By Laura Nalin
I’m not going to lie: when I first visited Ho Chi Minh City for the first time a few years ago, I wasn’t particularly impressed. Not only is it super spread out, but it’s hectic, full of grime and hard to get acquainted with. Little did I know that a little over one year later I would call this megacity my home, and I couldn’t be happier about this notion.
But, that wasn’t always the case. I was completely overwhelmed at first; I thought about leaving more times than I could count. Can you blame me, though? I’d relocated to the chaos from clean and serene New Zealand, a country that literally is home to more sheep than humans. It was an extreme adjustment to say the least.
It was within the moments of anguish and frustration combined with a bit of culture shock that I was able to discover I actually love Ho Chi Minh City. However, there were a few things that surprised me about Vietnam’s southern capital. Here’s a round-up:
1. It’s bigger than I realized
While I generally love exploring different pockets of a city, I admittedly stayed central when I visited Ho Chi Minh City for the first time. Little did I know there is so much more to this city beyond District 1. It’s a bit shocking, actually. There are a total of 14 various districts throughout town, but the most popular among expats are District 2, 3 and 7; District 4 is slowly gaining some traction. The infrastructure isn’t quite advanced enough to accommodate quick transit throughout town, but that’s what motorbikes are for. Which leads me to…
2. There is organization to the chaos
I refused to drive a motorbike for the first few months for the sheer reason I was terrified I’d literally crash and burn. I relied on Uber and Grab to get me everywhere, and vehemently denied that I would ever do otherwise. After awhile, I craved a bit more independence and rented out my own bike. Like most of my friends and colleagues had said, it was surprisingly easy to navigate the roads once I was in control. Although it looks absolutely mental, there is definitely an unspoken system in place.
3. The lack of safety precautions
While the mayhem makes sense to me now, something that has surprised me about Ho Chi Minh City on a regular basis is that people don’t really seem to be bothered by the welfare of themselves or others. I’m not sure what’s more shocking: young children on the backs of motorbikes sans helmets, children playing on the roadside blissfully unaware of the unpredictable traffic, the abundance of electrical wires haphazardly intertwined between the buildings or the fact that traffic lights are optional. It’s always an adventure, that’s for sure!
4. Nothing ever stays the same here
Like many cities throughout Asia, Ho Chi Minh City is dynamic and transforming. While there are certainly staple establishments within Ho Chi Minh City, I’m hesitant to get too attached to any particular shops or restaurants as there’s always a bout of uncertainty as to whether or not it’ll close down tomorrow and be converted into yet another Taiwanese bubble tea cafe within days. With that said, the historical architecture here is to die for - I certainly hope it remains!
5. I’ll truly never know this city like the back of my hand
The amount of times I have walked or driven down a random narrow alley, also known as a Hem, and discovered something that would otherwise go unnoticed is unfathomable. This happens at least twice a day. Nothing is as it appears in Ho Chi Minh City; I recently found out a building that resembles a bleak parking lot is actually home to one of Ho Chi Minh CIty's coolest cafes, an incredible modern-day speakeasy and a plethora of vintage shops. It’s pretty awesome to be living in a sense of wonder every day!
Laura is a 29-year-old serial expat who left the states in 2013 in search of a fresh perspective - a decision which opened more doors than she could’ve imagined. She’s a lover of mountains, spicy food, stand up comedy, and will never turn down a pizza. Laura is one of ITA's Writing & Content Ambassadors.
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- Learn More about ITA Ambassador, Laura Nalin
- Visit Vietnam Alumni Ambassador Corner
- Teach English in Vietnam: Country Profile
- Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Fact Sheet
- Expert Tips on What to Pack for Teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
- You Know You're in Ho Chi Minh City When...
- Saigon Nightlife: A Personal Tour of the Top Drinking Spots in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
- My Home Away from Home - Finding Housing in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam