I actually liked Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) a lot more than I thought I would. I thought it was basically going to be a repeat of Hanoi — terrifying traffic, dingy streets, impassable sidewalks. To my surprise, I found HCMC to be completely different from Hanoi in all the best ways. For the most part, you can actually walk on the sidewalks there — they’re not crammed full of parked motorbikes and people eating on little plastic chairs. HCMC is just so much brighter, sunnier, and generally more pleasant than Hanoi.
My first day in HCMC I decided to devote to some standard sightseeing. First I walked to the city’s most famous market, Ben Thanh market. I didn’t take any pictures there, but it’s basically just your typical Southeast Asian indoor market. I’m sure you can imagine what it looks like. I browsed around aimlessly among the narrow lanes for a while and then left.
After that I decided to check out the city’s tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower, which has a viewing platform on the 49th floor. The ticket price is expensive at 200,000VND, but you get a fabulous 360° view of the city.
When I felt I had soaked up the view long enough, I returned to the ground and headed towards one of the most famous buildings in the city, the Notre Dame cathedral. They’re currently doing some maintenance work on it, so it’s not at maximum attractiveness, but the façade is still as stately as ever.
Directly across the street from the cathedral is the Central Post Office, so I figured I might as well check that out while I was there. I know nothing about architecture, but I can see why the post office is well-known as one of the best examples of French colonial style in the city.
On my second day in HCMC, I paid a visit to Independence Palace (formerly known as Reunification Palace). Honestly, I’m neither a history person nor a museum person, so this wasn’t the most enthralling attraction for me. I walked around the palace peeking into one fancy-ish room after another until they all started to look the same. I wouldn’t call Independence Palace a must-see unless you’re really into Vietnamese history.
The one place I knew I couldn’t miss seeing while in HCMC was the Mekong Delta. Normally I hate taking tours — I would much rather visit places on my own — but since I only had one day to visit the Mekong, a tour was both the easiest and the cheapest way to do so. I stayed at The Hideout (the most popular party hostel in HCMC) and noticed they were offering a one-day Mekong Delta tour for only 230,000VND. That sounded like a good deal, so I booked it.
Well, the tour turned out to be a major cash grab and a reminder of why I hate tours. Our first stop in the Mekong Delta was a coconut candy making workshop. Our tour guide gave us a brief demonstration of how coconut candy is made there, then offered us free samples of the finished product. After that we were given an ample amount of free time to browse around the shop and check out all the coconut-related items for sale. It was pretty obvious we were only brought there in the hopes that we would purchase something.
Later in the day we went to an apiary for a tea tasting which was nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to persuade us to buy the honey that they put in our tea. The tea was just about the most disgusting thing I’ve ever drunk in my life, so I really had no inclination to buy any of the ingredients in it. After a very basic lunch, we had about half an hour of free time to explore Phoenix Island, but it was hard to see much in such a short time. There were some pretty flowers on the island though.
After leaving Phoenix Island, we finally got to do something cool: we went for a ride down the river in one of those little wooden rowboats. Just before getting out of the boat I was in, one of the women paddling it tapped me and said, “Tip money, tip money,” so I gave her 10,000VND.
The next thing we did was listen to a traditional Vietnamese musical performance. Towards the end of the performance, which only lasted a few minutes, one of the singers came around and put a basket on each table in the hopes that we would put money in it. I think a few people tipped, but she took back most of the baskets empty.
On the way back to HCMC, we stopped for 20 minutes at Vinh Trang pagoda. This is a beautiful pagoda, and our brief stop here was probably my favourite part of the day. The pagoda is surrounded by three large, white Buddha statues — one standing, one lying down, and one extra jolly Buddha sitting and laughing.
The next day, I decided to take another day trip — this time a DIY one. I chose to go to Monkey Island in Can Gio Mangrove Forest. It’s not actually an island at all, just a nature reserve that’s overloaded with monkeys. Believe it or not, I had never in my life interacted with monkeys before, so I was super excited to be in the midst of them for the first time.
Since I had no prior experience with monkeys, I didn’t know exactly what kind of behaviour to expect from them. I had heard that they sometimes bite and steal things out of people’s hands, but I guess I was too excited to be nervous around them. I was brave enough at the beginning of my visit to get right up close to them and stick my phone in their face to take their picture. There was a cute little one that I allowed to grab at my pants while I was kneeling in front of him and filming him. I thought it was charming and adorable until he started biting my leg. It was a very gentle bite that I barely even felt through my pants, but that’s when the seed of my mistrust of monkeys was planted. I realized for the first time that these creatures are savages that are not to be trusted.
A few minutes later, a bigger monkey approached me, stood up on his two hind legs, and started grabbing my bag. Decidedly uneasy now, I shook him off and quickly retreated. Later in the day, one of them actually jumped right up on my bag. Not gonna lie — I screamed a little as I shook the savage beast off. Monkey Island was definitely a cool experience, and I’m glad I went, but I don’t know if I will really be able to get excited anymore at the prospect of seeing monkeys.
If you’re not yet jaded by monkeys, and the idea of being attacked by a horde of them doesn’t faze you, getting to Monkey Island from HCMC is easy. Just walk to Ben Thanh bus station and take Bus #20 to Binh Khanh ferry station (about 45 minutes). Then take the ferry across the river and get on Bus #90 headed towards Cam Thanh. Make sure you let the driver know that you want to get off at Lam Vien Can Gio. I think the ride from the ferry station took about an hour.
All in all, HCMC is a very cool city and I had a great time there. I’m a little sad to be leaving Vietnam, and I’m both excited and apprehensive about my upcoming time in Cambodia. I’m looking forward to seeing the country, but I’ve had so many people tell me that the capital city, Phnom Penh, is a highly sketchy place where you’re at constant risk of being mugged. Well, Phnom Penh is my next stop, so I guess I’ll soon find out for myself!