Of all the countries I’ve visited in South East Asia, Thailand is my number one jam but boy do I love Vietnam. The people (in general) are incredibly kind, there’s lot of good food to be found, the shopping is great and, in low season, you can live it up at a luxurious hotel for pretty much next to nothing. Also, because Vietnam knows it’s not as much of a tourist destination as Thailand it really does try harder. In Thai Thai, you’ll get service. In Vietnam you’ll get ‘care’.
For anyone wanting to visit, but confused as where to go, this li’l para is for you: The last time I was in Nam (is it obnoxious when I say that?) I did Phu Quoc (a little island), Ho Chi Minh (the new name for Saigon), Hoi An and Hanoi with a don’t-miss-it side trip to Ha Long Bay. I soon realised that, while Phu Quoc is amazing, there’s nothing really differentiating it from the Thai islands and you can get your dose of ‘beach’ in Hoi An so, in hindsight, I’d skip Phu Quoc and tack on extra time to view the rice paddies in Sapa, a bus ride away from Hanoi.
Now, let’s talk Ho Chi Minh! If you want a ‘touristy’ guide of things to do then best you get googling. I didn’t do any of that and chose to be a vapid, culturally bereft ho that mostly overate, bought cool shizz and indulged in a string of spa treatments, the first being Vietnam’s specialty – a full-body hot stone massage! If you ever find yourself in Vietnam be sure to enjoy as many as you can. You’ll find massage parlours everywhere and the average cost is R140 FOR AN HOUR.
As far as nails go, I was super impressed with Fame Nails. On my last day, I had a last gasp opportunity to visit the war museum (my first attempt was ruined by food poisoning) but felt so sweaty, moeg and faint that I ended up falling into their salon instead so I could just lie in a chair and suck up all their air con and receive a truly brilliant deluxe gel pedi for just R227. (This completely horrified my father by the way. He couldn’t understand how I could forgo a once in a lifetime cultural experience for pretty-looking toes so if you’re still taking me seriously as a tour guide you’re possibly a moron-person too.)
Food-wise, you’ll find something amazing/fascinating to eat or drink on every street corner but I was most impressed with ‘Got Bun?’ next to Ben Thanh market. You’ll find it in the food stall area (which reminded me a lot of Cape Town’s Old Biscuit Mill) serving up delicious oysters and pillow-soft, steamed, glutinous buns filled with everything from chicken and pork to deep-fried oysters that will ruin you for the rest of your life.
Also, don’t miss Gringo Tacos which is just a few stalls away. I couldn’t believe that their heavenly fish taco was less than R23!
If you find yourself craving something meaty head to Vibe Burger which is also close to Ben Thanh. You have to walk down this narrow little alley to get into it and at one point you’ll be all ‘where the fuck am I going?’ but then you pop out in a restaurant that feels so ‘Cape Town Kloof Street’ you’ll forget you’re in Vietnam. (Not that you want to do that, but you know what I mean.) For me, their bacon and blue cheese burger really hit the spot.
Keen on Indian? Get your ass to Tandoor, assuming you can get it in the door. This rather fancy-looking Indian spot is so popular I had to sit on one of those little low stools out in the street while waiting for a table and yep, it was worth it. They had over 200 dishes to pick from, the service was second to none and, while their vindaloo wasn’t as hot as I’d have liked (my fault for not specifying I like lava-level heat) it was super tasty and made with top quality chicken breast. My curry, a garlic naan and beer were R150 which is HORRIFICALLY expensive for Vietnam (you can get the same trio in many other restaurants for as little as R65) but if you’re from Cape Town it’s a steal.
Lastly, if you see Fanny ice cream (yes, really!) advertised anywhere, drop everything and eat as much of it as you can because when you don’t have access to it, you WILL pine for it. It’s the dreamiest, creamiest, most delish ice cream I’ve had in all of Asia and it beats Ben & Jerry’s in its moer.
Shopping-wise, Ben Thanh market is fab for cheap suitcases and very real-looking fake goods from brands like Nike, Adidas, Kipling, North Face and Victoria’s Secret as the factories in which they’re made are in Vietnam. In fact, not everything is fake. Many of the goods are real and have simply ‘fallen off the back of a truck’. I now have ten million ‘Nike’ gym pants (R70 each), yet another pair of ‘Adidas’ Stan Smiths (R130) and at least a kilogram of ‘Victoria’s Secret’ underwear (R20 a pop). Please leave a comment telling me what a terrible person I am for buying counterfeit goods so I can delete it with one hand while the other is buried deep in a packet of toasted cheese-flavour Lays.
Want to shop some more? Go to Vincom Centre, the biggest shopping centre in HCM, and head straight to H&M to buy as much as your spiffy new market suitcase will allow as it’s a good 20% cheaper than in Thailand. VC has loads of international stores like Zara, M&S and a huge stand-alone NARS so, if that’s what you’re after, now is the time to shop ‘cos you won’t find a mall in Hoi An and the ones I visited in Da Nang where utter shit so, unless you’re finishing up in Hanoi, you won’t get the chance again.
Another must-do mall is Saigon Centre. It’s super-duper flashy so you’ll get to wander around feeling like a sweaty piece of trash while beautiful, stiletto-wearing women who look like the Asian version of Catherine Zeta Jones will swan past you to throw R14 000 dresses on their credit cards without even trying them on.
Be sure to check out Takashimaya, a fascinating Japanese department store within the centre, where you’ll be amazed by just how many lustable brands can possibly exist under one roof. You’ll find everything from L’Occitane to La Perla! The best, however, is their ‘delights section’ where I lost over an hour of my life in the best way possible – marvelling at Japanese delicacies like cherry blossom macaroons, Hello Kitty cupcakes and matcha-flavoured mochi. If you’re lucky like me, you’ll visit on a day where there are loads of samples out.
Later, one of those gorgeous rich bitch Vietnamese woman will spot you eating a very fancy yuzu-flavoured truffle on one of those weird vibrating exercise plank things that shake up all your flab and make you look like a disgusting blur of Western grossness. She will give you a barely disguised look of disgust and you will be far too happy to care.
P.S. Let’s chat about a few practicalities. When it comes to visas, you can buy one on arrival that gives you 30 days for $25 but, at check in, your airline will ask you for a visa approval letter. Bizarre, but necessary. I got mine online via Vietnam-evisa.org and paid $9,99.
After landing, draw some dong (yep, that’s their currency) from the airport ATM and make your first purchase a tourist SIM card. The counters are right by the exit so you won’t miss them. A 30-day Viettel SIM cost $10 and allowed me to use my phone like a GPS. This is essential as you’ll walk a LOT. Like Thailand, Vietnam is incredibly safe and I loved being able to roam solo come day or night and never once felt threatened. The streets are permanently full of people including an inexplicably high amount of oumas and children who seemingly have no bed time.
You’ll find lots of taxis at any airport you land in. I parted with $10 to get to my hotel in the centre of HCM which is more than what it would’ve cost to use Grab (Asia’s ultra-cheap version of Uber) but, in my experience, calling a Grab to the arrivals gate in any airport is impossible. Once you’re ‘in’, however, using Grab is easy and your average ten-minute trip will cost around R20 to R30!
Accommodation-wise, use Booking.com or Agoda to find something cheap and cheerful (as you’ll only be there to sleep and shower) close to Ben Thanh which is a bit of a hub that’s close to everything. If you use Booking, my link will get you 10% off. Just get clicky clicky over here.