An Honest Take on HCMC

Ho Chi Minh City — officially renamed from Saigon in 1975 — is the business, commerce, and government capital of southern Vietnam. With a population now topping eight million, it attracts more and more residents each year — for jobs, for education, for hope of a better life — as the country, and the world, continue their transitions from rural to urban living. It’s the engine that drives the Vietnamese economy, blatantly displayed in the form of glass, steel, and the nagging smell of petrol. Everything is moving. The city is abuzz.

But, my God, is it boring.

There just isn’t very much here. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll find plenty of people trying to sell you a good time, usually in the form of the “three Ms”: massages, motorbikes, and marijuana. But if you’ve come to experience the local culture — to discover something uniquely Vietnamese — you’re probably out of luck. Normally, even in places with barely anything to do, I can take the city underfoot and just explore, leading to satisfying finds like great restaurants or local street murals. But I have never seen a city less conducive to walking. The heat is always stifling, often in the mid-thirties even at night; the motorbike herds turn every street crossing into a stampede; and with so many fumes and honks in the air, your lungs might collapse and your pulsing head explode by the time you’ve reached the next block anyway.

Okay, you’ll find cafes, bars aplenty, and hipster art-shows with touring DJs. I’m sure if you lived here, you’d find stuff to do. And, between Netflix, video games, and books I’ve been meaning to read, I do more than watch paint dry. But it’s now my third week here, and most nights I’m indoors. Apart from the ludicrous chaos, there isn’t anything in HCMC you couldn’t find somewhere else.

I am still glad we stopped here. Not every location can be incredible and there is something to be said about just seeing people live. If you’re thinking about Vietnam in general, HCMC is actually an excellent hub for planning tours around the whole country — like the Cai Rang Floating Market or a cruise down Halong Bay (both of which I’m jealous Amanda checked off while I’ve been working). But if you’re planning to stay put, touring this city doesn’t require a month, and it probably doesn’t even require a week. It’s been an experience, Saigon, but I am looking forward to leaving. I’m excited for other parts of Vietnam.

Background image by Diego Delso

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article implied that HCMC is the capital of Vietnam. Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam, but Hanoi was the capital of the North, and Hanoi remained the country’s capital after the North won their revolution.