By Megan Schwartz, ISA Vietnam Site Specialist
1.) The Cu Chi Tunnels
A short bus ride outside of Ho Chi Minh City lie the Cu Chi Tunnels. This immense underground network of tunnels served as one of the Viet Cong’s defense systems during the Vietnam War. For years, the Viet Cong used these tunnels to transport supplies, relay communications, set up booby traps, hide from enemy soldiers, and even house troops.
In areas that faced heavy amounts of bombings from the U.S., entire villages would move into the tunnels, setting up kitchens, living spaces, and even hospitals underground. The narrow and dark tunnels get so small at many points that in order to fit through them I had to crawl on my belly.
We only toured about one hundred meters of the tens of thousands of miles worth of tunnels, but even seeing just that amount was enough to shock me. To think that soldiers and citizens stayed in these claustrophobic, damp, dark tunnels for sometimes years was extremely eye opening and impactful.
Squeezing in one of the many hidden tunnels
2.) The Ben Thanh Market
No visit to Ho Chi Minh City is complete without a trip to the Ben Thanh Market. Although the market may seem overwhelming when you first enter, there is a method to the madness, and in no time you’ll catch on to how the swarm of stalls are organized.
My bartering skills were sharpened while wandering the stalls filled with clothing, souvenirs, trinkets, shoes, and handbags. In the middle of the market, the aisles are lined with snacks, teas, spices, dried food, and my particular favorite (and personal weakness) – Vietnamese coffee. Towards the outside of the market lie the food stalls.
Although, I’ll admit, I don’t know the names of almost any of the dishes I sampled while in the Ben Thanh Market, everything was affordable and delicious- no wonder Food & Wine named the market one of the best places in the world to eat street food!
It was a neat and authentic experience to sit next to the locals who also visit the market while we savored the same dishes they were. Of course, don’t forget to wash down your meal with a cup of ca phe su da (traditional Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk).
As a self-proclaimed foodie, seeing that the #1 rated Ho Chi Minh City restaurant on TripAdvisor boasted a 3-course pre-fixe menu for under 560,000 VND (less than $25 USD) was more than enough to get me in the door. But the experience that came next was nothing like I could have imagined.
Noir is a dining in the dark experience. After gathering some information (and playing a quick game) in the beautiful lobby, your server takes you by the hand and leads you to your table. While holding hands with your server might not be the course of action in your typical restaurant, in Noir it is a necessity, because your table is in a room that is pitch black. I’m talking can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face-total-and-complete darkness.
The experience of locating your fork without being able to see it, finding the food on your plate without any light (I may or may not have put my hand in some soup), and trying to guess what you’re eating based on taste and texture alone was absolutely fascinating. To make the night even better, the service was outstanding, and the quality and taste of the food left me in awe.
There is a reason this restaurant has 1,050 5-star ratings on TripAdvisor. While it may be a bit of a splurge, it’s definitely a worthwhile experience.
4.) The War Remnants Museum
I have had only a handful of experiences that have truly impacted me in a profound way, and visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City was one of them. The museum does an incredible job of showing the Vietnam War, or the “American War” as it’s known in Vietnam, from a point of view that we might not be used to, or even aware of, in the U.S.
I walked into the museum with a certain perspective of the war, and left with a completely different understanding and perception. No matter how you feel about the events that took place in Vietnam between 1955 and 1975, I strongly urge you to take an afternoon to explore the museum with an open mind.
5.) Street Food
The food in Vietnam is absolutely a contender for “Best Cuisine” in my books. The local dishes are fresh and packed full of flavor, and I found the street food to be particularly incredible. Every bowl of pho, every spoonful of soup, every piece of grilled meat or spring roll or bahn mi was absolutely mouthwatering. Half the time I didn’t even know what I was eating – I simply sat down on the tiny plastic stools scattering the sidewalk, smiled at the vendor, and they’d bring me over a bowl of whatever they were cooking that day.
While it’s important to be mindful while eating street food to avoid getting sick, taking advantage of the tasty (and insanely affordable) dishes served by the vendors is just another amazing aspect of studying abroad in Ho Chi Minh City. I will never forget the giant bowl of pho I ate at a plastic table on a sidewalk in Saigon – truly one of the best meals of my entire life, and it cost me a whopping $0.43!