A walk across the street in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) can prove to be an exhilarating yet scary experience. Amidst the chaos of hundreds of mopeds, buses, and other vehicles, tourists cross the crosswalk, often with no signal. It’s all a part of the experience in a city that simply never stops, a city always engaged in culinary adventure and the hustle and bustle of every day life. So, with a planned trip to HCMC, what to do first? Let’s take a look at a few of the must do’s in this bitter sweet place.
Where to stay:
Try to stay in District 1. Sure, it sounds very reminiscent of the Hunger Games, but no worries, you will not have to fight to the death to see the sights. District 1 houses the famous Ben Thanh Market. With its central location, it is a great way to enjoy walking a short distance to many of the sights. A variety of star levels are available, but a four star hotel or better is recommended and is much cheaper in Saigon than in some other regions. Around $60 USD per night will land a very nice hotel. Try the Eden Saigon hotel from $65 per night.
A walk around the rat race:
Sure, it may be dangerous, but it is also necessary-that is, if you want to walk anywhere in the city. A mindful eye and careful step is a necessity. It is hard not to get whisked into the chaos. Where there are crosswalk signals or lights, many drivers do not obey them and keep charging ahead. Walking through a crosswalk is much like a game of Frogger, except you do not get spare lives if you are hit (if you do, you should probably start your own reality show). People are struck by vehicles on a regular basis, and it is no wonder why. Simply remain aware of your surroundings and do not expect a yield, though most of the time, a yield will be granted with a smile.
The Golden Dragon Theater:
Feast your eyes on a rare art form that is strictly Vietnamese. Sure, you may question your sanity about half way through the show, but it is a great sight to see. The Golden Dragon Theater offers a puppet show, but these are no ordinary puppets. Fish, people, and even dragons and boats are controlled by puppeteers under a curtain of water. The show is performed with the help of live musicians who use instruments and their voices to bring the puppets to life in traditional Vietnamese. Just leave your sarcasm and high entertainment expectations at home and appreciate it for what it really is, a really cool cultural puppet show. The show will tell the story of how people lived and still live on the Mekong Delta. Who knows, maybe the slightly creepy boy puppet will become a real boy after all. Tickets start at $7.50 USD.
What to eat:
Just a walk around the block and the smells will permeate the senses. From Pho to Banh Mi, there is something for everyone to try. A great idea for the American tongue is to try a buffet first. This way, if a particular spice or flavor is less than delicious, it is easy to move on to another dish and get to try them all. If the puppet theater is in the plans, there is actually a buffet that can be packaged with the show. Two dishes that must be tried are Pho and Banh Mi. Pho consists of a broth with pork or other meat and vegetables with exotic spices and a hint of mint. Pho can best be enjoyed in a small family restaurant. Banh Mi is a fusion of French and Vietnamese, clearly brought on by the French influences in town. It is a fresh baguette served with a variety of meats, cucumber, pate, and spices. The meats may look a bit revolting, but the taste is absolutely delicious. For the best Banh Mi in town, try Banh Mi Huynh Hoa. The lines of mopeds outside give away its location. Just be sure to buy enough sandwiches, they are deceivingly delicious.
Things to see:
Arguably, the top thing to see in HCMC is the Ben Thanh Market. Even if a fake handbag or cheesy shirt is not on the shopping list, it is a must visit. Winding down the small aisles of the busy little shops is an experience all in itself. A warning though: travelers will be grabbed, stopped, and even bossed. So, if easily offended, skip this one. Women can get designer handbag knock offs for around $25 U.S. dollars. Never pay the asking price as that is exponentially higher than the price it can be purchased for. After the market, head over to the War Remnants Museum where artifacts and vessels that were used in the Vietnam War are housed. The Saigon Opera House is quite a sight to see and may even have an authentic performance going on. The Central Post Office looks more like a gothic New York train station with its impressive arched ceilings and why not send a postcard back to the folks? Next door, appreciate the architecture of the Notre Dame Cathedral. A walk through the gardens of the Reunification Palace is quite relaxing and the history can be felt all around.
A day trip to the Mekong Delta or the Cu Chi tunnels is a great idea if the time can be afforded. The Cu Chi tunnels offer a real experience crawling through war tunnels while the ancient Vietnamese ways can be observed in the Mekong Delta, along with the floating markets.
Pham Ngu Lao Street is a giant party for travelers. It gets so crowded with small 3-inch-off-the-ground chairs that it looks like people are waiting for the next Disney parade to roll through the street. A visit there is simply a must at night when all the street food vendors and chaos is happening. While there, be sure to try the bia hoi (fresh beer). It can be enjoyed for 35 U.S. cents per glass and has no preservatives. The atmosphere is just incredible. There are a variety of rooftop bars available in town as well, but get ready to pay steep prices for drinks.
Always keep a close eye on your personal belongings in town. There are many warnings about thieves; however, they are very good at what they do. Be sure to keep everything with you at all times. Also, be wary of taxi drivers who do not use the meter, they will overcharge. In fact, one taxi driver tried to charge 900,000, when the price from the airport to a hotel in District 1 should only be 150,000. In addition, while cyclos are very whimsical, they should generally be avoided. They can be unsafe and are also known to rip off travelers. Keep an open mind and be careful of your surroundings and you are sure to make lasting memories in the land of Saigon.
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