You’re enjoying an iced Vietnamese white coffee while watching the traffic move down the busy streets of HO CHI MINH CITY. You’re thinking of where to get lunch and you have so many options at your fingertips. Of course the Bánh mì and phở restaurants are plentiful, but you’re more in the mood for fried noodles of some sort (or even a nice juicy burger at the place you saw down the street). You watch some of the locals crossing the road- maneuvering through the steady stream of motorbikes and cars- and you wonder how someone can be so at peace while moving into what seems like full blown chaos to the casual observer. In the back of your mind you’re taking mental notes on their techniques: wait for the gap, never change the pace of your step, and walk without hesitation. Maybe it’s something in the water here or maybe it’s just a state of mind but you definitely want in on whatever makes the locals so cool and confident. This is Ho Chi Minh City. So what sets this city apart from the rest?
Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding areas have an exceptionally painful and important history which deserves to be known and understood by people from across the world. From the War Remnants Museum to the Củ Chi tunnels, tourists, ex-pats, and native Vietnamese people alike have so much knowledge to gain from spending even a short amount of time here. As an American, I’ve learned more in this city than I ever did in my formal studies about the war and the legacy of the Vietnamese people. I hope that others will also be encouraged to visit and broaden their horizons.
2. The city of many personalities:
With 24 districts (19 urban and 5 rural) in Ho Chi Minh , it’s hard to not find somewhere to fit in. If you prefer a more centrally-located area, districts 1 and 2 are likely for you (however, bear in mind that these areas are more densely populated than the rest and thus the traffic will be more intense). The latter is home to many American and European ex-pats so it’s quite easy to find a community of these sorts if that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re seeking a more suburban area with a relatively central location, you can check out district 3. For quick access to Chinatown, district 5 is your spot. District 7 is home to many Korean and Japanese ex-pats and the sense of community is quite strong there, as well. You can find more details on the atmosphere of each district here
With a centrally located airport in district Tan Binh, Ho Chi Minh City offers the opportunity to get to and from other destinations at a far cheaper price than many other South East Asian cities. The accessibility of air travel enables you to skip longer bus routes while leaving more money in your pocket for other travel expenses and experiences. You can find one way tickets to Bangkok for 40 USD, to Kuala Lumpur from 42 USD, and to Singapore from 48 USD. This opens up a wealth of opportunities if you’re short on time in South East Asia.
If you’re new to the world of teaching English, Ho Chi Minh City is an excellent place to find your footing. Job applicants have a range of credentials and experience- you don’t necessarily need a teaching certification or a 4-year degree (or either of these things!) but it certainly helps for negotiating a salary with a potential employer. Many jobs at language schools, centers, and universities exist for native and non-native English speakers- it’s a matter of narrowing down the possibilities that are out there rather than searching high and low for a job. Unlike in smaller Vietnamese cities like Da Nang, many language centers hire continuously and teachers of all experience levels can find work relatively easily without the fear of being easily overpowered by the most competitive applicants.
Ho Chi Minh City is home to an extremely diverse array of restaurants and food stalls at any price point. You can find entrées at local food stands for as little as 1 USD (~22,000 VND) and beer for even cheaper. On the flip side, you can find a variety of excellent western food for a higher price. Being a westerner myself, I’ll sometimes eat a couple of local meals in a day and switch it up with some good old fashioned chicken carbonara or pizza at night. Variety is the spice of life, right?
In the US, I’ve been conditioned to pay the sticker price (plus tax, plus tip) for basically everything under the sun. In Ho Chi Minh City, however, haggling for a better price is a part of daily life and what better place to start than on the streets and in the markets of a bustling city such as this one? Learning to become more assertive while better integrating into the local culture is a great way to open your eyes to a different way of life than the one(s) you might already know.
For backpackers traveling on a budget, Ho Chi Minh city is an excellent place to spend some time. With hostel dorm rooms as cheap as 5 USD a night (or sometimes even cheaper!) it would be difficult to argue that you can’t make room in your budget for this city. For those looking to stay here long term, rents can range from 300 usd/month – 1000 usd/month depending on which district you live in.
While my experience is anecdotal at best, I have found the local people of Ho Chi Minh to be exceptionally welcoming and open-minded. I have been fortunate to make friends with a few of them and I can say with great certainty that they have treated me with nothing but kindness and respect. Strangers on the street sometimes ask where I’m from and when I say the US, their follow up question is sometimes akin to “Do you know my cousin? He lives in Minneapolis!” Of course I don’t, but I absolutely love that someone was curious enough to ask!
If you’ve never experienced the magic of Vietnamese coffee, I would highly recommend the experience. I personally am an lover of caffeine and I would say that a hot Vietnamese coffee is essentially espresso on steroids. The smallest amount of liquid can wire you for hours. There are a ton of cafes across the city ranging from big-box stores to mom-and-pop establishments but the love of caffeine is universal.
In Vietnam you can find beer for less than 1 USD very easily. The local beer is called Saigon Special which is pretty smooth and easy to drink (4.3% alcohol). There is also a microbrewery presence in many districts which will set you back a bit more but can allow you to experience more of the beer culture that this city has to offer.
In short, HO Chi Minh has something for everyone. As the city grows at a rapid pace, so too does its cultural, historical, and financial influence within the sphere of Vietnam, as well as on a global scale. With many opportunities to learn, experience, and explore the heritage and history of this fascinating place, it’s truly is a traveler’s paradise and an ex-pat’s home away from home.
About the author:
I’m an American backpacker who has been traveling in South East Asia for the past 2.5 months. I left a job in finance to see more of the world and to teach English abroad. I’ve loved my experience in HCMC and beyond and I hope to share some of my experiences with prospective and fellow travelers.