Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is a bit of a shock to the system. Whether the city is your first destination, or you’ve just arrived from Mui Ne or Dalat, HCMC is an affront to the senses. It is loud, noisy, smelly, and just generally overwhelming. Like everywhere else in Vietnam, people can be a bit pushy, a little in your face, but also ridiculously charming and wonderful.
The main tourist section of the city is based around the street of Bui Vien. It houses everything a backpacker could need from tourist agencies, to low-budget accommodation, to some pretty great places to indulge in drink. I was lucky enough to be able to stay right in the middle of it all. The place wasn’t the nicest, but it was clean and affordable (14$ for a twin room), so I will forgive the lack of windows. In this case, the lack of windows might have been beneficial as it allowed for a little more sleep in time than a place with natural light.
Now on to the food. Bui Vien doesn’t have the greatest food to offer. They have the standard restaurants that cater to tourists, offering a strange (but by this point in my trip, oddly common) mix of Western and Asian foods. I honestly can’t remember a single above-average restaurant, except the pho place. I don’t even know the name of the restaurant. It was merely a little hole in the wall place, where both locals and tourists flocked for soup. Although they had more on the menu that pho bo and pho ga, I can’t remember what else there might have been. It was all of 40,000dong and you could take it away. But I love pho bo beyond all other meals, and since this place was amazing, it tops my list of food places to visit in Ho Chi Minh City.
If you like to indulge in alcohol, there is no limit to the venues. Most of them are either restaurants or they put out folding plastic chairs on the sidewalks in the evening. One of the most popular places was very close to our hotel, and had bia (beer) for 10,000dong. That’s how you draw in the backpackers. It also had children’s plastic chairs, so alcohol was necessary to continue sitting there. The one thing that Bui Vien is missing as far as nightlife goes, is a really good night club. There are some places with live music and some places where you can dance a little bit, but no clubs (like in Dalat). There were a few times when it got to an awkward point in the evening, and people were ready to take it to the next level, but there was no where really to do that.
For shopping, there is your standard fare of t-shirts, random Vietnamese hats and the occasional Vietnam War memorabilia.
As to the War, there are two main attractions if this subject piques your interest. First, the Cu Chi Tunnels. They were used by the Viet Cong, and there are hundreds of miles of tunnels. It was interesting, but they have been modified to cater to Western tourists and I felt it gave a feeling of being inauthentic.
The second sight is the War Remnants Museum. I found the museum to be far more moving than the tunnels. The second floor is a stunning collection of photographs and artefacts that bring the war to life. It covers the types of weapons used, the horrors of Agent Orange, the massacres and much more. Bring tissues and a strong stomach (some of the photos will make you want to turn away).
There are many tourist attractions in HCMC, and I didn’t make it to half of them. But depending on your interests, the city can provide for almost anyone. There are tourist agencies throughout the Bui Vien area that are more than happy to book tours to Vietnam War attractions, the Mekong Delta, or just general city tours.