Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
You can’t accurately describe Ho Chi Minh City, you have to experience it. The energy, hustle and bustle of buses, cars and motorbikes everywhere, including sidewalks, has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Crossing the streets is an adventure in and of itself.
Ho Chi Minh City was our point of entry to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and exposure to one of the remaining five communist countries in the world. As Americans and independent travelers, we found the communist reference to the war to be unsettling. You may not experience this if you are part of a tour group that limits your exposure. The reference to the Vietnam War here is the “American War” and although the people are friendly towards us, the war is still a fresh memory.
We found the stories to be true…..
……this city is just organized chaos on steroids regarding traffic and motorbikes. Motorbikes are the major source of transportation and there are thousands at each stop light. You would think there would be gridlock, but that’s not the case. They just make it work and it is amazing to watch the flow.
War Remembrance aka War Crimes Museum
Two of the main areas of interest are the War Remembrance Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels. The courtyard of the museum displays American military equipment, tanks, helos, artillery, bombs and such. As Americans we found the War Remembrance aka War Crimes Museum disturbing and emotional. The museum is a portrayal of how the current government perceives the American involvement in atrocities and crimes against Vietnam and the Vietnamese people and the ugliness of war. There is no reference to the support and sacrifices by the Americans. The Cu Chi Tunnels were the same as the museum and Don really struggled the first few days because he served in the Navy during the last three years of the war. You have to remember that the North and Communism won, and this museum would probably have a different portrayal of the way if the South was ruling the country. (We took no pictures out of respect for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and those who have scars of the war.)
We met a gracious Vietnamese man at a coffee shop and during our conversation, he shared his memories of the war with us. He has two daughters living in the US, his father worked for the Americans and he is pro-American. We have exchanged emails with him since leaving Ho Chi Minh City.
Bui Vien Street…….
We stayed in District 1 at the Cozy Hotel located in a maze of alleys between the famous streets of Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao in “backpacker central”. The owner and his family were very friendly, always had a smile and were happy to assist. The convenient location was within walking distance to the landmarks, shops, and restaurants.
favorite alley diner delivery
meat market Renee buying a breakfast sandwich, help from hotel owner
The alley leading to our hotel was a quiet and laid back world of its own. There were many different businesses, from hotels/hostels, small markets, laundry service, restaurants/bars and spas. Alley life really grew on us and we enjoyed seeing the same friendly smiles. Then you exited onto either Bui Vien or Pham Ngu Lao streets and things became chaos again. We had a funny experience and when we come home, ask us about the pedicure and massage story, it is great for Happy Hour.
Tips and Recommendations for visiting Ho Chi Minh City:
- Visa options: 1) obtain a hard visa in your passport from the embassy before leaving home. Plan ahead as it can take weeks, plus you give up your passport during that time period. 2) obtain (online) an Approval Letter from a Vietnam Immigration Service to get a “Visa On Arrival” at airport immigration. You will also need to complete a visa application, and provide one passport photo. There are multiple types of visas and they start at $25 for a 30-day single entry. They ONLY take cash and US Dollars. The date you put as your entry date is a HARD date; you cannot enter prior unless you resubmit for a new Approval Letter.
- Stay close to District 1 as the must sees are within walking distance. Don’t be put off by hotels in alleys with no windows. The alley gives you a better opportunity of it being quiet and you’ll sleep better.
- We chose the Cozy Hotel. A great location and budget friendly hotel with only 5 rooms on a quiet side alley. A wonderful family who go out of their way to assist. Numerous eats, bars, coffee shops, spas, and laundry service within a block.
- Arrange airport pick-up with the hotel. Driver with a sign will be waiting as you exit the terminal. This saves you from being mobbed as you exit the terminal and possibly getting scammed.
- If this is your point of entry for Vietnam, we recommend purchasing a local SIM card for your cell starting a $9 in town or outside the airport. You can purchase a SIM for $14 while waiting in the immigration line.
- Cash is king and the most preferred method of payment. Most restaurants don’t take credit cards.
- Pedestrians are the lowest form and have NO RIGHTS. There are no such thing as crosswalks even if you see a painted one on the street. Motorbikes will drive on the sidewalk and honk at you to move. You need to move out of their way as they will not stop.
- Crossing the street. If you wait for the traffic to change or for them to stop for you, you will probably be there for years to come. Just step out into traffic and walk slowly. Traffic will just go around you. DO NOT run and DO NOT stop…..
- For Americans visiting the War Remembrance Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels, it will be an emotional experience. Just remember it’s the Communist view of the war.