Traveller’s notebook: in the Land of the Blue Dragon, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is not the first destination that comes to an average Bangladeshi traveller’s mind when thinking of getting out on exploring a new place. But it’s a country boasting a proud South East Asian culture that has a rich colonial history and filled with warm, welcoming people, mouth-watering local delicacies and a crazy coffee culture. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon is also the key city that played a pivotal role in the US led Vietnam war during the 70s. But the best part? Ho Chi Minh city is crazy cheap. With a budget of BDT 5000 to BDT 6000, you can fully experience everything Saigon has to offer you in just 2/3 days. And that includes the cost of your accommodation, food and travel (Unless you plan to stay in 5-star hotels). The airplane fare is the hefty part since Bangladesh doesn’t have a connecting flight to Vietnam. The cheapest one would be Scoot air that’ll cost around BDT25,000 if you can book early, with one stop in Kuala Lumpur. Nonetheless, you can travel an entirely new country and experience a beautiful new culture within just BDT 30,000 and that’s something.

Getting to Vietnam

As mentioned already, the airplane fare is a bit tough on the wallet and the journey could take roughly 6/7 hours with stopovers. But Bangladeshis don’t need a prior visa to visit Vietnam, so just book your ticket, pack your belongings and you’re good to go. After you get down in Tan Son Nhat International Airport, get your on-arrival visa and complete immigration. Keep a few passports sized official pictures with you in case required for the visa. After you’re done with immigration, head over to the exit and you’ll find stalls selling traveller sim cards. Get one for yourself and activate a data plan. You’ll need to use the internet a lot. It’ll cost around 100,000 to 250,000 VND. It’s best to mention here that in Vietnam, everyone is a millionaire and handling your massive piles of cash can be quite a task for first timers. But you’ll get used to it. And in Vietnam, you definitely need to be cash-savvy.

After you get your sim and activate your data plan, head over to the bus stop located right outside the exit gate. Bus 109, the yellow colour marked bus will take you right to District 1, the most happening area of the city and also where you will find plenty of cheap to mid-range hotels. The bus will cost you around 20,000 VND.

Staying in Ho Chi Minh City

District 1 is filled with hotels and hostels of all sorts. It is also known the as the Backpacker street as the area is popular with backpacker tourists, tightly packed with hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs. Although one can easily get a room in any of the hotels, all of them equally decent, it is best if you pre-book it before your journey to get the best deals. You can get bunk beds in the hostels if you’re looking for the cheapest stay just to sleep for the night, or you can head over to the countless mid-range hotels just a minute of walk away from one another. Bich Duyen Hotel is recommended for a comfortable stay at an affordable price. The rooms are small but cosy with amenities one can only dream of in a mid-tier hotel somewhere else. The front desk receptionist is a lovely guy who’ll fire up a conversation with a smile. He’ll even make you a nice breakfast at the small kitchen at the back, if you ask for it. Free of charge for one meal.

Getting around

Ho Chi Minh isn’t that big of a city and it is best to walk around to really absorb the culture. However, it is a packed city with hundreds and thousands of people commuting by motorbikes on the roads. Fitting for its title of Motorbike Capital of the World. You think Dhaka has the worst jaywalking scenario? Think again. Crossing the road here can be an art. You can find bikes for hire almost at every corner of the city. They’ll keep calling you. But it’s best to use a ride sharing app to save the hassle of bargaining. Download Grab on your phone and use Grab MOTO to commute around points of interest. You can also rent a bike yourself and ride it around if you have a valid license. Watch out for the rental sign boards. You can use the bus 52, the green colour marked bus to commute inside the city. But beware of the tight traffic. Vietnam has Right Hand Traffic. Don’t get confused.

Ho Chi Minh has its own version of the Rickshaw. It looks more like a cradle than a rickshaw, but they are a dying form of transport in the city and will ask a lot for a ride, if you find one. Nonetheless, they can be a nice experience if you’re willing to pay for it.

Places to see, things to do

The streets of Saigon are a bold mixture of the old and the new. One cannot but notice the stark contrast between the small street vendors selling local authenticity in the old ways and the burgeoning Saigon skyline just on the other side housing malls, 5-star hotels and corporate offices. Saigon has a lot to offer. From to narrow alleys of the local neighborhood to wide and polished avenues with lush green gardens and colonial structures between them.

Saigon is the French Riviera of Southeast Asia. Old colonial structures pop up everywhere in this cacophonous city. The city hall built in 1902 is a remarkable structure, a reminder of the French Colonial history of this region. Although it isn’t open to the public, the structure has been preserved and is one of the most well-known tourist attractions in Saigon.

There is of course the Notre Dame Basilica. Built in 1863, the Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the most sophisticated French structures in Saigon. One of the many fine architectures built by the French in Vietnam, the Notre Dame is a worthy counterpart of its namesake in Paris in terms of Grandeur.

Right beside this, is the Saigon Central Post Office. This magnificent building has yet again a French architecture and is always buzzing with post office employees and tourists alike.

There is the historic Ben Thanh market which is basically the New Market of Vietnam. Visit Ben Thanh for a shopping spree of the traditional Vietnamese goods. Haggling here is an art form, but visiting from Bangladesh, you shouldn’t be a stranger to it.

Saigon has countless old pagodas. Visit one to experience a unique South East Asian Buddhist culture. The pristine environment will certainly take your breath away and is surely a spiritual experience for some.

Take a walk along the Dong Khoi street to experience what life was like in the old war era Vietnam or head over to the Thu Thiem Bridge during dusk to see the magnificent Saigon Skyline in sunset.

Visit the war remnants museum and see the exhibitions solely dedicated to the infamous Vietnam war. The atrocities caused by the US Army, the horrors of chemical warfare and how the Vietnamese people fought back under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.

At night, the area where you’d most likely be staying comes out alive. Just around the corner of District one is the famous Bui Vien Walking street. Just as the clock strikes midnight, the cafes, bars and clubs of this street spring open and you will see both locals and tourists sit on the side of the road on small plastic tools, enjoying music, mingling and having local beers. The entire street remains open the entire night and keeps buzzing with loud music and people everywhere. Take a walk down this street to experience a nightlife like nowhere else in the world.

If you have time, head outside the city to explore the Vietnamese countryside away from the bustling city. The Vietnamese countryside is adorned with lush green rice fields and rivers and small hills in between them. Head over to the Mekong delta to see what it is like to live in a Vietnamese village. See the Cia Rang floating market, and entire market place in boats on the river Saigon. Visit Chu Chi Tunnels, a massive network of underground tunnels used by the Vietnamese guerillas during the time of war. The tunnels are extremely narrow so be advised if you have claustrophobia.

Most important of all, take random aimless walks down the streets of Saigon, visit local shops, local eateries, talk to local people and absorb the culture. That is the best part of exploring Saigon. People in Saigon are very friendly and often curious. You will often find random locals asking you where you’re from, engage with you in a friendly chat and invite you over to Saigon again in the future.

The weather in Saigon is extremely humid. Wear light clothes and always keep a bottle of water with you.

Bon Appetit!

Saigon is an eater’s heaven. Mouth watering local delicacies are found in countless street stalls on almost every street corner. Try Banh Mi, the Vietnamese style ham sandwich or a bowl of delicious and warm Pho noodles on any of the local street stalls. Street food vendors are here like vampires. They come out at night. You will find so many individual and groups of stalls scattered around the city. Locals love sitting on the sidewalks and enjoying a hot bowl of Pho or a dish of rice after a day’s hard work. Check out Co Bac and Co Giang, two of the most famous street food alleyways. Most of the dishes here will cost you around a 15,000 to 20,000 VND.

Vietnamese are crazy about their coffee. It makes sense since Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world. You’ll find Ca Phe Sua Da, the Vietnamese cold coffee almost on every street. The Highlands Coffee, the Vietnamese version of Starbucks is everywhere and they sell the special French pressed Vietnamese coffee. Almost all the variations of coffee can be found in Vietnam, starting from Coconut coffee to cheese coffee and everything in between. They even have coffee flavoured Coca-Cola.

Of course, there are international food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King as well, along with numerous mid to high end cafes and restaurant selling local delicacies in traditional environments. Eat to your heart’s content and don’t forget to leave a tip.

Goodbye Saigon

To get back to the airport you can either get a grab or take the bus. But taking a grab is recommended because you’re more likely to get a cheaper rate thanks to Promo codes and you really get to see most of Saigon on your way back to the airport travelling on the back of a scooter. Leave well ahead of time, keeping in mind the traffic.

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon is a city that can be explored in just two days. But the same cannot be said for Vietnam as a country. There are hundreds of places and experiences waiting for you. From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay and more. Saigon will surely leave you hungry for more of Vietnam and its never too late to start planning another trip to the land of the blue dragon.

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