Getting to Ho Chi Minh City
The city formerly known as Saigon in the pre-unification years, once the capital of South Vietnam, is now one of the most Vibrant cities in SE Asia, and one of my favorites. I see it as a place with lots of personality and life, but for some other tourist, this would translate to noisy and chaotic.
HCMC is in the south, not far from the border with Cambodia and the Mekong river. It is the main hub for arriving in Vietnam, so when you get there by plane, most likely this will be your starting point. The cheapest tickets to get to HCMC will have at least one stopover (typically in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, or Seoul) but there are also more expensive direct flights from Europe and Australia, with Vietnam Airlines, there are not direct flights from the USA though.
From the Airport
From Than Son Nhat international airport, the cabs to the central area would be around 250.000 Dong (~15 USD) and remember to take either Vinasun or Mailinh cabs. The budget choice is to take a bus (public city bus 152) to take you to Behn Thanh. Last time I went there it was 6.000 Dong (not much!!) but the drivers might want to charge you extra for your carry bag, so worst of cases it will be 12.000 Dong (still not much).
You Also can get to HCMC by bus or train, be aware the trains don’t run on a tight Schedule and delays will always be expected. When I traveled from Nha Trang to Saigon station (The train station still keeps the old name) I was supposed to get there by 4:30 a.m but I ended up arriving at 7:50 and almost loosing a tour I booked in advance.
A city of Motorbikes
The first thing to notice in HCMC, apart from the heat, is the number of motorbikes, there are tons of them! according to Thanh Nien News, there are over 7 million as of 2016, and they are everywhere. I would not recommend driving one during a holiday (at least in the big cities).
Crossing the streets can be challenging at the beginning. It is hard to know when to cross, the traffic is a bit chaotic and the motorbikes never cease coming. At the end, it is either getting closer to a local to cross the street beside him/her or making a leap of faith and just go! not running, not hesitating, not stopping suddenly, if you go at a normal pace the motorbikes will go around you.
A few days in HCMC
Now there comes the question of what to see in Ho Chi Minh, and there is plenty to see! This is a city that caters different tourism styles, a place with many hidden gems that is worth spending time exploring. The city exhibits an evolution of its architecture from the French colonial to the modern buildings.
The main area where most of the hostels and backpackers are is Pham Ngu Lao, so expect it to be noisy and busy, on the other hand, it will have cheap drinks and meals. Beer is extremely cheap, even more than juices, but I didn’t want to be that guy having breakfast with a Saigon Beer, not that there’s anything wrong with that :D.
Its neighboring district is Ben Thanh, is famous for the day and night markets. during the day, the inside market (chợ bến thành) will offer all kind of articles; clothes, shoes, electrical, gifts, you name it! although be prepared to haggle and to be grabbed by the shirt if you try to leave. And remember that once you start a negotiation is almost as if you are committing to buy, so don’t haggle for an item to figure out the lowest price, you won’t make friends like that.
I love the night markets because they are outdoors, there is all kind of products, the vibe is great, there is amazing and varied food which is great for nibbling different things.
Some historical landmarks to see are the reunification palace, symbol of the fall of the south Vietnamese government, the museum of war where apart from displaying articles from different wars (duh) there is a display of the damage of the agent orange and how it still affects older and new generations of Vietnamese and US soldiers exposed to it. There are some other iconic landmarks as the central post office, our lady of Notre dame cathedral, Bitexco tower (where I naively thought I was going to be able to get access to the cantilevered platform), and just the city in general. It is really interesting to go around, enjoy the architecture, the food, the cheap and 100% fruit juices and the beer.
Around HCMC within driving distance, there are places to visit such as the Cu chi tunnels, which nowadays is a reconstruction of the original tunnels used by the Vietcong during the war, there is a display of the weapons they used, booby traps, and war strategies. Going to the Cu Chi Tunnels can be done easily in a half day tour. It is fairly inexpensive (around 10-15 USD) and there is an option to shoot an AK-47, an advice for this: Bring your own ear protection.
A couple of hours from HCMC is the Mekong river, there are many tours to it, from the one day tour to get a feel of it, the biking tour, to the overnight stay. Another tour offered to me was a day tour to Cao Dai temple, which I have heard is beautiful, but it is a 4 hour drive, which is it too much to cramp on a day, almost like going to Phnom Penh which is around 6 hours by bus from HCMC, and by the way, it is the cheapest way to go there.
A city Highlight to Consider
One of the highlights for me in HCMC is the coffee scene, after living in Australia (and being Colombian) coffee is one of the things I crave every day. And the Vietnamese know what they do in that regard, there are many local coffee shops with a distinctive touch, that welcome local and visitors to talk and share a cup of coffee.
Particularly I found two hidden coffee places in what appeared to be a run-down building from the outside. Once I managed to get inside and going upstairs, I found Banksy cafe and the mockingbird cafe. I went first to Banksy which has a retro-vintage atmosphere, decorated with antiques and suggestive posters, not only the coffee was great, the food too. This is either for couples or friends wanting to hang out for a nice chat. After this, I went to the mockingbird cafe which from what I saw it felt more like a couples place, with lowlights and private spaces, all with a bohemian atmosphere. What I liked the most in both of them is that this is not your well-known tourist spot, mostly locals were hanging around. If you want to go there, the address is 14, Đường Tôn Thất Đạm, district 1.