Travel Tips For Ho Chi Minh City, (Saigon) Vietnam
HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam, and is located in the south of the country. Formerly known as "Saigon", this was the capital city of South Vietnam, prior to the end of the Vietnam War. Many locals in Ho Chi Minh City still refer to their city as "Saigon". In recent years, Ho Chi Minh City has become an increasingly popular destination for tourists travelling through Southeast Asia. The city itself is very impressive, far more modern and much cleaner than other major cities in South East Asia. There is an abundance of historical monuments from the Vietnam War and previous French occupation. Ho Chi Minh City is often referred to as "The Paris Of The Orient".
Hotels and guesthouses in Ho Chi Minh City are more affordable than most other big cities in South East Asia. Booking online in advance is a good idea, as you will likely get a better deal that way. There are plenty of reasonable rooms available for as low as 20USD per night, for a clean and tidy room in a decent hotel. Cheaper accommodation is available if you are not too fussy. I would recommend staying near the Western Quarter (Pham Ngu Lao), this is the most convenient location for shopping, restaurants and nightlife.
When you arrive at the airport, you will see several taxi drivers outside, just walk away from them, and head toward the exit. The taxi drivers hanging around the international arrivals exit are almost always running some kind of scam, and if you just walk 5 minutes away toward the exit, you can get a regular meter taxi downtown for less than 10USD. Not all the meter taxis offer the same rate, the locals tell me the best company to use is "Vina Sun". The drivers speak almost no English, and often I have literally had to draw them a picture, or stretch out my arms and act like an airplane, in order to let them know I want to go to the airport. Overall the taxis in Vietnam are very cheap, and the drivers have always been very polite with me.
After living in Thailand for more than 10 years, I had thought I had seen it all, until I first visited Ho Chi Minh City. There is no way to accurately describe it in words, but the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is so chaotic, you will have to see it yourself to believe it. At 4 way intersections, all the traffic tends to go at once from all 4 directions, with each bike or car narrowly missing one another in the intersection. The traffic is like a giant game of chicken, with each driver pushing the limits and daring other drivers. Simply crossing the street can be enough to scare the daylights out of you, the only way to get across the road is to walk right out into traffic, glare directly into the eyes of oncoming drivers, to let them know you intend to keep moving. This is simply how it is done in Vietnam, and the drivers are very used to it, so they will normally avoid you at the last second just narrowly missing you. The worst thing you can do is to stop cold in the middle of the street, as this may confuse them, and increase the chances of them running directly into you.
PHAM NGU LAO (THE WESTERN QUARTER)
Pham Ngu Lao means "Western Quarter", and this area is to Ho Chi Minh City, what Kao San Rd. is to Bangkok. Perhaps with a little more sophisticated crowd than what you would see at Kao San Rd. I always stay in the Pham Ngu Lao district when I visit Ho Chi Minh City, the location is the most convenient, with great restaurants and bars all within walking distance. The main street is full of restaurants with affordable Vietnamese and western food. My favourite restaurant is "Huong Viet" (Vietnamese Aroma), this is certainly the most popular restaurant in the area, and the prices are very affordable.
THE WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM
The War Museum is perhaps the most popular attraction for tourists visiting Saigon, as the history of the Vietnam War is well known to most tourists. It is only a short taxi ride from the Western Quarter, although most taxi drivers do not know it by name. The address is "28 Vo Van Tan, in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City", write that down and show the taxi driver and he will manage. The first time I asked a taxi driver to take me to the war museum, he seemed to be confused, so I acted out the firing of a gun, to give him an idea. Immediately he seemed to recognize what I was saying, and he proceeded to drive. We had travelled for more than 15 minutes and it seemed like we were going the wrong direction, that is when I discovered that he had misunderstood, he was taking me to a place that offers to let tourists shoot a cow with a rocket launcher? This was the last thing I was interested in!
I found the outside of the museum to be very interesting, with old helicopters, tanks and airplanes in the yard. There was also the famous tiger cages, and several torture devices that were used in the Vietnam War. Overall I was pretty disappointed with the inside of the museum, there were simply some guns in display cases, and photos on the wall, and the propaganda was pretty heavy (even for somebody as politically left as myself).
THE BARBER SHOPS
If you go for a walk around the Pham Ngu Laos district, you might see some strange looking barber shops, full of beautiful women wearing very sexy uniforms looking almost like airline stewardesses. At first glance, this looked very odd to me, so I had to go inside and investigate. I had been travelling for a few days, so I had not had a chance to shave, so I decided to ask for a shave (after all, this was a barber shop). I was offered a massage as soon as I entered the shop, and it seemed that the girls were not able to give me a shave? They did manage to call in a barber to give me a shave, but it seems that these shops specialize in "a different kind of service". These massage shops, fronting as barber shops, are a very popular attraction with western men travelling to Saigon, in the past there used to be many more of them.
I enjoy simply having a beer at any of the restaurants in the main street at Pham Ngu Laos district, the beer is dirt cheap, and the atmosphere is great. I have met many interesting people in this area, and I have had some great experiences there. For those people that like more of a bar atmosphere, there are several open air bars in the surrounding area, perhaps the most popular is the "Crazy Buffalo". The beers are a little more expensive at these types of places (approximately 3USD each). You will find a few beer bars with bar girls in Ho Chi Minh City, but it is nothing like Thailand or The Philippines. There are no go go bars or anything of that nature that I am aware of. The best place to go looking for bar girls would be "Apocalypse Now", a short taxi drive from the Pham Ngu Lao district.