I was looking forward to visiting Vietnam as I look forward to visiting any country I have yet to step foot in. But truth be told, I wasn’t looking forward to it that much. I’d never cared for Vietnamese food, had heard the locals weren’t as friendly or welcoming as the Thais and then there was the war. My boys played but a bit part which I quietly hoped would have been long since forgotten. After the atrocities of that war, how could I expect to be well-received?
Prior to visiting Vietnam I had mixed feelings. What I’d experienced and heard of the country hardly inspired me, and friends who had visited hadn’t been enamoured by the place. I was to be pleasantly surprised. Very pleasantly surprised.
Back in Bangkok after a wonderful few days in Ho Chi Minh City, I’ve been reflecting on a trip to a country which made quite an impression…
Downtown Ho Chi Minh City isn’t as built up nor does it have a skyline like Bangkok’s. Modern buildings sit next to colonial architecture and the city is going through a period of rapid development with construction sites everywhere. The suburbs are bland and feel feature soulless with shophouse after shophouse and less greenery than downtown.
The streets are busy, with motorbikes making up maybe 95% of traffic but unlike Bangkok the traffic actually flows.
Downtown is clean with street cleaners in bright orange uniforms studiously going about their duties around the clock. With its wide boulevards and high-end European fashion outlets, a few blocks in District 1 almost feel like Singapore.
Vendors sell the usual food, trinkets and junk on the streets you find all over the region, but the city’s sidewalks are much less congested than Sukhumvit or Silom.
There are no soi dogs, and when you do see dogs they appear to be well looked after. There’s always been something about the way Thais treat animals and the condition of many that has never sat well with me.
Overall, HCMC is cleaner than Bangkok and the quality of the air is much better. The downtown area of Ho Chi Minh feels neither as developed nor as cosmopolitan.
The Vietnamese remind me of the Hong Kong Chinese, keenly going about their business, something they seem to have a natural disposition towards. People seem to be more industrious than the Thais, and when it comes to providing a product or service, customer satisfaction seems to be a priority. Yes, they want to make a sale but they want you to be satisfied, something which it’s easy to feel is not always the case in Thailand.
The Vietnamese seem to have a better idea of what customers want. Quickly working out that no, I wasn’t looking for a lady, a motorbike taxi rider suggested a tour of some markets. No, all I want to do is roam and take photos, I said, and immediately a different itinerary was presented – a visit to a slum where photographic opportunity abounds. The Vietnamese seem keen to satisfy the market, rather than shape the customer and try to convince them of what they want – refreshing!
Physically, the Vietnamese are noticeably slimmer than the Thais, for which there is probably a multitude of reasons. The local diet includes more vegetables and other than KFC and a single branch of Burger King at the airport, US fast food chains are conspicuous by their absence. Apparently this is because the Vietnamese government insists all ingredients must be locally sourced and presumably the Golden Arches and co. haven’t been able to find suitable local suppliers. Of course the Thais as a nation are wealthier – and generally wealthier nations have bigger people.
I had heard that the Vietnamese were intense but I saw no real evidence of that. In fact I found the Vietnamese people easy to warm to and while they don’t have the ready smiles of the Thais, actually getting them to smile became something of a challenge. When they smile, it feels real.
I was approached one day by some friendly local 20-somethings while walking through one of the city’s many parks who were keen to practice their English with a native speaker. Finding myself surrounded by a group that slowly grew in size, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their intelligent and well-thought out questions. They were friendly, interesting, engaging and very keen to learn, both about English but also the world outside their country. What a pleasant change!
One group had been chatting with me for about 20 minutes and we’d jumped across a range of subjects, some of which you’d never broach with people you’d just met in Thailand when one, very perceptive guy says to his friends, “I think we have taken enough of his time. He looks like he wants to continue on his way taking photos. Sir, we don’t wish to bother you any more. We’re very thankful for your time and we hope you enjoy your stay in our country.” What a delight they were!
Quality accommodation is widely available and reasonably priced. For less than $40 you can get a very well-appointed room in a new hotel in the city’s commercial district with a decent view, a fantastic breakfast, and the sort of amenities you would only find in 5-star properties un Bangkok. Internet speeds are significantly faster than Bangkok and free wi-fi connections are everywhere. Many of the big hotels are in the main shopping district on one side of the downtown area, which is known as District 1. $40 seems to be the sweet price point where you can get a room that reminds me of miniature version of a room in a Bangkok 5-star hotel.
The backpacker area seems similar to Khao San Road with the usual mix of guesthouses, travel agencies, eateries and bars. I enjoyed venturing into the shadows of the area, wandering the labyrinth of alleys, some so narrow that two people could not possibly pass each other at certain points. Exploring these dark alleys late at night, I found some open up into wider alleys full of neon lights, with hotels with but a number for a name and dubious characters milling around outside. You don’t have to have been in Asia long to know what that means.
In terms of long-term accommodation suitable for expats, HCMC is similar to Phnom Penh in that prices far exceed what you would pay in Bangkok. Quite a few expats live long-term in hotels, with those keen to save a few dong staying away from the centre of town, or what is known as District 1.
Vietnamese food in both Thailand and my homeland has always left me unimpressed. Ask me what I’d like to eat and Vietnamese would never be on the list. But Vietnamese food in Vietnam is fabulous!
Eating well in HCMC won’t break any budget. On the street and in the backpacker area, prices are ridiculously low and you can wash your food down with a San Miguel for less than $1. Fancy something Western? A fresh bread roll with pate, meat and vegetables can be had for under $1. Amazing value!
The quality of the produce is at least on a par with Thailand. It might even be better – at least if you compare what is readily available on the streets of Ho Chi Minh, compared to what is regularly available on the streets of Bangkok – from where I suspect the best quality produce is exported.
The Vietnamese don’t lather their food in spicy or pungent sauces and flavours come from the main ingredients, not primarily the sauces as is so often the case in Thailand.
When it comes to Western food, the Vietnamese stay true to the original recipes. Local spices aren’t used as they are in Thailand where, say, Italian or German dishes often have the original spices and seasoning replaced with Thai variants altering the flavour.
Bakeries produce breads and cakes of a quality that exceeds what you get in Bangkok 5-star hotels – and for less than half the price.
And the coffee? Heavenly! Be it Vietnamese style coffee at small streetside stalls or coffee in the cafes which are ubiquitous, Vietnam is rightfully known as a producer of high quality coffee.
The most popular beers appeared to be much the same international brews available in Thailand – Heineken, San Miguel, Tiger, Beer Lao along with a few local brews, none of which I tried. There’s a good selection of French wine too. Drinks prices in bars are similar to what you’d pay in Bangkok, although in the backpacker area prices are lower than in Bangkok. A bottle of San Miguel beer could be had for 16,000 dong, or about 25 baht – in a small restaurant, perhaps 2 – 4 times that in a better bar.
Nuisances, Menaces & Scams
Locals tell me that Ho Chi Minh is safer than Bangkok, but I’m not convinced.
I walked around with camera in hand and frequently received comments from expats and locals to be careful. I was even told by some people that I shouldn’t take a camera into the popular Apocalypse Now bar because I might walk in with it, and leave without it! That seemed a bit far-fetched but I’m not quite arrogant enough to think I know better than the locals. A dozen or more people told me about the problem of snatchings, where a motorbike whizzes by and the pillion passenger grabs the strap of your bag, camera or other valuables, just like the bag snatching I reported in soi 11 a couple of months back. The passenger grabs the strap and either the strap breaks or the owner lets go of it. In some cases the victim is dragged along and is badly hurt. I heard so many reports about this happening that I would only venture out with one lens, leaving the rest in the hotel safe which was a little frustrating.
Much is made of the difficulty crossing the road and while, yes, the traffic is bad, getting across the road is not that difficult. The idea is to wait for something of a gap in traffic and move at a steady pace from one side of the road to the other. Motorbikes will veer around you. Maintain a steady pace and don’t stop and you should be fine.
Locals told me that police hassling foreigners in Vietnam just doesn’t happen. The police simply don’t wish to do deal with foreigners. Do something wrong, public affray or and you will be arrested and taken away. Keep your nose clean and you have nothing to worry about.
A Filipino tried to scam me while I was sitting at a roadside vendor enjoying an iced coffee. I immediately pegged him as a Filipino from his accent, yet he claimed to be a local and would like to teach me Vietnamese. I told him I was fluent in Vietnamese and said a bunch of Thai to me. He responded by saying that my Vietnamese was indeed excellent. I then let the cat out of the bag and told him to fxxx off. I reckon he broke the land speed record in the next few seconds…
A big nuisance was vendors claiming they had no change. This happened many times. Telling them that you would come back and pay them the next day saw change magically appear! Annoyingly it even happened in the Apocalypse Now Bar.
Green-uniformed officers with a Tourist Security badge can be seen everywhere tourists go. A division of the police or merely another government department, I do not know, but they are there to help tourists. Deployed in significant numbers, they are highly visible. On more than a few instances I saw them helping (often older) tourists to cross the road.
Nightlife, Bars, Vietnamese Women & Dating
There are plenty of places to drink in HCMC, and many nightlife options. Many venues close around midnight and a special licence is required if a venue wishes to remain open later.
There are some expat-themed bars, with the Australian-owned and managed Bernie’s a pleasant spot. Figure a British pub-style venue with a good menu and a friendly Aussie with 6 years in HCMC in charge.
Blanchy’s Tash is one of the hot spots of the moment, just a few minutes work from Bernie’s and nice enough, if not really anything special – at least by Bangkok standards.
There are a number of high-end bars and nightclubs and more opening all the time. Venues are scattered around the city and I didn’t see anything like Bangkok’s RCA where you have a strip of club after club after club, right next door to each other.
Smoking is more prevalent than elsewhere in the region, and I think only in Jakarta have I come across more smokers. If smoking in bars bothers you, HCMC at night might not be for you.
On the same street as Blanchy’s Tash are various girly bars, most of which have a number in the name, such as Club 49. The women seemed hard and the bars were very dim inside – never a good mix. What was perhaps unusual is that they are located right in the heart of the commercial district – and in what is a very conservative society. OK, I hear you say, Patpong in Bangkok is right in the commercial district and the Thais are conservative too. But Patpong is its own soi whereas these bars are located alongside decent restaurants, shops and legitimate businesses. They are dark and you can only see inside when the doors open. Exactly what the format is, I don’t know, but I got the distinct impression that staff were available.
As far as foreigner-oriented bars go, the most famous is Apocalypse Now. Expecting something like a cross between Gulliver’s and Thermae, I found a 19-year old venue showing its age. 150,000 dong ($7) gets you inside a venue with an eclectic crowd and onefree drink. Girls with easy smiles were amongst the least attractive I saw in my time in Vietnam, which I guess is consistent with working girls around the world. Pretty girls have options and needn’t resort to selling themselves. Apocalypse Now was a major disappointment.
A lot of the naughty stuff can be found at massage houses. Motorbike riders offer to take foreign men to massage houses and leave you in no doubt that you will leave with a smile on your face for $30 all in. Massage houses seemed to be located everywhere, with signs in English.
In the backpacker lane one girl tried to entice me inside with a line I will never forget, “$7 for a 70-minute massage and $50 for hand job” caused me to involuntarily erupt into laughter, leaving her confused and probably thinking I was a couple of chilies short of a good som tam. Crazy prices are frequently offered to foreigners.
If you find yourself walking around late at night, expect to be approached by girls on motorbikes offering to accompany you to your hotel.
What little I saw of the girls in the bars in Ho Chi Minh, they were for the most part better looking than what you find in Bangkok although I should predicate that by saying that if fair-skinned girls aren’t your thing you might disagree.
Hardcore naughty boys tell me that Vietnamese working girls are mercenary. Girls in the industry struck me as softer in looks, but much harder in attitude than what you find in Thailand.
As far as dating regular girls goes, the Vietnamese are conservative and while many would like to meet a foreign guy, I was told it takes time for the relationship to develop. Many regular girls are knockouts, with a natural beauty beyond what you commonly see in Thailand.
Public displays of affection are even less common in Ho Chi Minh than in Bangkok and not once did I see the stereotypical image of a foreigner in a wife-beater pawing a lovely in public. At night young local couples can be seen in parks sat atop a motorbike, arms draped around each other, few words, just sitting there. I can only guess they don’t have enough dong to go to a hotel.
I would not consider Vietnam a prime destination for naughty boys. For nightlife, naughtyor otherwise, Thailand is better in every respect.
Bars and Clubs
been reading the forum but not really adding much so I thought I better as I am off to HCM again in about 6 weeks (4th time this year). Last trip I hit the bars around the Sheraton. Most are called after a number and all within a few hundred metres of the Sheraton. I found them all pretty much the same, girls ready to go to a st hotel with you which I like as sometimes I don’t feel like wasting time and I like the idea of choosing my girl first.
Because I visited regularly I got to know the Mamasan in some of them and I do believe that her advice was simple for a newbie. If you go to a bar then it is all pretty straight forward and safe as they have a pretty efficient system working. Prices vary a little but usually they all settle for $20 for the bar, $20 for ST hotel and the girl is the part that varies but usually I was happy with $70. I found out later from both the girl and mamasan that the bar takes 50% of the girl price so that’s why girls really try to bargin hard. If you barter before leaving the bar then sometimes the girl made me tell the mamasan the price agreed to so the mamasan didn’t think the girl was trying to rip her off.
My operation is simple, go to a few bars, pay the price but get the girls number and then deal direct. This worked really well last time and I got the ST hotel for $15 instead of $20 and the girl got the whole $70, so for $90 I was happy and so was she. The only problem was it then was hard to get rid of her. The only reason I wanted to off-load her was I was after a little variety and didn’t want the same girl every night. She was cute and very sweet and willing to do anything although at times she did over act a bit!
I will now put a little story into the “other areas” section about the street girls.
HCMC Saigon – my experience
Sorry, for the previous post. It was directed to the hotel thread.
Anyway, there is bar, called boys bar on bui-vien, where there are other bars too. Some are more lively with pool, girls touching and hugging you. Boys is just a standard one, with 5-7 nice smiling girls, eager to entertain you, selling some drink, and coming with you for st or lt, previous payment of a small fee gor the bar (thai bar-fine).
I was just crazy about the eyes of a lady there (she remembered me of another girl I met before in my life). Not a small and young one, but a mother of a girl of 7-8. Spoke a little with her. She didn’t want to kiss in bar even, she said from nha-thang, and not working on regular basis.
Took her. We were boyfriend and gf for 5 days. She invited me at home, gave food, showed around the city, showed the pics of her farang “support” boyfriend home. We fucked well together. Very sweet, and very wet BBBJ. A little abundant body, but nice to touch, kiss, spank and sleep on.
With her skooter she took care of my small illness bringing to socialist med dispensaries and hospitals. A nice way to see the city, go in the cafes, look the real life of viets (at least the in-love couples only for 20 usd a day (24 hrs! ). No previous discussion of price.