Exploring Ho Chi Minh City – a city that seldom sleeps

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Eleven years ago, almost to the day, I boarded the plane from KL in the hope of exploring Ho Chi Minh City with my new husband as part of our honeymoon holiday. Not a very romantic destination you might think and you wouldn’t be wrong. But what we really wanted, was to experience somewhere totally out of the ordinary and it delivered that in bucket loads.

First impressions

Whilst our lives had changed dramatically since our first visit, with the addition of our two children, it seemed that time had stood still in Ho Chi Minh City. In the 40 minute drive from the airport to our hotel in the centre of the city and once I had wrestled the iPad from the hands of my eldest child, the children were awestruck with the sheer intensity of this chaotic, vibrant and noisy city.

The pavements are packed with friends congregating on every corner, lost in conversation rather than staring blankly at a screen. Babies were soundly asleep in hammocks blissfully unaware of the cacophony of car and bike horns honking around them.

There are 7.43 million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City, that’s a fact you can’t deny. They’re everywhere and nearly 750 new bikes are being registered each day. For the tourist this means two things: firstly, it can take quite some time to travel not very far and secondly, that crossing the road is an experience not for the faint-hearted – the key is to look confident and pray you survive.

A visit to the Cu Chi tunnels

If your visit to the city is a short one, I would highly recommend that you take a step back in time by visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels. Approximately a 1 hour 40 minute drive away you will find the tunnels, but please don’t let the travelling time put you off. We played ‘spot the craziest thing being carried on a motorbike’, to pass the time. The winners were 10 bird cages complete with inhabitants, an IKEA cabinet, a massive door, 150 bottles of beer and 6 live pigs hogging the road in a trailer.

We also took the time to marvel at the parks packed with early risers performing Paso Dobles, accompanied by others starting their day practicing the ancient art of Tai Chi.

If you can, try and set off for the tour nice and early. We were on the road at 7.30am and already the roads were busy. A friend of mine chose an afternoon tour and it took nearly three hours to get to the tunnels, and she wished she had sprang out of bed earlier.

I would also recommend paying for a private car to take you there, saving you the painful experience of having to visit endless other hotels, to pick up seemingly a gazillion other tourists. Our hotel arranged one for us and we paid 70 USD or RM290 for the privilege of not having to share our transport and being able to leave the tunnels when we were ready.

This may sound expensive, but we saved cash by not using a pre-arranged tour guide and when we got there we were assigned a very friendly and efficient guide called Ruby, for no extra cost. We were joined by just two other people, making our group size much smaller than some of the pre-booked tours. However, it may be worth pre-arranging a tour guide, if you want someone to speak anything other than English.

Descending in one of the tunnels is great if you are not pregnant, are an over 6 year old who’s adventurous and under 70 with no heart conditions or fear of small dark spaces. Despite being a bit apprehensive, our whole family went through and we were glad we did. It was dark, hot and humid, but mercifully over very quickly.
I couldn’t imagine living down there. If you have them, a head torch might be a good idea, it might make it less intimidating for little ones.

You may be relieved to hear that the tunnels, although still small, have been widened to allow for taller and wider tourists to make it through the 15 meter stretch of tunnel without getting stuck. After all the original 240km of tunnels, that were dug by hand, were designed to fit Vietnamese soldiers surviving on limited food supplies in the jungle. Not those that had a double cheeseburger meal at the airport.

For the rest of the tour you also have to be able to walk around 2km and not find the sound of machine guns in the nearby firing range unnerving, as you’re learning about the gruesome deaths people suffered during the war that lasted 20 years. Having said that, if you did want to you can try firing a gun for yourself, but will need to pay around RM10 per bullet for the privilege. There is a restaurant serving basic food next to the firing range, with enough of a choice to keep you going, but as you can imagine it’s pretty noisy.

Overall, we enjoyed this fascinating insight into the ingenious inventions and innovative ways that the soldiers used to simple stay alive.

War Remnants Museum

This museum, situated at the heart of the city, takes a somber and sobering look at the Vietnamese war and the lasting impact it has had on its people. A word of warning for those with younger children: this museum displays some very graphic real life images detailing the atrocities of war, it pulls no punches, there is no sugar coating. We found the images located on the 1st floor particularly startling.

My husband went ahead and checked the individual exhibitions to see if they were too harrowing for our children, both aged under 10. You may just want to let the children explore the military machinery, including tanks and a helicopter that are on display outside in the front of the museum. There is also a example of prison cells outside, where my 8 year old walked straight back out, after seeing the photos on the walls. At this point I think she was wishing she was on holiday in Disneyland instead, far less educational and harrowing.

Every family is different, so if you do want to experience it for yourselves, it’s open daily from 7.30am to 6pm and tickets cost 40.000 Vietnamese Dong or RM7. You can find more information here.

Just around the corner you can find the Reunification Palace, or Independence Palace. This building of great historic significance also displays military machinery, but the images exhibited are not as disturbing.

A trip up the Bitexco Financial Tower

If you have an ounce of energy left, you may want to head to the 50th floor café in the Bitexco Financial Tower to demolish an ice cream, cake or drink whilst you watch the sun go down. The view from the city’s tallest tower is wave after wave of pretty pastel coloured buildings. Just find the entrance to the Icon68 building and take the super speedy lift up. It won’t cost you anything to get in there, other than what you consume.

The entrance is right around the corner from the ticket counter for the Saigon Skydeck, that you’ll have to pay to access and is on the 49th floor below the cafe. I’ll let you decide which is the better option.

Lunch and dinner

We stumbled upon two gastronomic gems whilst exploring the city. Whilst sadly neither of them served Vietnamese dishes, we were soon over that as both served great food, in a warm inviting atmosphere.

Having trampled through the jungle visiting the tunnels and then traipsing around the War Remnants museum the kids started to kick up a stink about tired feet, so we took the poor souls to Le Padam, Ho Chi Minh City’s one and only cheese bar. This quirky café with a floor to ceiling bookcase and a toilet that looked like a throne, offers a wide selection of fragrant fromage, croissants, cakes and a pool table.

Another great find for food for a famished family was Jake’s BBQ Bar. The reviews claim that it serves the best burgers in town. Despite the fact it was a bar, it was family friendly and offered a kids menu, complete with something to pass the time whilst we waited for the food.

Where we stayed in Ho Chi Minh City

We left booking our accommodation to the last minute, so we didn’t get our first, second or even third choice. But there is a lot available to suit a wide range of budgets, if you book far enough in advance.

We opted for Awesome CBD Luxury Apartment in Icon 56. The location was good, not in the heart of the action, but near enough for our liking. The first night we were upgraded to a pleasant 3 bedroom place. The second night we were asked to move to the two bedroom apartment that we had originally booked. It was not nearly as nice and played havoc with my undiagnosed allergy to ugly bedspreads.

Additional information – scams, beach holidays and visas

Before you travel, it’s always worth finding out if there are any common tricks played on unsuspected tourists, so you don’t fall into any traps. There is nothing more disheartening in a new city than the feeling of being cheated.

Now thanks to my husband’s extensive research, we’ve survived the money changers schemes in Bali and the tea house scams of Shanghai but annoyingly we fell for the fake taxi trick of Ho Chi Minh City. We were ushered into an official looking taxi by an official at the airport taxi rank. We asked the driver to put his meter on and still somehow we were charged four times what the cost should have been. Real taxi drivers will be wearing a shirt and tie and will display their license cards on the dashboard. If you don’t see these two things, get out of the cab.

Despite our issue with the taxi, I still wouldn’t recommend you hire a car or motorbike and drive here. Only adrenalin junkies, with a death wish and extremely good car insurance would attempt it. Leave it to those that are used to navigating the roads and are familiar with the local rules. There are also an abundance of Grab motorbikes available for hire; I hope I don’t need to tell you to not hop onto one of those.

If you want to see a different, more relaxed side to Vietnam you can hop on a train and make a flying visit to the seaside town of Phan Thiet. During our honeymoon we headed here, splashing out on a first class carriage, which basically meant we got air conditioning. This trip may especially appeal to you if kite surfing floats your boat.

Finally, some nationalities will need to have a visa to enter the country. Malaysians do not need a visa if they plan to stay less than 30 days. To find out if you need one, you can check this website.

Getting there with Vietjet

For our long weekend we flew using Vietjet’s Skyboss service from KLIA to Ho Chi Minh City. Read here how that experience turned out for us! The flight times were perfect for us, leaving at 1.20pm on Friday and returning at 9.30am on Sunday. They allowed us enough time to tick off everything we wanted to do. You even gain one hour when you get there, due to the time difference. For more information or to book your tickets to this colourful city, visit their website.

Was the trip worth it?

We had a fascinating time exploring Ho Chi Minh City and would recommend you follow in our footsteps, especially if you want to know more of Vietnam’s history. You get a sense that this city is somehow solar powered springing to life as the sun rises. You can’t ignore the orchestra of horns emanating from the multitude of motorbikes and cars fighting for precious limited space on the crowded roads. It’s a city full of character and surprises. We even saw someone making designer shoes in a one man factory by the side of the road – who knew, I always assumed they were made in Paris.

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