Ho Chi Minh City 2 day Itinierary
When planning a trip to Vietnam the first questions that pops into most people’s head is whether to start the trip in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh. My two cents on the matter is if you are a person who likes to jump in the deep end of the pool Ho Chi Minh is where to start.
Ho Chi Minh is about as south east asian as a city can get, electrical wires hovering over you making you feel like you are in an urban jungle, motorbikes, scooters and people whizzing past you by the thousands every minute, neon signs illuminating the streets at night, and local Saigonese drinking Saigon beer and smoking Lao Tobacco on plastic stools.
If you have spent your life repressed in western order and structure, get ready for a culture shock. Those that enjoy feeling a little out of place, they are the ones who will, like me, close their eyes at work every now and then and wish they were in the hot humid beautiful mess that is Saigon.
I will do my best to describe a perfect way to spend two days in Ho Chi Minh, although I would happily recommend spending more time there, you will most likely be cutfor time so you can see more of this beautiful country.
Get into Town
Arrive in Saigon airport and hop in a taxi to your hotel. Taxis are cheap and for the most part you do not need to be worried about any scams, general rule is if it looks like a taxi it is a taxi. If you want to play it safe and don’t mind paying a couple more dollars for added comfort, booking private airport transfers is very easy and you will be greeted at the arrival section by your driver. Expect to spend no more than 10 USD for transfer.
Find Your Local Pho Corner
After checking in to your hotel or guesthouse, find your local Pho corner, your nose should point you in the right direction. If you see a big metal pot, plastic stools, and a Vietnamese woman with a huge smile on her face, you have surely found your spot. Greet with a smile and say “Xin Chao” (Hello) and have a seat. There is simply no better way to welcome yourself to Vietnam then slurping down a bowl of pho while watching the daily hustle of Saigon pass you by from the comfort of your tiny plastic chair. For some reason I can not say that anyone has properly experienced Vietnam until they have eaten on a small plastic chair by a busy intersection, a truly religious experience.
Go for a walk
Time to go for a walk. Navigating by foot in Saigon takes a little practice at first, the first thing you will notice is that there does not seem to be a sidewalk anywhere. Motorbikes, people, cars and street vendors seem to all collide into one entity. The general rule is, walk at a consistent pace and don’t freak out if you see a wave of motorbikes coming towards you. As long as you don’t make any sudden moves that could throw them off, you will synchronize to the rhythm of the city and avoid any roadside catastrophes.
The best part of walking in Saigon is that you don’t exactly need to know where you are going, everything will seem interesting. Whether it is a local man welding on the street, or wandering into a food market that will have at least 20 items that you have never seen before. Saigon will stimulate all your senses so give yourself an hour or two to explore without any concern on where you are going.
Take in the history
Like many your exposure to Vietnam in the past may have consisted mainly of Vietnam war movies such as Full Metal Jacket and Platoon that are based on the brutal Vietnamese American War. Despite this being all too recent there does not seem to be any resentment or hatred left from those times. The War Remnants museum in Saigon has a collection of American War planes, tanks, and other remnants from the war along with a detailed exhibition portraying life during those years in Saigon. Remembering difficult points in history is the best way to prevent it from happening again so paying a visit here is surely a great next step to acclimate to where you are. Also you can take a picture of yourself posing next to a captured American tank, and who doesn’t want to do that? (apologies to my American friends)
Take in the night
After eating a well deserved Banh Mi to compensate for the long day of walking dusk will begin to settle on Saigon. The city is now lit up by the waves of motorbikes and neon signs aligning every street corner and it feels like you are a world away from the forrest green backdrop that overpowers the city during the daytime. Pham Ngu Lao street or the “Backpackers street” is where you will most likely end up in search for a beer. The street turns into a outdoor seating area where tourist and locals come together to drink, eat and talk. If you prefer to sip on a world class cocktail overlooking the Saigon skyline then there are a wide selection of rooftop bars that cater to you. Night markets pop up and people flock to the streets creating a intoxicating atmosphere that is unrivaled to anywhere I have been in the world. Of course one can not fail to mention that you will be reminded that you are in a developing nation so it is not uncommon to be approached by beggars, sometimes even children.
Good morning Vietnam
French colonization surely was in many ways not ideal for Vietnam but the Vietnamese and tourist alike will certainly agree that they are thankful for some parts of this legacy. Waking up in Saigon and grabbing a fresh baguette with a strong cup of Vietnamese coffee does not justify the invasion in anyway but do not be surprised if you find yourself murmuring in your head “thank god for the french” as you enjoy your breakfast.
Taking a cruise along the Saigon River with a complimentary breakfast has become a popular way for tourist to start their day, and after having done this I am absolutely recommending this as well.
Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels Tours
After having taken in the city, people and food the next step is to capitalize on your proximity to two of the most interesting places that can be visited from Saigon, The Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta.
Located just 40 minutes away from Saigon the Cu Chi tunnels are a maze of connected underground tunnels that were used by the Viet Cong during the war. The site has now been created into a tourism hot spot. Booking a tour is the best way to go here and having a guide briefing you on the history of the war the Viet Cong is what will make this trip a memorable one. You will also be shown a variety of brutal traps used during the war, and for some reason you have the option to end your trip by firing out of an AK-47. The Cu Chi tunnels are a testament to the resilience of the Vietnamese people and therefore I would say an absolute must, getting up close to this area and hearing the hardship and sacrifices endured here gives you an added perspective on the tough realities that this nation been able to overcome with nothing but grace and dignity.
The mekong delta is a natural wonder of the world being dubbed a “biological treasure trove” home to over 1,000 animal species and some recently discovered in the area that were thought to be extinct. Human history surrounding the river dates to prehistoric times as it has been a key source of livelihood. Still today the river is used as an meeting place for locals to sell produce and seafood harvested from the river. About a two and a half hour drive from Saigon this tour will be more time intensive but one of those sights you just have to see. You can do the Mekong Delta as a day tour from Ho Chi Minh, or if you prefer stretch it to a 2 day or even 3 day tour. See here for an overview of Mekong Delta Tours.
Museum of Vietnamese History
Finnish off your Ho Chi Minh stay with a visit to the Museum of Vietnamese history. Located in a beautiful french colonial building the museum covers the history of Vietnam dating back to prehistoric times, the Chinese invasion and struggle for independence, stone sculptures dating back to the 10th century and more. Certainly not to be missed and a refreshing break from the sometimes over saturated documentation of the American Vietnam war.
Xin Chao Saigon, it’s time to take off. If you are continuing your Vietnam trip the next recommended could be the following
1.Mui Ne- The beach/sand dune mini resort can be a welcome break from the hustle of Saigon. Although it is quite touristy there is nothing wrong with soaking in the sun by the beach for one day and maybe hitting up a Russian techno bar in the evening. Mui Ne is quite popular among Russians and even has a direct flight to Moscow.
2.Da Lat – This mountain town is an absolute must for nature lovers. This is the adventure tour capital of Vietnam, canyoning down waterfalls, river rafting or just taking a motorbike to check out the area and taking in the fresh mountain air.
3.Nha Trang-Mui Ne on steroids, much more of a polished beach resort town. Once again I have nothing against touristy beach resort town, they have their purpose but be aware of what you are getting yourself into if you chose to spend some time here!
4.Phu Quoc- This fishing island right of the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia is being dubbed as the next major destination in Southeast Asia. White sands and turquoise waters make this by far the best place to go for an island escape in Vietnam. It is much more than just the beaches and resorts however, there is still a strong local presence here that survives off the the fishing industry. The island itself is also quite large and has an beautiful mountain interior that can be explored on your motorbike or by a guided tour.
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh?
You hear Saigon and Ho Chi Minh used about at the same frequency. Saigon was of course renamed Ho Chi MInh after the collapse of the American backed South Vietnam, and thus adopting the name of Ho Chi Minh the leader of North Vietnam. There is no right or wrong here and no risk of offending anyone so feel free to use either or both!
The weather in Ho Chi Minh unlike the capital in the north Hanoi is tropical all year round. So you have a rain season peaks in the months of the summer June, July and August and it is driest during January and February. Expect hot temperatures all year round.
Tip or not to tip?
Tipping is not expected in Vietnam but it is appreciated if you dont mind passing up 10 or 20 thousand dongs, dont panic 20,000 dongs is around a dollar 🙂
Pre book or figure it out when you are there?
Of course you will never be left homeless if you show up without any hotel booking but if possible do book ahead of time. Tours can be more easily arranged when you arrive but some of the more popular ones will have limited availability so why not plan ahead just like your mother taught you!