The most disappointing thing about tourism in Vietnam is that most travelers visit this amazing country and see it, but rarely get to feel and experience the true heart of this country.
But showing travelers the real Vietnam, and the culture of Ho Chi Minh City, is possible if you step outside the tourist routes and take a moment to explore and immerse yourself into the local culture.
In the 2002 movie, the Quiet American, Michael Caine opened the movie with a monologue that had two lines in it that really tells the story of this great country. “They say you come to Vietnam and you learn a lot in a few minutes. But the rest has got to be lived”. Such a true statement that was written over 70 years ago and still so true today.
When you visit Vietnam, you need to spend at least a week in Ho Chi Minh City. The history and hidden experiences are everywhere, but you just can’t see them as a visitor.
Often, tourists are either not aware of the experiences available, or are just too apprehensive to take the risk because of the language barrier and lack of local knowledge. But the people in Ho Chi Minh City are among the friendliest people in the world, and when you let yourself go just a little, you will find an experience that is often life changing.
Here are a few things you can experience when you visit Ho Chi Minh City:
Suction Cup Massage - It has a history dating back well before modern medicine. The suction cup massage is said to be a cure for all ailments and offers great health benefits, but I am not so sure.
The process involves glass cups and fire. The massage therapist heats the air inside the cup then quickly places it on your back, neck and shoulders. As the air cools it sucks to your skin and draws the blood to the surface. It usually feels rather good but can get uncomfortable towards the end. But it is an amazing experience and you must try it, either on the street or in a spa.
Hair Cut – This one is especially for the boys, but the ladies can also experience it. Hot toc (haircut) in Vietnam is a cheap and unique experience. At a local salon, it is possible to get your haircut, face shaved, ears cleaned (ray tai) and hair washed, all for around US$10.
There are different types of hot toc shops available in Ho Chi Minh City. At the top end are the famous, and expensive city salons but don’t go there because it’s designed to service tourists and the very rich and is not reflective of the local community.
|A barber washes a customer's hair at Dong Tay mobile barbershop in District 2, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
The new fashion in Vietnam is the “barber shop”. A very modern and trendy hair service for men. Then there is the more traditional hot toc where they have a man to cut your hair and ladies to shave your face and give you ray tai and are my choice for quality service.
And if you want the cheapest service there is, the famous street haircut is also a must try when you visit Saigon.
A little planning and advice should be all you need to find a good shop in the suburbs. Most will not speak any English but simply pointing and a translation app will get you through it ok. Make sure you give them a decent tip also. The cheaper your service, the more you should give. They work hard for very low wages.
Try the strange food – There is a range of different foods that you really don’t find in the tourist areas that local Vietnamese eat every day. Food like bun dau mam tom (vermicelli served with fried tofu and shrimp paste), hot vit lon (balut) and oc (snail) are just a few of the unique foods available in Ho Chi Minh City.
Hire a tour guide for an afternoon or evening and ask them to take you out to the suburbs like Phu Nhuan District, District 12 or Go Vap District and experience a local restaurant. It is an experience you will hold in your heart forever.
Whilst restaurants and street food in District 1 are good, it is not the same as experiencing food at places where local people eat every day. The secret is to get out of the city center and the further out you go, the better the experience.
|An stall selling snail dishes at Vuon Chuoi market in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
Hire a bicycle - I am sure most of you have never considered roaming the streets of Saigon on a bicycle. Well, it is rather safe, and it is the best way to explore the suburbs of the city. Bicycles can be easily rented from a number of bicycle shops. A simple Internet search will locate them or ask your hotel or tour guide.
If you do get out on a bike, make sure you have a local sim card in your phone in order to use a maps app. With maps, you can get lost in Ho Chi Minh City and explore, then easily find your way home.
|Young residents try out the city's bike sharing service in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, December 4, 2021. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
Riding a bicycle around Ho Chi Minh City is surprisingly easy also. Due to the enormous number of motorcycles, the risk of being hit by a car is greatly reduced. Slower moving motorcycles give you a more communal form of transport.
There are drink and food stores every 100m, so you don’t need to carry anything more than a drink bottle and a raincoat. But make sure you cover your body from head to toe because the daytime sun is very hot all year round.
Rent a motorbike - If you are out for an adventure, you may want to rent a motorbike to explore Saigon and neighboring provinces.
|Commuters travel by motorbikes on Hoang Van Thu Street in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
Whilst this is possible, it does come with a few warnings. Firstly, the law does require you to have a Vietnamese license. Also, your travel insurance may not cover you should you have an accident whilst riding a motorcycle without a license.
It’s also advisable to have some experience riding a motorbike before riding in Vietnam. For some western tourists, driving on the opposite side of the road can be a real challenge so be sure you are prepared and covered if you plan to rent a motorbike.
Motorbikes can be easily rented from your hotel or local shop in the city for around $10 a day. Renting from your hotel is often the safest choice as they will assist you with everything you need.
With a motorbike you can get out to the neighboring provinces of Dong Nai, Binh Duong and Long An, as well as seeing the outer districts like Thu Duc and Binh Chanh. Just ride, look, take pictures and whenever you want, stop and have a coffee or some food.
Again, a local sim card and a maps app will greatly assist you in getting lost in the suburbs then finding your way back home.
Make a plan to visit locations of interest and you will have a fantastic day in the city and provinces.
Visit a pagoda - With your bicycle or motorbike, make a point of visiting a big pagoda and spend some time taking in the feeling of the spirit of Ho Chi Minh City.
Some of the world’s biggest pagodas are located in this region. A little research and you will find some of the most popular pagodas located within 20 or 30 kilometers of the city center in places like District 9 and District 12. They are a special experience.
Museums – There are a few very popular museums in Ho Chi Minh City that showcase the history and values of Vietnam. However, unknown to many are a variety of small museums that have been preserved by local groups to honor the history and culture of the region.
Many of these small museums are privately run and might be found at the back of a café or above a food store. Some research before you travel will uncover some amazing little places that you can visit that are rarely seen by tourists.
|A collection of old banknotes at Lua Sai Gon Café in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre News|
Visit a local market - In every travel guide for Vietnam it says to visit Ben Thanh Market in District 1, but this is very much an international marketplace. True local markets are totally different because they focus on food and servicing the local community for their daily needs.
You won’t find a million T-shirts or any souvenirs. What you will find are amazing hard-working people delivering food in a traditional way that may shock some westerners, but it’s a photographer’s dream.
Also, most local markets will have food available to eat, so make sure you skip breakfast in order to experience local noodle or rice dishes offered at a local market. Most dishes in local markets range from $1 to $2.
|A fresh fish stall at a local wet market in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
The greatest disappointment as an expat is seeing people visiting Ho Chi Minh City and seeing them in a bus looking out the window and missing all the local culture. They spend a few days in the city center and take a day trip to some nearby attractions, like Cu Chi Tunnels.
Most of what they see is through a bus window and they never have the opportunity to stop and experience the real Ho Chi Minh City.
Southern Vietnam is now a much more interactive and accepting culture. More people speak English and more local shop owners are welcoming of foreigners who don’t speak the local language.
There has never been a better time to live Ho Chi Minh City rather than just seeing it. Plan your experience, get some help and allow enough time to feel the beauty of this amazing region. Live Ho Chi Minh City and the memories of your experience will forever sit in your heart.