I was wordlessly standing in the middle of Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum where vintage explosives were exposed; different kinds of guns were displayed; and atrocious photos were exhibited. A lot of tourists were walking around checking these photos, but the people were clammed up. Like me, they probably thought, the exhibit revealed that Vietnam had really been on a long and hard road before they became independent and its people should be proud of what their country has economically accomplished.
Looking back earlier that day, we started discovering the city from downtown Ho Chi Minh taking the loop from Ben Thanh Market to the Fine Arts Museum (Pho Duc Chinh St, entrance fee: 10K Dong) then we took a cab to the War Remnants Museum (Vo Va Tan St., entrance fee: 15k Dong), Reunification Palace (Nguyen Du St, entrance fee: 15K Dong) and passed Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham (the backpacker’s area) and finally the Notre Dame Cathedral on our way back to the night market in Ben Thanh.
The route was a walk through time, discovering a world where colours were more vivid, where the history was more compelling, the tastes more divine and life was lived in the fast lane. Millions of motorbikes throng their streets and crossing it had been a challenge. Everyone has scooters; the rich and the poor, chicks on skimpy dress and heels, big men on their vintage scooters, even old ladies on their colorful ones. When the traffic light turns green (or do traffic rules exist in Saigon? =) ) you’ll see yourself caught in the middle of swarming motorbikes and you wouldn’t have a choice but to take risk in every step you make. In other countries, small accidents could be a cause of heavy traffic because both parties would wait for the traffic enforcer to come and investigate on what happened. In Saigon, a point of a finger will do and everyone else around would not bother.
Wandering through its timeless alleys, or teeming markets, past ramshackle wooden shops selling silk and spices then forwarding into the future beneath sleek skyscrapers and huge malls was a walk down the memory lane. The ghost of the past lived on the churches, temples and government buildings. Vietnam’s energy was limitless. From the loud miserable cry during the Vietnam War to the zooming energetic noise of motorbikes this day, you would realize how far the country has grown.
It’s cheap to travel in Vietnam. One can be a millionaire in an instant. In my almost 3 day stay there, I have only spent 67.00 US dollars and that’s equal to more than one million Dong.
ATMs and Money Changers – money changers at the airport are open 24 hours. ATMs and money changers are almost everywhere in Saigon. Just keep your cash safe from pickpockets and thieves. Most establishments accept dollars in Saigon.
Language Barrier – yes this could be a problem. Most Vietnamese do not speak and understand English. Sign language would be very helpful.
Map/Guide Books – you definitely would need this for your walking tour around the city.
Shopping and Bargaining – you can choose from posh malls to night markets. The Ben Thanh night market opens at 6pm and closes at 2am. When the seller gives you a price for a product (usually they can give 50% less from the original amount) and you walk, the seller would run after you and give you an even lesser amount. If you wouldn’t agree, they would say you’re their first customer and you should buy. Don’t believe that. Obviously, there were already some buyers on their store before you even came.
Food – you don’t have to spend much going in an expensive restaurant to try exotic Vietnamese food. You can buy these along the streets. What I always see is Banh Mi (13k Dong), the Vietnamese term for all kinds of bread. It looks like a baguette and they make a sandwich with grilled pork, shredded cilantro and daikon, chili sauce and Laughing Cow cheese. Aside from Banh Mi, other kinds of street food like Pho noodles (22k Dong), fruits and sticky rice desserts could also be part of your gastronomic adventure. The bittersweet invigorating taste of iced coffee in Highland Coffee (Ca Phe Sua Nong / iced coffee with milk 29K Dong) is a must-try. This has been my favorite coffee so far. Pho noodles, the most famous Vietnamese food can also be found anywhere in Saigon.
Accommodation – I was lucky as I have a Vietnamese friend who has offered his place to me and my friends for free. But if you’re looking for budget hotels/rooms, from the airport you can ask the driver to drop you off Pham Ngu Lao or De Tham St, knows as the backpackers area in Saigon.
Wi-fi – connection is available in coffee shops and restaurants.
Travel Agencies – if you’re planning to take package tours, Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham is filled with travel agencies that arranges tours, bus and plane transportation out of Saigon. We got our Mekong Tour for only 210K Dong or 8USD.
Dangers – while walking back to my friend’s house, I have seen a drive-by “cowboys” snatched a ladies cellphone as she was walking along the street. The other month, same scenario happened to my friend and her husband. A man snatched her sling bag and took off on a scooter. Worst thing was their passports, money and all documents were in that bag. As much as possible, use a backpack or a trusty sling bag. Taxi scam is also big in Vietnam. Make sure the taxi uses the meter and bring your map with you and check the streets you’re taking. They might be going round and round to make more money.