Before setting out for this trip, I did so much research online on things that Hubby and I can do in Ho Chi Minh City (still called ‘Saigon’ by the Vietnamese) for a very limited 3 days and 3 nights. I even joined the Vietnam Group of Couchsurfers.com just so I can get a grasp of what locals consider their Top 10 Things To Do in HCMC. But in the end, nothing beats actual experience. So despite the many travel tips and friendly advise given by well-meaning folks, we ended up discovering the Vietnamese capital on our own. So here is our version of the Top 10 Things To Do in Vietnam.
1. Eat Pho.
The Vietnamese concoction of rice noodles, chicken, pork or beef meat, various herbs and sprouts in deep bowls filled to the brim with delicious broth is surprisingly filling, and to my delight, healthy! I never thought I could eat so much Pho in my life! I’ve had it for breakfast (which in my opinion is the best time to eat it), lunch and dinner. I’ve had it in the comforts of our hotel’s restaurant; along the famous Backpackers Street while perched precariously on a stool beside a makeshift noodle stall; and inside Ben Tanh Market, slurping the hot soup among locals. A regular bowl costs about 15-20,000 dong or roughly $1 and is served with a plateful of mint herb and sprigs of spring onion. Drink with a refreshing glass of iced jasmine tea and burp with delight.
2. Ride a boat down the Mekong Delta…
…but book a tour through a trusted tour agency. They will take care of everything and even include lunch and a couple of food-tasting sessions for a whole-day tour. We booked our tour online two weeks prior to our trip through Sinh Café. The nice thing about Sinh Café is that they don’t ask for your credit card information. Just confirm the booking and make sure you show up and pay the fee 15 minutes before the tour.
The Mekong Delta (Vietnamese: đồng bằng sông Cửu Long “Nine Dragon river delta”) is the region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea through a network of distributaries. Source.
A trip to the Mekong Delta will give you a glimpse of how village life revolves around the river. Definitely a must-do for students of life.
3. Drink coffee by the roadside.
One of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had during the trip is sitting on one of those plastic stools, sipping hot but extremely sweet coffee, while watching the early morning activities unfold right before my eyes.
The minute you set foot in Saigon, the first thing you’ll notice is the hordes of motorcycles that crowd downtown. The second is the countless number of coffee shops lined up along the streets and roadsides. The Vietnamese love sharing a glass (yup, they serve coffee, hot or cold, in glasses not cups) with their friends. They brew their coffee using stainless coffee filters called phin, a traditional technique passed on to them by the French. You can also enjoy your cup laced with condensed milk and filled with ice.
4. Walk to everywhere.
Saigon is a small city and to truly appreciate it, just slip into your most comfortable walking shoes and explore it by foot. Hidden in its little nooks and crannies are shops just waiting to be discovered.
5. Appreciate the beautiful French architecture of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Post Office and many old townhouses.
In the mid to late 19th century, Vietnam was colonized by the French. From them the Vietnamese inherited the beautiful architecture sprinkled all over Saigon. The Central Post Office was designed and constructed by the great Gustav Eiffel in the late 20th century and is one of Vietnam’s pride and joy. It’s also a stone’s throw away from the Notre Dame Cathedral, another structure built by the French.
6. Cross the street despite the motorcycles.
It is easy to get intimidated by the motorcycles coming right at you at any given time of the day. But they are relatively harmless as long as you cross the street with confidence. Here’s the trick: cross the street in slow motion. There’s a greater chance that you will get run over if you sprint your way to the other side of the street. Walking slowly allows the bikers to slow down and thus, maneuver their way easier around you. It takes a while to shrug off the fear but once you’ve done a couple of successful crossings, you will be walking the streets of Saigon like a local pedestrian in no time.
7. Squat-walk a few meters inside the Cu Chi Tunnels.
But if you’re claustrophobic, forget it! The Cu Chi Tunnels, which was for a time the home and base of operations of the Viet Congs, are so small that spending a few minutes inside may render you breathless. So if you’re not fond of narrow spaces, just enjoy the Cu Chi Tunnels tour from above ground.
The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. Source.
8. Visit the War Remnants Museum.
You can’t pass this one up. But be prepared for an emotional experience. Let’s put it this way… if the War Remnants Museum was given another name, it would be this: the Look-At-What-The-War-Has-Done-To-Vietnam Museum.
Definitely not for the faint of heart, the exhibits scattered all over the building’s four floors let one get a glimpse of how gruesome war can be. But please, keep your eyes and mind open as the exhibits project very anti-American sentiments.
9. Drink snake-laced gin.
From the moment he set eyes on them, Hubby, who always loves a good drink, was instantly mesmerized by the bottles of gin filled with angry-looking snakes (I brought home a couple of bottles from my last two trips). That’s why drinking at least a jigger of the evil-looking concoction ended up on his Vietnam to-do list.
10. Support the local entrepreneurs…buy local products.
Vietnam has a wide variety of products—beautiful embroidered linens, intricately hand-woven fabrics from indigenous tribes, lacquered bowls and trays, handcrafted souvenirs and a whole universe of candies, biscuits, tea and coffee products. It will be a shame if you can’t bring home any one of these. Understandably, tourists are often intimidated to shop for souvenirs especially since haggling can be so stressful. That’s why I suggest that you stay away from Ben Tanh Market. I know, I know… Ben Tanh is often on the list of must-visits but you don’t need to blow all your money there. There are smaller shops that offer the same prices, if not cheaper. If you’re staying for a couple of days, window-shop first to find out where you can get the best deal.
Saigon is a wonderful, developing city electric with rapid changes. And no matter how many times I’ve been there, it seems that there’s always something new to see and discover.
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