There are nine million inhabitants in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, and every single one of them appears to own a scooter. Indeed, the traffic is what strikes you most when you arrive in this sprawling ex-capital. Sometimes literally. But there are numerous other, far less dangerous aspects of Ho Chi Minh (more commonly called Saigon by the locals – its pre–Vietnam War title).
I was sent out on a perilous mission to this city by DirectAsia.com HQ, armed with only a waterproof poncho and a comprehensive travel insurance policy. My task? To discover the top 5 things to do in Saigon.
Just like Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, it was time to go “back to the jungle…” (the concrete jungle).
1. District 1
Whether you do your research or not (I chose not to), you’ll probably end up in the travellers’ mecca of District 1. Here you’ll find every type of hotel, guest house and dorm imaginable, from plush air-conditioned 5 star hotels, to modest but comfy US$5 rooms. And if you think that’s cheap, meals usually cost between $1 and $5, unless you opt for an ostentatious four cheese pizza like I did; they don’t make gorgonzola in Vietnam. Every other service you could need is here too, from laundry to travel agents.
2. District 1 Nightlife
Okay, we’re still in District 1 – but it’s so good it’s worth listing twice. The nightlife on these streets is not to be missed, with a carnival atmosphere arising after the sun dips. Dozens of bars fill the pavements with child-size chairs, and sell you beer for about US25 cents a pop. Sitting on such tiny plastic seats adds to the sense of fun, and these outdoor bars are a great way to connect with locals. Beware the police, however, who don’t like it if the bars start colonising the road with their little chairs – be ready for a very sudden ‘get up, police coming!’ and the air to be filled with flying plastic seats as the staff throw them into the bar proper.
3. Hot Stone Massage
As anyone who’s had a massage in Singapore knows: they don’t come cheap. But in Saigon, you can enjoy a fantastic massage for between $5 and $10 (tip 25-50%). I tried a hot stone massage, which before the application of stones was actually a bit painful, but being a brave little soldier I kept quiet.
The hot stone part of the massage was interesting – not unpleasant. It only took a second to lose my relaxed feeling afterwards, however, as I banged my head on a half-closed shutter while exiting. It’s tough in the jungle. Note: some massage establishments do offer ‘extras’, but if you choose a professional looking place you shouldn’t have to worry.
4. The War Remnants Museum
Originally called the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”, this museum was renamed with the (slightly) less anti-American title “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” in 1990, before being re-re-titled “The War Remnants Museum” in 1995. Inside, however, the exhibits remain dedicated to exposing war crimes allegedly carried out by the US. Some of the images – many of which were actually taken by American photographers – are very shocking and will ensure you leave with very anti-war sentiments. A sobering experience indeed, reminding you that the middle-aged and elderly residents of Saigon may well have seen (or been part of) some terrible things.
5. Cu Chi Tunnels
The Vietnam War leaves many scars, mostly invisible emotional ones. But one of the more physical – although still hidden – is the Cu Chi tunnel system, which thousands of Viet Cong used as an operations base against the US and allies. The network is part of a national latticework of tunnels which helped North Vietnam secure ultimate victory. A visit here reveals the terrible conditions the Viet Cong endured: poisonous centipedes and spiders infested these dark, airless networks; but the real enemy was malaria, which up to 50 per cent of the VC had at any one time underground.
Sobering and Cheering in Equal Measure
After all that war history, the present condition of Saigon – a bustling, exciting, but peaceful city – makes one glad to have never experienced conflict. The old Vietnamese capital has plenty of problems of course – high levels of poverty and prostitution, for instance – but it remains a true pleasure to visit. And contrary to what is sometimes said about Vietnamese people, I found them to be among them most hospitable in South East Asia. Highly recommended!
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