After spending a few days in the cool, relaxed town of Dalat, our next stop in Ho Chi Minh City couldn’t have been more different. Vietnam’s former capital has an amazing ability to be laid back among a sea of motorbikes and people wherever you look. If HCMC is your first or last stop in Vietnam, it will be exactly what you’re looking for to begin or end a trip in this unique country.
Getting to HCMC:
HCMC is well connected and it’s commonly the start or end point of the North-South backpacker route, so therefore it’s easy to get a coach from many locations. We arrived from Dalat on a overnight sleeper-coach, but we were dropped off earlier than expected in the middle of the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker district at 4am. After the experience of wearily hiding in a McDonalds until the morning, I’d advise against a Dalat-HCMC overnight journey.
Check out my blog from Dalat here!
Where to Stay:
Luckily, the Pham Ngu Lao district where we were dropped off is also the backpacker area, with many affordable hostels and guesthouses. I’d recommend booking ahead to ensure a good-quality place to stay, and avoid walking from hostel to hostel looking for the best deal.
What to do:
HCMC provides plenty of opportunities to see the effect that the infamous US war and communist rule had on Vietnam. Near the city’s Municipal Theatre is a statue of former leader Ho Chi Minh, which was surrounded by Vietnamese tourists whenever we passed it (the joining DL Nguyen Hue was a really nice place to people watch too!).
We started our trip by visiting the War Remnants Museum (15,000VND entry). The museum is a tough visit at times, but it’s important to see the impact the war had on the country. Make sure to visit the brutally honest photography exhibition on the top floor. It is quite graphic and personal, but this puts the conflict on the ground into perspective from both sides.
We also visited the Reunification Palace (30,000VND entry). The palace is the former home of the Communist government which was overthrown by Northern Vietnam forces in 1975. Since then, it has remained untouched and visitors can walk around the maze in the 1960’s-style building. There are a lot of bright colours, and there’s evidence of a quick exit of government officials when tanks crashed through the gates. I especially enjoyed the underground bunker and 70’s equipment in planning rooms.
A popular excursion from HCMC is the Chu Chi Tunnels complex. Day tours are common, but do your research as we chose a very un-organised tour company! The tunnels were a symbol of Vietnamese resistance to the Americans, and once secretly linked Saigon to the Cambodian Border. Guides will show you the tiny claustrophobic tunnels used by the Viet Kong (which are actually enlarged for Westerners!), the various booby traps used, and many odd life-size models of the Viet Kong living. Throughout the site, the sound of the tourist shooting range through the trees is probably the most realistic reminder of what the Viet Kong were living with at the time.
Somewhere in the Chu Chi experience is an impressive feat of resistance, but the site would be much more effective without the gimicky models and dated propaganda videos – it’s a very different approach to the effective and thought-provoking feel of other sites and museums addressing the effects of the war. Still, the site is worth a visit to see the extent the Viet Kong went to to outwit the Americans, but just be prepared to look past a lot of needless pro-Vietnam exhibits that sometimes take away from the historical site.
Another, more upbeat, excursion from HCMC is the beautiful-looking Mekong Delta. We spoke to people who had rave reviews of the area, and I wish we’d had a couple more days to explore the region. As soon as I’m back in Vietnam, the Mekong Delta will be the first place to start.
Back in HCMC, the city is home to a huge Ben Tanh Market is worth a visit, with a mix of tourist stalls, street food, and everyday items. Like in the rest of the city, watch out for pick-pockets. We didn’t see any sign of this, but warnings were everywhere from signs in hostels, to guidebooks, and locals.
Eating and Drinking:
Finding somewhere to eat in HCMC is not a problem, and unlike more rural towns there is a strong representation of Western chains for anyone seeking home comforts.
For our last night in HCMC (and Vietnam as a whole) we made ourselves look semi-respectable after 5 weeks of travelling and spent an evening in the sky bar of the Bitexco Tower skyscraper. Drinks are understandably more expensive than on the street, but with free entry (just ask for directions to the top at the bottom of the tower), I’d thoroughly recommend treating yourself to a Saigon Beer or cocktail while watching the Saigon sunset over the city. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend our last night in Vietnam.
Onwards travel to Cambodia, the Mekong Delta, and Northern Vietnam is easy and frequent. There are plenty of travel agents, especially in the backpacker areas, and hostels are always good choices to help.
After HCMC, we left Vietnam for Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. The moment we crossed the border it was clear we were in a different environment all together.
Check out my blog on Phnom Penh here, and look at my ‘Top 5’ Highlights blog‘Top 5’ Highlights blog where I look at the best places we visited, stayed, ate and drank over the course of our incredible seven weeks exploring South East Asia.