Ho Chi Minh City: Worth the Visit?

Ho Chi Minh City: Worth the Visit?

Those who read my last post will understand that I didn’t exactly have the best time in Vietnam. But my answer to the above question?

Absolutely.

As stated succinctly by my friend Phil, this grimy city ****** us again and and again, but left us sort of missing it and wishing we’d had more time afterward.

Because Vietnam is very cool. The young people are fashionable and the scene is vivacious in more respects than just the partying ones.

More than that, though, is the weight of Vietnam’s history and how that seeps into it’s primary attractions (especially as an American).

The war museum, for any history buff, is a must-see. The inside is mainly war history from the communist perspective, blown-up into (sometimes overly grainy) pictures.

Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, war museum

However, as one peruses, the harrowing toll of the ‘American War’ on Vietnamese citizens unfolds and lays bare the scars of a still-strong, still-recovering nation. The captured artillery and recovered shell fragments prove a stalwart reminder of a conflict that shaped either nation for decades to come.

The entrance is ticket is roughly 3 USD. The rooms are ordered from 1-8 on the upper levels, so if you want the whole of recollections from the Vietnamese side of the fence then worm your way through in order.

Be prepared for tears, not just from yourself but from many of the others strolling through. They don’t spare you for any details whatsoever.

Another primary attraction is the the Cu-Chi Tunnels – a 200 KM labyrinth used dug by the Viet Cong to avoid American bombs, napalm, and artillery.

The most striking point among the tour came when our guide informed us that over 15% of the Vietnamese population was still being adversely affected by the Agent Orange used to clear the forest (now re-grown) around Cu-Chi.

Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cu Chi tunnels
Descending one of the expanded tunnels

A glimpse of one victim turned out to be one of the more affecting things I’ve seen in my life. Across the street from Starbucks on the roundabout was a grandmother with a baby in her lap.

This child looked out from milky-gray, unseeing eyes and scowled up at the night in a perpetual grimace. The head was hydro-cephalic and disproportionately large, more so than hydrocephalus alone could allow.

We knew then how reality stalked the unfortunate and kept many from moving on.

Anyways, Cu Chi tunnels are best arranged with a guide. You either won’t know what it is you’re looking at or end up trying to squeeze into one of the tunnels that haven’t had their initial steps expanded for Western tourists.

Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Cu Chi tunnels
I was actually stuck in this one for a minute

Though this could be a humbling experience that tips you in favor of the treadmill, it’s better to simply shell out the $5 USD for bus ride (both ways) and tour. Rips-off’s aside, everything you get for the right price around here is a deal.

One of Cu Chi’s premier attractions is the shooting range. Non-Americans are likelier to get a thrill from shooting off a few rounds from an AK-47. Americans, on the other hand, can up the ante and opt into shooting the M-30, mounted and fully auto. Bullets round off to about 2 USD a piece and you’ll need to buy them in bulk (10 per clip).

Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Shooting an AK

Two people, however, are allowed to share one clip. Though this isn’t exactly akin to blowing up a Cambodian cow with an RPG (my buddy assures me that this is a thing), it’s still quite fun. Cover your ears, though; the aural safety regulations are sparse, and by sparse I mean non-existent.

There’s a scrumptiously bad propaganda film shown at the end of the tour. There’s no way to tell when exactly it was made but unless you’re a fan of kitsch do yourself a favor and go for a walk instead.

Saigon is of course replete with non-combat related activities. One of the hippest spots is known as ‘the coffee apartment’, which is quite literally an apartment building that’s been refurbished to house a variety of restaurants, cafes, and pubs.

Western, Japanese, and Vietnamese food abound on just about every floor and the coffee is (like everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City) fantastic.

The Coffee Apartment by night

Bitexico Finacial Tower is a five-minute walk from the coffee apartments, but if you’re there for the viewing platform make sure to ascend before 7PM.

We didn’t go, as I’ve mounted a variety of viewing platforms in Shanghai and Hong Kong and thus had my fair share of taking in cities through bullet-proof glass. I’m assured that the view of Ho Chi Minh City’s skyline is nice, however, and tempered nicely by lakes and rivers.

The protruding dock is for helicopters, not tourists

And of course, for the seedy and party-savvy among us, Saigon has its very own incarnation of Bangkok’s infamous Kao San Road. Vui Bien is the place to stroll for a taste of funky street food and funkier cocktails.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that birthday celebrations are commencing at every bar – the giant white balloons are filled to bursting with nitrous oxide, which may or may not be legal (we couldn’t coax a straight answer out of anyone. Go figure).

Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, balloons
Ready to celebrate?

One of the most entertaining sites in the area has got to be bar security guards (who we mistook for police) scootering toward their employers with a flock of nitrous balloons in tow.

Beware, though. You’ll be solicited by dealers slinging Marijuana and cocaine, and drug laws in Asia are Draconian to the point of execution (seriously, a more than comfortable amount of Asian countries give major drug offenders the axe. The literal axe).

Vui Bien by night

Foreign bachelors are certain to be solicited by ladies of the night, so work up your most serious ‘no’ face and be ready to stroll above normal walking speed.

A lot of people include trips to the Mekong Delta in their Saigon reports. In this author’s humble opinion the Delta is quite a separate experience from Saigon, as it takes roughly 4 hours to get there and more than a single day to walk away with a full experience. We didn’t go ourselves.

Lastly, for those who dig colonial architecture, Saigon is a powerhouse. The Old Post Office, Ho Chi Minh’s Palace, Notre Dame (same name, same look) and other buildings are peppered around District one and its constituents. The architectural walk around was nearly European in its grandeur and proximity, so take a half-day to peruse from site to site on foot.

That’s about it for my personal experience of Ho Chi Minh City. The markets are fun and aren’t much different from anywhere else in Asia, except that they’re chock-full of coffee. For Gods sake, though, bargain. You will be indecently and inhumanly ripped off if you don’t.

If you’re savvy and well-prepared, you’ll probably have a good time. I wasn’t, and yet it was at least masochistically fun. Regardless, your experience is certain to be memorable.


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