Hello Ho Chi Minh City – The Palpitating Pulse of Vietnam
Exhausted, overwhelmed, wide-eyed and mouth agape, I stepped off the bus into a night frothed with an abundance of noises, flashing lights, speeding vehicles and a flood of pedestrians crowding the sidewalks and streets.
We had arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon prior to 1976).
It took a few moments to come to the realization that I had just stepped into the palpitating pulse of Vietnam. Silly me, I didn’t know Ho Chi Minh was the busiest and most populated (with more than 10 million people) metropolitan in Vietnam. After the rather tame (and charming even) chaos of the capital city of Hanoi, I certainly didn’t expect Ho Chi Minh City to be such a smorgasbord of multi-sensorial stimulation. Immediately after my initial shock, I had the sudden urge to explore every nook and cranny this megalopolis had in store for me but first and foremost we had to find a place to spend the next few nights.
Our bus had dropped us off near Pham Ngu Lao – a street in District 1 (HCMC is divided in 24 districts) but better known amongst travelers as the backpacker district. Pham Ngu Lao was spilling with tiny plastic chairs occupied by loud-mouthed patrons drinking beer by the pint. Stale, nose-pinching stenches from the night before lingered in the thick air. Young scantily-clad girls with golden complexions were passing out pamphlets to attract passersby to the countless bars lining the street. The thumping of the latest gyrating-inducing hits was heard all around. The more we walked down Pham Ngu Lao street, the less I wanted to stay there.
But it was centrally-located and it was getting late so we continued our search by turning on a quieter street and found a nicely appointed room in a family-owned guesthouse away from all the gyrating, thumping and stenches. After a quick shower, we left the relative calmness of our street and headed back to the madness of the crowds on Pham Ngu Lao street.
I love to people-watch and this was the most perfect place to indulge myself. Setting ourselves in a couple of tiny plastic chairs, we eagerly observed all the goings-on taking place around us. From the drunk backpackers to the Vietnamese women pushing their mobile food carts to the locals joining in drinking games, my eyes couldn’t get enough – hello Ho Chi Minh City!
Unlike Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh doesn’t have as much to offer in terms of sightseeing and, in reality, that’s the true beauty of it. Aimlessly wandering around and observing local life through a looking glass is sometimes so much more rewarding and entertaining than dashing from monument to monument. In a city as big and as animated as Ho Chi Minh, there’s always something to catch your attention. It might be something as mundane (contextually) as a guy carrying an oversized mattress on his motorbike but to a foreigner it’s reason enough to snap a pic – and there are many such occasions to whip out your camera.
The number of motorbikes in HCMC is at an all-time high of 7.43 million!!! The whizzing by and continuous beeping of the motorbikes can be dizzying (and dangerous) – it’s really something you have to experience in person in order to wrap your head around this astounding statistic. But it’s still hard to grasp even while attempting to cross a street (squealing all the way to the other side) laden with hundreds of motorbikes and cars. The chaotic traffic of Ho Chi Minh is unforgiving, ruthless and unavoidable so best you take your courage in both hands and perfect yourself in the fine art of traversing as soon as possible. Nothing like totally immersing yourself (literally but please be cautious) in the local culture!
SEPTEMBER 23RD PARK
To escape the frenetic pace of the city, head to one of the many parks scattered around HCMC. September 23rd Park (named after a short rebellion which took place on that day in 1945) is adjacent to the backpacker district making it both easily accessible and pleasant to walk to.
If you’ve never seen working out à la Asian then get ready to witness locals breaking a sweat in the urban jungle (see the trees!). This, of course, isn’t proper to only Vietnam but it is quintessentially Asian – any self-respecting country in South East Asia will have a spectrum of peculiar exercise equipment made available to its city dwellers.
I was surprised at how health-conscious the Vietnamese were; many could be seen exercising but also power-walking the entire perimeter of the park. Vietnamese are also very family-oriented – it’s not unusual to see families gathered at the park at dusk once the heat and humidity have let up.
BINH TAY MARKET
Although most tourists make their way to Bên Thành market (where you’ll find lots of souvenirs), if you want a more authentic experience then head to Bình Tây market instead which is frequented mostly by locals. Located in the Cholom district – Saigon’s Chinatown, Bình Tây is the largest market in the city. As is customary in many markets in South East Asia, Bình Tây is a grid-like compilation of everything and anything all organized and divided into categories. There’s a section for fruits & vegetables, a section for clothing & accessories, a section for fabrics, a section for dry goods, a bustling section for food stalls and so on.
There’s also a wet market bursting at the seams with even more goods located on the streets parallel to the market. With women huddled under umbrellas selling fresh produce and delivery men shouting to get out of the way, this quadrilateral is much more interesting and lively than the inside market.
You won’t find any international brands at Bình Tây market but you will find an endless choice of locally-sourced items from the weird to the practical making this market a true Vietnamese feast for the eyes.
NOTRE-DAME CATHEDRAL BASILICA
The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon or officially-named Cathedral Basilica of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (Vietnamese: Vương cung thánh đường Chính tòa Đức Mẹ Vô nhiễm Nguyên tội – whew!) is a testament to the presence of the French colonists who arrived in Vietnam at the end of the 19th Century. All the building materials were imported from France which explains the undeniably distinctive European design of the cathedral.
HO CHI HIMH CITY HALL & DONG KHOI STREET
The Ho Chi Minh City Hall is an interesting architectural feat obviously influenced by the colonization that took place in Vietnam. In a city where most buildings are void of any charm, the Ho Chi Minh City Hall stands out a little awkwardly. It isn’t open to the public but the finely manicured gardens at the front are often photographed by many. It’s no surprise that the Ho Chi Minh City Hall is located in one of the more prominent neighborhoods.
The glamorous and impeccably clean Dong Khoi street is home to many luxury designer boutiques such as Versace and Dior (not my thing) – evidence that Vietnam is on its way to becoming one of the most developed and enviable countries in South East Asia.
Ho Chi Minh is definitely one of those cities I would’ve liked to spend more time in exploring its different districts and discovering all it has to offer in the rawest form. Most points of interest are within walking distance of each other making this city very user-friendly – just be careful when crossing the streets!
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Have you been to Ho Chi Minh City? Did you enjoy its organized chaos?