There is nothing like the bustling streets and city life of Ho Chi Minh City to welcome you to Asia for the first time. Hordes of motorbikes zipping down lawless (seemingly) streets honking incessantly, dozens of street vendors releasing mysterious yet delicious scents on every block, and the taste of fuel exhaust and pollution added to the already thick and humid air all let me know I’m not in California anymore.
Acclimating to Southeast Asia
Even though you hear most of the stereotypical things about Asian cities (crowded, polluted, etc.), that doesn’t prepare you for some of the aspects of life in Ho Chi Minh City and throughout all of Southeast Asia you encounter. Within minutes of leaving the airport, I knew this city meant business.
On the short 1-2 mile drive from the airport to my buddy Stuart’s house, our driver laid down the horn 15+ times and made a left turn into oncoming traffic twice. Honking. Constant honking. From 6 AM to 2 AM, 20 hours per day, it is just part of the background noise here. It is used as a form of communication on the road, “I am on your left” or “I am coming around the corner” – it is not negative. Weeks into the trip I still turn my head in response to honking horns when nobody else seems to even hear it.
Everyone except taxis and industrial truck drivers uses a motorbike to get around. hundreds of thousands of motorbikes speeding along the roads – through alleys, down the wrong side of the road – sometimes with a whole family of four on the bike. Most of the big intersections are roundabouts where you literally criss-cross with oncoming traffic. I only sat on the back of Stu’s bike when we drove around the city and I was still uneasy every time we went somewhere.
Crossing the street is a mental challenge as well. It is like getting into cold water, you just have to jump in or you will never be able to do it. The first time I watched a mother push a stroller into the street with hundreds of motorbikes coming at them I physically winced. But the bikes flowed around them like a river around a boulder and everything just worked out. Several times Stu has crossed the street only to turn around to see me trying to time my entrance into the traffic flow 20 yards behind. He is a seasoned warrior at this point.
Pollution and Attire
Saigon is a pretty dirty city. With over eight million people in the city, pollution levels are high. Discolored puddles and streams flowing from the crowded housing trickle into the street. Most people on the road, or even walking, have a face mask on to cover their noses and mouths. It also keeps the dust on the road from being inhaled. Besides face masks, many of the women here are covered from head to toe to protect themselves from the sun.
All you can see of them are their vigilant eyes darting around from underneath their conical hats. Hats that until this point, I thought were only used in shows and movies to show stereotyped culture; but a very high percentage of people actually wear those hats. Even more so out of the city. It is a bit unsettling at first to see so many people with covered faces when in America, that is most synonymous with robbers or ravers.
Even though I have been to many countries where I am clearly a tourist and people try to sell me things, vendors literally grab you and pull you towards their stalls in Ho Chi Minh City. Bến Thành Market was the most aggressive area we visited. Food vendors, clothing vendors, trinket vendors, and tour vendors all aggressively and relentlessly strike up conversation and walk up to you during meals. It’s like Kate Upton walking through a crowded bar full of Italian men – only less flattering. I am sure this will be similar everywhere we go on our trip.
Despite some of these more negative aspects, Saigon is an amazing city and it is truly and experience.
Highlights of Ho Chi Minh City
My favorite aspects of this crazy city are the food, the history, and however stereotypical of travelers it is – Bui Vien street.
Because Ho Chi Minh City is a hub of different people from all over Vietnam, there is every type of Vietnamese cuisine available on the streets. We paid $1.15 for some of the best Asian food I have ever had. You can see photos of the meals here (I apologize for some of the images in the slides, I am having issues with portrait images displaying landscape). We tried everything we could get our hands on – pho, mi quang, com tam, banh xeo, spring rolls, seafood, and even a boiled duck fetus, a Philippine favorite.
Eating at all of these street vendors is part of the great experience. Sometimes you just need to go with the highly questionable looking places and take a chance. Sitting on little plastic stools eight inches off of the ground on the corner of the street is where we had some of our best meals. You grab a pair of chopsticks out of the cup on the table like a game of Russian Roulette – hoping you got the “clean” ones.
We did an amazing street food tour through Saigon Street Eats that took us around to the different local spots we never would have found on our own. I plan on using the tips they gave us for picking out good street food for the next 6 months:
- Look for metal tables/chairs (expensive – means good business)
- Chef and food is cooked in the front so you can see
- Everything is well lit
- It is connected to a house so you know they are washing dishes and cleaning
- Menu is small (2-3 items) so you know it is the specialty
Saigon is a very diverse place when it comes to the different cultures and influences that have been ingrained in the area. From hundreds (maybe thousands?) of years of Chinese influence to French colonization and the American War, the varying architecture and history is amazing. In one day, we saw Chinese style pagodas, a French colonial cathedral, and western looking skyscrapers (pictures towards the end of this post). It all adds to the character of the city and the people living here.
I think we were both expecting to feel a little animosity from Vietnamese people because we are American, but it is the exact opposite. They love Americans. Even the older people we have met who were around during the war greeted us and joked with us. President Obama actually visited Ho Chi Minh City while we were there and everywhere we went everyone would give the thumbs up and shout “Obah-Mah”!
Bui Vien street is where all of the travelers go to hang out, drink, and party late into the night. In the day time it was pretty relaxed, but at night it is basically a mini Vegas strip packed into one street that isn’t even really two lanes.
There are rooftop bars, dance floors, and pool bars all surrounded by street vendors and moving masses of people. While you won’t meet too many locals hanging out on Bui Vien, it is definitely the late night destination. Pretty much anything you want you can get without even asking. As you walk down the street people you pass will shout to you “cheap bia”, “marijuana”, “massage”, “cocaine”, or even balloons full of laughing gas. It is mayhem.
Activities in Ho Chi Minh City
I was told there weren’t many touristy things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, but with a whole week I was able to do my fare share of day-trips. We went to the Notre Dame Basilica, the Central Post Office, Saigon Square, Bui Vien Street, the Saigon Opera House, and even the Sagon Zoo and Botanical Garden.
The only thing I skipped out on was going to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where you can see the tunnel systems the North used during the war. Overall, the tourist attractions in Saigon were not too impressive. The War Remnants museum was interesting, but it was not even close to the level of museums Americans are used to. Same for the zoo. The pagodas were by far the highlight among the things to do and see for me. They are old, beautiful, intricate, and somewhat mysterious to me as a westerner.
Other Culture Shock Items
This city has a cut-throat culture. I wouldn’t say that people are unfriendly, but being nice and considerate is not the first thing on their agenda. Everyone in this city is on a mission. Whether they are selling a good, getting some place, or running an errand, if you aren’t part of agenda then you do not exist. If you are the target of a sale, you are essentially harassed.
Personal space does not exist on the streets. Even with 10 feet on the other side of them, women, kids, and men would brush up against me passing me on the side walk. We were cut in lines, stared at for minutes straight (see next section), and stepped on. I don’t think I have heard one local person say xin loi (sorry) at all.
I had a 5-month beard when I arrived in Saigon and most people stare at me like they don’t know what species I am. When we walk by groups of people, they will tap each other on the shoulder and point so their friends don’t miss the sight to be seen. In on day, I had three strangers on the street feel my beard. The men seem to think it is cool, but the women and children just stare in bewilderment.
The weather is hot, but it is actually less intense right now then I was expecting. All of the locals said that it has cooled down a lot in the last few weeks before I arrived. There was a lot of cloud cover as well in Saigon. The weirdest thing so far is that I get confused about what time it is because it is always overcast. Even at 1 PM it looks like it could be sunset.
Nobody uses knives here! Chopsticks and spoons are the utensils of choice. Cutting hunks of meat with a spoon gets easier with time I hope.
Leaving Ho Chi Minh City
Overall, HCMC was a great experience and I am glad we spent time here. I do not think it is a good tourist destination for vacationers as much as it is an experience to be had. On to the mountasain town of Da Lat next.
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