The One City You Absolutely Must Experience During Your Semester Abroad in Asia

Having just returned from a semester abroad in Singapore, which is situated in the prime location to travel to and from the many exciting places in Southeast Asia, I’ve developed a decent understanding of what each popular travel destination has to offer. As I never really spent a long amount of time in any place other than Singapore, I don’t have enough insights to give the full low-down on all of them. However, I did spend 2-4 days in the most common tourist locations nearby and there is one place that stood out well above the rest. Here’s how Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) City in Vietnam became my favourite place in the world and why you MUST make room for it in your travel plans.

1. Nightlife that never sleeps.

After some issues with our visas*, we arrived to Saigon well into the evening on a Friday. Fortunately, that was no obstacle for a city that seemingly never sleeps. By the recommendation of our Vietnamese friend from home, we took to the Bui Vien Walking Street, or Pho Di Bo as the locals call it, to start our night. A popular destination for both locals and tourists, it is literally a street covered with people walking along it, restaurants liberally extending their premises with small plastic tables and chairs, and somehow even a few cars managing to drive safely through. Unlike Canada, where your night has a curfew, by law, at 2:00AM, there is no such thing as “last call” here. You can pick up a drink anytime and bring it with you anywhere, and you most certainly will not be the only one doing it.

*FYI: you need a visa to get into Vietnam (*facepalm*). Yes, Canadian passports are very strong, but don’t overlook each country’s visa standards just because of this; you’ll end up stranded in the Bangkok airport for 8 hours waiting for your 15x surcharged rush visas to arrive in your email. Still worth it though.

2. The vibrant and exciting streets.

I loved Ho Chi Minh City so much that I ended up visiting it twice during my exchange. For both visits I stayed in ridiculously cheap and absolutely stunning Airbnb’s in District 1, which is near the city centre. I myself am a city girl and HCMC has the most exciting and unreal streets I’ve ever seen. There is a non-stop flow of bikes and motorcycles rushing by alongside cars that don’t abide by any traffic laws. Crossing the street in Vietnam is terrifying until you realize that the reason it is safe is because everyone disobeys the traffic laws in the same way. As long as you maintain your pace and don’t hesitate, everyone pretty much makes room for everyone else in the most amazing and efficient and complex way possible.

3. Food!!!

I can’t stress this point enough. If you think you kind of like the pho or banh mi sandwiches you’ve had in Canada, wait ’til you get to Vietnam. My boyfriend has always claimed that he hates Asian food, yet he was the one constantly leading our bi-hourly hunts for another one of the city’s hundreds of banh mi stalls. Huynh Hoa Banh Mi has the best sandwiches in town. While most street vendors price their banh mi sandwiches at 20,000VND, or about 1.18CAD (yes, $1!!), here you pay a small 18,000VND premium for the most famous sandwich in the country. With mountains of freshly cut meats stacked as high as they can go, watching this place churn out dozens of sandwiches per minute is a treat in itself. Also, you can get a bowl of pho for $3 at almost every corner in the city. It’s good everywhere.

4. Efficiency and friendliness to tourists – as long as you’re careful.

HCMC is a very popular tourist destination, being the country’s capital. Thankfully, it hasn’t suffered a similar fate to Thailand (at least, it didn’t seem so in my experience), where the overwhelming influx of tourists has led to higher prices and many intricate tourist scams. The best part of HCMC as a tourist is that things are really close together and easy to get to. Trying to see all the main sites of Bali, for example, in two days was just completely unrealistic; things are hours apart even without the brutal traffic. However, not only are all of the main sites in HCMC very close together, with most of them being in District 1, but Uber (now acquired by Grab in SE Asia) is ridiculously efficient and cheap. Be very careful though, as you should be anywhere you travel. Pickpocketing and circulation of fake currencies is certainly not uncommon, so you have to be incredibly aware of these things, especially as a foreigner.

5. Shopping!

Shopping in the indoor and outdoor markets in Vietnam can be a really fun activity. You can get some really great deals if you’ve got your bargaining game down, as well as some really convincing fake brand name goods. My friends and I returned to Singapore with tons of new and cheap fun things we didn’t know we needed – from active wear, to trendy clothes, to a “Gucci” wallet for every member of our families.

I’ll be honest; HCMC doesn’t offer as much compared to other nearby travel destinations in SE Asia in terms of really breathtaking sightseeing spots or super interesting tours. However, you can easily find these a bit more north in other hot spots within Vietnam, such as Mui Ne, Sapa, and Da Nang. What I really loved about Saigon was the lifestyle and culture I was able to adopt in my brief visits. I felt like I had the chance to really experience life as a local, rather than as a tourist, and I absolutely fell in love with the culture. It is definitely a place I will be again in the future, and if you’re fortunate enough to go on exchange in a nearby country, do not miss out on this gem.