Lifestyle Editors Chelsea Tang and Fabian Loo journey through the bustling Ho Chi Minh City, as they attempt to steer away from tourist traps to experience its rich culture in the most unconventional of ways.
By Chelsea Tang and Fabian Loo
The cab ride to our apartment from the airport was eye-opening to say the least. As we traversed through the streets, our senses were inundated by a flurry of unfamiliar sights and sounds. Motorcycles flanked us as we passed by the roads filled street vendors, backdropped by brand new malls and hotels.
Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City.
With a myriad of delectable dishes and breathtaking landmarks, this city is one of Asia’s definitive tourist destinations. Here, the main mode of transportation for locals is motorbikes. They pack the streets, making it almost impossible for us to cross the roads. We finally reached our Airbnb apartment, which belonged to Airbnb host Ms An Nhien, 32. She earned the title of a ‘Superhost’ after receiving multiple rave reviews from tourists. The first thing we asked for was some pointers on tackling the traffic.
“Don’t hesitate when you start walking,” she said. “And don’t make eye contact with the drivers — they can sense your fear.”
When In Saigon
Our very first adventure began with us exploring the city in true Vietnamese fashion — on motorbikes. We met up with our friendly tour guides from Triip’s Saigon Lovers who exemplified exactly how the locals weave through the busy traffic as we rode pillion.
Triip is an international platform that connects tourists with locals who wish to host private tours and spread their own culture. From there, we found Saigon Lovers, a team of passionate young people from Ho Chi Minh City who are keen on presenting the authentic side of Vietnam.
We had many of our conversations as they battled the heavy traffic, a testament to their driving prowess. They were also keen to take us to places that we would not find on tourist maps.
True to their word, from visiting a temple surrounded by water, to snacking on Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) in the city’s town garden, we discovered places we would have never got to on our own. It definitely broadened our horizons on how the people of the city live their lives.
Transported Into Narrative
Imagine exploring the Chinatown district of Ho Chi Minh City through the lens of a private detective. We had the chance to do so with Urban Tales, a city-tour disguised as a full-scale investigation complete with actors. After being given a script of a murder case, we were left to our own devices – to traverse the streets of Cholon to solve the crime with a map and a compass.
Hidden clues lead participants on a journey designed to show off the charms of Cholon. Often embedded within interesting landmarks, the clues create an experience where people can get lost in the settings, and the narrative of the mystery.
Throughout the tour, we found ourselves in stunning locations away from the hustle and bustle of main streets. From traditional Chinese medical stores to centuries-old temples like the Ha Chong Assembly Hall, we felt as if we were true investigators caught in the thick of a Vietnamese murder. And in true murder mystery fashion, we found ourselves dumbfounded by some of the leads. But the actors planted throughout the investigation trail gave us some valuable hints to ensure that we don’t get completely stuck or lost in the mystery.
Furthermore, hunting for clues made us wary of the details and intricacies of Cholon, something we fully appreciated. After spending much time immersed in a world uncovering the narrative and culture, we managed to solve the murder and went away with more than just a rewarding tour of the place.
Groceries don’t get any fresher than at Ben Thanh Market.
We were ready to explore the city’s largest wet market, which locals swarm to at the crack of dawn to snag up the freshest goods. From lotus stems to bloody pig brains, Ben Thanh is not your usual wet market.
After we were done getting the items, we headed to the academy of Saigon Cooking Class, where we were guided by a chef in recreating some popular local dishes, one of which is the Fresh Rice Noodle with Barbecued Pork.
The chef provided brief explanations on the history of the dishes, such as how people often have the misconception that pho (Vietnamese rice noodle soup) was synonymous with Vietnamese food culture, when actually the locals prefer having the dry alternative instead.
The dishes that we were tasked to whip up were relatively easy and did not require complex ingredients or cooking techniques. As the chef meticulously brought us through the various steps, we soon found ourselves completing three authentic Vietnamese dishes from scratch. Wolfing down our products (which we admit were pretty delicious), we were thoroughly satiated with the whole experience.
While it definitely gave us a sense of accomplishment like no other, we decided to take a much needed break by visiting a restaurant named Hoa Tuc, which serves an array of authentic Vietnamese delicacies. The chefs at this place combine flavours from differing regions of Vietnam, resulting in an eclectic and innovative menu.
Among the plethora of dishes we ordered was a salad medley of pink pomelo, squid, crab with Vietnamese herbs and fish sauce-citrus dressing. While it might sound like a jumble of strong flavours, the dish came together really well. The saltiness of the fish sauce balanced out the sweet tanginess of the pomelo, and both complemented the fresh seafood.
However, our favourite was definitely the soft shell crab with passionfruit sauce, which came highly recommended by the staff. The crispy green rice batter gave the dish a light crunch, while the tart fragrance of the passionfruit allowed for this deep-fried dish to be less cloying.
Hoa Tuc ultimately won our hearts over. Aptly named after an opium flower, it was only a matter of time before we got hooked on the contemporary Vietnamese dishes that the restaurant serves.
More Than Meets The Eye
Taking the city by motorbikes once more (although this time with more padding), we zipped off on a tour conducted by Vespa adventures to the lesser-visited places of Ho Chi Minh City. As we sat in the back of Vespa motorbikes as the drivers skilfully swerved through the cityscape, it quickly regressed into the shanty town of District 2.
What greeted us was a sombre facade, where the poverty-stricken were left in an area with only the most basic of shelters and necessities. Most of the houses which used to surround this piece of land have been torn down by the government to make way for a new city park. This left the last few people — who were waiting for relocation — in a sea of rubble.
It bewildered us that what separated the area from everything else we saw was merely the Saigon River. When we looked across from District 2, we saw a concrete jungle filled with skyscrapers and the busy traffic; a stark contrast from where we stood.
“Exploring a country isn’t just about visiting the glamourous sides of it,” said Ms Dhieu, our tour guide for the trip. “In understanding that there is more beyond what people usually see makes you an insider — congratulations, you’re now an insider of Ho Chi Minh City.”
While it may be fun to explore Ho Chi Minh City, meeting people who were displaced from the city made us feel a little more tied to the city’s history and culture. In a way, it helped us appreciate our home and country even more.
End Of The Road
As we bid farewell to Ms Nhien and her cosy apartment, we think we might have found the perfect way to describe Ho Chi Minh City.
It is a city that is in constant commute.
From the roads that were packed to the corners, to the narrow, snaking ones that ran through the old and new of the city, people were always heading somewhere.
Whether it is the evolution of Vietnam to its current modern and growing state or the everyday lives of locals, the rusticity that pervades the nation remains despite the changes, and is unique to a city that has overcome so much.
New York might be the city that never sleeps, but Ho Chi Minh has a rhythm that is unmatched.
Accommodation was sponsored by Airbnb.