At the moment it seems like I can’t open a newspaper without reading gloomy predictions about the tourism industry, both in Vietnam and globally. Monday’s Saigon Times predicted that, despite a good first half of 2008, visitor numbers for the rest of the year would decline, due mainly to increasing airline ticket prices.
And yet if I wander outside the front door of the hotel, I can see that HCMC itself is full of tourists and business travellers, and our hotel has been 100% full for the last two nights – and this is supposed to be low season! Is HCMC bucking the global downturn in tourism? If it is, here are 10 reasons why:
OK, so it might cost you a bit more to get here than it did last year, but once you’re on the ground HCMC remains a very cheap place to visit. Taxis, drinks, food, entrance tickets and other daily expenses are all way cheaper than in the countries most tourists come from. And the recent fall in the value of the Vietnamese Dong means visitors get a lot more for their dollar, pound or euro.
At the last count, HCMC had 175 star-rated hotels, and many, many more mini-hotels, guest houses and dormitories. So whilst I am duty bound to praise the city’s luxury hotel scene, there are rooms available for all pockets – the $5-a-night dorm bed can still be found in the backpacker district!
3. Food & Drink
HCMC has thousands of restaurants, bars and cafes, from cheap street food outside the markets to fine dining restaurants. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can get a 3-course Asian lunch for $2, a French bistro meal for two with wine for under $20, or a buffet including 10 main courses as well as freshly-grilled lobster, shrimp, lamb and beef for $20, but you can in Saigon! (The last one of these is available in our Grill restaurant every evening from 18:00 – hey, this is my blog so I’ll plug my hotel if I want to…)
The city’s nightlife, whilst a lot more sedate than Bangkok, still has plenty to offer with a wide range of pubs, cafes, lounge bars and nightclubs, and despite HCMC’s curfew reputation many are open until 02:00 and beyond.
The regular visitor will notice an increase in the number of high-end luxury stores but that’s not really what Saigon shopping is all about. It’s more about hunting down local crafts such as lacquerware and silk, haggling over original artworks in the city’s countless galleries, finding discount designer goods, and exploring the city’s lively markets, such as the legendary Ben Thanh, Chinatown’s Binh Tay market, and fascinating local markets such as Tan Dinh or Nguyen Van Troi.
Cholon is HCMC’s Chinatown, located around 5km west of the city centre. Not too many tourists bother to make the trip, which is a shame as Cholon gives you a taste of the old colonial Saigon, before the developers moved in. A fascinating architectural mix of old pagodas, French colonial and 1960s brutalism, as well as some fantastic Chinese restaurants and the huge Binh Tay market, where everything you can imagine is on sale, in bulk.
6. Getting Out
There are also some great places to visit within a couple of hours’ drive of the city. The Mekong Delta, the nation’s ricebowl, is worth a couple of days at least, with its scenic waterways and sleepy villages. A tip – avoid the tourist traps of My Tho and Vinh Long and try the comparatively unexplored province of Ben Tre. There’s also the splendid beach at Long Hai, and Can Gio biosphere with its peaceful mangrove forests.
These days HCMC is a regional transport hub making it easy to travel to anywhere in Vietnam and SE Asia. Buses to the likes of Mui Ne and Phnom Penh can be had for as little as $10, while domestic flights to the beautiful island of Phu Quoc or the friendly highland city of Dalat cost around $80 return. And the arrival of budget airlines such as Tiger Airways and Air Asia means it’s cheaper to get to Bangkok and Singapore than ever before.
Sure, HCMC is a noisy, bustling city where relaxation can often seem impossible. But it also has more spas than anywhere else I’ve ever been, all of which offer relaxing massage and other treatments. Many hotels have rooftop pools, high above the heat and traffic. And there are hundreds of coffee shops with gardens, sofas or balconies where you can escape the hustle with a cold drink. And of course, all at extremely affordable prices.
Mention Vietnamese history and people immediately think of the American War. HCMC has two key attractions for history buffs. First there’s the War Remnants Museum, a disturbing, fascinating look at the conflict through armaments, documents and rarely seen photographs. Secondly there’s the Cu Chi Tunnels, a 90-minute drive out of the city, where you can explore the Viet Cong tunnel networks that mystified the US troops for so long. Combined with a visit to the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh, it’s a memorable day out.
10. The People
One memory visitors to HCMC always take back with them is that of the local people. Lively, smiling, joking, always on the move, they make Saigon the fascinating place it is. You may get annoyed by street traders, motorbike taxis and shoeshine boys constantly offering their services, but give them a smile and you’ll always get one back, whether you’re buying or not.
So there are just 10 reasons to pay us a visit – I’m sure you can think of more!