This is my last night in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and I can’t even wait to get back to Singapore before I write this. Ho Chi Minh City is full of life, dynamic, and flavorful. I find myself at home in the midst of basil and lemon-smelling meals, friendly people with limited English, motorcycle fumes, maddening traffic jam in rush hour, and flood waters during high tides along Saigon river. And here’s some of the things I get to see:
1. Cho Ben Thanh Market. Open from 5 or 6am to late at night (at least 9pm), this is a good place to look for anything from arts and crafts, clothes, Vietnamese traditional dress aozai, food, flowers (fake or fresh), tropical fruits, ground coffee to electronics. My friend who’s lived here for 11 years said, “If you can’t find it at Ben Thanh market, you don’t need it.” Bargaining skills a must, and don’t believe the price tag if they put it, because they can jack up the price to 10 times more if you are a foreigner. The general bargaining rule is to consider the maximum price that you’re willing to pay for it (factoring in how much these things might cost in other countries or your country), then start at half that. The sellers take US dollars as well as Vietnam Dong (VND).
2. The shops around Ben Thanh market. If you can’t find anything at Ben Thanh market, or is not big into bargaining, keep walking pass it to Le Loi street (where there is a public park), Nguyen Trung Truc, Dong Khoi or Pasteur Street. These streets are filled with shops and boutiques, mostly selling arts and crafts or silk and linen products. Note that you can also bargain a bit here. For example, I got myself a stunning silk cocktail dress for US$40 from what was originally a $90 – in a posh boutique in Dong Khoi. But the shopkeeper of Ipa Nima boutique on Pasteur Street wouldn’t let me buy a silk skirt for US$15 … from its original tag of US$29 :) Note that although most of these stores are individual boutiques, they are not necessarily more expensive than Ben Thanh market. I got myself a wine rack for US$5 in a souvenir boutique, and this would have costed me US$35 at Ben Thanh market if I don’t have any bargaining skills.
3. Com Nieu Sai Gon – a popular restaurant that serves delightful Vietnamese and Chinese food. Eating here is a great experience. They cook the rice until it’s dry and crispy in a clay pot, then they break the clay pot and throw the dry rice to your table (imagine a flying saucer across a 10 x 8 meter room). A skillful waiter will catch that rice right next to your table, put some seasonings on it, and serve it. The taste and smell of everything they serve in this restaurant is surreal … it’s a memorable culinary experience! It’s on Tuc Xuong street, and every taxi driver knows this place.
4. Drink coffee with condensed milk. Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee exporter, so you must try their coffee. If you think you have a tough stomach, I suggest you to visit a street-side coffee house or sports bar (meaning … a little coffee shop with a lot of deck chairs facing the TV) and buy coffee, hot or cold, with condensed milk for 5000-8000 VND a cup (no more than US$50 cents). I do this every single morning.
If your idea of drinking coffee must include a Starbuck-like cozy lounge and air conditioning, then try Highlands Coffee or Trung Nguyen Coffee … both present in all corners of Ho Chi Minh City. You have to pay around 26-35,000 VND for a cup of coffee there. Still only half the price of Starbucks, and often times they give you free wi-fi internet too :-)
5. War remnants museum. I didn’t get to go there myself, but my friend who’s lived there for ages said that it’s worth-visiting, especially if you’re an American. This will give you the story of Vietnam war (the American war, as the Vietnamese call it) from a different perspective. The displays are not interactive, but the point here is to learn about this war from the Vietnamese’s perspective (or the Vietnam government’s perspective, at that :-) ).
6. Massage at Ngoc-Anh Therapy Massage. Check www.ngocanhspa.com for their locations and price list. I went with a friend to the one at 348 Cach Mang Thang 8 (Tam) street, which is their smallest location. It’s not air-conditioned (ceiling fan only) and the staff speak little English … but the massage is GREAT and the price very reasonable (I spent 110,000 VND, or US$6.5, for 90-minute foot and back massage). If you like a strong massage, definitely try Ngoc-Anh. They use a combination of shiatsu and Thai massage techniques. If you do the full-body 90-minute massage, they will give you hot-stone massage too.
I would probably recommend the therapy massage place on Nguyen Binh Kiem street (the therapy massage place on second floor, NOT the beauty spa that charges you only in US dollars) rather than the one I went to. The one on Nguyen Binh Kiem is a bigger location and I think they would have the more experienced therapists there. Note: DON’T GO to Ngoc-Anh by taxi during rush hour … it’s a futile attempt! If you want to go there during rush hour, go by foot or motorcycle taxi :-)
7. Go to the fruits section of Ben Thanh Market and buy any fruits you’ve never seen before. I come from a tropical country that shares all of Vietnam’s exotic fruits. But I was here with friends from Cuba, Zimbabwe, the US and Switzerland who have never seen dragon fruits, rambutan, durian, sapodilla (or sapote, or sawo), soursop and the like. So one night I just went to the fruit market, bought one or a few of those exotic fruits, brought them back to the hotel, and had a fruit-tasting feast. Unlike the normal souvenir or clothes sellers at Ben Thanh, the fruit sellers don’t mark up the price. Make sure you go to a shop that has the price list of their fruits on a white board so you can guess how much would be a reasonable price (more or less) although you have no idea what’s written on the board because it’s all in Vietnamese :D
There are many other things to see and do, such as visiting the Reunification Palace (or Independence Palace), Cathedral Notre Dame, watching the water puppet show – uniquely Vietnam, take a dinner cruise along the Mekong river, or just hang out at a public park on a week end night to people watch. I had other things to do while in HCMC that prevented me from experiencing everything touristy on my first visit, but I guess that’s a good thing .. I have a reason to come back here. :-)