Updated: Jan 30
I went to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam for a weekend last year on my way home from South East Asia, and somehow I'm just getting around to putting everything together in this weekend guide for you. It was so much to take in and reflect on, maybe that's why it's taken me this long to process it so I could share it with you in an authentic way.
Going to Ho Chi Minh City (solo) was such a shock to my system after coming from Singapore and Bali on the first legs of my trip. It was such a contrast compared to the clean, zen and pristine areas I had just come from, where I arrived to a very long line for a Visa check, then my phone wouldn't get service and I realized barely anyone spoke English. By the way, I did research into if it was safe to travel solo as a woman there and found plenty of evidence that it was. After the initial shock on arrival, I felt very safe for the rest of my stay.
At the airport, I was greeted by a swarm of these tourist scam-type of airport transfer drivers trying to get me to go in their expensive private vans, by starting to take my luggage into the car! My gut told me to go for the airport taxi rank after getting so flustered, so be sure to make a bee line for these when you arrive to avoid this.
The cabs were much cheaper, and I recommend Grab Taxi as an app car service which I used the rest of the trip (I would have used it but my phone wasn't working with data at the time). Be sure to always have the address written down to show your driver since the correct pronunciation is incredibly difficult. From my research I learned it was best to use cash here, so I had Vietnamese dong currency that I ordered from my bank before leaving.
Ho Chi Minh City is gritty and rough around the edges, but after the initial impression it grew on me although it did take getting used to such a different way of living. I could see how exploring the surrounding areas in Vietnam, like Hanoi and Halong Bay, would add more nature scenery to the trip. One thing that really stood out to me was the contrast of quality of living there. It made me feel incredibly lucky to live in the U.S., I was so surprised to find there weren't many safe pedestrian walk ways or cross walk lights, paired with a lot of hectic traffic (mostly motor bikes) which was not a great mix.
At one point, an older Vietnamese gentleman saw that I wasn't able to cross the street because traffic wasn't stopping, and he took my arm and guided me into the oncoming traffic which had no choice but to stop! That's the way to do it apparently, and it truly showed me the kindness of this country's people.
In terms of air pollution, there was a lot of it, and I found that many people were coughing and also wearing face masks, so I was glad it wasn't a long stay for me - a weekend was the perfect amount of time to be totally honest. I don't believe these people were homeless, but I did see a lot of people using sidewalks as their personal bathroom and doing their other daily upkeep like cutting nails on the side of the street. Different expectations of hygiene for sure!
Ho Chi Minh City is up and coming now, but as a highly sensitive & empathic person this was a lot of energy for me to handle. This is my completely honest review because I want to share the good the bad and the ugly with you. It might not be what you expect as it's completely different from Western culture in terms of daily life luxuries we take for granted.
I went to Saigon (it's original name) initially because I got a great deal on an Emirates flight home to Boston from this airport. I actually flew to South East Asia for a little under $1000 round trip which was too good of a deal to pass up! I used Norwegian Air on the way there to Singapore. The history of Ho Chi Minh City intrigued me (especially the French part because of my family's ancestry), along with the new wave of entrepreneurship & tourism. What I wasn't expecting was the kindness of the people there that truly made the trip for me.
When I arrived and barely anyone spoke English, I would get translation help from someone that would find the only person that spoke English in the neighborhood. There was a real sense of community and family there.
My Airbnb was in a nice apartment complex and had a security guard that I felt took great care of me (even though he wasn't there when I arrived as expected and he didn't speak English...cue to me having so much anxiety and a minor crying break down when I couldn't get in at first...). He even tipped me off to a tourist scam when he called me a car to the airport, when he told me to only pay the amount he showed me from the app.
He insisted this multiple times which I really appreciated, because when I got to the airport the driver tried to ask me to pay a different amount a few times. It must happen a lot with tourists there, especially because of the language barrier. Be alert to these types of tourist traps there.
The 42 Nguyen Hue St. building shopping was such an interesting concept, built in the mid 1960s, the apartment block once held American military officers and high ranking officials working for the South Vietnam government. After the Fall of Saigon, some of the apartments were given to shipyard workers. With construction and development, Nguyen Hue turned into the main tourist street in Vietnam it is today, and with the new wave in tourism the tenants started renting out the apartments to business owners (which is illegal but they did it anyway). Now the units are converted into cafes, boutiques, and art studios.
I enjoyed walking around the building and being inspired by all of the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. The entrance to it was a little tricky since it was a residential building it was through the neighboring book store. My favorite parts about Vietnam were the people, the food, the history. There were plenty of vegetarian dining options and I love fresh Vietnamese cuisine!
What was nice was that I wasn't staying right in the center of the city and instead was closer to the airport, so I dined at this local family style type vegetarian restaurant on my first night, which I can't find the name of now. I didn't try any of the Vietnamese coffee which is a delicacy there because I'm super sensitive to caffeine now (read why I don't drink caffeine here) and it happens to be very strong. I did have delicious lotus tea, kumquat juice and jasmine tea instead.
I also got an incredibly affordable massage at the equivalent of $11 USD at the popular Temple Leaf Spa, I asked for it to be hard pressure where I quickly realized that was a little intense massage where the women walked on your back (my favorite). After there was time to sit in the lobby and drink delicious jasmine tea. I enjoyed exploring during the day and the Airbnb had a nice rooftop pool that I spent the mornings and evenings in.
So there you have it, my experience traveling solo to Ho Chi Minh City and what I learned from it. This is definitely a city you'll need to research before hand because it's not easy to just stumble on areas, so use this guide! From being so far out of my comfort zone traveling here, when I got home I felt so confident in my abilities to take care of myself and travel on my own. I felt as though even if I was in a place so far from home with so little in common, I was met with such kindness and hospitality from the Vietnamese people. That was exactly what I needed to know in that type of situation: that there's truly goodness in people all around the world if you look for it.
Here's where I recommend visiting and eating at:
Things I didn't get to do but were on my list:
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