We continued our stay in Ho Chi Minh at a serviced apartment towards the south side of District 1 by agreeing to a 3 week stay. Our host Henry showed us a nice, small apartment down one of the many side streets in the city. Apartment might be a strong word for it – it’s really just a large bedroom with a bathroom. For anyone looking to rent in Ho Chi Minh I’d recommend checking out a few places first, either via a local agent or Airbnb. We liked the location of this apartment and at approx $400USD per month it’s a cheap way to stay here. Included with the room is a cleaner every week and laundry service.
Be aware though, the service probably won’t match the offer made on the advert for the room, we never had a twice weekly laundry service or a cleaner three times a week. Also, if you’re over 6ft tall like myself, you’re probably not going to fit on a toilet at the right angle – our toilet was installed so close to the wall I couldn’t sit on it properly – I won’t go into detail on the necessary adjustments required. The Vietnamese also don’t seem to favor separate shower cubicles (apart from in the nicer hotels) so you’ll need to remember to move the toilet roll before starting up the shower!
With stability in location for a few weeks I was quite excited to put some routine around my life. Lou has worked from home or remotely for a few years now and, at times I’ve really struggled with the adjustment. Getting a physical workout, meal times and switching my work brain on and off accordingly were some of the challenges. Also, from a relationship perspective it’s sometimes tough to know when to bring up work versus personal time – there were times at meals when I’d interrupt Lou to blurt out some random work thought that popped into my brain. For me, it’s been a slow and frustrating adjustment and I’ve found myself a bit lost, lacking my energy and direction. The remote work lifestyle is a dream but it comes with its own set of unique challenges.
With my craving for routine I found a gym just around the corner from our place for about $16USD per month so I could squeeze in a daily workout. The gym was old, smelly and played some very loud techno dance music complete with Asian lyrics. Add to that a diverse range of middle age Vietnamese people working out and you can build some very interesting mental images. I took some personal comedy from watching men with pot bellies removing their shirts to flex in the mirrors after having done a few bicep curls. Different cultures fascinate me and they can be well evidenced in a local gym. Having said that the people in the gym were friendly and courteous – a mark of a good gym in my eyes.
Irritatingly, personal space here and some personal hygiene considerations don’t apply. Many men and women think nothing of coughing their guts up, even if this is whilst they are preparing food for us. I guess being English and somewhat polite, the culture and habits really are the opposite of how I was raised.
My other routine should come as no surprise – basketball. I scoped out a scrimmage run for expats in the city so Lou and myself headed down to the South Saigon International School in District 7 of the city. The area is very westernised, the roads are much quieter and feel like middle class suburbia. There are many large malls and the school had some fantastic facilities. We played in 2hr sessions which allowed us to run around and work off some energy, if you’re in the city it’s a great location and way to stay in shape. If you want to run just check out the Facebook page, the court is booked twice a week and costs less than $3USD per person each time.
Ho Chi Minh city is very intense at times. Reportedly there is a population of about 11million people here and about 5million scooters. The constant drone of scooters, horns and street sellers does get tiring. We decided to take a trip to the Mekong Delta and get out of the city for a few days. The opportunity to see the floating markets and escape the city were too appealing.
We booked a coach tour to take us down to Mekong Delta with an overnight stay. The journey down is between 2 – 3 hours. We were expecting a quiet paradise in the delta but what we got was nearly as hectic as Ho Chi Minh! The area is very built up, traffic is not as bad as the city but it did surprise us. I enjoyed getting onto a boat and stopping at some interesting destinations, we got to see a variety of rice products being made and walk round a fruit farm. Our hotel for one night was supposedly a one-star hotel but we were pleasantly surprised to find it better equipped than our serviced apartment and the hotels in Ho Chi Minh where we stayed. It was a new building with nice rooms and a decent shower cubicle. We could of stayed longer!
In the evening we were dropped off at a night food market in the town of Can Tao where we ate some delicious street food. Given what we paid for the tour (about $25USD each) it was pretty good value although very much a set tour on the main tourist areas. I know Lou loves to get off the beaten track but sadly this was not that type of tour. Having said that, our excitement at the street food made up for this – grilled rice paper rolls stuffed with chicken and vegetables were the peak of street food for me, Lou and her quest for exciting food has certainly rubbed off on me!
Back in Ho Chi Minh, one other highlight for me was a dinner that Lou booked as a surprise. Noir restaurant is unlike any other dining experience we’ve ever had and worth a stop whilst you’re in the city. The concept is quite simple and the clue is in the title – you eat your meal in complete darkness. Pitch black. No ambient light. Nothing. The restaurant employs visually impaired staff to serve and makes the meal as much about the experience as the food itself. I loved eating in the dark for a number of reasons. Firstly, nobody could see if I spilt food down me (I did). Secondly, your mobile phone and watches are put in a locker before you eat, this has the effect of making time pass differently and putting the onus on conversation without distractions – very important in this day of smartphones and short attention spans. Finally, I loved the fact that Lou couldn’t see me! Whilst she was talking I could be slumped in my chair, have my eyes closed or making faces at her (I did all of those). Only afterward in chatting with the owner did I discover they have infrared cameras to watch the dining area – that would have made a great video!
Overall I really enjoyed the city and it was a welcome change of pace from the beaches of the Philippines. It was great to get connected and do some work whilst drinking coffee at the fantastic cafes. Best of all though, the street food in Ho Chi Minh is fantastic. We ate some truly awesome food at children’s picnic tables on the side of the streets with main courses costing $2 – $3USD! If you come here this has to be the way to go, every other blog we read advises to head where there are a lot of Vietnamese people already eating and I couldn’t agree more. Our apartment backed onto a street of great choice when it came to street food and only one restaurant topped street food – the aforementioned Noir.
Ho Chi Minh is not a long term tourist destination and a few of the travelers we spoke to were just passing through for a day or two, doing bus tours outside of the city. Having said that, Lou was able to meet with some of the remote working expat community (also referred to as digital nomads) in the city and this appears to be thriving. With a great choice of places to work, the cost of living and the excitement of a big city I can see why.
I enjoyed Ho Chi Minh and I felt like we were able to get off the tourist trail and experience day to day life in a new city, something we’re aiming to do more as we travel. Personally I wouldn’t live here for a long period unless I had an exciting earning opportunity but it was a great introduction to Vietnam. Time for us to hit the road and see what the rest of the country has to offer!