When the Vietnamese government decided to open it’s doors to tourism in the 1990s, it did the rest of the world a service. And while this long country has much to offer from top to bottom, its biggest draw by far is Ho Chi Minh City.
Busy and bustling, hot and humid, HCMC is attracting an international crowd and the numbers are growing each year as more and more travelers seek out a change from the usual SE Asian destinations. Many savvy locals are taking advantage of this newfound income by creating businesses they never could in previous years and the injection of life and spondula into the city is palpable.
There’s a good reason why many high end, multi national stores have already opened up in HCMC - the Saigonese can now afford their wares and the tourists are switched on to this city. That aside, HCMC is a very affordable holiday destination or more so if you care to live there as an expat. If you can look past the total chaos that is the traffic and into the heart of this city, you’ll find it friendly and welcoming with a genuine heart that is as yet untainted by western consumerism.
There are, however, a few tips and tricks to surviving here, whether you're here for a month or a year or somewhere in between. Paying attention to them can mean the difference between a good time and a great time, and can keep you safe in one of the busiest cities in Southeast Asia.
Scooters & Helmets. There are an estimated two million fume-producing scooters - locally known as xe-oms - in this city that never sleeps, and while it can be great fun to ride on the back of one, you’d be completely crazy to do so without a helmet. The Vietnamese government finally acknowledged this and made the wearing of helmets mandatory in December 2009 (not for the kiddies though, their skulls are still pliable). So if you hire a driver, make sure he offers you a helmet if you don’t have your own. In order to avoid head lice, I bought my own for US $10. If you’re planning on sticking around, buy a matching cotton mask for about $1.50. You’ll thank me for it later, really. Helmets in Vietnam are a definite fashion statement and come in all shapes and colours, including zebra stripes, dalmation spots and trendy cap styles that don’t even look like helmets. Even the kids can have a ladybug helmet with antennae on springs. I’d recommend purchasing a helmet from a proper store rather than the curb stalls that set up at random hours. I trusted that mine was therefore less eggshell-like. Thankfully I didn’t crash so I never had to test it. The traffic is, in a word, diabolical. You could sit and watch it all day and struggle to determine any obvious rules. Riding on the pavement is actually illegal although you’d never know it. Xe-om drivers are often a law unto themselves and you’ll see them smoking, talking on their cell phones or both whilst driving so physical contact should be avoided at all costs. Not only because it will cost you financially (try finding an insured Vietnamese xe-om driver) but it might also hurt.
Crossing The Road. Yeah I know, mountains of advice have been written on crossing the road in the former Saigon, and I'm here to tell you to ignore it at your own peril. It’s diabolical, a word that applies to a lot here: traffic, pollution and poverty to name a few. There are, believe it or not, three rules and if you adhere to them you should get across the road in one piece. Firstly, once you summon the courage to step off the curb, don’t change your mind. This confuses the drivers who then won’t know if you’re coming or going. Secondly, slowly does it. You must give the traffic ample time to plan and pick their path around you. Imagine you’re a rock in a river. The traffic is the water and will gently flow around you. Unless of course it’s peak hour because then it’s flowing over you. Make it to the median strip and let out your breath then do it again. Lastly, sudden movements equal certain pain: run and you’re done for.
Don’t Get in a Dodgy Taxi. They’re notorious and all guide books will tell you about them. The locals prefer Vinasun and Mai Linh, which are clean and well run. There are many copy cabs in the city and they always congregate at the airport. They are also known to hang around outside the famous Ben Thanh Markets, where a friendly person will offer to ‘help’ you. Flag down your own cab or you’ll find yourself herded into a dodgy one, possibly with no inside door handles and a meter that runs a million times faster than it should. It’s vital to ensure that your chosen taxi has a meter in a locked box on the dash and the driver has ID displayed. Otherwise, by all means get in and go for a ride but know this: it’s definitely going to cost you!
Vietnamese Food. The local food is amazing. Let’s face it: if you didn’t already like it you would have booked a flight elsewhere, right? Whether you’re eating on the street with the locals, perching your ‘probably wider than the average Vietnamese behind’ on those ubiquitous tiny plastic stools that look like they belong in a kindergarten, or whether your budget stretches to fancy-pants establishments with cloth napkins, there’s going to be a party in your mouth. I’m going to recommend only one restaurant here and even if you’ve got just one night in HCMC, it’s a must-do. The ‘Nga Hang Ngoc’ on Pasteur Street is unbeatable on many levels. It’s a yellow, four storey and colonial-era building with a maze of multi-levels, balconies and water features. There is no central kitchen; instead the many cooks are set up around the edges with their own hawker-like stalls. Diners can observe the cooking process, choose from the displays and take lots of photos. The service is fast, efficient and impeccable as well as friendly, for which the Vietnamese are famous. It pays to pre-book or arrive early as the place is popular with both locals and tourists. The bill won’t give your wallet a coronary either, which is always a nice bonus.
Bent Policemen. Much like wait-staff in the United States, the police here are underpaid and so supplement their salary with ‘tips’. If you get pulled over whilst driving or riding your scooter, just bite your tongue and get your wallet out. There is absolutely no point in trying to take the moral high ground here as you will not win. Surprisingly, it’s acceptable to barter your fine. I know of a girl who pulled out a large note after agreeing on her fine as that’s all she had and the kindly policeman honoured it by giving her change from his own wallet! My own xe-om driver was pulled over one day with me on the back. He knew he’d done nothing wrong, so groaned and proceeded to take his wallet over to the second policeman only to practically skip back to me in delight as it turned out to be a friend from his football team, which meant he didn’t have to pay. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, but usually you won't.
Weather: Hot, hot and hot. Any time of the year in Vietnam is damn hot and the humidity takes some getting used to. You may find yourself hopping from one air conditioner to the next. Thankfully most shops and restaurants have A/C, but many still only have rickety fans on offer. If you’re in the country long enough you will eventually acclimatize; until then (and probably after it still) just put up with the sweat running down your back and the attractive armpit stains on your t-shirt. Don’t worry…everybody’s got them. If you happen to experience some monsoonal rains, take cover as soon as it begins or pull out your boots. Some streets of central HCMC will quickly turn into rivers and that's no exaggeration. If you’ve noticed the garbage that sits on the curbs and blocks the drains in the daylight, you'll be sure you won’t want to be wading through it with bare feet and legs.
Tap Water. The bottom line is: don’t drink it. I did read somewhere that it’s ok to do so in HCMC but I wouldn’t trust it. Having said that I did forget one morning and brushed my teeth in it, but I’m still here. Bottled water is very cheap and the larger the bottle the better the value. You won’t have to trek to a supermarket to find it either as everyone sells it. Depending on the exchange rate you probably shouldn’t pay more than around forty cents for a small bottle. Interestingly, you can buy beer just as easily and cheaply. You've got to love a country like that!
Cyclos. Pronounced ‘sick-lows’, these rickshaw-type vehicles are everywhere. The drivers are very friendly and very skinny. Be sure your driver understands where you want to go and settle on your price before getting in; otherwise you might accidentally be taken the long way around. I feel it’s important to point out here that you shouldn’t be a horrible tourist. Cyclo drivers work incredibly hard to pedal overweight sightseers around the city, which is why they’re so skinny. If you’re in a group, try to stick to one or two people per cyclo. I mean, have you stood on the scales lately? Show some humanity.
Mega Bucks. No matter the exchange rate from your own country's currency, one trip to the ATM will make you a multi- millionaire. Your wallet will bulge so don’t be daft enough to store it in your back pocket. Everything from fashion to faux art, knock-off sunglasses to spring rolls is affordable so you’re going to want to part with some of it. Don’t open your bulging wallet in public. Keep a small wad of notes in your pocket. You’re just asking to be robbed otherwise and someone may just give in to the temptation.
Have Your Wits About You At Night. This golden rule of travel always applies and is particularly pertinent if you venture out after dark into the notorious backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lao. By day it’s frenetic and friendly; by night it turns seedy and sleazy. My friend was mugged at 3:00 in the morning when two men on a scooter pulled up alongside her. The pillion rider slashed her handbag strap and they were off. It literally took seconds and she was completely sober. She was just taken by surprise. I wouldn’t say this method is actually common practice in this area but it does happen so forewarned is forearmed. The tourist police can’t do anything but you’ll still have to join the queue there in the morning to get the report form for your insurance company.
Reality Check (Yes I know I said ten tips, but this one can't be left unsaid!). Don’t be a travel wanker. By that I mean don’t boast about how you managed to haggle down an old man to breaking point. It’s not a competition that you need to win every time. You’ll be a better person for relenting and paying their price after some ‘reasonable’ bartering. If you’re traveling with kids don’t shield them from the beggars. Explain to them why these people have to beg on the streets. Get your child to hand over some dong if you choose to donate. It’s important that our children learn of the disparity between us and them so they will grow up with enough compassion to help to change this situation in years to come. Don’t hide from the deformed beggars. It can be confronting and sometimes frightening for young children who won’t understand why another person has no legs or a lop-sided face, but they’re still human beings with a heart and soul and they deserve our respect. The other thing is that you’re rich in their eyes. You shouldn’t let yourself by ripped off but don’t spend fifteen minutes haggling over twenty cents either. They need it more than you do and you know it. Lastly, the Vietnamese are one of the friendliest people in the world and as with any poor country, if you simply show a smile and some respect, the kindness that you may be shown in return from those who have barely anything will melt your heart.
About the Author Tina Spice hit the global trail with her husband and daughter before falling in love with Berlin, where she is the ultimate 'slash': writer-slash-teacher-slash-photographer plus snowboard gumby and wine lover. She loves that first smell of a new country when she first steps out of an airport, and the feeling of total anonymity that goes with it. Her musings can be found at www.wherenobodyknowsyou.com.
About the Author
Tina Spice hit the global trail with her husband and daughter before falling in love with Berlin, where she is the ultimate 'slash': writer-slash-teacher-slash-photographer plus snowboard gumby and wine lover. She loves that first smell of a new country when she first steps out of an airport, and the feeling of total anonymity that goes with it. Her musings can be found at www.wherenobodyknowsyou.com.