Despite the obvious turn of phrase, ‘Bombing it in Saigon’ is perhaps a misnomer, but I must admit taking my rickety old rented motorbike onto the road was a little daunting. It is manic on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and for the first hour I was a little shaky, but I soon realised the best way to get around is to just assimilate and ride like a complete tosser, blending in with all the other suicidal drivers. I barely broke 40kmph anyway, and on the rare occasion I did go any faster, the motorbike began to make the most unholy of noises!
That’s one of the good things about most of the Asian countries; you can pretty much ride as slow as you like (keeping out of the way of course), and I usually give visiting friends that very same advice. Just take it is easy and it will be fine.
I made a list of things that I wanted to seek out in the city:
- The FITO Museum
- Thien Hau Temple
- Chi’s Café
- Nguyen Plaza & City Hall
- Emperor Jade Pagoda
- Cu Chi Tunnels
- Ben Thanh Market
- Independence Palace
Parking in the city was a bit tricky to begin with, but after a couple of days I began to get the hang of it. Motorbikes should be left with someone who can watch over the motorbike, and though there are hundreds of places to leave a bike in the city, I struggled to understand the correct protocol. The first place I managed to park was outside a multi-restaurant building housing half a dozen fast food chains, near the City Hall. I pulled up onto the curb and an attendee came over and parked it up for me and then handed me a ticket. I paused for a moment just in case he needed payment but he didn’t say anything so I assumed it was free.
I was pretty sure the Nguyen Plaza is permanently closed off to traffic, and is made up of two roads that surround a central walking area. It was still the New Year and the place was quite busy, though I had read that the place comes to life at night. I walked the length of the walking street until I got to the City Hall. It is quite an elegant colonial building that was built by the French in 1908 and is similar to the former Hotel de Ville’s design, based on the Paris original. However, the public aren’t allowed inside because it is still a functional government building. I headed back to my motorbike and handed the guy my ticket, again, I paused for a moment to see if he required any payment, but it didn’t look like it.
This went on until I parked at the FITO Museum. When leaving, I handed the guy my ticket and he asked me for payment for watching my bike. It was only 5,000 dong (16p) and it is good to know the bike is safe. There is very little information online about parking etiquette in Ho Chi Minh City, but from what I gather the usual price is between 5,000 and 10,000., and it is wise to park the bike with someone wearing official clothing, outside a restaurant or high-street shop etc. I tended to always offer 5,000 first, when returning to my bike, but on occasion I was asked for 10,000. Once I got the hang of it, it became a little easier; though driving around the city looking for a decent spot was difficult. Since the traffic is fierce, it’s not always possible to stop in time, and with so many one way streets it can be difficult to turn around.
The FITO Museum was quite interesting. The building itself was built by a local man, whose name I can’t recall. He built the house out of wood and carved many of the building’s features. This was one of the better museums I visited in Vietnam and is definitely worth a look. When I arrived I was asked to sit down and watch a short film about natural medicine and how a lot of it originated in Vietnam, which was then adopted in China by the ruling powers. The methodology seemed quite simple and sensible to me. In the West, holistic medicine is based on getting the right balance. Upset the balance and illness and disease can occur. Correct the balance and people should get better. It’s all about the Yin and Yang, and there are five elements that must be kept in balance, according to Vietnamese medicine, and If one is insufficient then it must be rectified. For instance, if someone is deficient in metal, causing specific symptoms, then taking the correct minerals, foods or herbs to fix the problem is the correct solution. To me this makes perfect sense and there must be some validly to this concept otherwise it would never have stood the test of time.
I really enjoyed walking around the house and seeing the old fashion pharmacy that is on the second floor. A lot of the remedies were quite common supermarket items, such as Star Anise, Ginger and Lemongrass as well as unknown ones like black beans that cure ‘Wind Wetness Syndrome’ – I shit you not (pun intended). I’ve always believed in natural cures and remedies, and I found it all quite interesting, and perhaps I might even read a book or two about Vietnamese medicine in the future.
Despite many of the city’s hotspots being within a two mile radius of downtown Saigon, there are a few sights in the top 50 places to visit, according to TripAdvisor, which were dotted around the city. The Thien Hau Temple received high praise, so I decided to ride across town to go in search of it. In my early days in Asia, I figured once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all, but nothing could be further from the truth. Most are unique and it only takes about ten minutes to have a look. They are usually filled with the smell of incense and gold leaf Buddha’s, but the couple of temples I saw in HCMC also had light displays which were pretty cool, for a temple. It’s not worth going out of your way to see it, but if you’re into seeking out a bit of culture on your trip then it’s worth dropping by. One of the coolest things in the temple were the burning spiral incense sticks that were hanging from the ceiling. I think they were for sale and I would have had one if I could have got it home in one piece.
On my way out, I tried to ask the attendee about leaving the motorbike in the carpark, whilst I searched the local area for something to eat. He was only a young lad and he gave me the most bizarre of hand gestures, and I couldn’t quite figure out what he was trying to say. It was a kind of camp wave, followed by a disgusted look, which could have meant yes OK or no f**k off. In the end, I just said to the guy, “Forget it,” and I got back on my bike.
During the few days I was riding around the city, I decided to dust off my action-cam and attached it to my crash helmet. Unfortunately, like always, I got the angle wrong and all I managed to film was 25 minutes of blue sky and the occasional traffic light, which was a shame because as I was pulling into the Emperor Jade Pagoda complex, a fight broke out between a woman and a security guard (you had to be there). The place was heaving with people and it was still pretty early in the morning. The grounds have been utilised as a car park and the place was filled with people and motorbikes. The temple itself was in use and I couldn’t get inside the building through the masses of people who had come to prey for something. Many people were carrying ‘offerings’ on their heads and were waiting to get into the main building. I hung around for about five minutes to witness the event, but stood out like a gorping tourist quite a bit, which I always hate.
After a few hours of riding around the city, it was time to get jacked-up on some caffeine, and I found a coffee shop around the corner from the Ben Thanh Market. Not wishing to sound too much like a connoisseur, I found Vietnamese coffee to be very different from the European brew, with a kind of thick velvety quality that has a hint of cocoa. One of Vietnam’s main exports is coffee but I wasn’t always that impressed, though I did purchase a bag of beans for 70,000 dong. Coffee is for sale in abundance in the Ben Thanh Market, and expect to be hassled from the moment you get in there. It’s not too bad, but it’s definitely worth haggling. I managed to pick up some Chinese tea for 30 percent off, though I was probably still paying over the odds. They also sell snake wine which, depending on the size of the bottle, has a dead snake inside and sometimes a scorpion. At first I wasn’t interested but thought it would make a good souvenir, but I wasn’t sure how customs, in the UK, would feel about me bringing dead reptiles into the country, so I abandoned the idea. There is of course loads of other stuff in the market from food stalls, cloths, sweets etc.
When I first rented the motorbike near Chi’s Café, I didn’t stop to take a look around the area, and seeing at it is where the main congregation of backpackers and guesthouses are, I figured I should take a walk around. After having the motorbike for a few days, I took it back and retrieved my passport that was being held ransom for the piece-of-shit bike I was riding. There are dozens of tourist agents selling all kinds of tours from river cruises to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I asked around for a few prices and decided to have a think about it. Most tourist locations are near Chi’s Café and many of the sights can be reached on foot, but after handing back the bike, I realised I was hassled a lot more by people trying to offer me bike rides around the city. I was always polite, though on a couple of occasions I had to stand there for a minute or two trying to get away from some of the touts, who were trying to tell me their life story.
On my way back to the hotel, I popped into the Independence Palace, but I certainly wouldn’t put it at the top of your list of places to visit. I suppose it was OK. It’s basically just a huge government building, which contains some history about the closing days of the Vietnam War, but I wasn’t all that fussed.
Riding a motorbike in Vietnam is something I’ve wanted to do for a few years and there is only one word that can describe it … CRAZY! The biggest dangers are buses and cross roads, and combine the two together and that’s some brutal riding right there. Buses tend to plough ahead honking their horn and everyone is to get out of the way. Junctions mean nothing, and it was common practice to have people pull out in front of me without even looking. I saw a guy filter through a flow of motorbikes coming from the left like it was nothing. Roundabouts are pretty cool. They are kind of like driving around a large car park with motorbikes coming from every direction but everyone is moving quite slow. It all seems a little dangerous, but it’s a lot of fun.
I thoroughly enjoyed exploring Ho Chi Minh City by motorbike and possible saved a few quid by seeing most of the city without a tour guide. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to get out on the open road, but at least now I have broken the seal on Vietnam. I have plans in the pipeline to do a motorbike tour in the next couple of years so I am definitely looking forward to a trip to Hanoi sometime in the future.
As for currency issues, It’s quite common to read that US dollars are preferred in Vietnam, and this may be the case in other parts of the country, but in Ho Chi Minh it wasn’t an issue once. The dong is the currency of Vietnam and it is accepted everywhere, however I was often quoted prices in dollars, especially in the tourist agent shops near Chi’s Café, but once I asked to be quoted in dong, it wasn’t a problem. I think it is a misconception by tourists who feel they should take dollars, and therefore the locals expect it. However no local is going to turn down dong if you don’t have dollars.
So technically I’ve done one of the things on my travel bucket list, but it’s obviously not what I had in mind. Still, I came and I done it. I also had my own transport for getting around the city, and I wasn’t beholden to tour guides and taxi drivers. Having said that, it’s not easy to find places, or park, in the city and unless you really want to ride motorbikes in Vietnam, I would recommend getting a tour guide who will take you where you want to go. The best option is to hire a driver for the day and give him a list of places to visit.
Upon reflection though, I found most places without too much trouble; it may have taken a bit longer but I got there in the end. I often saw tour groups being shown around museums or people hanging around their coaches waiting to be taken to their next destination. I have to say it’s not for me. I think the last time I went on a guided tour was when I had the worst hangover last year in India. The only tour I considered doing on this trip would be to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I would have preferred to have gone there on my own, but I didn’t want to risk taking the bike out of the city for fear of getting in trouble.
Getting around Ho Chi Minh City, at first glance, may appear to be a daunting task. With some 3 million motorbikes for its 6.6 million residents, simply crossing the street presents itself as a great challenge. Buses are a popular mode of transport in Ho Chi Minh City, but I have never been one for them because it always seems like hassle. You can be sure the driver won’t speak English, and figuring out the correct ticket price isn’t easy, and trying to explain where I want to go and when to get off is a pain in the arse I could do without. The best taxis in Saigon are Vinasun Taxi and Mai Linh Taxi, which should offer a metered service and are considered the most trust worthy.
Unfortunately Ho Chi Minh is not a charming city; however my initial thoughts were a little misguided since the place was like a ghost town when I first arrived, due to the New Year holiday. Once everywhere began to open up it seemed much more welcoming, and the place began to grow on me, though I think I would need a good reason to come back anytime soon.