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Before meeting a friend to fly north to Nha Trang, I spend several days wandering the chaotic yet energizing bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's economic engine and a world away from the more stately, restrained capital of Hanoi to the north. Ho Chi Minh—still called Saigon by most locals—is Manhattan to Hanoi's Washington, D.C. Here, the streets swim and buck with mopeds, cyclos—a clumsy bicycle retrofitted with a rear double seat—trucks, and the occasional car. Crossing any street takes a leap of faith that eventually becomes the only practical way of moving from point A to point B. Roadside billboards trumpet the social successes of the ruling Communist Party—education! industry! endeavor!—and evoke nostalgic memories of the revered Ho Chi Minh, or just Uncle Ho to most. Under his benevolent grandfatherly gaze, exquisite young women glide by on bicycles, their conical hats slung over their backs and their graceful ao dais trailing behind like the wake of a motorboat.
Although an impoverished country, Vietnam is far from a Third World traveling experience. Ho Chi Minh's downtown neighborhood of District 1 boasts a plethora of hotels (from ultra-cheap hostels to luxury digs), restaurants, and tour operators. And while the tourist infrastructure does leave a lot to be desired, there's an army of entrepreneurial local businesses competing enthusiastically to organize city tours as well as any ongoing itinerary. Many of the best hotels are simple family homes converted to accommodate guests, a perfect blend of regional hospitality and hard-headed commercial reality. Budget travelers should be able to get by on $25 to $30 a day, while those wanting to splurge a little more on mid-range hotels and swankier restaurants should plan on spending around $75 for food, accommodation, and entertainment.
Be warned that Vietnam's enterprising streak may take you to random markets, stores, or even hotels merely because there's a kickback in it for your taxi or cyclo driver. If forced into such a corner, be polite, be firm, or even play them at their own game—haggle your way to favorable resolution. When I first arrived my airport taxi driver tried to drop me at the wrong hotel, even though I'd requested the specific hotel where my friend will stay several days later. I politely refused to pay until he took me to my desired drop-off; end of story, no hard feelings.
Some guidebooks will tell you to avoid navigating Ho Chi Minh by cyclo bike: they're too dangerous in the city's frenetic traffic, you're too vulnerable to opportunistic drivers.... Despite these warnings, on day one I bite the bullet and secure the services of a persistent cyclo cabbie named Hinh to show me the sights. At $20 for the day it's hardly an exorbitant fee, though I don't doubt I paid top tourist dollar for his pedal power.
Being chauffeured around the city by a toiling driver very quickly makes you feel an awkward colonial, and is probably not an arrangement I'd choose to repeat. However, it does afford me the chance to catch many of Ho Chi Minh's signature sights in the company of a knowledgeable local. We swing past the barbed-wire-topped walls of the old U.S. embassy from where the last U.S. personnel were evacuated in 1975 as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army closed in on the city. Hinh drops me at the harrowing War Remnants Museum (formerly the less impartial American War Crimes Museum), where blatant propaganda mixes with documents and artifacts from the bloody decade-long conflict. We stop at open-air markets where you can buy writhing snakes for soup, charms to confer good luck on your relatives, and toys crafted from empty soda cans. We walk the aisles of spices and fruit and homewares in bustling Ben Tay Market in Cholon, and pass the bobbing junks on black, black Saigon River. The river, a morass of pollution and sewage that looks to me like death, is actually a vital conduit of life and trade that links the city to the watery avenues of the Mekong Delta to the south.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication