Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City
We traveled to Ho Chi Minh City by bus from Can Tho (100,000 VND / $5 p.p.). After being struck in traffic for hours in Phnom Penh, we expected a similar delay in HCMC. But surprise! The traffic is so well organized (for Asian standards) that we arrived on time. HCMC has special car lanes that don’t allow motorcycles, and most of the traffic lights are equipped with a second counter. These two measures make getting around in the city much more efficient.
The BACKPACKER’S District
Our hotel was located in District 1, which is popular among backpackers. The district has a vibrant international atmosphere with lots of restaurants, bars, massage parlors, and street food stands. There are many decent hotels with prices between $10 and $30 for a double room. If you get a massage ($6-15 for 1 hour), except to give at least $4 tip.
Big City Lights
In the evening, we went to Chill Skybar. There are many rooftop bars in HCMC, but anyone you ask will assure you that Chill Skybar is the best one. It’s easy to see why: Located on the rooftop of AB tower, it provides an extraordinary view of the skyline of Ho Chi Minh City. Bar staff is friendly and well-organized, and everything is posh and stylish – including the guests. According to CNN, this is the “the place to see and be seen in Saigon”. The official dress code is “dress to impress”, so make sure to wear something posh to get past the strict looking bouncers. Cocktails cost between $12 and $15, but there’s a happy hour with $4 cocktails from 6PM to 9PM.
Saigon City Tour
We started the following day with a “Free City Tour” that took us to the most popular tourist attractions in District 1:
- Ben Tanh market
- Antique street
- The former CIA building
- Nguyễn Hue Plaza
- The old post office
- Book street
- Notre Dame Basilica
- War Remnants Museum
Most of the stops aren’t very spectacular as such, but our guide provided interesting background information that helped to put everything in context. At the old post office, that is nowadays overrun by tourists, we met…, the last letter writer in Ho Chi Minh City. … has been working at the post office for more than 27 years. He is writing and translating letters for people who are illiterate or who don’t speak English, French or Vietnamese. Now… years old, he still comes to the post office everyday by bike.
The highlight of the tour was certainly the War Remnants Museum. It tells the stories of the French and American wars in Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective. The museum displays hundreds of photos that visualize the horrors of war. Especially the photos of American atrocities are hard to stomach, but definitely worth seeing.
We spent the evening at Chill Skybar again, together with two German friends who had arrived in Vietnam the previous day.
Cu Chi Tunnels: Exit through the gift shop
On our last day in Vietnam, we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels are an impressive 250km long tunnel system that was used as a hideout by the Vietcong in the war against the United States.
When we had booked the tour at our hotel lobby, we had been wondering why it was so cheap (just 100,000 VND / $4.50 per person). We quickly learned why: Our group consisted of more than 40 people, and our first stop was a gift shop halfway between Ho Chi Minh City and Cu Chi.
After that, the tour continued without any unwanted stops. At Cu Chi, we first watched a 15-minute propaganda film from the 1970’s. Among other things, it showed how a child and a woman were honored for killing many American soldiers. Then, our guide gave us a very educational description of the tunnel architecture and the location of the frontlines.
The importance of the tunnels for the Viet Cong can hardly be overstated. Situated just 20km North of Saigon, it was the hub for most Vietcong activity in the area.
We also learned about the various types of Vietcong booby traps and crawled through the original tunnels. The 140m of tunnel that is open for tourists keeps getting narrower towards the end. In the beginning you can get through if you duck, in the end you have to crawl on all four. Luckily for people who are scared of narrow spaces (like me), there are exits every 20 meters, so you can immediately get out when the tunnel becomes too scary.
The tour ended with the option to shoot guns at a shooting range and the obligatory walk through a large souvenir shop. Overall, the tour was very “touristic”, but the educational aspects made it worth the time. I would probably recommend booking a smaller tour though, even if it’s more expensive.