Ho Chi Minh City, a kaleidoscope of colour and chaos

If you've seen the classic 1985 comedy film National Lampoon's European Vacation, you'll know the scene I'm talking about.

It's the one where Clark Griswold spends hours trying to exit a roundabout in busy London traffic. "Look, kids. Big Ben! Parliament!" he exclaims on every loop in a desperate bid to keep things interesting. Once night falls, he decides it's time to just force his way through the traffic.

Millions of motorbikes ferry the locals around Ho Chi Minh City, where the twisted and tangled power lines offer a good visual metaphor of the city's organised chaos. Picture: Alamy

Millions of motorbikes ferry the locals around Ho Chi Minh City, where the twisted and tangled power lines offer a good visual metaphor of the city's organised chaos. Picture: Alamy

I'm thinking of this as I wait patiently by the side of the road in Ho Chi Minh City. At least 10 minutes and several hundred motorbikes later, I'm about to have my own Clark Griswold moment. The key, I'm told by a Vietnamese man, is just to go. He's right. If I'd decided to keep waiting for a suitable opening, you wouldn't be reading this story because I'd still be standing there. So, I go. As the motorbikes weave around me, I feel like Moses must have done while parting the Red Sea.

You only need to spend five minutes in the city locals prefer to call Saigon before you realise there aren't really any road rules, or at least not any that people seem to pay attention to. A lot like the tangled and twisted power lines above them, the streets are a scene of organised chaos. Motorbikes dramatically outnumber cars and trucks, and there's much dodging and weaving as they jockey for position, but crashes are surprisingly rare.

A corner suite at Fusion Suites Saigon, where the writer stayed in Ho Chi Minh City. Picture: Supplied

A corner suite at Fusion Suites Saigon, where the writer stayed in Ho Chi Minh City. Picture: Supplied

"It's because literally anything can happen," a local man tells me. "There could be thousands of people driving one way, and still one person will try and go in the opposite direction. There is nothing that cannot happen and people know this, so they're very focused."

I stop for a moment to contemplate this and as I do, a motorbike rider and passenger pass by, all four of their collective hands wrapped around what appear to be burgers and little preventing them from flying off into the busy traffic.

The thing about crossing the road in Vietnam is that while it's terrifying, it's always worth it because there's bound to be something different and worth seeing on the other side.

For starters, you only need to walk a few metres from any given point in Ho Chi Minh City to find one of the seemingly endless number of street food stalls, usually staffed by an interesting character and selling dishes like pho, a Vietnamese rice noodle soup flavoured with meat and herbs. Most Vietnamese people don't eat breakfast at home and instead head to street food stalls to start their day, so the hustle and bustle begins early here and there is rarely a time that you'll find deserted streets in the country's most populous city.

The Ho Chi Minh City skyline at night. Picture: Alamy

The Ho Chi Minh City skyline at night. Picture: Alamy

I arrive late on a Sunday night and head straight to my hotel, Fusion Suites Saigon, which is in a quiet, leafy side-street next to one of the city's oldest parks. I'm staying in a spacious, open-plan corner suite equipped with a king bed and large floor-to-ceiling windows. Arguably the best view of the city is from the bathtub that hangs like a hammock by the ensuite window.

The following morning I head downstairs to the hotel's Fresh restaurant, which has indoor and outdoor seating, for an international buffet breakfast. My next stop is the hotel spa, where daily spa treatments are included in the rates for premium rooms. I choose a relaxing body massage that helps me unwind from the flight before I head out into the 30-degree heat. Notwithstanding the need to cross the road, Ho Chi Minh is an easy city to get around on foot.

Just 15 minutes' walk from the hotel I find Reunification Palace at the edge of a beautifully maintained 12-hectare park. I hand over the 40,000 Vietnamese dong ($2.50) entry fee and wander inside to find an architectural wonder with 95 rooms. On the helipad at the top of the 26-metre-high palace, you can see the spots where an undetected communist spy dropped two bombs in April 1975. Later that year, the Vietnam War effectively ended at what was then known as Independence Palace when a North Vietnamese army tank bulldozed through the main gate.

Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Picture: Shutterstocl

Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Picture: Shutterstocl

As I leave the palace, I dodge a street hustler who's trying to clean my shoes with a toothbrush and make my way to the War Remnants Museum a few streets away. It's here that I gain a real appreciation not only of the effect the Vietnam War had on the country, but of the effect it continues to have today. The government-run museum has a strong anti-American stance and is not for the faint-hearted. There are graphic images of death throughout and some sobering statistics about the ongoing toll of the war. Some 800,000 tonnes of bombs were left behind and in the 27 years immediately following the war, they killed more than 42,000 people. But perhaps the most striking images are those that focus on the impact of the chemical Agent Orange, which has resulted in generations of Vietnamese people being born with deformities.

I stop for some pho at the world-renowned and jam-packed Ben Thanh Markets on the way back to the hotel, arriving just in the nick of time as a fierce storm starts to lash the city.

After a bit of time relaxing in the air-conditioning and the hammock bathtub, I head downstairs for dinner at Fresh restaurant. From the Vietnamese set menu there is a clear standout in the bun bo xao - a lemongrass beef and noodle salad.

The "hammock bathtub" in the corner suite at Fusion Suites Saigon. Picture: Balcony Media Group

The "hammock bathtub" in the corner suite at Fusion Suites Saigon. Picture: Balcony Media Group

Ho Chi Minh City is a whirlwind adventure and I managed to tick off the tourist essentials on foot in just one day, but combine the heat with the hustle and bustle and you'll need some serious relaxation at the end of it.

  • The writer travelled as a guest of Fusion Suites Saigon and Jetstar.
  • Jetstar has three direct flights from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City per week, from AU$279 one way. Checked baggage not included. Domestic flights within Vietnam are operated by Jetstar Pacific. Visit jetstar.com to find the lowest fare, guaranteed. Conditions apply.
  • Rooms at Fusion Suites Saigon start at US$110 (AU$162) per night for two people.
This story Ho Chi Minh City: A kaleidoscope of colour and chaos first appeared on The Canberra Times.