Ten tips on what to do in Ho Chi Minh, a city that has nothing to offer

A lot of tourists that come to Vietnam either don’t bother visiting Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon – the westernised version of the original Vietnamese name Sài Gòn that’s still used in daily speech nowadays) or they do and the verdict seems to be the same – “there isn’t much to do”. While I am of the opinion that this city indeed doesn’t have much going on, I have composed a list of ten “must see” and “must do” things and activities while visiting the business hub of the Nam.

  1. Go to the Saigon pool party that’s held every Saturday at the New World Hotel. I bet you won’t have seen so many tattoos, six packs and inter-racial inter-generational couples in your life. If you are a fairly well-rounded intelligent individual, the median IQ of people at this place will be increased dramatically when you visit.
  2. Pay a visit to one of the many speakeasy coffee shops and order a cà phê sữa nóng (Vietnamese hot coffee with condensed milk) and expect the staff to serve you a cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk). The Vietnamese are obsessed with ice and iced drinks and drinking hot coffee is almost unheard of amongst the Vietnamese – “but the hot coffee is hot, lady” is usually the response I get when I return the iced coffee back and ask for a hot one again.
  3. Visit one of the many rooftop bars, but I would advise you do this only after sunset. During the day, the view is spoilt by the unattractiveness of this city. This unattractiveness is cleverly camouflaged by the lights at night.
  4. Spend a day at Thao Dien, the expat bubble. It really is a completely different world out there. You may hang out at a bar pool, get your hair and nails done at western beauty salons, do your grocery shopping at a western supermarket or get a good quality massage (not the crap massage you get in District 1).  I’d say that the majority of expats who have been living in Saigon for a while eventually move to this area for its convenience. One thing to mention – parts of Thao Dien get flooded really badly during the rainy season. So if you are visiting Saigon between May and October, bring your raincoat and wellies.
  5. Spend a day sightseeing. The sights you should visit include the Independence Palace, the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, the War museum, the Ho Chi Minh City Hall and the Municipal Theatre. I guess the sights will take less than a day. Now, if you do not visit the aforementioned sights, you haven’t missed much.
  6. Explore the famous Cu Chi tunnels, the immense network of connecting underground tunnels built during the war around Ho Chi Minh. If you are tall (i.e. over 180 cm) or fat, you may wish to reconsider as you may not be able to fit into the narrow spaces, designed for the tiny Vietnamese. If you suffer from claustrophobia, you may wish to give the Cu Chi tunnels a miss altogether.
  7. Go on a Mekong Delta tour. I haven’t been and I still live. Do the maths!
  8. Grab a bike or uber a moto and see the city from a different perspective. Sit back and enjoy the ride, relish the adrenaline and watch the chaos, craziness, dirtiness, ugliness of this city. If you think that grab / uber bikers have mastered the traffic or driving in Ho Chi Minh, think again. I’ve already been in an accident while taking a grab bike.
  9. Visit one of the many markets and buy all the clutter that you don’t really need while celebrating the victory of having haggled the price down slightly (hint: you still get ripped off anyway).
  10. Hang out in the backpacker area. Get drunk and be ridiculous – show the Vietnamese how absurd the Western people can be.
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Vietnam survival guide or how to assimilate to the life in Vietnam

No one has ever said “I love living in Vietnam”. No one has ever said “I hate living in Vietnam” either. The majority of the expats who have assimilated into this country “accept” living here and those who haven’t, leave.

The cognitive process of assimilation in Vietnam could be broken down into three stages, as follows:

  • “Beauty to beast stage” (0 – 6 months): From a person with a lovely soul you turn into a nasty savage. This period brings the worst in you, in fact it brings up the personality traits you never thought were part of your character.
  • “Digestion stage” (6 – 12 months): You are digesting. While digesting, you are becoming more accepting and tolerating. Your expectations and standards have decreased dramatically. You have stopped caring; you have started assimilating.
  • “Acceptance stage” (over 12 months): You have accepted the life in Vietnam and now believe that it is normal too. You have assimilated. Congratulations!

I have collated the following fourteen tips that should serve as a guide on how to survive the first two stages and achieve the ultimate state of acceptance of life in Vietnam. The list is not exhaustive and more tips are welcome!

  1. Don’t have expectations. If you don’t expect anything, no matter what you get, it will be bonus.
  2. Lower your standards on everything and everyone. That way nothing and no-one will ever disappoint.
  3. Change your wardrobe – “the cheaper, the better”. Recommended colour – grey. Only grey can absorb the dirt and dust and yet retain its original colour.
  4. Keep your belongings with you at all times, or give them to the charity instead as the pickpockets will take over their ownership.
  5. Beat the traffic by becoming a fume hoover on a motorbike or “fail” the traffic by using taxis.
  6. If you are not used to smiling, learn to smile. Most of the communication with the locals is done through smiling. So keep smiling. If you are English, get yourself a good dentist first.
  7. Learn how not to take No for an answer or accept No as the answer you’ll get.
  8. Learn to be patient. An estimated time for something that takes five minutes to resolve in the western world is approximately two hours in Vietnam.
  9. Get an appartment with a washing machine and do your washing yourself or risk losing half of your clothes and the other half being damaged.
  10. Learn to haggle effectively or you’ll end up paying almost western prices for non-western quality services and goods.
  11. Find yourself Vietnamese friends – you will need their Vietnamese language skills at some point. On this note, if your aim is to sort out a certain problem in an efficient manner, don’t involve your Vietnamese friend in helping you do so. They have a talent to turn a small problem into a big one…sigh.
  12. Learn to ignore the locals on the street or practise “no, thank you” as you’ll have to say it over a hundred times a day.
  13. Learn to use the correct words for describing certain services. For example, the response you give when someone asks how good the massage place was, is “clean”. In Vietnam, clean means good. Learn the meanings of these words and use them accordingly.
  14. Teach yourself to make the “small talk” or learn to drink heavily – with most expats you either small talk or booze. If you are not a fan of either, stay at home and read books or write blogs.

Happy Vietnam living, folks!