Back in 2009, we headed to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in Vietnam, the first stop of our travels around south-east Asia. We arrived expecting a bit of hustle and bustle having watched the Top Gear Vietnam Special when we lived in Australia, but in reality, HCMC and indeed Vietnam in general is a crazy, zany place with no rules where traffic is a free-for-all adventure and people are kind and yet opportunistic. This post isn’t really meant to be for those who want to know what accommodation to book or where to visit, more what aspects to HCMC and Vietnam to expect that we certainly weren’t expecting. It’s a bit of fun really.
Expect to Be Almost Run Over
We arrived on the city quite late at night so headed straight to our hotel and were woken up at around 5am by a lot of noise. In comparison to London, it was quite noisy – which was saying something! Vietnamese like to start their days early and the vehicle of choice when heading out to work is a moped. Literally hundreds cram onto the streets driving side by side and with as many people balanced on them as possible, like there’s some sort of Guinness World record that needs breaking every day. The rules of the road are ignored and road users jump red lights, drive through pedestrian crossings and generally do what they feel like in order to get where they are going. As a pedestrian you need to be aware that even if you are crossing at the official black and white crossing, moped (and all other) drivers won’t care and definitely won’t slow down for you. This means that as a visitor, you’ll be nervously standing at the side of the road for an age trying to play a real-life game of Frogger.
So how do you cross the road? Well take the queue from the lady on our main picture at the top of this post and just walk out slowly into the road and try and not to be quick or twitchy. Believe that everyone will swerve around you. You need to walk confidently and not rush. amazingly, this strategy works well and means that although you won’t get run over, you almost will get run over quite a lot. We never once saw a moped crash into a pedestrian.
Be Surprised at How French Everything Is
Vietnam and France have quite a history resulting in the creation of French Indochina in the late 19th century. Vietnam only become independent of France in the 1950s, but the European influence remains – especially in Ho Chi Mihn City where it can be seen from the architecture, to the food, to the names of the streets even. Your menu will be in French most likely and you can buy baguettes from many street corner vendors which we practically lived on. Not much has changed since then, even with the onset of war between the former North and South Vietnam.
On our first full day in HCMC, we decided to do a walking tour of the city via the Lonely Planet Guide and the first place on our stop was the Fine Arts Museum, which is a classic example of the French colonial architecture. There’s even what looks like a tennis court in the courtyard which you can imagine ladies in long skirts playing upon.
We also trotted past the Notre Dame Cathedral on our walk. This church was fully constructed in the 1880s built with bricks from Marseille.
We also managed to see the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon Opera House), which once again makes you feel like you’re walking around Paris and not the south of Vietnam a the building is based upon the style of the Petite Palais in Paris! We just needed a glass of fine red wine with an accordion playing the background to complete the experience!
Understand That You Will be Sold to – Constantly
You might not think the book seller has spotted you from across the busy street and you duck your head behind a menu at the cafe you’re sat out the front of, but rest assured he has not only spotted you, but is making a bee line over and won’t leave until you buy something. The Vietnamese sell hard and the instant you make eye contact they are all over you. Some of the wandering vendors have even followed us down several streets trying to flog t-shirts and won’t take no for an answer.
If you are from the West then you can’t hide so you need to get good at saying no over and over again, constantly. You need to count your change and taxi meter. You need to learn to haggle and you need to make sure that you don’t get stuck inside a tailors unless you want to buy clothes. We left with many, many hand made clothes when we were in Vietnam because those guys are good at selling!
You can practice your haggling skills at the Bihn Tay market, which is one of the biggest in HCMC. There are rows and rows of stalls and items to gawp at although you’ll be charged for taking pictures (enterprising or what?) or literally stopped in the aisle until you look at someone’s wares. It’s hard work so go when you have some energy!
Remember to Bring an Umbrella
We managed to visit Vietnam at the end of the dry season, so the rains had started to come and when it rains here, it really pours! We were sat having a late breakfast watching the world go by when the rain almost switched on – there was no warning! We decided to stay where we were as we were pretty sheltered but had to readdress that after ten minutes or so as the water level from the street rose quickly and lapped at our feet! It helps business if a cafe owener you’re not quite at street level!
HCMC was a great starting point for us in south-east Asia. We got used to the crazy traffic and the sales people. We even convinced ourselves that we would buy some hand made clothes as we moved through the country, so the pressure was working! Baguettes with all sorts of fillings was a godsend on days when we couldn’t stomach pho for breakfast and understanding French made finding the streets and reading menus (which also are in Vietnamese, English and Russian, no doubt as there were Communist links between both countries). Discovering these oddities about Vietnam made it all the more intriguing as we pushed on through and headed up the coast like the boys form Top Gear.
We’d love to hear from you with your own ‘I wish I knew that…’ points about HMRC and other places in Vietnam in the comments below.