I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours(ish)

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I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

Street action in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Stepping into the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), your senses are overtaken by the cacophony of whirring motors from scores of motorbikes zipping by, and car horns blowing at pedestrians and cyclo drivers on the chaotic streets where traffic rules seem nonexistent.

Your skin dampens after mere minutes of exposure to the powerful sun and relentless humidity. In every direction you look, people occupy space, whether it’s working in one of the many retail shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, street kiosks, businesses, and residential units that flank the roads, or pedestrians – some wearing masks covering their nose and mouth – boldly darting across the hectic roads from one side to the other.

Sidewalks are scant and the few that exist frequently serve as parking space for motorbike riders out eating or shopping.

My first impressions of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) – Vietnam’s largest and most populated – where I spent less than 36 hours this past December, left me a bit dizzy and unsure what to make of it all.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

Happy New Year 2016!

Other tidbits about HCMC:

Pho tastes about the same there as it does in California

I had one goal for my short visit to Vietnam: eat a bowl of pho – that delicious noodle soup in a flavorful meat-based broth – in its homeland. Goal: met.

Living in California I’ve had the good fortune of tasting some of the best Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam. After all, outside of Vietnam, more Vietnamese-Americans live in California than any other state.

For lunch on my first (and only) afternoon in HCMC I ordered a traditional bowl of beef pho aaaaaand….it tasted no differently from what I’ve had here. To confirm my unscientific finding, I again chose beef pho for dinner later that evening. Aaaaannnnndd….same result. I guess that’s good? I get good pho at home.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

This bowl of beef pho, including the coriander and bean sprouts, along with the 7UP (I like the snazzy can) cost me less than $4 USD! Pho is considered the national dish of Vietnam. It makes a great comfort food, and is eaten for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner depending on the region.

Cyclo drivers deserve major kudos

Having arrived in Ho Chi Minh a day earlier than my tour began, I used the extra time to explore as much of the city as I could. At the recommendation of the hotel concierge, I opted for a cyclo ride around HCMC. What’s a cyclo? Imagine an oversized tricycle with a bucket seat in the front to hold passengers.

My driver spoke very little English – enough to communicate the names of the landmarks we paused to view – which is more than the Vietnamese I knew (“cám ơn” or “thank you”). At various points along the 2.5 hour ride, I’d close my eyes and inhale deeply, while with the ease of a pro, he steered us through the frenetic tide of vehicles careening in all directions  – as I mentally reaffirmed my desire to live a long life.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

So much to see in this photo: Of course, the motorbikes (and notice the drivers are wearing helmets), in the background center you see a woman wearing a conical straw hat, known as a “leaf hat”, most likely to protect herself from the fierce heat; the bundles of low-hanging power lines; and background left: a man wearing mask over his face, which could be because he’s sick, scared of getting sick, or is protecting himself from the visible air pollution.

It’s difficult to gauge the age of my cyclo driver – I think he’s at least older than I am. His skin was worn with sun, smoke, and life lines, but he exuded youthful energy. He pedaled that giant bike – with me on it – for nearly 3 hours. Granted we took brief breaks here and there, but still.  Good for you, dude. Just goes to show that you can be fit at any age.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

You can see the French Colonial influence in the architecture of the Saigon Opera House, built in 1897 by a French architect.

 

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

As seen in Ba Thien Hau Temple, a temple in honor of Thien Hau, the “Lady of the Sea.”

 

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

Bitexco Financial Tower, with a design inspired by the lotus flower, rises to over 860-ft (262m) and is currently the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City.

Being Black gets you noticed

Did you know that I’m kind of a big deal in Vietnam? The minute I walked out of the airport, I noticed so many eyes fixated on me that had I not been prepared for this, I’d have thought that maybe my blog had taken HCMC by storm. Finally famous in this bitch. Everywhere I went, I attracted attention. They never mention this phenomenon in the travel guides..

None of it was meant to be rude or to cause me discomfort. It’s just that some people have never ever in their whole long lives seen a black person IN REAL LIFE. Generally, when I would smile at the owner of the gawking eyes, they’d return the greeting with a sheepish grin.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

Hey! I’m Black and in Vietnam! (This really isn’t my favorite photo, but my cyclo driver insisted on taking it and it’s the only picture I have of a cyclo. I am sitting in front of the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.)

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

Is this man mean-mugging me? Just staring right in the middle of my photo. Anyhow, this is Saigon Square, a large market packed with stalls where everything from jeans to tourist knick knacks are sold. (The guys in the ties are parking attendants.)

Even though Vietnam is one of the least religious nations in the world, Christmas is a thing.

Albeit in a secular sense and no doubt influenced by “Western” culture.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

With Christmas less than two weeks away, decorations were up all over the city.

That final evening in the city, I met my tourmates – the 6 other people I’d be spending the next 10 days with. At dinner, the conversation flowed easily as we dined, until it ended abruptly as a scene grew directly in front of the open-air restaurant. When the crowd drifted away, we were shocked to see a terribly disfigured man dragging himself across the pavement.

It’s hard to know how to react or what to say in that moment. My mind reeled with conflicted thoughts and questions. Our group fell silent for several counts as we all processed what we’d just witnessed. The images will be with me for awhile.

—-

The next morning, we said goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City and hit the road shortly after the roosters crowed – I could hear the cocky birds from my hotel room. Within a few hours we’d reach the border of Vietnam and cross into Cambodia.

I’ll have to return to Vietnam. My visit was entirely too short and I hear good things about Hoi An, Halong Bay, and Hanoi.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)

Exchange rate at the time: 22,130 Vietnamese Dong = $1 USD (approx.)

Stay tuned for more in my series on my travels throughout Southeast Asia!

Have you ever been to Vietnam? If not, is it on your list of countries to visit?

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24 Comments
  • Andy
    April 12, 2016

    Hi – great article about my adopted city – wish i had known you were coming would love to take you on one our tours – as we give back to our community http://saigonbuddytours.com/blog/

  • Jarret Ruminski
    January 16, 2016

    Such great pictures, and you’re a hell of a travel writer!

  • Ramona
    January 13, 2016

    Looking forward to read about Cambodia 😉

  • Dean
    January 12, 2016

    True Story. My family eating pho:

    Husband: I want to go to Vietnam and eat pho there. Remember when Anthony Bourdain went, babe?
    Me: Keisha is there!! I bet she’ll have pho.
    Kids: Who’s Keisha?
    Me: Keisha, my friend, she blogs. You know Keisha… {Because I swear they remember everybody’s name/blog name I mention}

    I’m not sure if I should tell my husband pho in Vietnam tastes like Cali pho.
    And that certainly looks like a mean mug to me. 😀
    I loved the pictures!!
    XOXO

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 13, 2016

      Hahaha. This is hilarious, I love it! Of course, I didn’t get to sample alllll the pho, so I think it’s still worth a visit to try some pho (and other dishes) for yourself. 🙂

  • lifeofatravelingnavywife
    January 11, 2016

    I have not been. My father fought three tours and I asked if he’d ever go back (as a tourist/traveler) and he said there is no way. He never wants to go there; he’s left all his bad memories there. It cuts me to my core and I feel that is if I go, I will somehow disrespect him. I know that is totally irrational, but I just don’t know if I can do it while he is still living. I want to go for the history of what my father went through; I know it was pretty awful. And I want to see how the country is now. My coworker was there for a month, putting her father in their family cemetery – he passed last year and his final wish was for his ashes to rest there. It’s looks beautiful.

    To answer the poster above me – I don’t think Japan’s culture and Vietnam’s are similar at all. I work with the Japanese. Apples and oranges.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 13, 2016

      I can understand why you’d be hesitant to visit (and completely get why your dad wouldn’t want to return!). The War is actually one of the reasons I wanted to visit the country. I remember when someone who’d been to Vietnam told me she’d gone to a museum exhibit on “The American War” and it hit me just how US-centric my knowledge of Vietnam and it’s history is. It bothered me, since there is more than one side to every story. I wanted to gain a broader perspective and also demystify Vietnam a bit. My trip definitely helped in that regard.

  • Lloyd Lofthouse
    January 10, 2016

    I never made it to Saigon when I served in Vietnam in 1966. I was always curious what it was like there. But then, Saigon in 1966 is not Saigon in the 21st century.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 10, 2016

      From what I’ve learned and read, things have changed drastically since the war – and it seems much of it is for the better for the citizens.

  • Claire Algarme
    January 10, 2016

    I remember my own trip in Ho Chi Minh City. It was just 48 hours and I felt it was too brief. I think we never got to really explore the city. We were mostly within District 1. I hope to return to Vietnam someday.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 10, 2016

      Yeah, I feel the same way, especially since HCMC is so big! I got enough of a taste that I know I want to return.

  • Zen
    January 10, 2016

    As always, love the posts… “a big thing in this …”
    -Thanks for the read.

  • Patricia
    January 9, 2016

    Absolutely love this blog post, and can’t wait to read the next ones!

  • Heidi
    January 9, 2016

    You must visit more of Vietnam. Hanoi is one million times better than Siagon and made me fall in love with Vietnam. Hoi An and Halong bay were lovely but I also want to see more places on Vietnam. I’d love to go up to the north- Sapa and see the hill tribe villages too.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 10, 2016

      Yeah, some of the people in my tour group were part of a longer trip and they’d gone to Hanoi and raved about it (and were much less enthusiastic about Saigon).

  • Kerry
    January 9, 2016

    I’ve been to China and Japan (Korea for less than 24 hours), but never Vietnam. Would love to go. Love your descriptions and photos! Interesting how much you stood out there as a black woman. My 6’6″ husband was stared at quite a bit in China – not too many tall men there I guess.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 9, 2016

      Japan is high on my list of places to visit! I just shudder at the thought of how expensive it is (though it can’t be *that* much worse than San Francisco)! Your husband is tall! I bet he gets looks at home too! Hehe. I have heard that about China from a few other tall friends who’ve visited. It’s interesting how different things are in countries less (visibly) ethnically diverse than the US.

  • Cynthia
    January 7, 2016

    I hope you enjoyed yourself.

  • William
    January 7, 2016

    Jealous

  • K E Garland
    January 6, 2016

    What was the control level like? Japan is super rule and shame driven. Did you get that sense there?

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