Ho Chi Minh City though fresh eyes: A first-timer's experience of Vietnam

PHOTO: City Nomads

An electric city pulsating with energy, Ho Chi Minh charms with its colonial architecture, rich Vietnamese culture and a young spirit that we simply can't get enough of. This summer, with air ticket prices soaring, we hit up Vietnam's largest economic, cultural and political hub for a more pocket-friendly getaway from Singapore.

My brain almost drew a blank at the mention of Ho Chi Minh City, which sadly never made it to my bucket list filled with cultural destinations in Europe. But perhaps living in Asia is like a camera's focal distance - the closer you get, the blurrier the image becomes. We seem to pay less attention to the countries around us, never truly immersing ourselves and appreciating the culture. This trip. we made an effort to really observe and listen to this bustling city and its various residents.

My first thought driving up to our accommodation was that this city shares the Asian familiarity of home with its busy streets but still reels us in with a more relaxed pace of life, and a happening indie vibe.  Here's what I found out about Ho Chi Minh City:

Counting Motorbikes On Your Daily Stride

PHOTO: City Nomads

When we met up with a friend who is a current resident in the city, he described the streets as "chaotic, but it is a slow chaos". Here, the primary mode of transport is humble two-wheelers. Contributing to 85 per cent of the total vehicles in the country, chances are that you'll come across motorbikes and scooters more so on the road (and sidewalks) than cars.

We found that there's no need to be afraid of crossing streets. The best way to go about this is by raising your arms and walking slowly and carefully instead of making a dash across.

Driving etiquette is also quite unique; Vietnamese motorists use their horns at intervals to alert other drivers and pedestrians on the road. Ride-hailing app Grab mostly employs cars here, but you can also get on Vietnam's famous motorbike taxis - which sometimes drive in the opposite direction of the traffic, but will get you to your destination in time, with the lingering effects of an adrenaline rush.

High-End Restaurants, Street Stalls, and A Hot Bar Scene 

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If you thought we are spoilt for choice back here in Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City is equally exciting. Whether you're looking for a high-end restaurant or a street stall, the city and its people serve up outstanding gastronomy at relatively affordable prices and an unpretentious ambience.

Dive in the classic, comforting pho at your local street market, or head to high-end restaurants like Anan to enjoy impeccable dishes like One Bite Bún Cha and Cha Gio Spring Rolls. Korean and Japanese culinary culture has also made its presence felt in District 1, studded with neon signs of sushi restaurants, izakayas, and Korean BBQ.

PHOTO: City Nomads

There's plenty to fill up an itinerary for a night of bar hopping today. Speakeasy and hidden bars are still trending in Ho Chi Minh, and we like Firkin, Apothecary, The ATM Bar and Snuffbox if you're up for it.

Other bars such as Nhau Nhau and Madam Kew also draw a local crowd. Vietnam is beer drinking country, and in addition to Bia Saigon, locally brewed craft beer is also gaining steam. Look out for taprooms and beers from breweries like Heart of Darkness, Pasteur Street Brewing, and Winking Seal.

I'll Meet You By The Sidewalk

PHOTO: City Nomads

It's worth mentioning that the sidewalks of Saigon essentially function as a social hub for the locals. This is where the action happens - from street stalls to smaller humble local restaurants, to motorcycle parking, karate lessons and even barbers cutting hair.

The sidewalks provide the locals - from suited-up professionals to students - with a sense of community and a space to relax and unwind after a hard day at work. It's interesting to find alleys where the sidewalks would be built wider than the actual road, to accommodate this charming sidewalk culture.

Another spot that locals favour is by the river near the ferry terminals, where friends gather and where couples share a can of beer while admiring the beautiful scenery. Families would also make their way here to enjoy a family night out with the kids.

Gorgeous Historical Buildings 

PHOTO: City Nomads

Amongst the tall skyscrapers and the modern buildings, Ho Chi Minh's French-built colonial architecture stands out. Even as the city went through a major transformation to become a port city with a metropolitan centre, it retained its faded European look from its days as the capital of Cochinchina in the 1860s.

Apart from the well-crafted boulevards and the gorgeous arched windows, Vietnam's architecture is also unique in the sense that easily blends new, young and hip buildings with old school, residential and vintage buildings.

This is one thing I grew to admire about the city, how it effortlessly keeps its tradition blooming, whilst also making room for the modern and up-coming generation.

There was a sense of ease in Ho Chi Minh for us. Though life was moving at a fast -pace, there was room for pausing and unwinding in the social culture. It all felt very unpretentious; people were kind and understanding, both fine dining and street food was equally well-loved by the locals and there were tons to discover. We'll save some for our next trip!

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This article was first published in City Nomads.