Nov 20, 2022


Ho Chi Minh City

🇻🇳 Vietnam

I didn’t know what to expect with Ho Chi Minh City.01 It turns out, it’s way more built-up than Hanoi. Sidewalks, skyscrapers,02 brick and mortar stores that seemed massive compared to their single-room-box Hanoi counterparts. More westernized. That, and the air and parks were better.03

Strangely, while this solved some problems, it created others. Certainly walking around was way easier. We could walk on sidewalks, dodging mopeds only on rare occasion, and cross streets at crosswalks that actually meant something. But now, we found ourselves spending long stretches on big boulevards, next to the roar of four lanes of traffic rather than one. Grab’ing mopeds remained the best choice for getting around.

Some public art, even.

We spent some time in our stay hitting up the in-town Officially Mandated Tourist Activities (OMTAs). (Abiding by the decision we eventually reached with Hanoi, we skipped taking tour busses to any out-of-town OMTAs.) These included visits to ex-seat-of-government locations with impressively symmetric stuff…

…a quick jaunt through tourist markets and significant downtown architecture…

…one of the more famous local shrines…

One thing that was really starting to sink in was how influential Chinese culture has been in Asia's history. My schooling in the USA included only the faintest glimmer of Asian history, so I don't really know what influenced what / when / etc. Seeing ancient Korean written in Chinese characters, as well as Vietnamese, and also knowing how heavily Japanese still today borrows from China's writing system, I started to get the idea. It makes me wonder whether ancient Chinese culture is regarded the way the west thinks about Greek / Roman culture.

…and some local (though, yes, tourist-targeted) shows.

Top: Left: Couldn't take photos during, but this was kind of a music / dance / acrobatics performance featuring a bunch of props made of bamboo. My favorite. Bottom: Right: A water puppet show is one of those Vietnam bucket list things you're supposed to see. I think if you don't know what to expect it could potentially be so bizarre to be delightful. I was mostly confused (the whole thing was in Vietnamese).

The American War museum—again, their (appropriate) name for what we call the Vietnam War—was great for seeing a Vietnamese perspective on their own history. It was hard not to largely agree with them. I had forgotten how long the Vietnam War lasted (nearly 20 years) and for how long the USA was heavily involved (10 years). Many on-the-ground photos portray a fraction of the immense human suffering. I sort of can’t believe they welcome us as tourists a few decades later.

We also paid a visit the local art museum, ft. unexplained head on roof.

Top: Left: Random empty rooms. Bottom: Right: Kind of loved this: suggestion desk with nobody there, no pen, no paper, no box.

But mostly, we just hung out. Enjoyed the big city. Decompressed a bit after the experience overload from the last couple weeks.

Something funny I noticed is how relaxing it is to not be so worried about money all the time. Since I had just come off of six and a half years in grad school in a moderately expensive city (Seattle), where they pay you $25–35k / year04, thriftiness around everyday things like food was a deeply engrained habit. Doubly so now while traveling. Since things were so much cheaper here, it gave breathing room around every decision, and opened up new classes of activities. Something like ordering food delivery food was usually an extreme luxury, as it meant paying upwards of $20 for a single entree. But now that it was $2, it wasn’t a big deal. It provided kind of a strange (and yes, politically fraught re: globalism) simulation of economic class mobility.

One effect of moped culture is they're great at making stuff to go. E.g., drinks in bags. Taiwan, also a heavy moped culture, has a different solution that I also love: sealing all drinks like bubble tea (plastic film) and carrying with a drink sling.

I feel a bit guilty now about avoiding the day trip OMTAs here. But hey, sometimes you gotta just do you—eat bun cha, wander the streets, and absorb the city.

Off all the countries I visited in 2022, Vietnam was the place where my perception changed the most while in it. I entered intimidated by Vietnam’s chaos, but left with a respect for its entrepreneurship, efficiency, and variety. And yes, to this day, I wish I could get my hands on just one more bowl of Hanoi style bun cha.


  1. A lot of local stuff still refers to the city as it’s old name, Saigon, which is tempting to do here because it’s shorter and more fun to say. But I’m not totally aware of the full implications so I’m just going to stick with the official name. ↩︎

  2. The image at the top was taking from the observation deck of the Bitexco Financial Tower. It has a beautiful shape and a conspicuous helipad jutting out about 2/3 of the way up the tower. A large portion of the information boards about the skyscraper construction were about what a huge pain in the ass it was to make the helipad. It was cool, but seemed a bit peculiar. Would you really want to try to land a helicopter right next to a big glass wall in the middle of the city? We later met someone in Manila who has an office in the tower, and said the whole thing is a joke, an expensive embarrassment. They landed a helicopter once on it in a publicity stunt, but never again, because it’s actually way too small to safely land a helicopter there. ↩︎

  3. The lack of smog here makes me think that Hanoi’s geography is a significant factor. Some quick googling confirms that its (Hanoi’s) position between mountains and the sea does trap smog readily. ↩︎

  4. You can make more to supplement this with internships, which I did do, and did help a lot. Grad students in other fields that can’t do this? Sheesh. ↩︎