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I’ve just returned from a short but fun trip to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and thanks to some good tours, friendly locals, a bit of personal experience and a little bit of reading I discovered a variety of things about the city and the country that I never knew before – here are 14 of the things that I learned and that spring to mind (there are probably a lot more).
Wait Times At Arrivals Immigration Can Be Bad
The arrivals immigration hall at Ho Chi Minh City’s airport was incredibly busy when I arrived (at around 2pm) as a number of long-haul flights had landed at approximately the same time. I was the first person from my flight to get to immigration, but it still took me almost exactly 40 minutes before I got through to the baggage reclaim area.
Things were much better on the return journey – It took me just 15 minutes to pass through immigration and security on my way out of Vietnam.
You Can’t Believe Google’s Numbers
If you use Google to search for the population of Ho Chi Minh City you’ll be told that there are around 9,000,000 people within the city’s boundaries, but everyone I spoke to in the city put the population at between 13,000,000 and 15,000,000. The locals may be including suburbs that Google doesn’t consider but, even so, a difference of between 4,000,000 and 6,000,000 is still considerable.
No Problem With Old Names
The locals don’t mind if you call Ho Chi Minh city by its old (and pre-unification) name – Saigon. Quite a few hotels still have the “Saigon” in their name, and you’ll find the name on signs throughout the city.
Salaries Are Incredibly Low
The salary of an average office worker is between $250 and $300 per month, while the cost to rent a room towards the center of Ho Chi Minh City is generally over $300 per month. As you progress away from the center of the city the room rates drop but they’re still generally in the region of $200 to $250 per month.
Rental Costs Get Cheaper The Higher You Go In A Building
This is something that will be counter-intuitive for most people reading this post as in most parts of the world you pay a premium for a living space that’s high up and which offers a view….but not in Ho Chi Minh City.
In Ho Chi Minh City the more expensive rents are for ground floor properties while the higher floors are more affordable and there are some perfectly logical reasons for why this is so.
A room on the ground floor can be used as a dwelling and as a place of work (a storefront) so, as it can bring in an income, the rental cost is higher.
A property on a high floor will be hotter than a property on the ground floor (hot air rises, and the city is hot year-round) and so occupants will spend more money on electricity to keep themselves cool – a property with higher energy bills commands a lower rent in Ho Chi Minh City.
Living Conditions Aren’t Great For Most
Just like with most cities, Ho Chi Minh City has its wealthy and its poor but here the poor outnumber the wealthy (or well-off) to a massive degree. In the residential districts I visited most people were living as a family (3 generations) and in a single room measuring no more than 40 square meters (~430 square feet.)
Scooters Rule The City
There are over 8,000,000 scooters in Ho Chi Minh City and it will only take you a few hours after you arrive to discover that most of them are on the roads almost all of the time! Scooters are used for deliveries…
…for the school run…
….for taking your rooster to market….
…as part of a ridesharing service…
…as a take-out delivery service…
…or for a family day out…
…and the riders have little time for any sort of driving discipline.
Driving Is Chaotic
I consider myself to be a pretty good driver and I’ve never come across somewhere that I wouldn’t at least attempt to navigate in a car…until now.
To be a driver in Ho Chi Minh City you need to be fearless, you need to have little regard for the law or other motorists, and you have to be a little crazy too – the whole experience is chaotic from start to finish.
Keeping in lanes is an alien concept to the drivers of Ho Chi Minh City, traffic lights are more of a suggestion than an instruction, road signs are an irrelevance (including those indicating a one-way street) and pedestrian crossings are there to be ignored. Driving here is a great example of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” in action and any signs of weakness are exploited almost immediately – welcome to the Thunderdome!
Allow Plenty Of Time To Get Places
Not only does Ho Chi Minh city have crazy drivers but it has a lot of drivers too. The city has “rush hours” at the same times of day as most other cities, but the congestion is far, far worse….and the traffic is pretty bad at most other times of the day too. I’m not sure if it’s the vast number of vehicles or if it’s because people seem to pick and choose which traffic laws to obey but the traffic in Ho Chi Minh city is staggeringly bad. On my journey back from visiting the Cu Chi tunnels we arrived in the city at around 6pm and it then took a further 90 minutes to progress the 7 miles to my hotel – keep that in mind when making plans.
You Have To Re-Learn How To Be A Pedestrian
Most of us have grown up with parents teaching us how to stay safe when crossing roads and walking on sidewalks but in Ho Chi Minh City most of that knowledge is completely useless.
Scooters frequently use the sidewalks as their own little expressways so you cannot assume that you can relax when you’re at the side of a road…and parked scooters often block the sidewalks so you have to step out into the roads if you want to get where you’re going.
Because no one stops at pedestrian crossings and because a good percentage of drivers don’t appear to know what a red traffic light means you have to employ a somewhat unique technique when crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh City – you have to cross deliberately slowly.
Where in most parts of the world the best way to cross a busy road is to get to the other side as quickly as possible, in Ho Chi Minh City the best way to cross is to take your time. This gives the non-stopping scooters and cars more of a chance to avoid you.
If you’re walking slowly they can easily gauge where you’re going to be when they reach you and they can take appropriate evasive action…if you speed up you become far less predictable and there’s no knowing what will happen then.
The Authorities Are…Authoritarian
The locals may not pay much attention to the traffic laws but there are some rules that they know they shouldn’t break.
It’s easy to forget that Vietnam is still a Communist dictatorship (albeit one with a capitalist economy) and, as with most communist dictatorships, they love a good bit of nationalism. This was brought home to me when I noticed that, in honor of Chinese New Year, a lot of the residential districts had bunting made up of the Vietnamese flag and the Communist flag draped across the streets:
When I asked what these flags had to do with the Chinese new year (apart from the fact that they’re both primarily red), I was told that it was mandatory to put these flags out on all holidays and failure to do so would invite a visit from the police. This may be 2020 but the spirit of Eastern Europe of the 1960s still lives on.
Coffee Is Big In Vietnam
Vietnam is the 2nd largest coffee producer in the world after Brazil and comfortably ahead of the third-largest producer, Colombia – who knew??!!
I can’t ever remember looking at the coffee selection in a supermarket and seeing Vietnamese coffee as an option (it’s usually coffee from Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia or Indonesia) but coffee is a big deal in Vietnam.
Vietnamese Coffee Is Very Good
The coffee grown in Vietnam that I tasted made excellent espressos (not too bitter) and, as a result, it made excellent cappuccinos, lattes and flat whites…but it’s a drink called “Iced Vietnamese Coffee” that most caught my attention.
Iced Vietnamese Coffee is made with condensed milk, so it has a slightly sweet taste…but it’s still incredibly refreshing.
Beef Isn’t Part Of Any Truly Traditional Vietnamese Meal
You’ll find beef on offer in just about any restaurant or street market you choose to visit in Ho Chi Minh City, but pork and seafood are the only truly authentic “proteins” in Vietnamese food….and there’s a logical reason for this.
Historically, the people of Vietnam (and the people of the countries which now make up modern-day Vietnam) were highly dependent on agriculture to provide for themselves and their families, and the animals from which we get beef (cattle, oxen etc…) were of much more use as beasts of burden than as animals to eat.
While seafood and pigs were caught and bred almost entirely as sources of food, cattle and oxen were used in the fields and not as part of a family’s diet.
I had a great time visiting a city and country that’s been on my list of places to visit for quite some time and between the things I saw and learned and the people I met and spoke to, I’ve been given a lot of new reasons to go back to Vietnam and see what other parts of the country offer.