HCMC is big, brash and not afraid to give its visitors a good shake upon arrival. It’s not a place where you go for relaxation (unless you happen to be knocking back a few drinks in the famous Saigon, Saigon Bar overlooking the hustle and bustle below). But if you’re in for a rollercoaster ride of buzz and excitement then this city ticks the boxes. Over 10 million people (each one with a motorbike) inhabit this metropolis spread over 30,000 square kilometres. And forecasts suggest this will grow to 14 million by 2025.
The city is broken up into ‘Districts’, each one with its own character. District 1 is where most visitors settle, as it hugs the Saigon River on one side and contains many of HCMC’s major attractions within its boundaries. Whilst we’d suggest most of these are within walking distance of each other, walking is far from easy, as you constantly battle against the endless stream of motorbikes that come from every angle.
Whereas Hanoi still retains a taste of ‘old’ Vietnam, especially when it comes to locally run shops and cafes, HCMC has embraced big chains from every corner of the World, which for some is convenient, and for others maybe a little disappointing. Generally we still found it fascinating and definitely ‘different’ from many other large Asian cities.
Things to do
The city is undergoing a construction boom, with new infrastructure creating some headaches as you try and navigate its major streets. As mentioned most major attractions can be found in District 1 and provide an insight into HCMC’s recent and distant past. From the French Colonial era you’ll enjoy the Notre Dame Cathedral, which sits right next to the glorious Ho Chi Minh City Post Office Building, designed by Gustav Eiffel (yes, the same guy who designed the Tower). A short distance is another wonderful building from the era, the Opera House. The most famous temple in the city is the Jade Emperor, and for those interested in finding out more about the Vietnam War, the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum are a must see.
Shoppers will find plenty of diverse high end malls, but for those interested in a ‘bit of haggle’ a good starting point would be Saigon 1 Mall, before tackling the ‘in your face’ Ben Thanh Market. Here you’ll find plenty of the usual tourist items, especially handbags, jewellery and of course shirts and shoes.
Food & Entertainment
After a long day sightseeing, you’ll be wanting to grab a bite to eat and enjoy a beverage or two. And HCMC does not disappoint in this space. There are a vast range of local street food vendors, market stalls/food courts, all the way through to top class local and international cuisine. Quality is excellent and generally the prices are very attractive, especially if you’re talking street food.
Rooftop bars have become all the rage in HCMC, and whilst reviews of them can be mixed, they do offer unbelievable views and can certainly be a great place to enjoy a few drinks and a dance. Prices in these bars can be on the high side, so it pays to take advantage of happy hours, and perhaps use them only as a starting point before heading elsewhere. For more competitive pricing and a seriously good vibe, the place to go is in and around Bui Vien Street, which is in the heart of the backpacker zone. The music is loud, the crowds a little crazy, but there’s no denying its a feast for the senses and a lot of fun.
Day trips and excursions
Easy day trips from the city include heading down the beachside city of Vung Tau (by road or ferry), for some coastal fun, or heading North West to explore the Cu Chi Tunnels (not for the claustrophobic!). Another popular trip is to venture along the Mekong River, and get taste of how the local people live using traditional methods unchanged for centuries.
HCMC is served by Tan Son Nhat International Airport, the largest in Vietnam (accounting for half of all air traffic). There are direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne, and 1 stop flights from other major Australian cities. HCMC has excellent links with all major regional centres, such as Singapore, Bangkok, KL, Phnom Penh, Manila and Jakarta. And of course serves all other major cities in Vietnam – with very regular flights in particular to Hanoi.
The city has a rail link to Hanoi, and various ferry connections to Southern Vietnam and Cambodia (including Phnom Penh).
Vietnam does not currently offer a retirement visa, so long stay visitors tend to extend 90 day visa’s. Australian’s require a visa even if they are only planning a short stay. For more information on this, please see the visa section of our website.
Vietnam uses the Dong, which is currently trading at around 17,500 to A$1.00. The US$ is also fairly widely used, although its important that the notes are in good condition or they will often be rejected. Whilst major credit cards are widely accepted in major hotels, cafés and restaurants, Vietnam is still a very cash driven society, so it’s certainly worth having some cash on hand, especially if visiting museums, markets and local shops.
HCMC, and Vietnam in general are a fascinating destination, that you feel is still developing as a tourist hotspot. You sense that there’s still a feeling of discovery about the place that maybe in 5 or 10 years time may not be there. Aussies are certainly finding it an increasingly attractive alternative to traditional favourites, such as Bali and Thailand, so it’s no surprise that we’re now getting enquiries about staying longer term.
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