HCMC: The Good, the Bad, and the Gross

I have been in Ho Chi Minh City for over two months now. I’m currently finishing up my TESOL course and have recently landed a job back in Seoul. If all goes as planned, I’ll be back in Korea a week from today. In all honesty, I’m ready to move on. It hasn’t been an easy two months, and I’ve found myself having a lot of mixed feelings while living in HCMC. Although I usually try to keep my posts upbeat and positive, I’m just going to tell it like it is in this one.

First off, Ho Chi Minh City is dirty. In multiple ways. From garbage that lines the streets to the roaches and rats that scurry along the sidewalks to the air pollution, I find myself often grossed out. And covered in a thin layer of grime. Even worse, t’s not uncommon to pass a street stall to see the server cleaning under her toenails with a toothpick. At parks, people can often be seen picking creepy-crawlies out of each other’s hair. And lest I leave out that it is completely acceptable to sit in public with your fingers up your nose for endless amounts of time. I only wish I were exaggerating. Yet, no one seems to look at them funny so I guess it’s the norm.

Cute kids… dirty streets.

Even dirtier than the lack of hygiene in this city are the old expat men. Last night, a friend and I went out for drinks but ended up having a lot of trouble finding a decent bar. Each time we entered a pub, we quickly walked out after seeing the clientele. Ninety-five percent of patrons were almost always middle aged, overweight, balding white guys and their tiny, young Vietnamese girlfriends/wives/ladies of the night. I could go into this more, but I won’t. You can make your own assumptions as to how this is dirty. I should mention here that I was in fact fortunate enough to have met some really nice expats, who were incredibly cool to take me around the city and offer some advice. Sadly, it seems these expats are the minority.

It’s not just the expat men that can be crude, though. There were plenty of days that I stayed inside my apartment so that I wouldn’t have to deal with being ‘tsked’ at like an animal or being eye-raped by the local men. I can understand the staring by the Vietnamese people, as I have very fair skin, but some of them can be completely inappropriate. I once had a man come up to me, grab my hand, and started to kiss it. Even as I shouted at him and gave him the finger, he proceeded to laugh.

I’ve also come to detest bargaining. From shopping to getting around the city, bargaining is something that I’ve had to do on a daily basis. I’m aware of the fact that because of my skin color, I will almost always be ripped off in countries like Vietnam. Because of this, I know I have to bargain hard. Yes, it’s part of the culture but that doesn’t make me like it any more. Just give me the fair price and let me be on my way!!

Despite these things I don’t like about this city (note I said city and not country), there are a few things about it that I’ve really enjoyed.

First, the food. Words can’t describe it. The Vietnamese have mastered gastronomy in every possible way. I can honestly say that I have yet to eat a meal that I didn’t like. Contrary to popular thought, Vietnamese cuisine is more than just pho– noodle soup. It’s a bit of everything. Some of my favorite dishes are: Bun Cha Hanoi, a grilled pork sweet soup served with fresh greens and rice noodles, Com Ga Hoi An, a rice dish topped with shredded chicken, herbs, and onions, and Com Tam, marinated pork ribs served over broken rice. All dishes use very basic ingredients but they are used so well that the dishes are simply delectable, forcing every taste bud to excite upon the first bite. Just as amazing as the taste of the food is the price. Each of the previously mentioned dishes costs about 40,000 dong ($2USD) or less.

Bun Cha Hanoi… heaven in a bowl.

Cafes are also another wonderful aspect of Ho Chi Minh City. As the Vietnamese love their coffee, cafes can be found on just about every block of the city. From a simple set up of plastic chairs and low tables to extravagant layouts in colonial homes, there’s a cafe for just about everyone. My favorite type of cafe in HCMC is what I refer to as the garden cafe. These cafes usually feature beautifully adorned open-air courtyards with fountains, bird cages, and lush greenery. In fact, I’m currently writing this post from the beautiful courtyard of Cafe Thoai Vien in District 1, just around the corner from my guesthouse.

Cafe Thoai Vien is an oasis of serenity. And a great place to get strong coffee.

Cafes like these can be found all throughout Ho Chi Minh City.

The drinks that are served up at HCMC cafes are just as raveable as the food. Sure, you can purchase a delicious Cafe Sua Da (iced coffee with condensed milk) on the street for about 10,000 dong ($0.50) but they always seem to taste better in the beautiful surroundings of garden cafes. Cafes also usually offer various fruit juices and smoothies. I’ve become obsessed with fresh dragon fruit juice and can’t start my day with out one. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten as much fruit in my life as I’ve been eating over the past two months.

Affogato- vanilla ice cream in traditional Vietnamese coffee- is always a favorite treat at the cafes of Ho Chi Minh City.

Finally, the thing that I like most about Ho Chi Minh City is the warmth of the people (when they’re not being sketchy). The Vietnamese are known for their smiles and visitors to HCMC will almost always be greeted with lots of them from the locals. Yes, the Vietnamese smile can mean many different things but as long as you’re not pissing anyone off, you can interpret the gesture as a friendly one. It’s one of the few things that has kept me from completely disliking this city and I have to admit that having someone smile at me brightens my day here.

Children are often quite eager to approach me just to say hello or smile.

The Vietnamese smile is an icon in itself. (Photo Credit: Bertrand Linet)

So… could I see myself living here for an extended amount of time? I don’t think so. No. But, I suppose that it has been an interesting experience nonetheless. I do wish that I had been able to travel to other parts of Vietnam, as I’m quite sure I would have enjoyed them more. Still, I’ve met some great people, eaten really well, and skipped winter, if nothing else. Now, I’m ready for a fresh start in Korea and another year of adventures and new experiences.