I was a bit apprehensive about going to Vietnam. I had heard some great things about the country, but I also heard some mediocre things.
“They will try to scam you at every turn.”
“Some of the older generation dislike people from the USA.”
And after having been there? Well, yeah, maybe some of it was true. But it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be, especially in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). We liked HCMC more than we liked Vietnam as a whole. It was a vibrant city full of lights and noise and coffee. The astounding number of mopeds zooming around the city is something HCMC is well known for throughout southeast Asia (see the video, this was a mellow example). In general, we found HCMC (and the south in general) to be much more welcoming (and fair) to tourists than the north (but we’ll go into that more in a future post). HCMC was our favorite city in the whole country.
Video – Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City
High Level. We bussed from Phnom Penh to HCMC.
Detailed. We took Giant IBIS bus. We caught it at the Giant IBIS station Phnom Penh. The border crossings were super easy and the bus dropped us off in the touristy district of HCMC. They gave us water and pastries onboard the bus, and it also had WiFi and A/C. Major win! Overall, the service was good. They take your passport on the bus prior to arriving at the Cambodia-Vietnam border crossing, which is a bit scary, but no worries you do get them back.
We stayed in the touristy section of District 1 in HCMC. For the first few days, we stayed on the south side of the park. We recommend only staying here if you like touts, bumpin’ music when you are trying to sleep, and overpriced food. We moved to the north side of the park for the last few days (still in District 1), and it was a wise decision. The vibe was a bit calmer (no need to sleep with earplugs) but still trendy. The food was also a bit more delicious and cheaper.
Food is where Vietnam really shines. There is so much variety!
Unfortunately, we sometimes had trouble picking out which establishments were restaurants. In Thailand, it was easy. It’s the one that says Pad Thai. I’m exaggerating a bit, but in Vietnam, there were so many different kinds of food, sometimes we didn’t recognize a single item on the menu. Also, the language was different enough to us that signs for restaurants and barber shops were indistinguishable at first (should we try the ‘Shampoo and shave’ tonight or stick with the ‘Men’s cut’?).
All of the food had one thing in common – over the top, explosion in your mouth, flavor-for-days goodness, thanks to the many sauces and herbs used in the cooking. Also, there was very little fried food which is a HUGE plus after months of fried-something for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the rest of SE Asia.
Pho. Pho is a well known Vietnamese soup. It consists of broth, noodles, herbs, and meat. It seemed to us that beef is the more traditional version of the dish. The broth seems to be the crux of the dish. It is made by simmering beef bones, other beef parts, onions, spices, etc. for many hours. To me, the best pho had very tender thinly cut slices of meat that were barely cooked. It seemed like the soup broth did most of the cooking of the meat. Pho is most popular in Vietnam as a breakfast dish which I was not complaining about.. it’s the coolest time of the day, so the best time to eat a hot bowl of soup!
Banh mi. Another very well known Vietnamese dish. Can you tell we migrated towards the dishes we knew in our first few days in Vietnam? We were also craving sandwiches, since until now, they weren’t really a thing in Southeast Asia. A banh mi is a baguette filled with delicious things. The version we looked for mostly was pork meatball. It usually also contained some sort of pate, veggies (like carrots and cucumbers), herbs, and delicious meatball sauce or spicy sauce. We very often also got breakfast banh mi sandwiches filled with eggs (and similar other delicious add-ons).
Mango Salad. Mango salad consists of thinly sliced green mango, which has a slightly sour taste. It’s mixed with other herbs, shallots, peanuts, and perhaps other thinly slice vegetables. It then has a sauce made up of sugar, chilis, garlic, lime, fish sauce, and vinegar. The result is a salad that is deliciously sweet, spicy, sour, and just tastes refreshing due to the vegetables and herbs.
All that coffee, yo. Vietnam has a solid coffee culture. There were coffee shops on just about every block. There were trendy joints (you know, the ones with air conditioning) or there were the pop up shops that would be there in the morning but gone by 11am. We enjoyed all of them. The Vietnamese coffee I most enjoyed was “sua da”, which means over ice with milk (usually condensed milk). The resulting drink was rich and velvety and delicious. And really caffeinated.
Market candy. This wouldn’t really fit in the same category as the above foods, but we stumbled upon a market one night, and bought too much candy by the kilo. One of the candies that stood out was a banana/ginger/peanut concoction, sort of like THIS recipe.
Explore! One of our favorite things to do when we visit any big city is just to walk around different neighborhoods. And HCMC has a lot to offer in that regard. We spent most of our time in HCMC wandering the streets, drinking coffee, and eating delicious food. Along our wandering, we did stop and see the following places:
- War Remnants Museum. The War Remnants Museum is a museum detailing the “American War” as it is known in Vietnam or the “Vietnam War” as it is known in the USA. It was interesting and tough to see as someone from the USA. I constantly looked around and wondered if everyone hated me because I was from the States, as we did some pretty terrible things during the war. But you know what? It’s war. Terrible things happened during the war. But do you think any of the terrible things done by North Vietnam or the Viet Cong were shown in the museum? Big glass of NOPE. History is written by the victors, no? As a result, any mind less inclined to critical thinking (and there are a lot of those in this world) could walk out of this museum with a new found hatred towards the ‘imperial aggressors’ from America. I want to make it clear that we do not condone the war in Vietnam. However, I was slightly confused at how the museum made the USA out to be the only bad entity. I would hope any Vietnam War museum in the USA (a quick internet search shows there is one in Texas) would show the horrors of both sides. And horrors there definitely were. Agent Orange? Come on Monsanto. I’m sure you knew what you were doing. But that’s a hate letter for another day.
- Reunification Palace. Similar to the White House in the USA, this palace housed the leader of South Vietnam. Its use was discontinued at the end of the Vietnam War, and it’s been in a kind of a time warp since then. It’s all decked out in 1970s style.
- Other Notable Areas. We did a bit of a self walking tour to admire some of the French influence in the architecture, including the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office. We also wandered through Ben Thanh market, up Dong Khoi street, and down Nguyen Hue Street. Nguyen Hue Street in particular was neat; it has a huge pedestrian area. The Rex Hotel (where many USA journalists stayed during the Vietnam War) is located along the street. A really nice Dairy Queen is also located on the street which tasted just as delicious as it does in the states (not that we tried it or anything).
Seeing The Jungle Book. Our stomachs were a bit off in HCMC, and it was also quite hot. One day, we decided to see a movie. The Jungle Book is the only thing that was in English and sounded slightly interesting. It actually far exceeded expectations; we really enjoyed it. It was also amusing to watch it with a Vietnamese audience (who was reading Vietnamese subtitles) as they all laughed with a bit of a delay.
One crazy, hot run. HCMC is definitely not the easiest place we’ve run, and it was a sweaty mess, but it turned out to be fun. We found a typical Southeast Asia “gym” (or a bunch of pieces of gym equipment out in the open) in the park with a bunch of locals working out. Those are my favorite. Strava data is HERE.
Coffee. Good coffee culture equals happy husband. Happy husband equals happy wife equals happy travels. Equivalencies for days.
Movie Theaters and Dairy Queen. It was just the taste of home we needed.
War Remnants. It was interesting to see some of the photos and to learn about Agent Orange but the propaganda was a bit too much for us.
Should we motorbike through Vietnam? Many backpackers motorbike through Vietnam. It has become somewhat of a thing in recent years. Buy a bike in the North (or South), ride down to the South (or North), and sell your bike to another tourist who is looking to go in the opposite direction. We really thought about it. We even met someone to look at a bike. Buttt… we decided not to. Why? Probably the biggest reason is that we didn’t want to spend that many hours on a motorbike. I think motor biking would have been just as amazing as going by bus (and maybe more amazing if you can get over the sore bum), but we were happy with our choice.
Practical matters in HCMC traffic. The major streets in HCMC all seemed to have pedestrian crossings. A lot of the medium roads, however, did not. It could be quite intimidating to cross the street. We read that the best method was just to walk slowly into traffic (against the advice every adult ever gave you) and to keep moving (or following a local always works too!). The moped drivers gauge your speed and zoom around you either in front or behind. If you stop unexpectedly or speed up, that’s when you’re most likely to be hit. I don’t know, it all sounds crazy to me, but we made it out alive so there must be something to it!