I have to admit that after visiting the idyllic, small town of Cai Be, Ho Chi Minh City was both a let down and overwhelming. It wasn’t until my last day in Ho Chi Minh City that I actually saw another side to the chaotic metropolis and grew to like it. Here, from a photographer’s perspective, are my Ho Chi Minh City street photos and travel guide.
Whether you call it Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon (as many of the locals still do), the capital of Vietnam is the entry point for many people’s visit to the country. As mentioned in my earlier travel guide to Siem Reap, I started my trip in the south of Vietnam and worked my way north in February of 2018 so that the temperature would be warm when I arrived in Hanoi. I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from Cai Be by way of local bus, which took me about two hours. The bus ride was great, and started off in the early dawn with thumping Vietnamese rave music. It was fantastic, and fantastically local. I loved every minute of my trip.
To get from the bus station to my hotel I hopped on the back of a moto-taxi. At that point in my trip I was just learning to love the wind in my hair, and with clenched fists holding my equipment in a death grip, I made it to the hotel safe and sound.
My hotel, the Thao Nhi Hotel, was located in the heart of District 1, otherwise known as the main tourist area in Ho Chi Minh City. I would not stay here again. The hotel was fine, and the staff was delightful, but I was on the second floor and could hear all the noise from the first floor at all hours of the night. The lesson I have learned from my Vietnam trip is that I need to spend more on accommodations on my next trip. Learn from me, grasshoppers, and expect to pay at least $30 a night in Southeast Asia for a decent place to stay. And by the way, my hotel room looked nothing like the rooms pictured on the hotel website.
185/20 Pham Ngu Lao Street, District 1
3 nights, standard double room
Private bathroom, wifi, AC, no view
$49.71 total paid
What I Did in Ho Chi Minh City
Needless to say, after getting lost in the little neighborhoods behind Cai Be, Ho Chi Minh City felt like a completely different world. Ho Chi Minh City was my first taste of Vietnam’s notorious traffic chaos. Drivers in Vietnam are nuts. Most people use scooters or motorcycles to get from one place to another. Traffic rules and stoplights are mere suggestions. If you are pedestrian, the rule is that you have to show no fear, because drivers can spot it from three blocks away. There are no official crosswalks. In order to cross the street in any city in Vietnam, you have to commit, and then keep moving. Your first time will be terrifying, but by the end of the trip you’ll be an expert. But don’t dare try this at home.
The first place I visited in Ho Chi Minh City was the Mariamman Hindu temple. As opposed to Thailand which is primarily Buddhist, a variety of religions are practiced in Vietnam and the mixing of the religions is fascinating. Inside worshipers were praying devoutly, completely unaware of my presence.
Another temple I visited was the Ba Thien Hau temple, devoted to the Taoist Jade Emperor. This is the main temple in Ho Chi Minh, and visiting this place is a full body experience. Thanks to the Tet holiday, the crowds were intense. Oil was poured, people were buying blessings, and all the while incense was wafting up into the heavens. The temple inside is very dark and claustrophobic, but it’s like going underground and visiting an immense tomb. Light streams in from overhead highlighting the fervent praying of the worshipers. I could have spent hours here, but the sea of practitioners carried me out quickly.
To escape the crowds, I took a trip to the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden. This is a public park-botanical garden-zoo all rolled into one. The zoological museum at the entrance to the park has a variety of animals on display, though their taxidermy skills leave much to be desired. As sad as the stuffed animals were, the state of the live animals in cages was even more pathetic. I felt so sorry for the elephant in a tiny cage as well as the reptiles. I know lizards aren’t cute and cuddly, but the state of their cages was truly criminally negligent. The only love these animals got was from visitors looking to get selfies with them. In the park, the families couldn’t have cared less about the animals, and everyone seemed to really be enjoying themselves.
That evening, I met up with a fellow traveler, Gianna. Gianna and I had met serendipitously on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. She was hobbling along in sore need of a Band-Aid to cover a blister on her foot. As a former Girl Scout, I always come prepared, and after dispensing the necessary medical supplies we became fast friends for the rest of Ho Chi Minh City. That evening we went up to The View rooftop bar in the middle of District 1 to watch the sunset over the city. The view was spectacular, and it was relaxing to get some distance from the traffic down below. Here’s my tip for future tips: always find a rooftop bar for sunset.
The rest of my time in Ho Chi Minh City was spent simply walking the streets and taking photos. Along the way I saw many monks begging for alms in the morning, lots of vendors selling mung bean cake – a delicacy eaten during Chinese new year – and several small temples. One day I left my camera at home and went in search of Ben Thanh market which sadly, after a two-hour walk, I found to be closed for construction. The temporary new market set up a few blocks away I found to be not worth my time. Compared with markets in Thailand where you have a bit more space to move around, the markets in Vietnam are crowded with tiny aisles. You can’t escape the mountains of stuff, or the pushy vendors, so I ended up not doing much shopping in Vietnam during my entire trip. On the upside, the city was still celebrating Tet, or Chinese new year, and Ho Chi Minh City was still in full party mode. The city was selling lots of Chinese new year celebration decorations, and I spent one day without a camera simply walking the small streets in Chinatown looking for the perfect dragon head to bring home. I should note that I ended up mailing these packages home to save space in my suitcase, and I found the Vietnamese post office to be both cheap and efficient in getting my worldly goods across the pond.
On my last day of and Ho Chi Minh City, I walked down to the neighborhood of Da Khao in order to try and find a good buffet for dinner. I never found a great buffet, and was too tired to eat that much food anyway, but I did find the local ferry system. Of course, when I got to the edge of the Saigon River the ferries were on their last run for the evening. This part of the city is very high-end and includes ritzy stores and fancy hotels. It’s not exactly my taste in shopping, but it was nice to see a different part of the city — a cleaner, less chaotic part of the city. Finding this new area of old Saigon on my last day made me want to go back and take one last trip on the ferry and see what other surprises Ho Chi Minh has to offer. So here’s my final bit of advice: make the trip to Ho Chi Minh City and start at the waterfront to get an overall view of the city.
One final note: I originally had the Suoi Tien theme park on my schedule. I ended up not visiting because the park was located far outside the city limits. I would have had to pay $50 for a roundtrip taxi, and it just didn’t seem worth it. If I had more time I would probably make the trip and visit a few other amusement parks that seem to be cropping up all over Ho Chi Minh City. I have no shame in loving cheesy amusement parks – it’s my Disney heritage.
Finally, Photography Supplies
As always, come to Vietnam prepared with all of your batteries, cards, and lenses in order. There are always going to be unforeseen catastrophes, however, and luckily my hard drive died on me early in my trip. If you will recall from my adventures in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I went looking there for another hard drive and could only find expensive, off-brand equipment. Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are going to be your only locations to find equipment in Vietnam. I visited the Phieu Xuat Hang store (at least that’s what it says on my receipt) and paid roughly what I would have in America. I had to pay cash, since US credit cards weren’t accepted. Joy.
If you would like to see more images for my travel photojournalism portfolio, then please visit my website – www.Kelly-Williams.com