk music performances, dancing and water puppet shows. You can actually stay here. The kids will love sleeping in an overwater bungalow on stilts.

Water parks are a favourite with adults and children alike in HCMC’s humid weather. There are a few dotted around the city, with one of the most popular being the Dam Sen Water Park. Here you’ll find exciting rides like Black Thunder, Kamikaze, Tornado and Crazy River, along with children’s pools, giant slides, a wave pool and waterfalls.

About Shopping

Street market vendor | Photo credit: Kevin Miller

So far, Starbucks has not conquered Ho Chi Minh City. Or any other worldly emporiums. So what you see is what you get, and it can ‘get’ quite interesting.

There are some areas in the city that can be designated as shopping zones, namely Dong Khai and Le Thanh Ton at the back of Rex Hotel. Items displayed in the shops include amber, ceramics, antiques, jewellry, furniture, silk and apparel. Items such as boxes and vases made from lacquer ware are very popular.

Ben Thanh Market is the largest old-style market in the central district, with several hundred small stalls stuffed with goods on almost impassably narrow aisles. As a result of its popularity with visitors, the market is now divided about half and half between tourist goods and the stuff of regular life (fruit and vegetables, rice, kitchen wares, flowers, meat, fast food, and local-style pickled fruits and candies). Most items are not price-marked, and vendors always quote a 50-100% higher price to tourists, so to save some money prepare to haggle.

Shopping in Vietnam is a fun and (always) interesting experience. It is true to say that you can find nearly anything in Vietnam. Shops vary from high class shopping malls to boutiques, galleries and street stalls.

It is not recommended that you buy imported, famous branded products such as clothing, perfume or electronics in Vietnam as taxes make these items more costly than in neighbouring countries.

Vietnam is most famous for its handicrafts, war souvenirs, authentic clothing, art, antiques and gems.

Vietnam has very strict regulations about exporting real antiques. Most “antique” and art pieces sold to visitors are fake or copies of the original. Be careful and check your sources for certificates.

Clothing varies greatly from beaded handbags to traditional ao dai (the traditional costume) made to fit your size. Items made from silk are a popular buy, with prices varying depending on the material and tailor. Pre-made traditional dresses are sold in many places. However, it is recommended to have a dress made to fit, which takes more time and slightly more money.

Shoes, slippers and handbags made from traditional materials (silk and bamboo) are also popular.

The Vietnamese traditional conical hat can be found everywhere throughout the country, but hats made in Hue are most famous as they have a poem embroidered on the inside.

Vietnam is rich in gemstones. Sophisticated works are produced by both large jewellers and traditional craftsmen. The quality of the gemstones sold is sometimes doubtful, so it is recommended that you buy gems at well known establishments, and be wary of “if it sounds too cheap …”

Most war souvenirs sold today in Vietnam (for example, Zippo lighters engraved with platoon philosophy) are fake reproductions. Be careful while transporting these items as many airlines do not allow weapons, even fakes to be carried on board.

Popular handicrafts in Vietnam include lacquer ware, wood-block prints, and oil and watercolour paintings, blinds made from bamboo, reed mats, carpets, and leatherwork.

It is popular in Vietnam and thus convenient for visitors for a whole street or district to sell the same products. For example, Hanoi has entire streets selling only shoes, silk, or earrings. So, take your time browsing these places and compare the products and prices.

Many villages in Vietnam are famous for producing a distinct kind of handicraft and it is interesting to visit these villages and buy the items at source, and probably at a better price.

Hoi An is the best place for having clothes/shoes made while Hue cannot be missed if you want an Ao Dai.

Remember to bargain. A growing amount of galleries and shopping centres have prices labelled on the products and do not allow bargaining. This does not mean that these centres offer the best price and many times a lower price can be obtained for the same product elsewhere, through bargaining.

If the price is given to you by word of mouth, it is always necessary to bargain. Shop sellers, especially at tourist attractions, may raise the price from 2-5 times to what the product is actually worth. Early morning is especially not a good time to haggle, as you might be one of the first customers, and shopkeepers might become cranky if you set a bad start to their business day. There is no definite rule on how to bargain and what price a product may ultimately sell at, so smile and try.

Ho Chi Minh after dark …

There are plenty of choices for evening entertainment in HCMC. On almost any given night, you can hear classical music performances at the Conservatory of Music, see music shows at the Lan Anh Music Stage, or watch a Vietnamese dance and ballet at the beautiful Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theatre.

Eating in HCMC is an art. Whether you dine at an upmarket restaurant with polished silverware or squat on a low stool and slurp from a plastic bowl alongside locals, you won’t be disappointed … Cuisines from around the world are on offer throughout the city, and there are a few excellent French restaurants thanks to the city’s colonial past. For an interesting dining experience have dinner at/on one of the floating restaurants. These large vessels serve Vietnamese and Western foods, and dinner is accompanied by a show of some sort as you cruise along the Saigon River past the twinkling lights of the city.

When Vietnam opened its doors to the world in the 1990s, HCMC was the first to get the party started. It’s still going strong, and the bars and lounges here only tend to close when the last customer leaves. Most of the action is found in District 1, where you’ll see plenty of bars and clubs full of locals and visitors alike. As we mentioned before, much of HCMC life is lived on the streets, and drinking is no exception when you visit the bia hoi stands. These outdoor side-street beer stalls involve you pulling up a stool and enjoying a pitcher at a fraction of the price you may pay elsewhere. With HCMC’s balmy nights, al fresco is often the best way to enjoy dinner and a drink.

Local Customs and Etiquette

Landing in Ho Chi Minh City may come as a ‘bit’ of a shock to the system. The city is a big and chaotic metropolis. And chances are you are going to meet people from various cultures, and walks of life … and knowing a little of the ways and means of the locales will demonstrate your respect …

It’s vital to remember that Vietnam – and Asia in general – is all about ‘Face’. Face relates to prestige, and losing Face is a big no-no in Vietnamese culture. This affects visitors by causing locals to become unresponsive and unhelpful if you start to kick up a fuss about something. Even if someone has blatantly ripped you off, the proper way to deal with it is in a firm, friendly manner. If you get angry you will ‘lose face’. Smiling goes a long way, especially when language is a barrier, and your success in dealing with Vietnamese will hinge on the amount of respect you show. This is especially true when dealing with officials.

Another useful thing to know about Asian culture is the importance placed on heads and feet. Symbolically a person’s head is their highest point – so never touch or pat it, and always remove your hat when speaking to someone older than you. Similarly, feet are seen as lowly things. Never point the bottom of your feet at anyone as it’s considered rude, and never, ever point your feet towards a sacred Buddhist figure or shrine, whether in someone’s home or in a temple or pagoda. If you’re invited into someone’s home, always remove your shoes at the door.

Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are frowned upon, and women should dress quite conservatively – avoid short shorts and skirts, especially if you are visiting a religious place. Covered shoulders are also the norm.

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