Ho Chi Minh City sits on and around two large rivers, Saigon and Dong Nai Rivers. The former giving us the city’s maybe more recognisable unofficial name. Whilst Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, and it might host the government and presidential palace, Ho Chi Minh is the largest and most western feeling city in the country.
For perhaps the first time in this trip you’ll encounter a McDonalds and Burger King, but only if you’re desperate for a bit of western food. For those still hungry for the Viet diet, this city is an overstocked larder. With plenty of outdoor and indoor food, pretty much every corner you turn will present some more amazing food.
Just a few would be the 5ku Station in the city centre not far from the Notre Dame Cathedral (Nha Tho Duc Ba) if you fancy casual street food eating, or the Nah Hang Lion behind the Saigon Opera House for some smarter seated food. But in all honesty, if you want to get an initial feel of the city and taste its food book a foodie night tour on a vespa with us.
These guys will whisk you around the city on their Vespas darting through traffic safely to give you a three-course meal on the hoof. Trust me, it sounds like a bad idea but it actually works. You meet for a starting local coffee after they collect you from your hotel. Then a short ride to the starters at a roadside café with fish, shrimps and toads so fresh you point to the one you want (just avoid the toad if you’re squeamish, but they do just taste like chicken). Once downed it’s off again to the street market and the main course.
Largely vegetarian, this is prepared right in front of you on as you arrive and will most definitely satisfy the hungriest of eaters. They then wind you down with a dessert in a small quiet hidden coffee lounge with live singers if you’re lucky, followed by a few cocktails or beers at a local bar with a band at which point they will take you home or leave you to stumble home several hours later if you desire.
If you can find it again, Cafe VÃ¡»«ng Ã† i MÃ¡»Å¸ Ra, is a great hidden retreat. You enter it as if you’re following a Bourne movie! In through a market, out the back into the storerooms, round a corner through someone’s backyard, up a spooky staircase, across into another building, and out into what look like a derelict corridor where ancient paint is falling off the walls. Then up some stairs that feel like they might give in, and the name of the place scrawled like graffiti on the walls. But get inside, and it’s the most romantic setting in Vietnam I could imagine. Candle lit coffee, wine or cocktails in a small room with comfy armchairs, listening to amazing local singers and live soul/jazz style music.
Night life in the city is the strongest you’ll find, and there is even an LGBT Vietnam scene of sorts, check on the day though online as they tend to pop up and close down frequently. Homosexuality is technically illegal in the country, but it appears to be a soft law. It’s fine to attend associated bars and clubs, just so long as out in public there is no intimate contact. To be fair this goes for everyone, as being intimate (holding hands, kissing etc) is generally a taboo for everyone regardless.
You’re in Vietnam, you have to visit the War Remnants Museum. Despite its lacklustre name and the wealth of the country, it’s remarkable how modern and well equipped this museum is. Push that all to one side when you enter though, as the harsh reality of what happened here just a few decades ago hits hard. I walked around stunned at the brutality and horror and amazed that the everyday person in the country doesn’t hate the west with a passion.
As I’ve said before, the Vietnamese are overall one of the most pleasant and kind people I’ve encountered, all the more incredible when considering what they endured during the Vietnam War. When two of the world’s powerhouses (China and USA) are arguing over your land and tearing your country apart, it’s a wonder that anything remains, let alone so much kindness and beauty.
Following this theme, there is one out-of- town trip that must be undertaken: Cu Chi Tunnels. You can easily do this in a morning, or make a day trip of it if you fancy taking a Vespa tour out there (self-driven available). Here you’ll experience what the resistance soldiers went through on a daily basis in the heat and humidity, while only able to live in tight underground tunnels. Learn some of their tactics of how they outsmarted the enemy, and even fire live rounds of some pretty impressive relics from the arsenal of war.
We stayed at the Asian Ruby Hotel, and for an affordable central hotel it fits perfectly. As always in Vietnam the beds are to die for. The rest of the room was clean, spacious, and had everything you might need. The service was quick and very polite, and the staff speak good English. This isn’t a trip where you’re going to spending your time in the hotel by a pool, so the fact it’s a little dated in design should not matter in the slightest.