First impressions: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Getting to Ho Chi Minh City

Surviving the long flight

Yes, surviving. On Jan. 23, Ethan and I traveled from Chicago to Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh City where we are planning to teach English for the next year.

We had an extremely long flight. What should have been a 13-hour flight, a 9-hour layover, plus another 7-hour flight was made an extra 4 hours longer by snow delays in Chicago. After we boarded the plane, they needed to de-ice the plane and clear the runway multiple times. Ethan had finished watching an entire full-length movie and a half by the time we actually took off.

Because our plane arrived in Tokyo three hours late, we couldn’t take a nap in the hotel we booked. We toughed it out in the airport instead.

Nonetheless, we got here. That’s how it always goes with flying for me—it’s really horrible but, eventually, with patience, you get to your hotel room, nap for a few hours, and when you start exploring the city, it’s all worth it.

Motorbike traffic

We arrived at 5:30 a.m. in the morning, Vietnam time and took a taxi ride into town through a sea of motorbikes.

Taxi weaving through Thursday morning traffic including many motorbikes

Afterward, we went to bed and slept for the entire day. It felt really strange to me, but I had to remind myself that it was okay to take time to recuperate. There would be time to explore later in the days, weeks, and months to come. I’ve never traveled like this before, with a whole year on my hands. I think I’ll really enjoy it.

Day 1 in Ho Chi Minh City

Tao Đàn Park Ho Chi Minh City

My Lonely Planet guide had said that the park was best to visit in the morning because of all the exercisers. They were right. There were people doing all kinds of activities—badminton, tai chi, traditional dances, etc. We would have seen even more if more than half the park hadn’t been taken over by preparations for the Tet Festival.

This game is a kind of foot badminton called Dá Cầu , a popular pastime in Vietnam.

In one section of Tao Đàn Park (Google Maps), a bunch of photographers captured images of women dressed in traditional clothing in front of a Tet banner. When I walked through, a man stopped to ask if he could take my picture. About 10 other photographers joined in. A woman pretended to hand me a bundle of firecrackers and I pretended to receive them. It was a strange but also fun experience. He showed me the image on the back of his camera and thanked me, then we moved on.

Spa day

After our long flight, Ethan and I decided to treat ourselves. He needed a haircut and I told him to wait until we were in Vietnam. We found a funky barber shop (Liem Barber Shop) where tattooed barbers played rap music and cut designs into fades. Ethan and I don’t know much Vietnamese yet, but we came prepared with a picture and his barber was able to copy it perfectly. He paid ₫80,000 which equals $3.45 or €3.03.

Ethan got a fade haircut at Liêm Barber Shop in Ho Chi Minh for the equivalent of $3.45 in USD.

I tried a full-body massage at a place called Coco Care Spa in the backpacker district. My essential oils massage came with a free iced tea and foot soak beforehand. Ethan opted for a pedicure, foot scrub and 30-minute foot massage. I’ve only had one massage in the past back in the United States, but that cost about $75. The Vietnamese one was ₫280,000 ($12)—and it was better!

A taste of Vietnamese cuisine

Each morning, our hotel (Asian Ruby Select Hotel- about $80-90 per night) has a large breakfast buffet with a rotation of every Vietnamese cuisine imaginable. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I ate a fetal duck egg that was prepared in a way it didn’t look like one (I’m pescatarian when possible so this kind of grossed me out).

Otherwise, this has been an amazing way to get to know local dishes. Plus, I’m not a big American breakfast food person, so I love that in Vietnam, people eat the same foods at pretty much any time of day!

Pho, seafood spring rolls, salad, and pumpkin dumpling from Asian Ruby Select Hotel breakfast buffet.

Street food in Vietnam

We also have tried restaurant and street food. Street food is definitely the way to go. Though you sit on little stools on the sidewalk to eat it, it’s actually a fun cultural experience and, to me, the food is better. You just walk up to the person serving the food, point to what you’d like, and enjoy.

Largely, this means noodle dishes where the noodles wait sitting in a bowl until you order one and the broth is poured on top. Learn your Vietnamese noodles from this handy resource.

One such dish is pictured below. I can’t tell you what exactly it was, but pretty much anything you find will be delicious.

Posts for the future

I’m so excited to share so much more about Ho Chi Minh City and the rest of Vietnam on this blog in the coming year. Look out for upcoming posts about the Tet Festival, moving into an apartment, and starting my English teaching job.

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