I haven’t written a thing about Ho Chi Minh City yet. And there’s a reason for that. All all the cities we visited, I didn’t like Ho Chi Minh. (By the way, if you never heard of Ho Chi Minh, you probably have heard its previous name: Saigon.)
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad city. But it’s more crowded than Manila but also doesn’t have reliable public transportation like Manila. Plus the motorcycles… Replace every jeepney in Manila by about 300 motorcycles and scooters, and you get the idea of traffic there. It made a challenge to cross the street, even when the pedestrian light was in your favor. I had a video of it, but all my videos mysteriously vanished from my SD card, but I can leave you with this picture for an idea… Things were calmer during the day time because it was all closed, so at least we got to relax during the day. But at night? They all came out. We didn’t even go to see the fireworks because the thought of dodging that again was tiring. And yes, there were kids in those motorcycles, babies being held by parents, etc.
Visa: Most people, including Americans and Europeans need a visa to enter Vietnam. You can go to the consulate and get one, but they don’t have consulates in every city, so you can also apply online for a “visa on arrival” to avoid having to mail your passport back and forth. We went through vietnam-visa.org for our visa on arrival.
So sure, it didn’t help that we had gotten an authorization for visa on arrival and had to deal with lines, a looooong wait (all while our luggage sat unattended on the carrousel), grumpy immigration officers who wouldn’t even tell us anything. (If we already had a visa, it would have been a lot quicker, but since my parents had to go through this route, we decided to do the same.)
We gave our passports and forms, they took it and refused to tell us a word after that, not even a “just wait.” After about an hour or so total (after we had left the plane) our name was finally called. A lot of people in the plane after us got called before us, so it’s not even a first-come, first-serve thing. The lines now were so huge (and non-orderly), that we had a hard time getting through people to reach the part of the window to get out passports back. There’s not even enough seats for everyone, so count on standing for a while. Luckily, our luggage was still there (we were the last ones of our flight to pick up our luggage), as Vietnam is known for having issues with things stolen, including from the airport, so we were very concerned the whole time.
Taxi Scams: When we went to get a cab, we knew about their reputation (BAD, BAD, BAD!), so we decided to pay more for one at the airport, using one of the airport counters (we used Saigon Tourist). It was a flat fee of $8. (Later, reading wikitravel – which for some reason doesn’t open here in Manila – I was able to confirm that it was indeed the safest route!)
As soon as we left the airport the taxi driver started demanding 100,000 Dong (about $5) for airport fee, claiming it was a per person fee to exit the terminal (yeah, right). The fee suddenly became 80,000 Dong instead (20,000 per person). When we questioned it, he slammed on his breaks and came to a complete stop OUTSIDE of the airport and was about to kick us out of the car. AFTER WE HAD ALREADY PAID THE FULL FLAT RATE TO GET A TAXI! So we said “ok” that we would pay him at the hotel.
Once we got out of the cab, we grabbed all our things and kept on walking. Asked the reception desk at our hotel about it and she shook her head and laughed saying there was no fee. He followed us to the hotel, then talked to the reception and demanded only 20,000. Since we were (originally) planning on giving that as a tip to him anyway, we gave it to him, but amazing how it went from 100,000 to 20,000, no?
So you can see that after this welcome into the country we were already not too excited about Ho Chi Minh…
To go back to the airport, we took one of the recommended taxi companies (Vinasun and Mai Linh are the two reliable ones), and we had no issues, so there’s that.
Hotel: For $54/night (after taxes – also booked through agoda.com) we stayed at the Lan Lan 1 hotel. I highly recommend it! This was for sure the BEST hotel we stayed at. Everything was nice and brand new, the location was great, the included breakfast was perfect for both western (eggs, croissant, coffee, yogurt, fruits…) and eastern (porridge, rice, spring rolls…) tastes and we also had free Wi-Fi and toiletries. The rooms weren’t big, but perfect. The hotel staff were all very friendly. We were in District 1 (the best location to stay at) and were only a block from the Ben Than Market.
The one thing we had no idea was going on?
The Tet. Or in other words, Vietnamese New Year (coinciding with the Chinese New Year). So the Ben Than Market was closed. Stores were closed. Some museums were closed. Some restaurants were closed. (See a pattern there?) So though we spent almost 2 days there, I feel like we didn’t really get to see everything… We ended up going to the backpackers area both days, as that was the only place that had open businesses.
Which brings me to…
To do: There are a lot of things you can do in Ho Chi Minh, like going to see the old war tunnels outside the city, going to Ben Than Market for shopping, visiting the history museum… But we saw none of that due to the holiday, and our very brief time there. What I don’t recommend you visit? The War Remnants Museum. I don’t care what side of the war you agree with, but blaming Americans for things that happened before they showed up, it’s pretty ridiculous for a museum. Case in point, showing a guillotine to execute prisoners followed with “the last person executed by guillotine was in 1960” (when the war was actually in between South and North Vietnam at the time, but there’s no mention of there ever being a separate government in Vietnam in any place in the museum).
But what really really bugged Karl to the point he looked a bit green? (And it bugged the crap out of me too.) Souvenir shops in the museum selling dog tags of dead soldiers (both American and South Vietnamese dog tags). If you want to display that in your museum, then by all means, but selling as souvenirs dog tags of fallen soldiers? A bit disrespectful for the dead (regardless of what side you’re on).
Money: It’s worth to change it to Dong, as all prices were in Dong, but a lot of stores would unofficially accept dollars, and even give you change in dollars.
Internet: Facebook is blocked, and I’m sure other sites too. So if that’s your only means of communication with friends outside the country, make sure they know you might not be reachable for a while. Sites giving you an US IP are also blocked, if you’re thinking of just going around the rules.
So though we missed out in a LOT of things in my list to see, we did have fun seeing the Tet festivities and the whole craziness of the city.
And we got to walk around quite a bit and see a few of the other things Ho Chi Minh had to offer…
For those of you who have been there in recent days, did the Tet just spoil our experience (if things were open, we would have seen a whole different side to this city) and it’s worth another visit, or did we see pretty much everything there is to see?