Fast-paced, frenetic, and altogether fascinating, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), rewards intrepid travelers with a dizzying glimpse of Vietnam’s largest city on overdrive. Expect enlightening encounters with the country’s tumultuous past (from its French colonial period to Vietnam War days), and to discover its dynamic drive toward the future. Here, motorbikes whiz by at a mind-blowing pace, markets teem with vendors peddling their wares, vendors in sidewalk stalls hawk exotic fare, pagodas beckon with ancient rituals, and a smattering of modern skyscrapers loom overhead. Freshly back from three days of hopping around in Ho Chi Minh City, herewith some top picks for wallet-friendly lodging and dining, plus tips on what to discover and where to unwind on the cheap.
Bunk down in the Seventy Hotel (formerly the Phan Lan Hotel), located in the bustling backpackers’ neighborhood, District 1. The 18 snug rooms here come outfitted with comfy beds, free Wi-Fi, pre-stocked minibars (with reasonably priced beverages), air conditioners, cable TV, reliable hot water, and included breakfast. The front desk can arrange cheap airport transfers (the ride cost us just $10), and tour company Namvy Travel off the lobby offers inexpensive day trips and onward travel (we booked a budget-friendly full-day tour to the Cu Chi tunnels and Cao Dai Temple with them for just $8/person). Service is friendly, rooms are clean, and the price is right: Rates start from just $22/night (for a room with no window); for an extra $2/night, we upgraded to a window room for $24/night.
Foodies flock for pho in Vietnam, a delicious noodle dish served up in myriad varieties. For one of its best incarnations, head to the long-established Pho Hoa (260C Pasteur Street District 3; pho dishes average about $2), which packs in in-the-know tourists and Saigonese devotees alike for the tasty bowls of broth and rice noodle topped off with assorted cuts of meat (a vegetarian option is also available). Plates at Pho Hoa are served up with generous table garnishes (herbs, chilies, and lime), gio chao quay (fried Chinese breadsticks), and cha lua (pork paste sausage) wrapped in banana leaves.
The must-see War Remnants Museum – formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes – provides a sobering depiction of the atrocities of the Vietnam War, as told from the other side. Documentation, graphic photography, and a collection of artillery come together for poignant displays highlighting the carnage of the carpet-bombing practices in the country, the victims of the biological warfare, and the worldwide peace demonstrations in response to the conflict. Admission is just 75 cents.
The city is littered with commercial massage centers, but for a feel-good massage in more ways than one, round out a hectic day in HCMC at the Vietnamese Traditional Massage Institute (185D Cong Quynh, District 1). While therapists don’t speak English and quarters are less than spotless, for under $3/hour, you’ll get an inexpensive, no-frills massage doled out by blind massage therapists from the HCMC Vietnam Blind Association, providing much-needed financial support to locals with disabilities.
Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!