Be Gone to Saigon

Take time to get out of China and explore the allure of a new country with Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Don’t let the musical “Miss Saigon” be the closest you get to this amazing city.

More notably renowned for the events of the American-Vietnamese War, the former French colony changed the name from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) after its fall in 1975, to honor the leader whose face still graces the country’s bank notes.

These days HCMC is on the up, as its economy continues to grow in various sectors. As to be expected the city’s tourism is linked closely to its recent war history along with the French colonial era. District 1 especially has various museums and wide elegant boulevards possessing beautiful architecture for visitors to admire. I had been itching to visit the city ever since I lived in Hanoi briefly several years back.

For this Weekender I took advantage of the recent Chinese National Holiday to spend a few days seeing what the Southern City had to offer. Flights were slightly cheaper from Hong Kong than mainland. My advice, if flying from Hong Kong, is either take the ferry from Humen or Sky Limo van to the airport directly.

Vietnam does not offer visa on arrival without a prior online application for most countries. The process is simple and costs 28 USD online with a further 25 USD upon arrival in Tan Son Nhat Airport. The invitation letter must be printed and shown at the departing airport otherwise the airport will not issue the boarding pass. The airport is very close to the city with only a 20-minute drive in a taxi required. The going rate for the ride is between 100,000 – 200,000 VND (Vietnam Dong).

The astronomical numbers associated with VND can get a bit confusing, but I found it helpful to remember that 500,000 VND, equates to about 150RMB (as of October 2019). The cost of living is generally cheaper than China and, if willing to slum it, places to stay can be found for as little as 100 RMB per night, particularly in the Western areas of Pham Ngu Lao street and Bui Vien street in District 1. Reasonably priced restaurants are plentiful with many delicious options on hand, just pay close attention meandering the swarms of scooters when crossing the roads.

Anyone familiar with Vietnamese cuisine will know that there are numerous varieties of pho (soup). I honestly don’t think I can ever get tired of shredded chicken rice noodle pho. As with most Vietnamese dishes, it is served with an array of wild leaves to scintillate the taste buds. Another personal favorite of mine is goi cuon—fresh non-fried spring rolls consisting of vermicelli, shrimp, pork and basil. If needing something on the fly, grab yourself a traditional banh mi—a pork filled baguette from just about anywhere.

This is just scratching the surface of what Vietnamese cuisine has to offer. For higher-end food try the floating junk boat restaurant Elisa at the far end of HCMC’s Main Street. I also recommend a cocktail at the EON Heli Bar—level 52 of the Bitexco Financial Tower. After watching a hazy sunset, I came back to earth and found a quaint little jazz playing gin-joint called The Alley. My days were spent absorbing the intoxicating surroundings HCMC has to offer. The Notre Dame cathedral, while not as grandiose as its Parisian cousin is still a sight worth beholding.

Vietnam is a great country to be in. It is just one of those places that makes you feel good about life in general. The people are modest, humble and everyone seems to be smiling. The overall atmosphere is captivating and I honestly regret having waited so long to return to this alluring country. I suggest anyone with the capacity to take time out to enjoy a similar experience. If you at least learn ‘Choi Oi!’ (Oh my God!) you are onto something. I am already penciling it in for Chinese New Year.