Visiting Vietnam for a short holiday is far different to living here. Unless you have an insider’s view, that is. Most people only come to Ho Chi Minh City (otherwise known as Saigon) for a few days at the beginning or end of their trip. They tick off the usual activities like Independence Palace (also known as Reunification Palace), The War Remnants Museum, Cu Chi Tunnels, Ben Thanh Market and a food tour, but while these are interesting, once you’ve done them, that’s it. My favourite things to do in Ho Chi Minh City are very different experiences and the type of activities you can do time and time again…
Early morning and late afternoon, Ho Chi Minh City’s parks come alive as the cooler air entices local residents from their homes and offices. Head to any city park and you have two choices: Join in the with one of the many outdoor activities or sit and watch the efforts of others with a cooling drink.
I complete a few energetic laps around the quiet, shaded paths, immune to the morning traffic just a short distance away. The regulars smile and greet me with a cheery wave and a nod of approval. I must be local if I’ve discovered the cheapest place in town to get in shape.
As I complete each circuit, I marvel at the grace of the Tai Chi ladies embracing the invisible waves of energy, the elegance of the ballroom dancers as they trip the light fantastic, the dexterity of the groups effortlessly kicking the Jianzi (Vietnamese hacky-sack); and the enthusiasm of the 50 or so women, shaking their behinds to a blaring boom box.
Pulse rate up and beads of perspiration marking my effort, I seek out the solitude of an empty park bench. A vigorous game of badminton competes for my attention with a wiry old man completing a set of several dozen chin-ups without breaking a sweat. His elderly partner is an old hand on the mountain climber, energetically chatting with her friends on the surrounding machines. The gathering is not just about exercise; it’s a community occasion.
I wave goodbye as I head for home, safe in the knowledge they’ll all be there tomorrow when I make my way back.
Craft Beers and Shuffleboard
Just four short years ago, the beer scene here in Ho Chi Minh was sorely lacking. Admittedly it was dirt cheap, costing less than 25 cents for a local fresh beer and 80 cents for a lacklustre, mass-produced lager. On a hot day, no-one seemed to mind too much, but on a special night out, it was hard to get excited about the meagre offerings.
Beer lovers can now rejoice. Everything has changed, Ho Chi Minh City is now one of the hottest scenes for craft brews in Asia. No less than 14 innovative brewers collectively produce over 100 world class beers combining the creativity of U.S. and European craftsmen with unique local ingredients. Everything from a light, refreshing chilli cider to a jasmine-infused, award-winning IPA and coconut, coffee porter. Prices are higher than the bland commercial selection, ranging from $3.50 to $5.50, but they’re still a fraction of what we’d pay back home.
Besides the many craft beer events that take place in the city, our favourite night of the week is our craft beer and shuffleboard escapades at a fantastic little bar called Malt. 24 different craft beers on tap and a heap more bottled brews in the fridge provide ample variety for our taste buds. As the reigning women’s shuffleboard champion, my slick moves improve even further after a couple of my favourite Fuzzy Logic – Saigon Blondes. A North American version of bowls, the game has enormous potential to become Australia’s new favourite pastime. If only I could fit one in my suitcase on my next visit home.
Martial Arts and Mystical Temples
In a small, unpretentious temple, set back off a busy District 3 thoroughfare, men in black channel mystical forces as they hone their combat skills every afternoon around 5p.m. The martial art is Nam Huynh Dao (Vietnamese Kung Fu) and the temple is called Nam Chon.
The warriors make a formidable sight, dressed in black, faces set in stone, their forearms covered with metal bracelets that clang in unison as they complete each move. Younger combatants watch in awe as the masters leap metres into the air, twisting and turning into seemingly impossible positions to perfect their moves.
There’s no seating or visitors’ area, you just stand at the gate, staying out of the way of the worshippers seemingly oblivious to all the action.
There’s nothing like feeding your creative side to lower your stress levels. Why not join in with one of the many cooking classes held across town? They’re not just for tourists. There are several ongoing courses where you can build your talents in Vietnamese, Japanese or Continental cuisine. Or how about pottery, leatherwork, painting, life drawing or craft classes? Locals teach some classes, but many are developed and delivered by aspiring expats, eager to share their skills in their new home and boost their income.
HCMC is truly an international city. The broad mix of nationalities who call it home has also encouraged the formation of many sporting clubs. Missing your Aussie Rules football? No problems, the Saigon Swans organise regular matches. Are you a runner? Hash House Harriers have a weekly meet-up. There are at least seven cricket clubs and a thriving darts competition. Even netball and softball tournaments make a regular appearance. And, if you’re not into team sports, Yoga, dance classes and Zumba are all now available to improve fitness and eliminate your stress.
If the heat and humidity is getting to you, visit one of the ten public pools open around the city. Swim a few laps or just go for a splash. At an average price of $1-2, it’s a cheap, relaxing day out. Want more luxury? Most of the 5-star hotels in town have excellent pools and will allow non-guests to buy day passes for between $10 and $30. Some include access to their sauna and other facilities.
The Sky’s the Limit
After a hard day at the office (cafe, park, restaurant, pool) head to one of the many sky bars around town. Sip on a cocktail and watch as the city lights up, giving you a whole new perspective on the crazy metropolis below.
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