JOIN ME IN AN INTERVIEW WITH COLIN MARETSKY FROM HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM !
Colin runs the alternative travel site BrokenMap.com. His site is dedicated to finding “off the beaten path” destinations, including fascinating, historical, weird, or even macabre experiences. He wants to break from the mold of regular “checklist” travel, and find something that sticks in our mind long afterwards. His site covers countries from Asia, including Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. If you want something different from your travels, be sure to check out his site.
Which is the best month to visit Ho Chi Minh City and why?
The best time to visit HCM is from December to March. Vietnam has only two seasons: Wet and Dry. The wet season is from June to October, and is basically 110% humidity broken up by random explosions of rain. As Forrest Gump put it, “we been through every kind of rain there is.”
The dry season also has Tet Holiday and the Mid-Autumn Festival; two of the largest festivals in Vietnam, so these are great times to come experience the culture and celebrations.
Which is the most convenient and favoured transport of Ho Chi Minh City?
If you’re just traveling here, take Grab Bike. Grab is SE Asia’s Uber, having since forced Uber out of the country. The Grab app is easy to use, and the bikes are infinitely cheaper than any other transportation. Avoid men offering to drive you around, since they’ll charge you big numbers since you don’t understand the conversion rates yet.
If you’re staying a bit longer, or are feeling brave, you can rent a motorbike to drive around the city. Driving in Vietnam looks terrifying, but it’s actually easy. Especially, since 90% of the vehicles are motorbikes, you’re not in danger like you would be in a Western country, where an accident usually involves a car. I rarely see people crash here.
Crossing the road also feels like you’ve got a death wish. But don’t worry, just walk slowly and steadily, and the bikes will part around you like you’re Moses.
What are the top 3 must visit places in Ho Chi Minh City?
The French Quarter: Found in District 1, this area retains a lot of buildings built in the French Colonial style. Many of the hotels have ornate architecture, and this area has the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, Opera House, Central Post Office, Bitexco Tower, HCM Hall, and several monuments erected along the riverside.
Independence Palace: Right near the Notre Dame cathedral, the Independence Palace was the residence of the former President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The existence of a palace on the spot runs all the way back to French colonial times, and it played a main role in the Fall of Saigon, when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates on April 30, 1975, and declared victory for the North. You can see the palace interior while learning about the history of the Vietnam war, and also view Vietcong tanks and weapons on the palace grounds. Tickets are only 40,000 VND (2USD) for entry.
The War Remnants Museum: This is a museum dedicated to the atrocities and effects of the Vietnam War. They have US military equipment, helicopters, planes, and a huge exhibit full of weapons, including real bombs and landmines (I’m 80% sure the bombs aren’t active).
Be warned: this museum pulls no punches. They have graphic pictures of massacres, including dead bodies and maimed people. They also have a room dedicated to the effects of Agent Orange, which needless to say, show some pretty sickening photos. If you’ve got the stomach for it, this is a very sobering depiction of the war. Tickets are also about 40,000 VND for entry.
What are the best day trips from Ho Chi Minh City ? Would you like to recommend any local tour operators to tourists ?
Cu Chi Tunnels: The Cu Chi Tunnels are probably one of the most popular tours. Only an hour north of the city, you can see actual tunnels used by VC forces to mobilize forces, hide, and conceal resources. The tunnels are unbelievably small, so while you can enter, claustrophobics should beware.
Mekong Delta Tour: Usually comes with a bus pickup tour from your hotel, transporting you about 2 hours south of HCM. There, a boat will take you up and down one of the large rivers in the Mekong Delta, with a few stop-off points at different villages so you can see food and crafts being made by the local villagers.
Which is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Ho Chi Minh City?
Tet Holiday is the biggest. Also known as Lunar New Year, it’s celebrated nationwide in Vietnam. This is when the Vietnamese traditionally celebrate the new year, and even birthdays are calculated based on this February date. However, during this holiday, there’s a mass exodus from HCM and Hanoi, since everyone returns to their hometowns to celebrate with their families. HCM is like a ghost town during this time, which is a nice break from the crowds, but it can be difficult if you want to experience some of the local culture, since most shops will be closed down.
Which is the most happening area in Ho Chi Minh City and why?
For most backpackers, Bui Vien is the street for nightlife. It’s a small street that get packed with people almost every night of the week. Music blares from dozens of bars lining the streets, and staff try to drag you in with drink specials. During the week, cars as well as people will squeeze themselves onto the street, so it gets as crowded as it can get without becoming a local emergency. It’s famous for the street drinking however, when people sit in tiny plastic chairs and drink extremely cheap Vietnamese beer (called Tiger, or Saigon Red). This street as the energy of an exploding star, and is a must-see for young partiers, if only once.
Is Ho Chi Minh City a vegetarian friendly city?
Buddhism is one of the main religions in Vietnam. One of the tenets of Vietnamese Buddhism is the eating of vegetarian at least twice a month. So, HCM is actually quite friendly for vegetarians. If you need to find vegetarian food in a hurry, look for a temple! Veggie shops usually surround the temples, and serve you authentic vegetarian cuisine.
Where can one find amazing street food in the city?
District 1 is the central (and tourist) district, so street food is never hard to find. Around Bui Vien, De Tham, and Nguyen Hue (the street with the giant HCM Hall) are the most popular for finding street food, but you should never have a problem with food here (except maybe food poisoning).
What is the most loved local food, savoury and sweet of your city? Do you suggest a place to try it?
Vietnamese Phở (pronounced “fuh” like you’re asking a question), is a staple food of Vietnam. It’s a noodle, meat, and vegetable soup. Soups and rice dishes are really popular here. Try Bún bò Huế (a spicy beef noodle soup), Bánh bao (a meat-filled dumpling), Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich on a French baguette), Gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls), or Nước mía (sugarcane juice).
These are all served by local family restaurants. There aren’t many food-safety permits in HCM (is that good?), so most family homes also operate as restaurants. Don’t be afraid to walk up and check out what they’re offering. They’ll probably talk to you in Vietnamese, but just remember that “chào” means “hello”, and “cảm ơn” means “thank you”. Don’t forget to write down the name if you like the dish!
Where to head for shopping in Ho Chi Minh City?
The French quarter in District 1 is the most popular for finding luxury items. They have everything you’d expect in a Western country: Prada, Dior, Burberry, Lacoste. The shopping center called Takashimaya should have any luxury items you want.
In and around Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao, dozens of souvenir shops exist. These are pretty well-priced for souvenirs or gifts, so that would be a good place to try.
Do you recommend any walking tours or travel photography tours in Ho Chi Minh City to the visitors?
Saigon Free Walking Tours is a donation-based tour company, run by a local tourism university. Since tourism is a huge market in Vietnam, tons of students are just studying tourism, and are looking for a chance to practice their skills, as well as their English. This is a great way to save money and to help a few students out while you’re at it!
Vespa Adventures is great too, since a lot of HCM is not exactly walkable. The sidewalks are usually small or non-existent, and bikes usually drive along what sidewalks do exist. The motorbike tour is a great way to blend in with the crowd, and see HCM much more quickly than you would do on foot!
Would you recommend any popular local apps to tourists for transport, food and hidden gems in Ho Chi Minh City?
Grab is the ultimate taxi app here in HCM. It saves time, money, and stress from the idea that your driver might try to rip you off at the end of your trip. Other than that, I use HappyCow (since I’m a vegetarian) to find local vegetarian restaurants. There are many here, but usually they’re not plainly visible, so it helps to get and address for those kinds of family restaurants.
And that’s it! Those are the basics of my quaint little Vietnamese city! The cheap prices, friendly people, and general disregard of traffic rules are great reasons to come visit! Don’t mind the honking, or the heat, and bring sunscreen and a hunger for delicious Vietnamese cuisine. As I’ve proved, this is a wonderful place to come for 4 months and then accidentally stay for 2 years. The people are open, honest, and inviting, and life is always exciting and unexpected!