Vietnam was our final stop during our 4 month trip through SE Asia. Our plan was to travel through the country from south to north, which made Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) a logical first stop.
The first person we talked to about our plan to visit Vietnam was Tinh, a previous coworker of Alison’s for over 25 years. This guy was born in Vietnam but escaped by boat as a small child during the war years and since his memories of Vietnam were very traumatic he told us we should skip his previous home country all together. When we told him we were definitely going to Vietnam Tinh said we absolutely had to get in touch with his sister Linh in HCMC, so we contacted her early in our planning process. We told Linh we were super excited to meet her and were planning to stay 2 weeks in HCMC, but she said she worried we would be bored and ready to leave after 3 or 4 days. So we compromised and dropped our duration down to 6 nights.
When we arrived we were just in time to watch Vietnam beat Thailand in a big soccer game. Everyone in our little neighborhood was whooping for joy and we got right into the festive mood. We really enjoyed our 6 nights in HCMC and of course at the end of our trip we wished we had stuck to the plan to stay 2 weeks there. We really enjoyed the parts of the city we saw. And most of all, we had a great time with Linh and her fiancé.
Since we travelled to HCMC from Chiang Mai I decided to compare those two locations for cost of living expenses. That comparison from Numbeo.com is below. I was a little surprised to see that rent is listed as 26% more expensive in HCMC but happy to see that restaurants and groceries are both less expensive in HCMC.
What we spent
Our average daily spending goal for 2019 was to stay below a total of $115 per day as a couple, which is $57.50 per person per day (PPPD). Full disclosure: Our daily spending goal represents our variable expenses for things like housing, food, in-city transportation, and fun. This does not include our fixed expenses for things such as our global medical insurance.
We kept our spending pretty low in HCMC. When we left the city and Alison did her Money Crush math we found that our total spending in HCMC was $32.30 PPPD, well below our budget. That included $10.06 PPPD on Housing, $11.70 PPPD on Food, $0.57 PPPD on Fun, and $4.44 PPPD on Transportation.
HCMC was one of the places we most enjoyed during our 4 months in SE Asia. I found a tiny Airbnb at the far end of a really cool alley in District 1. This great little place was in an excellent location, and at only $10.06 PPPD it worked just fine for us. The host was on site and super friendly, and the little alley neighborhood had a ton of charm. The place was only around 150 sq ft with a comfy bed, kitchenette, a little table and 2 chairs, and cute little private bathroom. It would have been interesting to try to stay a full month in a little place like that.
Our Airbnb was tiny but we had no issues cooking in our little kitchenette, so we did some grocery shopping and ate breakfast at home every day. We also cooked a couple of dinners at home. The rest of the time we were out enjoying lots of street food lunches and we had a couple of great dinners out as well. Our total spending was only $11.70 PPPD on Food. Among the fun meals we enjoyed out were some fabulous Banh Mi, Banh Cuon, and Cao Lau. And Cousin Linh introduced us to a variety of great snacks and fruits that we absolutely loved.
1. Phong Cua
Our very best dinner was at a seafood place on the river that Linh picked out for us. Phong Cua is 20 minutes away from the center without traffic. The variety of seafood at this place was amazing, and everything was delicious. We were planning to treat Linh and her fiancé but they beat us to the check, which was incredibly sweet of them. Apparently Alison’s buddy Tinh back in Seattle had arranged to have Linh pay on his behalf so he could treat us all to dinner, which made Alison cry when she found out. The food was fantastic and the company was even more wonderful, so that dinner was a really special experience for us.
2. Restaurant La Cuisine
Our second best dinner was at a little French restaurant we found by accident when we were walking back home from our nightly stroll along the river. We walked right past Restaurant La Cuisine and then turned around and went in for dinner. We got a fabulous variety of dishes to share and had fun chatting with some locals at the next table. Pretty soon we were singing happy birthday to this lady we just met and laughing with her and her friends over beers. Everywhere we went in HCMC we had experiences like that where people seemed genuinely friendly and made us feel welcome.
1. Best part of this trip
Vietnam is the country we are most excited to return to in SE Asia. We got to know Linh and her husband on our first visit and we left feeling like we have family to visit on our next trip, which HCMC a special place for us. We were told we could think of Linh as our cousin from now on, and we do. Linh and her husband gave us the warmest welcome imaginable along with a ton of information about Vietnam. They shared their enthusiasm for their country with us, which came with a ton of excitement about how HCMC might continue to develop during our lifetime. We also left with a list of recommendations for other Vietnamese cities and villages we should visit in the future.
2. Reunification Palace/Independence Palace
This is the only place in townwe visited and paid admission to. We wanted to hear more about Vietnamese history and spend some time walking as well. This was the former South Vietnam presidential palace and it’s still decked out in 1960s splendor. We spent half the day exploring the buildings and the park-like private grounds. We also got a bonus experience with a special exhibit focused on Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam from 1955 until his assassination in1963. It was fascinating to learn about President Diem, who was supported by US military and economic aid, and committed outrageous injustices and atrocities during his rule.
3. Walk along Saigon River
We had a routine of walking along the Saigon River in the evenings, which we really enjoyed. The river supplies water to the city and the paths along the river are a peaceful refuge away from the traffic on the city streets. Having a place to go to escape the traffic is a big deal in HCMC! The river paths were also a great place to see local people doing their thing. There were birds singing, kids playing, and adults fishing, chatting with friends, and doing exercise routines.
Let’s be honest – traffic is insane in HCMC. There’s a truly staggering number of scooters swarming around in every direction and they seem to follow their own traffic rules. They can drive in the wrong lane and in the wrong direction and somehow it’s perfectly normal. Everyone says the best trick for crossing the street safely is to just stay aware and walk confidently and directly, trusting that scooters and cars will weave around you safely. Personally I thought it was hard to walk confidently without making any sudden changes or stopping midstream. We learned to look everywhere as we crossed streets, literally in all directions. And we whenever possible we walked with locals when they crossed the street since they could read the traffic rhythms more easily than us, which also made us a bigger barrier that drivers could see easily as they whipped around us.
The other big issue for pedestrians in HCMC is having safe access to sidewalks. There were a couple of times that we saw scooters leave the street to avoid traffic and invade sidewalks for a minute. And very often we noticed the sidewalks were being used as parking lots for both scooters and cars, which meant we had to walk in the street next to the sidewalks. I’ll admit that once I clung to an elderly woman who basically dragged me along while she charged through an overwhelming amount of traffic one night. So yeah, being a pedestrian can be quite an exciting and difficult experience in HCMC.
The total cost for our in-city transportation including rides to and from the airport and within the city during our 6 night stay was $53.29. That number would have been around $15 or $20 if it wasn’t for our one ride from the airport to our Airbnb. We spent $46.53 for our first ride in a taxi, and $11.29 for the return to the airport plus 2 other rides around town using Grab. When we arrived at the airport I had trouble getting my Grab app to cooperate. I had just used the app a couple of hours earlier in Thailand and the currency change to Vietnamese Dong wasn’t showing up and every time I tried to order a car I got a message about different rules for using Grab in Vietnam.
Before we arrived I had been told repeatedly to avoid using regular taxis because they are known to bump up meter readings and massively overcharge customers (locals and tourists). In Vietnam taxi rates are not regulated so every taxi company can set their own fare structure. I promised to avoid taxis before we arrived but when my Grab app didn’t work I didn’t have much choice so I went ahead and got us a taxi anyway. We traveled 4.6 miles from the airport to our Airbnb and the driver charged us $46.53 for a ride that probably should have cost between $5 and $10. Lesson learned.
Where we spent our time
Money Crush Score: Great, right on track with our budget
Except for making sure we avoid using taxis next time, there’s not a single thing we would do differently with our spending on a future trip and we would gladly stay longer in the future. HCMC is a location that has a cost of living that’s comfortable for us, and it’s a place where we can overpay and be generous while staying within our budget.
Travel Score: We loved it and definitely plan to return
Our HCMC experience was a reminder that we often love the places other people tell us we won’t like. Pretty much every person we talked to about visiting HCMC essentially said, “Don’t go there you will hate it.” Everyone was wrong because we loved this city. Our little Airbnb and the neighborhood we stayed in were very charming and comfortable. We had a great time taking walks along the river every day. And we absolutely loved all of the food we tried. We also loved the people we met, and most of all we loved meeting our new cousin Linh and her husband while we were there.
LGBT+ Score: Impressive for SE Asia, and lots of room to improve
HCMC has bars, cafes, and restaurants that are popular hangouts for LGBT+ locals and travelers. Vietnam, like many countries, is very welcoming towards LGBT+ tourists. On the plus side, sexual activity between male and female same-sex partners is legal and was never criminalized, which is something many other countries can’t boast about. Pride events in HCMC and Hanoi started in 2012, and have grown as international events of celebration in those cities and are now also held in numerous other Vietnamese cities and provinces. In 2015 a law was passed making it illegal to ban same sex marriages in Vietnam. Even more impressive is another law passed in 2015 that gave Transgender people the right to legally undergo sex reassignment surgery and have their gender recognized. But legal protections for LGBT+ citizens are very limited, and there are taboos and cultural norms that make it challenging for LGBT+ citizens to receive the respect they deserve from their peers, families, and employers.
Other stuff we think is interesting
How big is this city?
HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam and was the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) during the war years. HCMC is large at 795.3 square miles and is quite densely populated. The current population of HCMC is not known since the last census was in 2009. But the estimates that seem most supported put HCMC’s population in the urban city center at around 1.3 million people, and as many as 8.4 million people in the broader metropolitan area. Meanwhile, the number of scooters in HCMC is said to be around 9.5 million scooters on the streets on weekdays.
HCMC is warm all year round, the big seasonal change is switching between the wet season and the dry season. We were there at the end of March, which is the end of the dry season. The temps we experienced during our stay ranged between 75ºF as the overnight low and 95ºF as the high of the day.
What’s this city’s name?
Prey Nokor in Cambodia
Ho Chi Minh City was actually a small fishing village called Prey Nokor within Cambodia’s Khmer empire until the 1600s. Prey Nokor was located in the Mekong Delta which gave the Khmer a valuable sea port and access to international trading on the South China Sea. Prey Nokor’s Mekong Delta location was a source of wealth and power for the Khmer, and also attracted the attention of rival countries. In 1698 Vietnam formally annexed Prey Nokor and the entire Mekong Delta region, and changed the city’s name to Saigon. Cambodia’s last formal attempt to retake Prey Nokor was in the late1970s.
Saigon during French Colonialism
The port city of Saigon was ruled by Vietnam for over 150 years when the next big takeover occurred. French Catholic missionaries started arriving in Vietnam in the early 1600s and continued growing in numbers with the mission to change Vietnamese culture. French colonial forces arrived in Vietnam in the 1800s intent on taking sovereign land by force. France took the city of Da Nang in 1858, and then invaded Saigon in 1859. In 1862 Vietnam’s emperor was forced to sign the Treaty of Saigon which ceded Saigon, the island of Poulo Condor, and 3 southern provinces which became the French colony Cochinchina in South Vietnam. Eventually the French colony of Cochinchina was combined with the rest of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan to form colonial French Indochina. The capital city of French Indochina was Saigon until 1902.
Ho Chi Minh City since 1975
The city was named “Ho Chi Minh City” in 1975 in honor of the communist revolutionary leader who is credited with reuniting the country. The name HCMC celebrates the unification of north and south Vietnam, and the end of the American War. For a lot of people, especially older people, it’s important to note that the name change from Saigon to HCMC was a radical victory statement for the north and a statement of defeat for the Saigonese people and the south which makes it very personal. And for a lot of other people the name change to HCMC was a way for Vietnamese people to reclaim the city that once represented the seat of colonial and foreign influence over the country.
We talked to a lot of people about whether we should use Saigon or HCMC since we heard people use both, and got a bunch of different answers. A couple of people said the name Saigon is tied to colonialism as well as the American War, since Saigon was a capital city during the era of French colonialism as well as a stronghold during the American War, so we should respectfully use HCMC. One guy told us the name HCMC was a reminder of a dangerous and violent period in their history so we should respectfully use Saigon. Some people said the name is more tied to people’s age, that a lot of older people still use Saigon because that’s the name they grew up using, and that more young people call the city HCMC because that’s the only name they have known. And then of course there are foreigners like us who visit and either use the name HCMC or Saigon because they heard it somewhere else and may or may not fully understand the history. The point is, the city is still known by both names and while some people don’t seem to take the name issue personally, other people do.
Speaking for ourselves, we use the name HCMC, because that’s the legal name the country gave itself and because that’s the name our Cousin Linh uses proudly.
The American War in Vietnam
Growing up in the US we were taught one version of history about “The Vietnam War.” After traveling to Vietnam we learned other versions of history and a lot of really disturbing facts about “The American War in Vietnam.” One of the only simple facts is that Saigon was the headquarters of US military operations during the American War in Vietnam.
What the Vietnamese refer to as the American War, and the US refer to as the Vietnam War, and the French refer to as the Second Indochina War, was fought in Vietnam as well as in Laos and Cambodia and lasted from 1955 until the fall of Saigon in 1975. It’s also important to note that this war was a direct extension of what the French refer to as the First Indochina War and the Vietnamese refer to as the Anti-French Resistance War, which lasted from 1945 until 1954 and was fought in Vietnam as well as in Laos and Cambodia against French colonists who were supported by the US. In fact most of the funding for the French colonial war effort during the First Indochina War was provided by the US. After the French finally quit Indochina in 1954, the US basically took over the French effort and assumed financial and military support for the South Vietnamese state.
Since the French and then the US were based in Saigon the wars became battles between the independence fighters in the north and the occupiers in south Vietnam. During the American War the north was supported by communist allies including China and the Soviet Union, while the south was supported by anti-communist allies including the US and Australia. Initial US policies were self-serving attempts to block communism from developing in Vietnam and in other neighboring Asian countries at any cost. It took decades for the US Congress and broader US society to question those policies and withdraw support for the war effort. The American War in Vietnam resulted in 58,318 US soldier deaths. The number of Vietnamese deaths due to the American War is not known, but is estimated to be as high as 3.8 million Vietnamese people.
I don’t actually know a lot about my own dad, but I do know that he was drafted by the US Army in 1968 and then enlisted in the US Navy to avoid the Army. He was sent to Vietnam in 1968 where I think he served until 1971. The fact that my dad went to Vietnam with the US military became a source of pride for him, but is definitely not a source of pride for me.
Vietnam’s Communist Party has a strong hold on political power and does not allow any room to challenge the current leadership or policies. According to Human Rights Watch the current one-party system does not allow for freedom of speech or religion, and activists are often harassed, intimidated, physically attacked, and imprisoned. Regardless, increasing numbers of bloggers and activists are focused on a future with democracy and greater freedoms in Vietnam.
Focus on the future
It’s estimated that around 70% of the population of Vietnam is under age 45. That population is known to be less active in the existing political system, which isn’t very shocking considering political power is nearly non-existent for those with beliefs that don’t match the existing system. Then add to that the fact that the younger population in Vietnam is more connected to the rest of the world and more open to social change based on their involvement in social media. According to Reuters, as of August 2019 there are 58 million Facebook users and 62 million Google accounts in Vietnam, in a country with an estimated population of 97 million people. That could mean this well connected younger population might be able to influence a relatively rapid pace of change and democratization in Vietnam over the next few decades as younger generations take over prominent roles in the government, education, and society overall. It will be fascinating to watch Vietnam evolve over the next 20 or 30 years!
In talking to people we met there’s a sense of excitement and pride in Vietnam and especially in HCMC. People know their vote is not really a voice of independence or empowerment today. Our contacts in Vietnam were open about the fact that authentically participating in politics doesn’t seem worthwhile right now, they are more focused on the future then the present, and more focused on education and connecting with the rest of the world than they are on today’s politics. What most impressed us was the enthusiasm of people in HCMC who seem to believe change is in the air, and within their lifetime expect to witness a lot of change and growth in Vietnam.
When we were in Vietnam I had a hard time choosing books to read because there were so many good options. I could have picked history books or novels or food related books and been happy. With a million options to choose from the two books I chose to start with were:
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
During French occupation of Vietnam there was a period of Japanese occupation within the madness of WWII. That double whammy experience is part of what made Ho Chi Minh the person he became, inspired to free Vietnam from the short term Japanese occupiers and the longterm French colonial occupiers and open to political inspiration from Chinese and Soviet communism. In this book you learn from the experiences of a communist double agent, an army soldier who was half French and half Vietnamese, and then moves to the US as a refugee after the American War in Vietnam. This book is intense and complicated and gripping.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement, by Camilla Gibb
This book is written from the perspective of a woman born in Vietnam but raised in the US. The story includes the complications of the American War in Vietnam and politics, and then adds art and creativity in a wonderful way. The main character is a woman who travels back to Hanoi to find out what happened to her father who was a dissident and an artist and then disappeared during the war. Basically this book is wonderful and inspiring with a little love story too.