Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

With an exploding population 8.2 million people, Ho Chi Minh is a city full of movement, energy and constant bustle. Interestingly, there is an underlying entrepreneur scene here as well, with many people owning their own shops, restaurants and other small businesses.

We were lucky to see much of the city through the eyes of an expat and his wife, so were able to get a true sense for what daily life was like. It’s also one of the main hubs of Vietnam’s rich history and culture so if you have the time, we’ve listed a few recommended tours below.

Must know (stats & fun facts)

  • Ho Chi Minh City = HCMC
  • HCMC is home to the second largest Korean population, outside of Korea, in Southeast Asia after the Philippians. As a result, you’ll notice a number of Korean influences, notably around cuisine, throughout sections of the city.
  • Motor bikes. There are motor bikes zipping around everywhere (including the sidewalks!). They are the primary form of transport so as such, there is roughly one bike to every person of driving age, resulting in somewhere around 6 million motor bikes flying around at all times. This, combined with the lack of traffic lights makes crossing the streets an active game of risk. However, the chaos is understood by all drivers, so if you keep a steady pace as you cross, the drivers will see you and adjust their speed accordingly. We found it helpful in the beginning to tag along with someone else who was crossing, to get the hang of it ourselves.
    Insider tip: If you aren’t a seasoned motor bike driver, we don’t recommend you start riding here! It’s challenging and truly dangerous but would likely be thrilling if you knew what you were doing!
  • Uber is available in HCMC, and is, like most other cities, much cheeper than the local taxis.
  • Wi-fi is available in most places, but the speed and connection quality do vary.
  • Budget: Ho Chi Minh is more expensive than other SE Asian cities, but they do accept credit cards at more places, and ATM machines are easily accessible.
  • Ice in everything (almost to excess) and is safe to drink. You’ll find that the water at most establishments is purified but as a general rule, stick with bottled water.
  • Ice green tea is served instead of water at most places and is usually free.
  • Hammocks are a wildly popular vendor item in HCMC. If you’re more of a vagabond, or simply like to have a hammock handy for chance opportunities, you can pick one up from a wide selection of street vendors or any local market. They’re great for the beach if you’re headed that way, and they role up to be quite small so won’t take up too much space in your bag.
  • The first Starbucks opened in HCMC in 2014. There was a line that stretched an hour long on opening day.
  • McDonald’s recently opened it’s first establishment in HCMC. It’s considered food for “rich people” as they keep their pricing global, and in Vietnam, the price of one “dollar menu” item will get you a full Vietnamese noodle meal.

Must play

Da Cau. Known more commonly as “jianzi”, this is a game similar to hacky sack but the toy is cosmetically different. The base of it is made from springs of sorts, with plastic feathers attached to it, making it fly higher than a usual hacky sack would. Various articles state that da cau is actually the national sport of Vietnam, with it’s beginnings originating somewhere around around 500 B.C.E. In the evenings, you’ll notice the parks full of local people from the city playing this game. Many street vendors sell the toy so if you see them around, you can buy one for yourself and join in the fun!

Must view

Rooftop bars, if you’re looking for them, are a great way to see the sprawling city from above. A great list of the most popular ones can be found here.
Insider tip: Be sure to check the dress code in advance as many require business casual for both men and women. (An unlucky surprise if you get there in shorts and can’t visit the top!)

Must imbibe

  • Tiger Beer. You can find a wide selection of craft cocktails and beer in HCMC, but if you’re looking to sip on the local brew, Tiger Beer is your drink. It’s cool and refreshing, coming in both a can and bottle depending on the establishment. You can also find Tiger Crystal, which is the lite version, but it does carry the watered down taste that any lite beer would.
  • Snake and scorpion rice wine. We can’t attest to trying this first hand, but if you’re curious to try, it’s said to make men stronger, and come packed with multiple health benefits.

Must caffeinate

  • Thai iced coffee with milk. Sold at the hundreds of coffee shops that sprinkle the city, and many roadside carts, this is a decedent treat that will also jolt you awake. It’s made with a few ounces of thick Vietnamese coffee, a healthy amount of condensed milk and a lot of ice. Very good, and very addicting!
  • Coffee shops. Coffee shops are everywhere as the cafe culture has been very much alive since the French introduced it to the Vietnamese ages ago. Like many shops in the US, each cafe has it’s own personality and specialty, so you should do some research to find one that fits what you’re looking for. A great list of a few spots can be found here, but we truly enjoyed I.D. Cafe and Ben Coffee. In addition to the coffee, the wi-fi was great, and they both had extensive food menus, which made hanging around to work for the afternoon a bit more pleasant.
  • Phuc Long Coffee & Tea House. This is a popular chain, equivalent to the Vietnamese version of Starbucks, serving local tea and coffee drink favorites.

More can be read about the rich coffee culture and unique drink variations here.

A list of popular coffee shops in the city can be found here.

Must cook

There are various cooking classes available to take while in HCMC, and worth the time to learn how this savory cuisine is made. We had the opportunity to participate in one as part of our Mekong River tour and truly enjoyed making our own spring rolls and Vietnamese-style papaya salad, while also dining on local favorites such as hot pot and fried elephant fish.

Must dine

  • Pho Thin Ha Noi. Pho was originally native to the north but has been since adopted by all regions as one of the country’s national dishes. Pho Thin Ha Noi is known for serving the original recipe, so if you’re looking to get a taste for how it all started, this place is an excellent choice. It also offers a great atmosphere, and if you go for lunch, you’re bound to witness the locals on their lunch break feasting on their own bowl.
    We truly loved this place but you can find a few other local favorites here. Insider tip: The lean brisket is the best choice! 
  • GoGi House. Authentic Korean BBQ restaurant and one of our favorite meals. We went with our friends who live in the city and did all the ordering, so we can’t speak entirely to recommendations as everything we tasted was delicious. We do recommend the beef and pork. Insider tip: There’s usually a wait no matter the day of the week, so plan to go earlier than expected to eat to put your name in. There are many bars nearby where you can sip on tasty cocktails while you wait for your table to be up. Suggestion cred: Quin & Nha

Must snack

  • Korean ice cream cones. You’ll see these around the city hanging off numerous food carts. The cones are more like long windy tubes (similar to a silly straw), and ice cream is pumped into either end with a bit to lick off the top. A tasty treat that’s fun to eat!
  • Tapioca. Known more commonly for the pearls found in bubble tea, tapioca comes in many forms, and in Vietnam, was was considered a poor man’s meal by many generations of the past. Rich in fiber, it fills you up for hours, so during hard times and war times, Vietnamese people would eat this to hold them over until they could find a proper meal. Today it’s served more as a treat, with a mixture of sesame and salt for dipping. It has a plethora of health benefits that you can read more about here.
  • Fried tapioca balls. Tapioca pearls are also fried as a variation. They taste similar to American Pops cereal.
  • Chè chuối. This is a delicious sweet street dessert made from a type of flavorful banana called “chuối xiêm”. Served in a bowl with grilled sticky rice, warm coconut milk poured atop, and crushed roasted peanuts to garnish, this treat is a perfect mix of sweet and savory. A decadent indulgence that’s great to share!
  • Jackfruit. You’ll notice these immensely large green spiky looking fruits on the back of many a motor bike, and at most food carts. The fruit is rubbery in feel with a dry sweet taste. A fascinating article about this fruit can be found here.
  • Trai Vai. Like a lychee with a pit, and smaller.
  • Coconut taffy. It’s an interesting sight to watch how this is made- traditionally over a fire stove in obese metal pans. The liquid thickens, cools, and then rolled into large logs before being cut into small bits and wrapped. A tasty sweet treat!
  • Popped rice treats. Made with coconut milk, sugar and popped rice, this sweet can be most easily described as the Asian version of an American Rice Krispy Treat (with far less sugary and no gooey marshmallow).

Must see

Traditional amateur folk music performance. This is a UNESCO recognized art that can be seen at venues throughout the city (or as part of some tours). It’s native to the 21 South Vietnamese provinces, having started in the 19th century by farmers, and has been subsequently passed down through the generations. The songs and skits are simple, reflective of every day life- ranging from love and family to healthy crops or poor harvests. Instruments traditionally include a zither, moon lute, erhu and monochord, with guitars and violins now being used as well.

Must experience

Vietnamese version of a Thai massage. Unlike Thai or Cambodian massage, Vietnamese Thai massage is actively strong with at times painful stretching and slapping. Though, they do manage to work out most knots so worth it if you’re unusually stressed out.
Insider tip: Keep in mind, many places will want you to fill out a “tip voucher” after your massage, but we found confidently giving cash and walking out gets around this. Masseuses may try to bargain for more tip, but like any haggling, you can have the final word on whether to pay more or not.

Must photograph

Artinus 3-D Art Museum. If you aren’t racing against time in HCMC, this is a great stop for the day. A popular trend hitting Asia right now, 3-D Art Museums let you step into a world with various scenes splashed across the walls which, once photographed, bring to life a scene in 3-D, making it look like you yourself are part of the illustration. Among a variety of other themes, Artinus features an entire section dedicated to local Vietnamese scenes from different areas of the country so you can place yourself in a cyclo for instance, or atop a bridge crossing a huge waterfall! If nothing else, they make for great fun photos to share with your friends!
Suggestion cred: Quin

Must bet

Vung Tau. This is the only Greyhound Dog Racing track in Vietnam, famous amongst locals and popular amongst expats. Featuring food carts with tasty street favorites, complete with a beer stand, and full of lively betting, this is a fun night full of entertainment if you don’t mind the drive.
Note: You can take an Uber which will cost between $35USD – $40USD or the hydrofoil which is around $12USD/person. The trick is arranging for your transport home- we invited our Uber driver to wait for us, and paid him in cash on the way back. You can likely bargain a price, but do be fair as your driver will be waiting for a while for you to get through with the races.

Must bargain

Ben Thanh Market. Like most other markets, you can find just about anything here. Publicly known for being able to bargain, there are a few set vendors who will display signs that the price listed is non-negotiable. Unfortunately there isn’t much you can do to talk these vendors down, but if you’re out for a bargain, there will be plenty of other stands where you can likely find what you’re looking for.
Link: http://www.vietnam-guide.com/ho-chi-minh-city/ben-thanh-market.htm
Insider tip: You can start bargaining from 60% off the original stated price! You’ll likely get somewhere between 40% – 50% the original price for final sale, but 60% is the recommended starting point (told to us by a local)

Must sightsee

  • Mekong Delta, Vinh Long, and Cai Be Floating Market
  • Cu Chi VC Tunnels

Insider tip: Check with your hotel / guest house to see if they run tours as many you’ll find online may be considerably overpriced.

Must be aware

Vietnam, and HCMC specifically, are notorious for pick pockets. Be aware of who is around you at all times, and be mindful of when you pull out your phone. Also make sure to do your homework on where to stay and make sure your safe or locker works. We paid a bit more to stay at a place we thought would be safer than others in the area but the safe didn’t work, and ultimately, even in our attempts to hide our valuables well, we found our things to be stolen.

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