We started our tour through Vietnam in the South of the country – in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). There are basically two directions to travel the country: Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh City (North-South) or vice versa. As the flight from Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City was cheaper than to Hanoi, we decided to start in the warm South of the Vietnam.
Vietnam is a long (1,650 kilometers/1,000 miles) but narrow country (the broadest place is 600 kilometers/370 miles, however in the middle, there is a place where the country is only 50 kilometers/30 miles broad) in South-East Asia. The country has almost the same size as Germany – Vietnam is only a little bit smaller. Vietnam has about 90 million inhabitants (Germany has about 80 million) – which is an estimation, a concrete figure does not exist. The language is Vietnamese and since 1945 the Latin script has been in use. The only letter that has not been integrated in the language is the letter “f” – no seat “f” exists in airplanes and Vietnamese people can, as in many other Asian countries, not pronounce an “f”-sound. The majority of Vietnamese people are atheists. Vietnam is integrated into the global economy and has, recently, been developing pretty well. An important part of Vietnamese culture is the cuisine – it is highly distinctive and super-delicious. The street-art culture is spread over the entire country, cooking classes are offered everywhere where tourists are. The classic dishes are Pho (beef or chicken soup with rice noodles and cilantro – which is also served for breakfast), Banh (baguette with different fillings), spring rolls (fried or non-fried) and much more.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon (its former name that it is still used by many people) is the largest city in Vietnam and used to be the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam during Vietnam War. When the war was won by North Vietnam, Hanoi became the country’s capital. The city, including its large metropolitan area, has more than 10 million inhabitants and is growing continuously. Ho Chi Minh City is a typical busy South East Asian metropolis – the streets are crowded with millions of motorbikes (around 5 million owned by 10 million people – so, every 2nd inhabitant of HCMC owns a motorbike) that cause the noise that conquers the streets and adds a typical South-East Asian city-flair that coins the atmosphere.
We only spent 1 day exploring the city itself – however, we spent another 3 days visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta. The city itself is easily manageable in 1 day – however, if you love cities and enjoy to spend time drinking coffee, enjoying local food and strolling through the streets, you should plan more time.
Here is what we think are the highlights of Ho Chi Minh City:
District 1 – The City Center
Our hostel was located in District 1, which is basically the center of the city. This is also the place where many hotels, hostels and homestays are located. Basically, the majority of sights can be reached by foot from there. We spent 1 ½ days in Ho Chi Minh City and visited the Cu Chi Tunnels (1/2-day tour) and covered the following sights in the center:
Notre Dame Cathedral
Located at the opposite of the Central Post Office (which is probably the most beautiful building in HCMC), the Notre Dame Cathedral reminds on the French presence in Vietnam. It is not as impressive as its Parisian namesake but it still stands out of the Asian-style buildings that do not necessarily remind on a well-planned urban image.
The Opera House
Also built by the French, the opera house is also a very impressive building and not really what you would expect to find in a South-East Asian metropolis. The Opera House is located at the beginning of “The Times Square” – the most luxury shopping street in HCMC where all luxury brands such Louis Vuitton, Dior and Chanel are featured.
People’s Committee Building (Le Thanh Ton)
South-East Asian cities are famous for their narrow and crowded streets full of traffic. Nguyen Hue is the complete opposite and with the People’s Committee Building at the end, a real treasure in Ho Chi Minh City. The street is seamed with cafes and shops to the left and to the right, some of them offering really good tea and coffee.
PARTEA – The Best Tea House in Ho Chi Minh City
Strolling over Nguyen Hue, we discovered a building where each balcony looked different. Tom did not thing it was appealing in the first place, but Bianca loved it at first sight. She thought the building was wonderful and really wanted to take a picture and go inside. When we realized each balcony belongs to a café, we wanted to check it out. We were looking for the entrance but there was none. Asking many people in the store below the balconies, we always got the same answer: “Coffee!? Out and to the right”. The entrance is really hard to find – it leads through a motorbike garage and up a really shabby staircase (there is also an elevator but you have to pay for it). On the 3rd or 4th floor, we finally found the tea house we were looking for – PARTEA. It is a complete oasis in the middle of HCMC and really worth a visit. First, you choose your tea (smelling allowed) and then your cup (out of many very cute vintage cups – exactly what Bianca loves) and last but not least, your sweet (cakes, French macarons, …). The tea house is really nice – everything is retro and little details like lamps made from egg whiskers make it even more attractive. We spent a really nice time at Partea and can definitely recommend the place – it is not THE cheapest but totally worth visiting.
Ben Thanh Market
The Ben Thanh Market takes place every day until 7:00 PM. You can buy everything from clothes, fruit, coffee, dried fruit, shoes and care products (shampoo, cremes, …). The offering is not only broad but also good and prices are negotiable. Many stands have the same products so if you can’t get the price you want at one, you have many other options to still make your desired purchase.
Phò Hùng – The Best Pho Ga in Town
Our favorite dish in Ho Chi Minh City was the chicken noodle soup – Phò Ga. Our hostel recommended the place Phò Hùng to us – and it was really delicious. It is not really a street food place (little tables and chairs on the street and an old lady cooking on a kitchen-like stall) – actually, more like a Phò McDo, but really delicious and authentic in taste. On our first day there, we observed the Vietnamese people eating their soup and on the second day, we already ate like locals. There are several locations of Phò Hùng in HCMC – we always visited the one in District 1 (5 minutes from our hostel): 241-243 Nguyen Trai, P. Nguyen Cu Trinh, Q.1
We spent ½ day in Ho Chi Minh City, covering the most important monuments. We do not really love cities very much, so we decided not to dedicate much time to it. We don’t think you really need more time in the city – however, if you want to visit the Ho Chi Minh Museum or the War Remnants Museum, you will definitely need more time.
Our Overnight Stay
We stayed at the Alleyway Hostel which we had booked via booking.com. We stayed in a mixed 6-bed dorm with shared bathroom/toilet and were really satisfied. The staff is really friendly and helpful: you can hand in laundry, they assist with booking tours to the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi Tunnels and provide lots of useful advice for an individual city tour in HCMC. A little Vietnamese breakfast was also included (baguette with egg or beef and coffee/tea). The room and the bathroom facilities were clean and the location of the hotel was really good.