Do you like walking? We love to walk when we visit new places. If you are coming to Ho Chi Minh City, Philipp and I recommend you bring some comfortable walking shoes. I prefer closed shoes, but that is completely up to you. Tennis shoes are our shoe of choice here; it makes our walking experience much more enjoyable.
I want to start with the conditions of many of the sidewalks. The good news is that there are sidewalks on almost all streets, which certainly makes it easier to walk. The bad news is that there are often some hazards to look out for. Some sidewalks have missing, loose or uneven tiles making the walk a bit challenging. I don’t recommend you look at your phone while walking; you might trip and fall. There is nothing worse on a vacation or trip than to have an injury – or worse have to visit the emergency room. We watched a few people trip while looking down at their phones, another one was not paying attention at all at the sidewalk when she took a spill.
Next are the frequent obstructions. It is not uncommon to come across an entire shop set-up on the sidewalk, blocking the sidewalk entirely. Or, another is a row of motorbikes parked on the sidewalk, making it tricky to walk. Many establishments in HCMC rent out their sidewalk space in front of their business for motorbike parking. We had to step off the sidewalk many times onto the street in order to pass the obstructions. Always look behind you to see what traffic is coming since it can be a bit crazy and our safety is a priority. Even on one-way streets (there are many in HCMC) traffic may be coming the wrong way.
Motorbikes frequently use the sidewalks. This may be to park the bike, take a short-cut, go to a business along the street, avoid traffic congestion, or go the wrong way on a one-way street. Whatever the reason, it can be a bit unsettling when a motorbike comes from behind completely unexpected and whizzes by at 30km/hour just a foot or two from where you are walking.
Another barrier that astonished us was the many portable restaurants that popped up every evening. A person carrying a shoulder with all supplies for a restaurant and setting-up right on the sidewalk, small plastic tables and stools included. Along with a small ceramic stove and the wood or charcoal to light a fire under it. Let’s not forget a metal pan to cook the food and of course, the food itself. Generally, we noticed that many times it was an older lady running the whole thing by herself. Can you imagine carrying all this every day to set up your portable restaurant? It is admirable! We also saw complete coffee shops set-up similarly. These establishments pop-up all over town and leave in a blink of an eye. These portable restaurants are generally full of customers and it is a place they spend time with friends while enjoying a meal.
If you like walking at dusk or in the evening, when temperatures are milder, as we do, I advise avoiding walking over cardboard, wood planks, or plastic bags. Once I walked over a large piece of cardboard and a rat and cockroaches scurried out from underneath – I let out a scream. Some passers-by laughed, but I was not so amused. I am terrified of these things. This another good reason to wear closed shoes, especially at night.
We were told that walking in Ho Chi Minh City was not a good idea; I disagree. We have loved our walks and have felt very safe (other than the rodent incident). In our two weeks in HCMC, we walked at least 50km.
If you are disabled or have a difficult time walking, the streets can be challenging in HCMC. If you rely on a wheelchair, expect to use the road instead of the sidewalk. We suggest you make other arrangements. Taxis are readily available and cheap. A 30-minute taxi ride from the airport to District 1 (downtown) will run you about VND 130,000 (a little over 5 dollars at the current exchange rate).
Crossing the street can be a scary experience. We were warned about this before arriving. A flood of motorbikes dash in and out of traffic zigzagging around cars. However, once you get the hang of it is super simple, and sometimes it becomes a bit of a sport and part of the experience. Philipp and I crossed many streets during our two-week stay here. By the end, we had fun crossing streets and felt confident.
Do not avoid this city for the fear of walking and crossing the street. Walking adds to the adventure and lets you experience HCMC from up close, instead of from behind the window of an air-conditioned bus or taxi. When you first arrive here, find other (strength in numbers) people to cross the street with and watch how the locals do it. We did. Before you know it you are an expert!