Backpacking in Vietnam
Mithila Mehta at Cu Chi shooting range.
Discover the fascinating Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam
Vietnam is every backpacker’s dream with its undulating history, unique natural topography, culinary options that test and tease, and favourable currency exchange rate that can make you feel like a millionaire. For a dose of modern Vietnam in all its vividness and vitality, visit Vietnam’s largest City, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Formerly called Saigon, it is the real life version of fast and furious—with bikes whizzing across its busy streets, and sidewalks filled with stalls and foodcarts. The city is always on the move.
Located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, District One attracts backpackers from the world over with countless affordable accommodation options. I ditched guided tours for a true flavour of Saigon. You haven’t really been to a city until you get lost in it! Its maze-like lanes cramped with homes, tiny eateries, and wall paintings, are a delightful. Locals park bikes in their living rooms for want of space. For authentic Vietnamese cuisine, grab a bite at streetside food stalls, try their famous pho (a traditional noodle soup) or get a refreshing treat of Bai Ho (freshly brewed local beer) available on most street corners. Public dance classes held at parks of HCMC are very interesting, people dance to blaring music like no one’s watching. After some persuasion, I joined right in, following a crowd of strangers as they did hip-hop steps on traditional folk music, under the setting sun.
The highlight of my time in Ho Chi Minh was the day trip I took to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the location of several military encounters during the Vietnam War. This intricate underground tunnel system—was created by the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese fighters). Visitors can crawl through the tunnels as well, but most (yours truly included) give up halfway. My guide was a former US marine who took me to the Cu Chi shooting range. There is a ‘menu card’ which allows visitors to pick anything, right from an AK-47 to a hand grenade and pay by the shot. I kept the empty bullet shells of the AK-47 I shot as souvenirs, but got into trouble with the Airport Customs officials later on.
Fruit vendors on the street of District One in HCMC. Pic courtesy: Mithila Mehta
Museums & Markets
Must-visit for those fascinated by history. The Vietnamese War officially ended in 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates. Formerly home to the President of South Vietnam, this Palace has been preserved exactly as it was found. The most eerie part is the basement which served as the war control room. Displays of the nearby War Remnants Museum, dedicated to the Vietnam War, are interesting as well as heart-breaking, even if they depict a rather one-sided view of the war.
Another must-visit is the Ben Thanh Market, crammed with hundreds of tiny stalls. The War Surplus Market sells American military paraphernalia such as combat gear and Marine Zippo lighters. These supposedly date back to the Vietnam War, but are of dubious authenticity.
In a tiny shop on Bui Vien Street, I stumbled across an amazing array of War propaganda poster prints from the Vietnam War. Bui Vien Street also has several shops selling art. Drop in, admire the artist at work and maybe even gift yourself a portrait in oil paint!
Shop selling paintings Biu Vien street. Pic courtesy: Mithila Mehta
Discover more in Vietnam
While in Vietnam, you must visit Hanoi, what with its beautiful French architecture to the floating villages on the Mekong Delta. The ruins of My Son are a UNESCO world heritage site, while the beautiful island of Phu Quoc has the most idyllic beaches. What are you waiting for, backpacker? Vietnamis waiting!
Getting in: HCMC is well connected by air from various Indian cities.
Visa: Indians can apply online for a visa and get it on arrival at various international Vietnamese airports.
Currency Rate: One Indian rupee is approximately 357 Vietnamese Dong. The American Dollar is usually accepted too.
Climate: Average temperatures around the year range from 20 to 35 degrees. It typically rains from November to March.