May 20, 2014

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam: An Explorer's Guide to the City

Exploring the city of Ho Chi Minh (formerly known as Saigon) is a challenge one must perfect. For one, crossing the streets will give a thrill-seeker a run for its money. The city's colorful culture comprises good food, popular historical sites, French-inspired Architecture, friendly owners of hidden hostels, countless bazaars, clean parks, extremely fit people, and not to mention, its wonderful exotic coffee. But, there is also a flip side. Let me share with you some tips on how to survive the city without getting lost, hit, or scammed.

Our guide to the city (Thank you Ms. Vy!)
1. Taxi Scam - Upon arrival at the airport, make sure you head straight to the taxi bay. If you don't know where it is, ask from the airport's concierge/information center. Some will approach you and assert their rates to your hotel, while others will convince you that their service is cheap. Don't wait for them to confuse you with the conversion and just simply avoid them. We got rigged and had to pay $42. It was an expensive lesson we would never forget.

When you see this logo, walk away.
Line up on the departure level and choose Vinasun or Mai Linh. It will only cost you $7 max to get to Ben Tanh Market Area.

2. Familiarize yourself with the Dong Currency - Congratulations! You are a millionaire! Whether you're computing from dollars or peso, don't be confused with the multiple zeros. If you have a smartphone, I suggest that you download the 'Currency' Converter. This helped us a lot especially in bargaining. :)

Don't let the zeros fool you. :)
3. There's no place like Pho (Fa) - Ask the hotel receptionist or hostel owner where the best Pho is. We've tried two different restaurants and I still found both delicious. It only costs VnD 65,000 (Php135) compared to the PH's Pho Hoa. The portions are bigger, more fresh, and richer in flavor. Eat like a local and match a hot bowl of beef Pho with fresh spring rolls.

Totally worth it. :)
4. Take a Walk - There are big parks in Saigon that would encourage you to be fit. You'd be surprised on how these locals take aerobics, Sepaktakraw, Badminton, Tai Chi, and jogging, seriously. Each park has its own set of machines that you can use for free! (Bad business for gyms with memberships)

These folks take fitness seriously
5. Stay in a Hostel - It's cheap. The owner him/herself will accommodate you and give you a simple but helpful brief on exploring the city. We stayed at Vy Khanh Hostel, owned by the beautiful Ms. Vy, and she gave us a photocopied sheet of a map that served as our bible during our stay in HCMC. If you're planning to see the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple, ask her to book for you. It's much cheaper than booking online.

Don't judge the place by its front door. :)

Ranked #2 of 600 Ho Chi Minh City B&B and Inns, check out her tripadvisor reviews here

6. Tour the city by yourself - It's more fun than spending on a group tour where you stay inside the bus and go where the crowd is. Exploring the city gives you confidence and a more authentic experience by being one with the locals. Just don't forget to research beforehand on the sites that you're visiting.

Helpful notes thanks to Lonely Planet's 'Southeast Asia on a Shoestring'
Chasing pigeons beside the Notre Dame Cathedral
7. SHOP. BARGAIN. HAGGLE. - I bought 3 bags of Blue Mountain Coffee and the stall owner gave me a kilo for free. Ben Tanh is the best training ground for your haggling skills. It gets really cheap the moment the owner starts pressing digits on the calculator. (I swear!) But of course, being friendly is a huge plus! The owners know each other pretty well. So if you're good to them, they can recommend you to their friends and give you more friendly prices! :)

Rush hour at Ben Tanh Market
8. Buying 'The North Face' products? Yes, they do sell overruns. Just make sure you research on spotting the fake ones before you purchase. Here's a youtube vid we used as reference before perusing the shops of Bui Vien.

Bought this bag for Patricia

9. Curious about that food stall? Go ahead. If there is one thing that I love about Saigon, it's their cuisine. Get a Banh Mi sandwich for only 50 pesos (Unfortunately, i'm always full whenever I see a stall). Save a small stool and monobloc tables on the side street and try their grilled kebabs for only VnD10,000 (Php20), and match it with their local Saigon Bia Hoi (beer) for VnD 20,000 (Php40). The Backpacker's District is a haven for the budget traveler. Make sure you ready your first aid kit though. No one wants a bad stomach. :)

Our cheapest and most delicious meal at Saigon
10. Explore every nook and cranny. I could never forget the look on our faces when we hit a dead end inside the backpacker's alley. We felt like we were in a maze, trapped, and might have the possibility of being taken. I'm glad it didn't happen that way. Just be alert and don't let the hangover get you.

Bui Vien St. is the main Backpacker's street,
where every brand new Nikes, Crumplers, TNFs, are sold in factory price.

Since we came here with no plan, and everything was DIY... here is a rough summary of our budget and itinerary:
Hope this simple guide helped you. I'll post more of my Saigon tales on my next entry! :)

Here's to more places we'll go! :)