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Anyone planning a trip to Vietnam inevitably receives suggestions from many people (experienced travellers, websites and tour guides) to include Ho Chi Minh City in their itinerary. This is with great reason.
A trip to Vietnam is incomplete without paying a visit to this historically rich, culturally sound and vibrant city that embodies the spirit of everything modern that the country has to offer- business, shopping, nightlife and more.
In this post, let us understand this wonderful city better and answer your most pressing questions about it so that you can relax and enjoy your trip there.
The first and the most important of all these questions being…
Is it offensive to use “Saigon” instead of “Ho Chi Minh City”?
This is a question that might startle some of the localities and Vietnamese people everywhere. Here is the gist of it. French people often tend to refer to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon because that was the name that the city had for quite a while before it got renamed.
Saigon was the name that the city had when it was a French Colony, which is why you might be worried that this can offend the Vietnamese people.
If you have accidentally used the term Saigon when speaking to someone and are now worried that you have offended them, here is why you are wrong.
Saigon is a name that is used by plenty (the majority actually) of residents across the city and country to refer to the city. So no resident is going to be offended for your slip of the tongue.
Further proof that they will not be offended remains in the fact that the vast tourist company very popular in the country is called Saigon Tourist. The name of the airport is SGN.
Saigon is its original name and has stuck around for so long that many residents use it daily. The younger population who are used to hearing the new name and learning about it officially tend to use the two names interchangeably with more comfort than their elderly counterparts.
Many people tend to misunderstand that Saigon refers to the French colonization era and overlook the actual etymology of the name, which refers to the Gòn tree which produces cotton pods.
Ultimately, keep in mind that the name has been changed for official and political reasons. So use it during paperwork and don’t worry about it so much during conversations.
And if you do come across the odd soul (there’s always that person) who is offended, apologize and move on. Funnily enough, you’ll also find people who will be offended if you call Saigon by its new name.
What is considered offensive in Vietnam?
Now that we know what’s not offensive, let’s take a quick look at things you might want to avoid doing so that you don’t break their rules of etiquette. Vietnamese people are kind, respectful and very welcoming towards foreigners. Their hospitality is exemplary and here are some things you should avoid doing as they are considered disrespectful in their culture:
1. Dressing inappropriately at religious places.
This is not unique to Vietnam and is a common etiquette one must bear in mind when visiting pagodas, temples and similar institutions. Skimpy, revealing and sexy clothing are the ones you need to avoid. Modest dressing lets you explore their culture in depth while respecting their beliefs.
2. Window shopping if you are the first customer of the day.
It is considered bad luck for their business if you leave a stall or shop without buying anything from them if you are the first customer of the day. If you do not plan to shop anything, just wander around the area till other customers show up and then explore the stalls and shops at your leisure.
3. Disrespecting Ho Chi Minh
You may have strong opinions about this remarkable political figure but you are better off keeping your views to yourself in a city that is renamed after him. Most people do not tolerate insults of any kind regarding a figure that the nation respects and equates with independence.
4. Not taking your shoes off when you enter someone’s home.
Vietnamese people are nice and polite and they will not tell you that you are doing something wrong but commonsense should prevent you from bringing in all the dust from outside and the muddy grounds that you have trampled upon into their homes.
5. Public Displays of Affection
Get a room. It’s considered cheap and usually does offend the generally conservative society who are tradition-bound and wish to protect their cultural beliefs. You can hold hands but don’t do anything more in public.
6. Praising China
Keep your political views to yourself when you are travelling to a country with a sensitive past and this is a battle that has been going on for way too long. There is nothing you can do to change it, and wisely, nothing you should do.
Is Ho Chi Minh City worth the visit?
Absolutely. There are many things to love about this commercial city that make it a great tourist spot and a place to move to if that’s what you’re looking for. Vietnam on the whole caters mostly to those looking for greenery and serenity.
However, those craving the hustle and hurry of city life won’t be disappointed if you set foot in Ho Chi Minh City.
From world-class shopping experiences to tucked away cafes, you have it all here. The question about whether the city being visit-worthy comes from the unfair comparison that it often undergoes with neighbouring cities.
If you are looking for a memorable travel experience to absorb the entirety of Vietnam, this is one city you absolutely must not miss out on.
What’s great about this city? It has everything you can want from a big city, for a start. You can plan a business trip with a few vacation days or bring your family over for a week full of fun and cultural immersion.
Delicious street food, exciting restaurants for fun and fine dining, parks for your children and wonderful markets to experience local produce- you have it all.
Of course, every city has a fair share of negatives as well and tourists need to keep a check on safety and security when travelling abroad anywhere. Getting scammed as a tourist is indeed a possibility in any happening city that attracts a large number of eager visitors from around the world.
There are certain markets like Ben Thanh Market that have a reputation of overcharging tourists so just watch out and do your research using multiple trusted resources as a part of your travel plans.
But that’s the thing about big cities. They take their time to grow on you but it’s worth the try!
Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City
There is something for everyone in this wonderful city. Shopaholics, history-nerds and cultural geeks will all have something to do to keep themselves occupied and happy during their visit to Ho Chi Minh City.
There are many tourist spots across the city but if you can’t fit them all into your plan, here are three must-visit spots to check out during your stay:
1. Cu Chi Tunnels
This is something that will excite the history geeks and thrill-seekers alike. These tunnels are part of a huge museum that provides an immersive experience of what underground life was like for Vietnamese soldiers during the war.
This is a massive site spanning over 120 kilometres and has underground tunnels just the way they were during the 1948 war era. When you enter the tunnel, you watch a short film that tells you all you need to know.
You can explore the narrow areas of the tunnels which have been slightly widened now that they serve a tourist purpose. It’s a roughly 0.1 km crawling adventure- people with claustrophobia and breathing issues are advised to take a rain check on this one.
You can enjoy the other attractions on-site such as the unique themed restaurant that lets you get a taste of what the soldiers survived on during the war and the shooting range.
2. Binh Tay Market
Very unlike the similar-sounding Ben Thanh market, this is a place that will introduce you to and let you relish some of the finest natural produce of Vietnam. This is also known as Cholon Chinatown and it is dedicated to catering a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood and meat to the localities.
Other interesting things that you find here include wholesale handicrafts, textiles and so on. For the foodie in you, explore unique Vietnamese-Chinese cuisine that will titillate your taste buds such as com tam and Banh boe.
Visit during morning hours for exquisite breakfast options and starting the day right with some fresh fruit and a long walk.
3. Cao Dai Temple
Cultural tourism is an inevitable aspect of your visit to any Asian country and this temple is unique in every aspect. Cao Dai is a religion that encompasses many others to establish that the singular message of all religions is tolerance and peace.
Built in 1955, this faith is a unique blend of Confucianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Taoism. This temple welcomes tourists to learn more and explore the faith. The temple is quite a sight to behold and has several architectural aesthetics that reflect South Asian elements rather boldly (think flying dragons).
Things to know before visiting Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is a busy and happening city that lacks the old town charm. It is simply too happening to have storybook backdrops and serene lakes but it has every element necessary to make it grow on you soon enough. If you plan to visit this city, here are some things you need to keep in mind:
1. Weather Conditions
Do your research before you travel and look at several weather forecasts before packing. Light clothes with a few mildly warm clothing are advisable. Carry (or buy) umbrellas and flip flops if you’re travelling from April to October. Plastic ponchos are a great way to deal with some of the storms where umbrellas just don’t suffice.
Get your dollars exchanged to Dongs soon enough and you’ll get the best rates in the city around District 1. Cash is important and you can’t rely on your cards for everything even though cashless transactions are popular and on the rise.
It’s a big city and it has big-city problems like any other. Serious crimes aren’t common and you don’t need to worry about them but caution goes a long way. However, petty thefts are common in market areas, including snatching and pickpocketing, so keep a stronghold on your phone (you will need the maps for navigation)
4. Resist the Cyclos Temptation
It looks fancy alright but it’s rather uncomfortable and you’ll be scorching during the journey under the ruthless sun (or worse, a downpour) and will most certainly be paying way more than you should because you are a tourist. Cheap bike taxi and cab options are available throughout the city.