This certainly wasn’t my first time being in Ho Chi Minh City. Back in 2012 I had the opportunity to travel to Vietnam for a university project, and at that time Ho Chi Minh felt like a strange new place.
This time around though, it felt like I’m re-visiting an old friend. It was refreshing to be able to walk down the same street as I did few years ago, and to finally satisfy my intense craving for Vietnamese food. But what makes this trip particularly memorable was that I get to witness the preparation for Tết – which stands for Vietnam’s biggest celebration for the lunar new year.
THE PREPARATION FOR TẾT NEW YEAR
I traveled here shortly after Cambodia back in early February last year, so the preparations for the New Year was definitely in full swing. The streets were decked in full bloom adorned with fresh flowers, and Vietnamese families trying to squeeze in some last-minute shopping in preparation for the new year. The festive air was hard not to miss. It felt somewhat like a Spring festival, with little vendors selling out massive bouquet of flowers, ranging from cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, orchids, and even kumquat trees for the new year decoration.
Most travellers tend to avoid Vietnam during Tết, because everything will be closed down for the New Year. The Vietnamese travels a great length back to their hometown just to reunite with their families. In fact, don’t be surprised when the street gets empty. Prices tend to hike during Tết so it’s best to book everything in advance just so you wouldn’t miss out, or risk on getting stranded in Ho Chi Minh.
I actually wanted to travel up north via train, so that I’ll be able to see the Vietnamese country side but everything was fully booked. I couldn’t even get a bus seat so I opted for the next best thing – I flew to Hanoi. And it costs me a bomb. I knew this was supposed to be a budget trip, and Northern Vietnam took up most of my money I kid you not.
But Hanoi was also the best part of my trip (read here!). I arrived Hanoi just in time for Tết, and it was such an amazing experience. I enjoyed it very much. If you happens to be in Vietnam during Tết, by all means do come and experience the Lunar New Year here.
HOW TO GET THERE
I took the bus straight from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh via the Mekong Express (website here), and border passing smooth. The last time I was in Ho Chi Minh I was staying somewhere near the market, but this time I opted to stay at the Pham Ngu Lao district famed for its backpackers area. My bus ride from Phnom Penh (USD 14) strategically stops nearby, so if you’re traveling from Cambodia it’s really easy to get to Pham Ngu Lao. The Mekong Express bus stops right next to the park, and likewise if you’re traveling to Pnom Penh you can get the bus from here as well.
WHERE TO STAY
And my first mistake upon arriving was that I didn’t book for any room beforehand. For some reason I felt so confident that I can just walk in to any hostel, even when I’ve never even done that kind of spontaneous travel before. So here I was, carrying my 14kg backpack hopping from one hostel to another. Never have I felt so foolish, and lessons learnt. Always book a hostel at least the one or two nights before arrival.
I ended up finding a bed at Saigon Backpackers Hostel, but I didn’t stay long. I met a group of friends back in Phnom Penh and they all booked the same hostel, so I moved out as soon as there were vacancies and found myself at Phan Anh Backpackers Hostel – and it was the best stay ever.
For USD 10 per night the room was clean, with decent free wifi, nice hot showers and friendly front desk service. Free breakfast was basic, with baguette, butter and jam. It’s a little hard to spot, as you’ll have to make your way through an alleyway to get there. But that’s pretty much the entrance of Pham Ngu Lao. The whole alleyway is jam-packed with hostels, so you can’t get wrong with any accommodation either. Hence the reason why I came to Ho Chi Minh so confidently without booking any beds, because there’s so much choices around. Though I wouldn’t recommend on doing that when you’re carrying tons of luggage behind your back.
WHAT TO DO IN HO CHI MINH?
Yes, eat! Vietnamese food is like, the heaven of all street food. All the best dish came straight from the streets, just do it like the locals do! Grab yourself a small stool by the roadside, place an order along with a glass of Ca Phe Sua Da (iced vietnamese coffee) and enjoy your food like a boss. It’s like, the epitome version of yum cha (tea break) and we all know that the Vietnamese chills like a boss.
Of all the street food in Vietnam, Banh Mi (baguette sandwich) is the ultimate favourite. It’s the Vietnamese version of a Subway sandwich – only better, and a lot cheaper. It’s generally French Baguette, with your choice of meat, vegetables, scrambled eggs and condiments made of fish sauce, chilli and mayonnaise. And it’s so gooood. I could literally eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The Vietnamese Spring Roll is also another favourite – and I preferred the fresh version as opposed to the fried ones. It’s generally rice vermicelli, wrapped in thin rice paper and generously stuffed with shrimps, basil, mint leaves and cilantro, served with the best sweet and spicy condiments. The fresh version tastes like spring, and it’s the favourite snack / appetizers on a hot day. The fried ones on the other hand taste a lot like the popiah back home, stuffed generously with minced meat and served with the same sweet and spicy condiments.
Banh Tra Nuong (Vietnamese Rice Paper Taco) is a recent discovery – I’ve never seen this dish in Vietnam before. But what draws me to try this one out was purely because everyone in the street was having this! I think it’s a Tet specialty, and it was hugely popular among the kids. After walking around for a bit I caved in and ordered one – and my goodness it’s SO GOOD. On the first bite you’ll immediately taste the sweetness, yet the savoury flavor of quail egg, minced pork, dried shrimps and chopped scallions. Heaven. You couldn’t see it in the picture above but after grilling it into crispy goodness, they’ll fold it into half (like taco) and served it nice and hot. It was amazing.
And of course, a trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without a good bowl of pho.
I met Kate during my first backpacking trip to Bangkok back in 2013 and decided to meet up with her again while I’m back in the city. I had the best of time exploring the city on her scooter (though the traffic frightens me to bits), and she brought me to the local eateries while solving my intense cravings pho – and this place that she brought me was ultimately legit.
This, my dear friend is the best place for a bowl of pho noodles in Ho Chi Minh City. Forget Pho 24 or the overly commercialise Vietnamese restaurants. The locals flocked here to no ends, in fact we were lucky enough to be able to nab a few seats. Pho Hoa Pasteur was packed to the brim. You could tell I was a happy, happy child.
This trip to Ho Chi Minh really did served as a food excursion for me, as all I did was eat, eat, and eat. If street food ain’t your cup of tea, there are tons of decent restaurants waiting to be found, though at a pricier price tag. I’ll definitely urge you to venture into the adventurous side – don’t think, and just eat ahahaha. Worse come to worse, have some medicines along (I swear by Immodium!) just in case.
2. EXPLORE THE CU CHI TUNNELS
I’ve also managed to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, something that I’ve always wanted to do ever since I came here two years ago. It was part of the hostel tour and I couldn’t exactly remember the pricing, but I recalled it was somewhat affordable (I think it was USD 7 for a half day trip). The bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City took roughly two hours or so, and we immediately found ourselves at the Cu Chi district. Entrance fee was USD 4.
The tunnels played an important part during the war, serving the Viet Cong greatly during the resistance against the American forces. It is also used as a hiding spot during combat, as well as for communication, supply routes, hospitals, food, weapon caches and living quarters for the Vietnamese fighters.
The tunnels were incredibly tiny, even for this Asian girl. So if you’re claustrophobic you wouldn’t like it very much. For me it felt like going through a life size ant colony.
Life in the tunnels however, was difficult for the Viet Cong. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, the soldiers would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops, or to engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troops movement, they would be forced to stay underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds.
The tunnels have been reconstructed to accommodate larger Western tourists, but it still doesn’t make it easier to move around. I managed to crawled all the way to the end, but most gave up on the first exit. Halfway through you’ll find yourself in an old living quarter, with more tunnels leading to God-knows-where but it was definitely an intense experience. I couldn’t imagine how the Viet Cong survived for years.
There was also a shooting range where you could try your hands on firing the M-16 or the AK-47, but I didn’t go for it as I did my National Service shortly after high school, and I had endless session on how to fire guns. Though the trip was very educational – the impression I got from the trip was that it was very, very anti Americans. At least, that’s what I think. The propaganda video at the end was awfully awkward, but if you could push that aside then Cu Chi Tunnels is one cool place to visit.
3. HEAD OVER TO THE MEKONG DELTA!
The Mekong Delta is also one of the must go attraction in Ho Chi Minh, though I didn’t visit it on this trip as I’ve already went back in 2012. I wouldn’t recommend trying to squeeze both Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnel, as both took quite a long ride from the city.
Highlights for the Mekong Delta would definitely be the longboat ride, a trip to the bee farm and coconut sweets factory. Check out the pictures below!
Out of a dozen town in Mekong Delta, My Tho is the nearest and it’s just perfect for a day trip from the city. It’s a two hours bus ride though from the city, but the view and the scenery definitely made up for it. A day trip to the Mekong Delta would cost you USD 8 with a daily group tour. You can easily book from various travel agencies around Hanoi (just ask around, you’ll find one).
4. CENTRAL POST OFFICE & THE NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL
One of the famous landmark of Ho Chi Minh, and it’s hard not to make a stop at the Central Post Office. This neoclassical architectural building was designed by the same man behind the Eiffel Tower, as part of the French Indochina in the early 20th century.
It still is a working post office where you can get stamps and postcards and what not. If you’re up for cheap international calls you can make yours here, as that was how I settled my ATM card. My idiotic bank went and blocked my card for some reason. They mentioned it was because I was traveling to several countries at a fast pace, even when I’ve informed them of the places I’m traveling.
The Notre Dame Cathedral is also nearby, so you’ll end up killing two birds in one stone when you visit the Post Office.
5. SHOP AT BEN THANH MARKET
I had an unpleasant experience during my last trip to the Ben Thanh Market for the aggressive vendors and their tendencies to rip you off like crap. But Ben Thanh has certainly cleaned up its act after all those years; my second visit to this infamous market was somewhat pleasant!
The revelation of not having aggressive vendors attack you like predators sure makes shopping here like a breeze – here you can hunt for cheap trinkets, lacquer wares, tribal bags and cool souvenirs. As per usual the rule of 70% bargain applies here, so bargain away!
Vietnam is still is a favorite country to date, coming a close second to Cambodia. I fell in love with it few years ago, and I’m still very much in love the years after. The food is to die for, the people are great, and Vietnam definitely has so much to offer!
Shortly after Ho Chi Minh I flew to Hanoi just in time for the Tết celebration, and it was just mesmerizing. It was winter back in early February and I had the best experience exploring the Northern part. You can read more on my Vietnam adventures here!
So have you visited Vietnam? Leave your thoughts down below!