Our journey from Seattle to Ho Chi Minh City took all of 24 hours. We live in a pretty damn amazing world, don’t we? I watched three Best Picture nominees, ate a couple in-flight meals, jogged across Seoul Incheon Airport to make our tight connection, and woke up as we landed in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest metro area and the country’s commercial and financial capital. Until 1976, it was known as Saigon, a name that’s still used colloquially in reference to the central districts of the city. Saigon isn’t at the top of every traveler’s must-see list for Southeast Asia, but it did happen to have the cheapest round-trip flights when we booked our travel a few months ago. Knowing we’d be spending the spring working our way all around the region, it wasn’t important to us where we started. Vietnam it was!
With the exception of one week east of the Bosphorus in Turkey, this was our first time setting foot on the Asian continent. As usual, we were eager for new adventures. Asia is always the region I read about as delivering true “culture shock” to western newbies. We didn’t find it to be quite that jarring, but it was definitely a week full of new experiences.
I can’t write a word more about HCMC without mentioning its most distinctive feature, the traffic. I can say this quite confidently: I’ve never seen anything like it.
Ninety years ago, Saigon had only 120,000 residents. Today, it’s 8.4 million. By 2025, it’s expected to be almost 14 million. This is what a giant city looks like with zero public transportation.
Practically everyone in HCMC travels by motorbike. All things considered, the flow of traffic is relatively orderly, but crossing the street is a true adventure. There’s no pedestrian right-of-way, per se. You just wade cautiously yet confidently into oncoming traffic, letting the river of scooters weave its way around you – then flip your attention to the other direction as soon as you reach that double-yellow line.
HCMC is not a city where one goes for a relaxing stroll. Sidewalks, where they exist at all, change height and width every few meters. Many are completely blocked by parked motorbikes or restaurant seating. When you happen upon a less crowded block, you’d better still keep your guard up, lest you get run over by a motorbike riding on the sidewalk. Much of the time, it’s easier to just walk in the street.
Then there’s the honking. My god, the honking. New York, Bangkok, Istanbul… they all feel like quiet little oases compared to the noisy streets of HCMC. I have to assume that the Vietnamese driving manual includes a page like this:
In spite of the traffic insanity, you can get a good feel for the city in just a few hours’ walk. Major attractions include the Museum of Vietnamese History, with its artifacts from centuries past; the War Remnants Museum, a photo gallery documenting the Vietnam War; and the Independence Palace, site of the famous tank photos from the fall of Saigon. Of course, it’s not called the “fall” here; it’s the “liberation.”
It was fascinating to see Vietnam War history from a local perspective. I’ve always been intrigued by that period of American history. It was the world’s first televised war, concurrent with a great generation of music, protest, and counterculture. It was also the war of my parents’ generation. My dad had a draft number, though he was thankfully never called. Three of my aunt’s good friends were killed in action. When we spoke with my family about our trip, they both indicated hesitation about visiting, describing what a weird feeling it would be to set foot in a place with that personal history.
We enjoyed the War Relics Museum, which provides a compelling account of the horrors of the war and the atrocities perpetuated against Vietnamese civilians. The Vietnamese narrative focuses on the country’s liberation from centuries of colonialism and their victory over American imperialism. Another section captures the tragic outcomes of the liberal use of Agent Orange, which is still causing deformities and birth defects decades later.
We made two day trips from HCMC, both with a tour company called Kim Travel. The first took us about two hours north of the city to Củ Chi, home to the famous network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong throughout the war and as a base of operations during the Tet Offensive. Unfortunately, we found the site to be supremely disappointing. In spite of the interesting history, there’s just not that much to see. Only a small section of tunnel is open to tourists, not that you’d want to spend hours crawling through them anyway.
We enjoyed our second trip, to the Mekong Delta, a lot more. We were escorted by boat around the river, ate and drank some local specialties, and enjoyed a bike ride around one of the islands. It was a definite tourist experience devoid of any meaningful local connections, but it was still great to see a less urban region of Vietnam. We wished we could have spent a night or two in one of the smaller towns in the area.
The best street food in Ho Chi Minh City
That’s all great, but what about the food???
Perhaps the greatest joy of our week in HCMC was the opportunity to sample as many delicious dishes as possible. We’ve written about how much we love dining out, and it’s even more true when we get to eat authentic foreign food that we can’t find at home. The less familiar, the better!
Street food and casual restaurants in Saigon are extremely affordable, with dishes rarely exceeding 50,000 Vietnamese Dong (~$2 US). It took us a few days to get used to eating hot soups in 38°C (100°F) weather, but that’s what the locals do!
We used Jodi Ettenberg’s fantastic guide to the city to figure out what to order and where to find it. Most everything we tried was delicious, even if we couldn’t always identify everything we were eating. Vietnam would be a challenging place to have a fish or shellfish allergy (there’s fish sauce and shrimp in everything) but a great place to be gluten-free. Most everything is rice-based rather than wheat-based.
One of our very favorites was bún mắm, a vermicelli soup made with fermented fish broth, shrimp, and pork belly. It’s thick, a little sweet, and insanely delicious. Other highlights included vermicelli bowls, sticky rice cakes, and the classic phở and bánh mì.
We’ll share a full breakdown of our expenses in Southeast Asia once we’re home from our trip, but here’s a quick snapshot of typical expenses in Ho Chi Minh City:
- Modest hotel with good reviews in central location: 450k VND ($20 US)
- Entree, street vendor: 20-50k VND ($1-2 US)
- Entree, casual sit-down restaurant: 40-60k VND ($2-3 US)
- 12 oz. beer, national brand lager: 40k VND ($2 US)
- 30-minute Grab or Uber ride (affiliate links): 90k VND ($4 US) for a car; less if you ride on the back of a motorbike!
USD figures are based on the April 2017 exchange rate of $1 US to ~22,600 Vietnamese Dong.
Our first week in Vietnam was intense, exciting, and fun. We’ll be back to tour the rest of the country in June and July. Until then, we’re off to explore other parts of Southeast Asia. Next stop, Thailand.