Monday, March 27, 2017

13 Weird and Wonderful Things I Love About Ho Chi Minh City (Things to do in Saigon)

Known for its hustle and bustle, Ho Chi Minh City is an exciting metropolis that offers everything from outrageously cheap street food to fish foot doctors and everything in-between.

ho chi minh city header

My Ho Chi Minh City experience began the very minute I stepped off the aircraft. Honestly, it's not the greatest tourist city I've ever visited. But beneath the chaos and disorder, it is a uniquely Vietnamese city - unlike any other I've ever visited in Asia. Not only that, everything is outrageously cheap. So after spending almost a week in Ho Chi Minh City, these are 13 of the uniquely Vietnamese things I LOVED about this city!


Hopping into a cab at the airport the sheer number of motorcycles zipping through the traffic was the very first thing that blew me away. But it's not just the number of motorcycles on the road, it's how many people they manage to fit on a single vehicle. I saw whole families of 5 on a single motorcycle (2 adults and 3 kids). And the kids didn't look uncomfortable - playing on their iphones, reading books and doing homework - they looked like they were having the time of their life. So why are there so many motorcycles on the road of Ho Chi Minh City? We were told on a tour that because population density is so high in Vietnam the government taxes cars at a rate of 400% so only the very rich are able to afford cars and everyone else is encouraged to use public transport or buy the cheaper alternatives.

ho chi minh city girl on motorcycle


Being a lover of cocktails and nightlife, I couldn't say no when I found out my hotel (Caravelle Saigon) had a rooftop bar. It wasn't until I was up there that I realised there are rooftop bars hidden on top of almost every hotel and high rise building in Ho Chi Minh City. Sleek and classy, I found rooftop bars a refreshing way to escape for the night from the chaos below and do some people watching in a stylish atmosphere. And even though the food and drinks up there are on the pricier side, the prices are still significantly cheaper than what I would pay at home for the same experience.

rooftop bar saigon with me and food


Who doesn't love to be pampered after a long day of sightseeing? And when you can get a 60 minute full body massage for less than $20 USD how could you say no?! I spent many afternoons treating myself to full body massages, but one afternoon walking on Dong Khoi Street I randomly found the Blue Moon Spa which offered Doctor Fish - small fish that feast on the dead skin on the bottom of your feet. I'd seen this treatment online before but never tried it myself so I paid $10 USD for a 30 minute session. The initial nibbles were hard to get used to (I am very ticklish) but after 10 minutes it was just like a soft foot massage. As for the removal of dead skin, I'm not sure how effective it is - but I enjoyed the experience either way.

doctor fish in ho chi minh city


Forget going to big airconditioned shopping malls when you are in South East Asia - street markets is where its at! There are 2 things I love about street markets - cheap food and weird buys. After having a bowl of pho and fresh passionfruit juice here for less than $5 USD I spent a good hour traversing the market. They had the typical wares I expected in a market - knock off designer goods and cheap clothes, but also things I had never seen before - like snake wine! This was a first for me. Apparently it's drank for health (I still wasn't brave enough to give it a go though).

snake wine at ben thanh market


Not as common back in Australia, balcony cafes are another ubiquitous fixture of Ho Chi Minh City. Almost every commercial building had multiple businesses layered on top of each other, many of these businesses were cafes or bars. It's a great way to relax and do some people watching above the bustle of the streets with a cheap drink. On the Nguyen Hue promenade was the coolest one I saw below - about 10 storeys high and six squares across - almost 60 different cafes with balconies on a single building face.

balcony cafe building at ho chi minh city


As a legacy of Chinese domination, Ho Chi Minh City is home to many elaborate and fascinating temples scattered throughout the city. My favourite was the Ba Thien Hau Temple, a stunning structure that features porcelain figurines on the roof that exhibit Chinese myths and legends. Incense cones hang from the ceiling which our guide told us is how the Vietnamese people communicate with their ancestors (I thought they were just for decoration).

ba thein hau temple in ho chi minh city


I spent almost everyday in Ho Chi Minh City stuffing my face with every food imaginable. But between the most expensive food I tried and the cheapest you can find, street food comes out on top every single time. A simple stroll in the city (especially at night) and you will see people with their little food carts preparing everything imaginable just like the one below. I enjoyed delicious banh mi, che dessert cups and deep fried donuts. You might think, is it clean? What if I get sick? Everything is prepared in front of you with fresh ingredients so if anything dodgy was going on they wouldn't be in business for long.

street food cart in ho chi minh city


I knew Vietnam was a one-party communist country before I arrived, but what surprised me was how many times a day I was reminded of it during my stay. In front of every single official building and many posters in the city I saw the hammer and sickle flag flying proudly right next to the Vietnamese flag, just like in the Presidential Palace below.

communist symbol in vietnam


Vietnamese coffee is an art within itself that can be enjoyed from a plastic chair on the sidewalk to the many chic cafes scattered throughout the city. Ca phe as they call it, can be prepared hot or cold, and is made with condensed milk so there is no need to add extra sugar. Although Hanoi is without a doubt the home of Vietnamese cafe culture, my favourite morning coffee spot in Ho Chi Minh City was the Khanhcasa Tea House. It is a stylish shelter with elegant decor and they have a selection of almost 100 different types of teas and coffees with cakes.

coffee cup with versace symbol in vietnam


Originally we didn't plan to go to the zoo - we only ended up there because we had a few free days - but it ended up being one of our favourite day trips! The zoo not only showcases a diverse range of animals like white tigers, orangutangs and albino pythons, but it is combined with a gorgeous botanical garden (so basically you're getting 2 in 1). With only a glass wall separating myself and some of the exhibits, I think it was the closest I've ever been to a tiger and lion before. There is also rides and lots of grassy open space so if you have children it is the perfect day out.

tiger at the ho chi minh city zoo


Why would you bother splashing cash at a fine dining establishment in Vietnam when there is an over abundance of cheap street food? Well if you're a foodie like me it was hard to miss an opportunity to try out the fine dining establishments at a bargain price (compared to Australia at least). We went to La Villa French Restaurant one night and had a lovely 4 course (which turned into 8 individual courses) meal in an old repurposed mansion. While it was one of our most expensive meals in Vietnam, it was a memorable experience without the usual price.

la villa french restaurant what i ate ho chi minh city


Ho Chi Minh City is a compact city squeezing over 8 million people in just 2000 square kilometres. How can you fit so many people in such a small area - well we build up! Just like I mentioned the balcony cafe and bars earlier, there is a lot of exciting things going on above the ground floor of every building. And sometimes you get a peek into the private life of the average Vietnamese citizen. I often spotted people lounging in their pyjamas or half naked on their balconies without a care in the world.

naked man on balcony ho chi minh city


You cannot miss his face - he is everywhere - Ho Chi Minh, or as the locals call him affectionately, Uncle Ho. He united the country, north and south and for that the Vietnamese are forever thankful. His face is plastered in almost every corner and room of the country, just like the statue below in front of the city hall. Propaganda or not, this was my first time in a communist country and I think I have never been confronted with such overt political propaganda before.

ho chi minh statue in saigon

Image attribution:
"Temple taoïste de Thiên Hậu" by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra // CC BY 2.0 *
* changes were made to the original materials

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