Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as its still known locally, was a pleasant surprise. Wide, tree lined streets with ample pavements/ sidewalks – a treat in Asia, even if still shared with motorbikes. The city is undergoing lots of development; with old buildings like the Opera house being restored, and new initiatives like a metro system – I look forward to coming back to see this.
Update: with the rise of UBER and GRAB, getting taxis has become a whole lot easier, cheaper and safer. Get a SIM card as soon as you arrive at the airport (180 – 220,000/ under $9 – Nov 2017) for unlimited data/ month package. Then book an UBER into town. This will be less than a one way trip arranged any other way – so effectively the SIM is almost free. Uber fare to the city was about 67,000, quoted fees were in the region of 220,000, plus of course you have data usage during your stay.
A good place to stay is around Ben Thanh market as this sits between the upmarket shopping area and the more touristy area near Bui Ven St – in fact you will be able to walk to many places easily.
Couple of restaurant recommendations:
Cyclo Resto – slightly tricky to find, but well worth it. They have a set menu with traditional Vietnamese dishes, about $6 without drinks. Very good, I enjoyed this place.
Nha Hang Ngon – gets mixed reviews, but generally good and always busy, extensive menu, but service can be erratic.
Chill Sky Bar – there are a few sky bars in Saigon, but this one is fairly central so gives a good view, drinks are expensive but they have a happy hour with most regular drinks featured. As befits somewhere ‘fashionable’ they have a lot of reserved tables – which are not quite as reserved as they might seem… and can be freed up if you buy a bottle.
The Bitexco tower is the tallest building in Saigon and so affords excellent views (the one with the helipad near the top). There is a viewing platform/ observation desk on the 49th floor, and access to this is via a special entrance outside the building where you can buy tickets. But… if you enter the main reception area of the building and ask to go to the EON bar, you will be whisked up to the 52nd floor where you can buy a drink and sit and watch the view for a while – the cost is about the same as the observation deck.
XO run several tours around town, we did the ‘Foodie Tour’ which takes you to some lesser visited parts and to about 5 restaurants, all food and drink included. Its not for the fainthearted as the tour is on motorbikes, in Saigon traffic! but the drivers are great and there is supporting security – so you are well looked after. Its great fun and very informative – highly recommended.
Saigon is a good base to make a few outside trips, the 2 below are amongst the most popular. A warning tho; trips can be a good way to see things, with a guide and at a reasonable price – the downside is the number of fellow travellers with you. On the Cu Chi Tunnel trip we were picked up at 8.00 am, and at 9.30 were still circling the vicinity of the hotel picking other people up, on the Mekong trip I paid a bit more for a smaller group which made the day much more pleasant – more doing things than driving round Saigon traffic jams.
Cu Chi Tunnels
These are the tunnels used by the Vietcong to hide from and attack US forces, especially during the 1968 Tet Offensive. There are some 120km of tunnels and you will get to see a small part of the network – which was originally on 3 levels. Thousands of people lived in the network – a city really – and conditions were grim, with disease rampant.
You don’t have to enter the tunnels to get something out of a visit, as the above ground mock ups and demonstrations are quite good. There is also a gun range, where you can fire an AK47 if you so wish, the sound of those doing so adds to the atmosphere of the jungle setting. There is a 100 m section of the tunnels that have been widened and made taller for visitors to try – if you wish, There are ‘escape’ points every 10 m, and its hotter than hell down there.
This is a large area so I guess there are lots of places you can be taken, but a sample visit will probably include a boat ride, cycling through villages, lunch and some craft activities; we were taken to a brick factory (more interesting than it sounds), a rush mat weaving place, a candy factory (sweets from Palm sugar) and some local hooch production.
This kind of trip definitely benefits from a small group size, whilst not exactly off the beaten track, you can get in to areas that they could not access with large numbers.