As we walked out of Ho Chi Minh City Airport the first thing that hits you smack bang in the face is the heat and humidity. It was 10pm and still 29 degrees. We quickly realised the two or three pairs of jeans we packed weren’t going to be necessary for quite some time and Sarah eventually dumped two pairs upon leaving our hotel.
The process of getting through customs was simple and pain free. We’d organised a Visa On Arrival (VOA) letter from one the numerous agencies in Vietnam who organise these for you. Just Google ‘Vietnam Visa On Arrival’ and you’ll get a long list of agencies to choose from. They’re cheaper than applying through your local Vietnamese Embassy, the trade off being instead of going straight through customs you head to the VOA office to collect your visa. You simply hand over your letter, your completed visa application form which you can download from the agency website you use, a passport photo and the fee. It only took us about 20 minutes to get our visa and make our way through customs, but we’ve read on some blogs it can take up to two hours. We’d also read they only accept Vietnamese Dong or American Dollars, but we saw a lady paying with Australian Dollars as well. We paid our $US45 per person single entry visa fee, breezed through customs and we were on our way.
The second thing you notice about Vietnam are the motorbikes. It was 10pm and there were thousands of them on the road, and it seemed as though they were all blowing their horns at the same time, over and over again. The noise was ridiculous. We quickly learnt blowing the horn was almost habit because on occasions we noticed bikes and cars blowing their horns when no other vehicles were around. Very strange! This noise is something you need to get your head around and accept, otherwise your stay in Vietnam is going to drive you crazy.
We paid the cab driver the 150,000VND fare (about $6) and checked into our hotel, the Mayflower Saigon 2. The room was tiny but clean and the staff were very friendly. We dumped our gear on the floor, climbed into bed and got some well earned sleep.
We had three nights and two days in Ho Chi Minh City and spent our time exploring the city on foot. For easy access to most of the cities most popular tourist attractions, you should definitely stay in District 1. We boiled some water each night and filled our drink bottles in the morning, enjoyed some complimentary buffet breakfast which included a range of options from bacon and eggs to the traditional Vietnamese soup dish Pho, packed our pack with everything we needed (snacks, cameras, nappies, etc.) and we were on our way.
The first thing we did was go shopping for a stroller. The footpaths aren’t exactly stroller friendly as they’re either non-existent, in a state of disrepair or been badly patched up, or act as parking space for motorbikes. But we weren’t going to carry Jack everywhere we went so it was off to the baby store. All we wanted was something cheap, and after a little searching we settled on a Seebaby. It was cheap, could recline when Jack needed a nap, had a mesh seat for great ventilation in the heat, a cover to protect him from the sun, and was easy to open and close. Given how inexpensive it was we were unsure how long it would last, particularly the wheels given the harsh footpath conditions, but it’s still going strong and we couldn’t be happier.
Ho Chi Minh City certainly isn’t the prettiest city, in fact it’s quite ugly in most parts, and there aren’t that many ‘tourist attractions’, but just exploring the streets and soaking up the hustle and bustle of city life keeps you entertained. Here are the highlights:
War Remnants Museum (Entry fee 15,000VND or $AU0.75)
This is a must see for any visitor to Ho Chi Minh City. Whether you agree with war or not, and specifically the Vietnam War, you must take the time to come here. You’ll get a sobering, albeit one-sided, perspective of the atrocities committed on the soldiers and civilians of Vietnam. Click this link to read an article on the War Remnants Museum.
Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
Built between 1863 and 1880 by French Colonists it’s a beautiful building at the northern end of District 1, right opposite the Post Office.
The site of the end of the Vietnam War. This four storey building is where the South Vietnamese president resided and worked during the war, and when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the front gates, the surrender came and the war was over. It’s supposedly left in the exact same state as when the South Vietnamese surrender and is a fascinating look back in time at what it was like here during the 60’s and 70’s.
Ben Thanh Market
Hundreds of stalls crammed together leaves tiny aisles to navigate your way around. If you’re in town to do some shopping this should be your first stop. You can by virtually anything from clothes to toys to souvenirs to meat and vegetables. Make sure you barter with the vendors, you can usually knock 50% off the quoted price.
Also known as the Saigon Opera House, it was built in 1897 and is another great example of beautiful French Colonial architecture.
Saigon Central Post Office
Designed by Gustav Eiffel, who also designed another famous building in downtown Paris you may have heard of, it’s a beautiful building situated right opposite the Notre-Dame Basilica. Make sure you head inside to check out the equally impressive interior.
Ho Chi Minh City Hall
Another example of French Colonial style architecture. You can’t go inside but it’s worth a look as you explore the city.
There are museums, pagodas, temples and other attractions dotted around the city, but this was enough for us. We were far more interested in soaking up the atmosphere and eating the food. We dined out on street food for lunch and dinner, and if you follow a few simple rules you should be fine. We basically assumed if they were cooking the food while we were there and there were plenty of locals eating it must be ok. Needless to say we’ve eaten some delicious meals, haven’t even felt remotely sick, and they’ve cost us about 25,000VDN per meal (about $AU1.25).
On our final morning we packed up all of our stuff, dumped some of our belongings that we’ve already worked out we don’t need and jumped in a cab to go to the train station. It seems whenever we’ve needed a cab there’s been one right there waiting, as though we’ve ordered it specifically for us! So don’t worry about ordering cabs for a specific time if you need to be somewhere, there will be one within 60 seconds of where you are.