Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in Vietnam has a population of around 8 million people and covers a massive area, but when tourists come to visit they all cram into a small section of the city known locally as the Backpacker District.
This section of streets centres around a street called Bui Vien and a maze of alleys. It absolutely throbs with life and activity, with people, lights, smells and noise spilling out everywhere. It can all be a little overwhelming so here’s our simple guide to help you find your feet (and our atmospheric featured image is courtesy of Mountain/Ash.)
Hotels are littered around the area unsurprisingly, with most offering serviceable rooms and, most importantly, air conditioning. Be aware that most land plots in Vietnam fit into the same thin rectangular shape with no windows along the longer sides.
This means that a third of the rooms at many hotels don’t have any windows. If you’re just going there to pass out, then this shouldn’t be a big deal, but otherwise try get yourself a room with a balcony overlooking the zoo of roofs and streets around you. Most places will cost you between $15 and $35 per night, depending on how far you want to push the boat out, but pretty much all will include a bit of breakfast.
Just about every local in the Backpacker District will be trying to do some sort of business with you. As you walk down the street, people from restaurants and bars will wave at you and invite you in, while workers from massage parlours will hand you flyers with a list of services.
Many scooter riders will park themselves along the street and somehow fully lie down on their rides. Whenever a tourist passes, they’ll offer a scooter ride or even an opportunity to rent the bike from them. If you say no, don’t be surprised if they offer you nefarious substances instead – just smile and say “No, thank you!”
Many hawkers patrol the streets looking for customers for whatever random goods they happen to be carrying, be it jewellery, food, toiletries, coconut juice, or anything vaguely portable. You will always need to haggle a bit, but they expect this and it’s all par for the course.
Be warned that some items may be of a lower quality than you might normally expect – for example, books sold in the street tend to be reprinted from OCR scans and have quite a few amusing typos.
There’s a barrel-load of eateries around the backpacker area but they’re not particularly authentic. Sure, you can get an English breakfast instead of a pho, but if you’re looking for something a bit more Vietnamese, you’re better off sticking to the many street food options that line the area.
Traditional places will not have a multi-paged menu – they may not even have much of a selection at all, just one or two things, both done really well.
Noodle soup is a big look, as are all the variants of the French-influenced Banh Mi sandwich, packed with all the food groups under the sun. Why not try the squid jerky that’s peddled about by some biking salespeople? It looks, um, nice, don’t you think?
Drinking is easy around here – almost too easy in fact! Saigon Green and Red are the tipple of choice, along with the Vietnamese staples of Larue and 333. The tradition of plastic chairs in the street is well represented around here, with the middle of Bui Vien becoming particularly packed out – every night sees rows upon rows of drinkers in chairs within inches of slow-moving traffic.
These types of places are easily the cheapest, with a drink usually costing between 4,000 and 12,000 dong. Some bars and clubs within spitting distance can often charge much more, even ten times as much for exactly the same tipple, but these can be good fun too, especially if you find one with a terrace overlooking the street.
Make sure you don’t get too carried away though. Returning to your hotel overly-sozzled at 4am may attract the attention of thieves – it’s not uncommon for pairs of thieves to use scooters late at night, with one approaching drunken tourists on foot while the other readies the bike to make a quick getaway.
The Backpacker District is a ten-minute walk from the famous Ben Thanh Market, and the salespeople there are well aware of this. In the market, you will get charged at least double the price for things elsewhere unless you’re prepared to haggle. The salespeople can occasionally be rough too, grabbing your arm to stop you walking away. For a more relaxing interaction, wander around the park that lines the north side of Pham Ngu Lao Street – it’s full of Vietnamese people looking to practice their English. No hard bargaining necessary, in fact they may buy you a beer or two.
A final word of advice: if you’re getting a taxi anywhere in HCMC, make sure you go with a company that uses meters, such as Mai Linh or Vinasun. It’s not uncommon for rogue taxi drivers to ask for massively over-inflated fares, especially when coming to and from the airport. Avoid drivers that cold approach you and always look for taxi ranks or book cabs through your hotel.