Friday, July 8, 2016

27 Reasons Why You Should Choose Ho Chi Minh City as Your First Solo-backpacking Trip Destination

I’ve never actually been alone in my life. I’ve always made sure that I’m surrounded by friends, family, or acquaintances as I have an irrational fear of being seen as a loner. Well, not until one day, my quarter life crisis hit me hard and I found myself searching for what people often refer to as “The Meaning of Life”. I’ve decided that there’s no better way to find the answers to my question than to brave a foreign country - backpacking style, solo, for the first time ever. It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth it.

Picking HCMC as a place to do some soul-searching was easy. I booked the tickets without hesitation. Let me show you why you should choose Saigon as your first solo-backpacking trip destination:

1. Getting around is easy.

There are lots of means of transportation at HCMC, from walking, to motorbikes, to cabs, to buses, etc. However the easiest way to get by would probably be by cab - only trust two cab companies - Mai Linh and Vinasun. If you have access to the internet then a more efficient and cheaper alternative would be booking a ride via Grab or Uber

2. There are lots of backpackers like you.

If you're thinking you'll be a total loner, then you got it completely wrong. Saigon is the place to be. I've never seen backpackers in this volume. There's actually a street at District 1 called Pham Ngu Lao, which is referred to as the "backpacking district". There you will get a chance to meet fellow backpackers like you - most of them are travelling solo as well. I suggest booking a hostel at that area and staying at a dormitory type room so you can get a chance to exchange top tips with other travellers.

3. A hostel called Hideout will have everything you need.

c/o Hideout Hostel Website

I don’t think I’ve ever booked an accommodation with customer service as good as Hideout Hostel’s. They had great recommendations on what to do, the best time to do it, and how you can get by. They literally had answers to every question I had regardless of how vague I might have been.

c/o Hideout Hostel Website

The rooms are affordable and it even comes with free breakfast, 2 free beers every night from 7-8, a chill out spot, fast wifi, you name it. Booking tours will also be as easy as going to the front desk. I could tell you more about Hideout Hostel, but it wouldn’t justify how awesome it actually is. It’s truly more than just a hostel. I do recommend staying at dormitory rooms so you can meet fellow travellers like you.

The Hideout Hostel Saigon

281 Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

4. Hideout Hostel's pub crawl is another great way to meet new people.

c/o Hideout Hostel Website

At Hideout's FREE pubcrawl, you will stop at about 4-5 bars and get a free shot at each location. What more can you ask for?!?!?! It's a great opportunity to meet and mingle with other travellers. 

5. Vietnam has really cheap alcohol!

I must say, what's a trip without beer and tequila?! You'll go crazy to find out that beer can go for as low as 10,000 VND (about PHP 22). How they can make this happen? I have no idea!

6. Legit Vietnamese street food is to-die-for!

Foodtrip is a must at every trip. If you love food then you'll go crazy over Saigon's cheap and delicious the street food. It's literally found at every street and corner. I don't recommend going to expensive restaurants if you're looking for an authentic Vietnamese gastronomy experience. One of my favourites is the Banh Mi which has a really rich combination of flavours. It is basically the Vietnamese version of a baguette and it only costs VND 10,000 (about PHP 21)! This can be a whole meal in itself and I had at least 2 in a day. 

You can find this at the park near the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Do try the Banh Trang Nuong as well, which is a some sort of a crispy pancake/ taco. I don't really know but it has some spice to it. They usually put meat in it but I opted not to. I had 3 in 15 minutes!

Spring rolls from Ben Thanh Market

You'll also go crazy over the Spring Rolls. It was so fresh and flavourful, and I literally had 4 at one go! Don't forget to drown it in the sauce that comes with it.

One of my other favourites is the stir-fried shells sold at night along the streets of Bui Vien (beer street) They're definitely a must-try.

People are also going crazy for the authentic Pho in Vietnam. The best place to get this would be at the market and side streets.

7. Eating is as easy as 1, 2, 3!

More often than not, one of the first struggles of eating at a restaurant is picking which restaurant you'll eat at. At Ho Chi Minh city, the eating culture is pretty simple. Tables and chairs are set up almost anywhere. Sit down, order, and eat. 

8. You will be enlightened about the backpacking culture/ community.

I was only travelling for less than a week at HCMC, however the backpackers I've meet there have been travelling for literally months and they would go by the most economical way possible to get from point A to point B. Being surrounded by them 24/7 has taught me how to start a "backpacker conversation". You might want to start off with some of these conversation starters:  

"How long have you been travelling for?", "How long will you be travelling?", "Where's your next destination?", "Where did you go before this?", "What are your tips for (insert name of country here)?"

9. Tinder won't fail you.

Okay, it's actually embarrassing to even log in to tinder given the fact that you're staying at a hostel where you can meet actual people. But I simply wanted to check out the market, and I must say, it was quite interesting.

10. You'll realize that eating at a table for one isn't such a bad thing after all.

For some reason, eating alone at HCMC didn't give me an ounce of loneliness. The tables were set up in a way that it could both benefit couples, a group, third-wheelers, or even those who are "forever alone".

11. Coffee is easily available!

Need coffee to jumpstart your day? No problem. Vietnam is highly known for serving quality coffee. Both locals and tourists take it at anytime of the day, and can easily be bought at food stalls, cafe's and restaurants around the city. Vietnamese coffee is not your regular cup of coffee, cream and sugar. In this city, coffee is served with sweet milk more commonly known as condensed milk.

12. A speakeasy Cafe will teach you how to make your favourite traditional Vietnamese beverages

A speakeasy cafe called Kujuz is a hidden gem only a few know about. It was a little tricky to find since it's inside a gated location. It looks like a greenhouse with walls made out of window and door panels.

The best thing about this cafe is that you get to choose and make your own drink from their kitchen! All drinks have a standard price of 50,000 VND (about PHP 106).

Kujuz Tan Dinh 

5 Trần Quý Khoách, Tân Định, 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

13. You'll realize how convenient it is to get around on a motorbike

I've never seen this much motorbikes in my life, and it actually inspired me to own one. It would be a plus to know how to drive one because there are a lot of motorbikes you can rent along the streets so you can cut down the cost of transportation. 

14. You'll learn how to cross the street like a pro. 

If you think crossing the streets in the Philippines is crazy, you would be more so surprised with the way they do it in Vietnam. For some reason, the chaotic way pedestrians get by, works for them - there's actually an implicit system. I was tipped by one of the locals that you should simply cross like it's nobody's business and eventually the motorbikes, cars, and buses will curb around you.

15. Going on a city tour won't be such a hassle.

Allot a full day for this. All I had with me was a map I got off the front desk of my hostel and I was good to go. I literally walked to every landmark that was on there, but decided to take a motorbike on the way home. 

16. Your knowledge of the Vietnam War will be expounded from a local perspective. 

Don't leave the city without visiting the this museum. As you enter, you will notice massive tanks, helicopters and other vehicles used during the war. We all know Vietnam won the war over the Americans, however, the museum really didn't emphasize this.

It highlighted more on how the Vietnamese became victims during the war, which was absolutely true, but left me lingering with some sort of depression. There weren't a lot of artifacts but the photos with short blurbs were more than enough to open our minds to the Vietnamese perspective of the war.

War Remnants Museum

28 Võ Văn Tần, 6, 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
7:30 am – 12 noon in the morning and 1:30 pm – 5 pm in the afternoon, daily
15,000 VND per person

The War Remnants Museum is located just northwest of the Independence Palace, you can walk from there in about 10 minutes.

17. As you go on your city tour, you will find yourself wandering about the Independence Palace

There really wasn't much to see there, but it was a good way to be enlightened on how the elite celebrated their luxurious lives before. 

Independence Palace 

135 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
7:30 am – 11 am and 1 pm – 4 pm daily. 
30,000 VND per person
From Ben Thanh Market, you can walk there in about 10 minutes, it’s located right in the heart of Saigon in District 1

18. You don't have to go to France to immerse yourself in French architecture. 

Vietnam is highly influenced by the French - from their food, to infrastructure, and even some of their cultural ways. I enjoyed walking around as I toured the different parts of the city simply to appreciate the touch of French influence. You will notice how buildings like the Saigon Central Post Office vary from other modern buildings around the city. Here you can send postcards to your family and friends.

One of my favourites is a church called Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, a very timeless structure.

If you walk across the side of the cathedral in the afternoon, you will notice people handing out newspapers. These newspapers are not for reading but are used as some sort of a mat where you can eat as food stalls set up around the park.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica

Bến Nghé, Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
8 am – 11 am in the morning and 3 pm – 6 pm in the evening on weekdays

From the Independence Palace, walk northeast through the park directly to the cathedral. It’s located on the northwestern side of Dong Khoi street, adjacent to the old post office.

Saigon Central Post Office

2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, tp. Hồ Chí Minh, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
7 am – 7 pm on weekdays, 7 am – 6 pm on Saturday, 8 am – 6 pm on Sunday
Once you’re at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Central Post Office is right across the street.

19. You will get a glimpse of Saigon city from up top just a few minutes away from Pham Ngu Lao

Watching the sunset and night lights from about 50 floors above ground from the Saigon Skydeck was quite relaxing, especially if paired with soothing music from the live band.

People usually pay for the 200,000 VND (about PHP 422) entrance to the sky deck, however I found out later that it would be best to go straight to Strata restaurant where all you need to do is order a drink.

Saigon Skydeck

Bitexco Financial Tower, 36 Hồ Tùng Mậu, Bến Nghé Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
9:30 am – 9:30 pm daily (for Skydeck), 11:30 am – 11 pm daily for cafe
From the Ben Thanh Market area, you can walk to Bitexco Financial Tower

20. Splurging on food, drinks, and goodies at the market is as easy as going on a 15 minute walk from Pham Ngu Lao

Ben Thanh market has almost anything and everything, clothes, shoes, bags, you name it. It's also a good place to eat. I suggest going in the morning to avoid the big crowds. 

Vendors usually give customers a higher price especially if they find out you're a tourist. The key to getting a good deal is knowing how to bargain. Do not back down!

Ben Thanh Market

32-30, 36-34-32-30 Phan Bội Châu, Bến Thành, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

21. Customized clothing can be manufactured in a matter of 24 hours.

One of the other things Vietnam is know for is their ability to produce customized clothing in practically a day. I don't know how they do it, but they just do. May it be from dresses, to suits, to matching top and pants, you name it.

22. If you're looking for even greater deals, head on over to District 5

District 5 is known as Saigon's China Town. If you're looking to buy items in bulk, then Binh Tay Market is the place to be. It's about 20 minutes away from Pham Ngu Lao by motorobike.  

You can basically find anything here, at cheaper cost, but also prepare to do lots of walking for even greater deals.

Binh Tay Market 

phường 2, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

23. Your night outs will be WILD.

I was wandering around the streets adjacent and parallel to Pham Ngu Lao and I found myself at Bui Vien which is also called "beer street". If you want to party at night at a low cost, then this is the place to be. Look for spots that have low tables and chairs to complete your Saigon nightlife experience.  I'm pretty sure there are a number of hot clubs around Saigon, which I hope to explore on my next visit, however I spent most of my nights partying here. This is where most backpackers go, and the parties can get pretty crazy. Pubcrawls are also common in this area.

24. Tours out of the city are easy to book.

As much as I loved the city proper, I wanted to explore other parts of Vietnam. I didn't have enough time to go to a farther place but there are lots of tours available that's doable for a day. You'll find a number of tour agencies along Pham Ngu Lao but I only trusted tour bookings at Hideout Hostel. They had lots of options and it was for a reasonable price.

25. Outside of District 1, you can easily explore the countryside and immerse yourself in Vietnam's local culture at the Mekong Delta Tour

The Mekong Delta Tour is more than just a tour of the Mekong River. You can either choose from a day or overnight tour. If you want to see the floating market, then I highly suggest you do the overnight tour. I opted for the day tour but I felt like I was able to do so much in a day.

You will need to take a bus to get to the river. The tour will start off with a visit to a beautiful temple. I was in awe of its craftsmanship.

I specifically enjoyed the walk around the temple where we got to see enormous statutes of different buddhas. 

Once we were on the boat, our first stop was to get some lunch, which is included in the tour. We were served a plate of rice, pork, and vegetables. I'm not sure if you can have other options especially if you don't eat meat.

Like what I've mentioned, this tour will showcase Saigon's local culture. Basically, it'll take you around different parts of the river to taste local food. My favourite was the sticky coconut candy. It comes in different flavours, and I prefer it warm. Be sure to hoard some before you leave! You can also buy souvenirs and lots of products that are made from coconut.

It was relaxing to go around the mangroves for a few minutes before we headed on to our last stop. Don't forget to wear your native hat to complete the experience. 

The tour will end with a serving of fresh fruits and vietnamese tea served with calamansi and honey. 

26. The Cu Chi Tunnel Tour will give you a historical insight on what happened during the war in Vietnam. 

Before you get to the tunnels, the bus will stop off at an art factory of some sort. I was hesitant to get off the bus at first, but I'm glad I did because I was able to see a unique type of art - egg shell painting.

It looked it would take ten years to finish. But we were told that it actually goes through different stations. 

It was impressive to see how people in different parts of the world held wars. When I was younger, my knowledge of wars was narrowed to simply using guns and canons. 

At the tunnels, they showed different types of traps and contraptions and the guide even elaborated on how people strived to survive during this time of war.

 Your Cu Chi Tunnel experience, wouldn't be complete without trying to go through the tunnel. It can get really cramped, but you will have an option to exit along the way if you get claustrophobic in the middle of your crawl.

27. Of course, you will get to meet the most amazing people!!!!

I had such a diverse group of friends while I was at Saigon. Each day was with a different person who shared with me the most enlightening story. These are the things I wouldn't have learnt simply by reading a book, or in our generation's case, taking it from the internet. At HCMC, I've realized that backpacking is probably the best way to actually open up yourself to the world and get immersed in what your destination has to offer. Each conversation I had during this trip was truly enriching. I learnt about cultures, traditions, diversities, politics, economics, you name it!

Travelling to Vietnam has truly inspired me to become a traveller rather than a tourist. My eyes have been opened to the real purpose of travelling. I can't wait to visit this crazy city again.