Sitting in the shadow of the Santa Ynez Mountains tucked between the Santa Barbara Mission and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, the 100-year-old museum houses collections of mammals, birds, insects, and marine animals; a planetarium, several gardens; an auditorium; a research library; and a rotating exhibit (an exhibit of the history of botanical drawings were there when I visited).
Awe-struck, staring out the window, Ho Chi Minh City grabbed my attention the way a Saturday night drunken cat fight might: you shouldn't be enamored with it, but god is it mighty fun to watch from the sidelines. Reading travel blogs and guide books, HCMC is a polarizing city: you either love the frenetic, do-what-you-want regardless of safety, beep-beep of motorbikes or you want to run away from the sun beats down heat to the mountain coolness of DaLat. Typically, I don't like cities. They're dirty, crowded, and I can never see the sky. Ho Chi Minh City is all of those things. On paper, I shouldn't like it. But for some reason, this place charmed me. I think it can be summed up in one phrase: the randomness of shit.
You should go to Ho Chi Minh City. You might love it or you might hate it. It is hot. The noise is relentless. And the backpacker district is full of women offering to jerk your boyfriend off. But how different from San Francisco is that? At least, there wasn't someone covered in blood and pus reeking of urine in the bus terminal.
Hands down the best item of food that I ate was in Ho Chi Minh: side of the road dumplings introduced to us by my cousin Jeff, who lives and teaches in Ho Chi Minh City. Food is abundant and cheap everywhere in Viet Nam. Mark Wiens at Migrationology has an excellent guide to the 25 foods to try in Ho Chi Minh City. Bookmark it before you leave or download the free e-book version.
With its lack of people dressed up in colorful costumes decorated with pink stuffed animals, you might come to the conclusion that HCMC lacks good people watching, but one of my favorite things to do was grab an iced coffee (more about that later) and watch people. I watched people exercising at night, processing chicken transactions, making out in parks, playing hackysack with a shuttlecock. It was fantastic. HCMC never lacked for a scene of people doing things that I found absolutely fascinating in its simultaneous mundanity and otherness.
Architecture and Green Spaces
With a blend of French colonial villas, modern steel towers, and manicured green spaces, Ho Chi Minh City's architecture displays the mixed heritage of the largest city in Viet Nam. While Ho Chi Minh City might lack in specific architectural wonders, it's the overall appeal of the 68 floor Bitexco tower next to a decrepit colonial villa and three blocks away a green oasis replete with benches, neon water fixtures, and pagodas.
Specific buildings to check out: Bitexco Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, and Ho Chi Minh City Hall.
I have no pictures to represent one of the best reasons to go to Viet Nam: coffee. There's either a cafe or a woman in a matching floral patterned pant suit selling coffee. My drink of choice Cà phê sữa đá, high octane, coarsely ground coffee iced with a large portion of condensed milk. Oh, and a straw. Always with the straw. If you're not a coffee drinker, Viet Nam is full of delicious juices: watermelon, passion fruit, sugarcane. But really, relax in an air conditioned cafe with wifi and a cup of what might be the best damn coffee of your life.
The motorbike. A vehicle which blazes a exhaust filled line in the sand for travelers and travel bloggers alike. Read any travel guide or blog and you will hear about the horrendous traffic in HCMC. Understandable. Rush hour, crossing a roundabout for the first time and you make it across without an accident, you feel like you should get a gold medal. The trick my cousin taught me: put your hand up, walk slowly and diagonally, don't speed up and only stop if there's a car not a motorbike.
My favorite moments in the city were riding on the back of my cousin's motorbike. I loved threading through traffic, the musical horn notes blasting over the unbiquitous electronic store EDM, and taking in the sight of a guy with his entire family on his bike plus several dogs and possibly a mattress. There is no end to what you can fit on a motorbike.
My Cousin Jeff
Okay. Not everyone is going to want to visit my cousin Jeff, but he's a really awesome guy! After almost five years of not seeing him, this trip was a great time to reconnect. Plus, he was able to show us around a bit. It helps to have someone a bit in the know. Get your own cousin Jeff!
The Randomness of Shit
Asking my boyfriend what I should I include in this post, he said, "experiencing the randomness of shit you see between points a and b." I could not put this more eloquently. Choose a direction, go and see what you find. This really brought some of our best moments in Ho Chi Minh City. Sit down at a random bar or cafe and watch events unfold.
Random moments: coming across this food photo shoot near Ben Thanh Market, people exiting Catholic mass en masse on motorbike, massages at bars, people exercising in parks at 9 pm. It was wonderful to watch it unfold.