Photo by BVI4092

1.Volunteer at an Orphanage for a few hours.

The smiles and genuine happiness you’ll recieve when you are introduced in one of these places will rock your world for many days, and perhaps for a lot longer. Remind yourself just how lucky you are. You have an incredible amount of freedom and worldly experience. Many places allow storybook reading, serving food and even playing with the kids on the playground. Why not share this joy with those who have less and will appreciate you just for showing up? Make sure to call in advance as they have strict schedules to maintain a life of stability for the residents.

Here are a few centers that accept foreigners:

Christina Noble Foundation

Dieu Giac Orphanage

Làng Trẻ em Hòa Bình

Allambie Orphanage

2.Sit in a local park and invite students to chat in English.

Be warned, you will be very popular and the ambitious one’s will not let you walk away once they get your attention. You’ll experience the brightest and most ambitious of the country this way. Many kids cannot attend private schools for their language training and they head to the park in hopes of meeting some generous foreigners who offer their time. Not sure where to head?

Here is a list of parks that students are known to sit around in practicing their English.

23/9 Park

Tao Dan Park

Le Van Tam

3.Attend a Foodies Meetup in Saigon.

Perhaps not known to the outside world, the expat foodie scene in Saigon is quite impressive. There is a group who meet once a month for a potluck where gourmands compete for facebook group bragging rights. You need to be a member of the group to join but they have a very liberal open door policy. Just message the admins about what travellers can contribute and you’ll be able to taste some spectacular dishes for the cost of your drinks and whatever you decide to bring along with you to the meetup.

4.Getting your ears cleaned in a barber shop.

There are two kinds of ear cleaning shops to get this done in. The first is an actual barber who gives men haircuts and shaves. Very straightforward and often times extremely cheap (most charge only 2-3 usd for a simple cut and shampoo). The second kind has attractive women well dressed who cater to your every need. Nothing more needs to be said about that other than both of these types of barber shops do a very bizarre version of ear cleaning which requires a lot of trust. Many of the local places offer a package deal for about 10 usd which will keep you well taken care of for 2-3 hours. Highly recommended and worth it just to see your own ear wax

5.Play shuttlecock (da cau) with the locals.

This is perhaps one of the most amazing spectacles in Ho Chi Minh City. Watching men over the age of 60 whacking a feathered object with their heels timed perfectly without the slightest bit of physical strain is not only hypnotic it is impressive. Once they take a break from their regular game you’ll surely be invited to give it a try and you’ll soon discover this is not a skill to be taken lightly.

Some parks where daily games occur include:

23/9 Park

Tao Dan Park

Le Van Tam Park

6.Cupping (tam quat) your back.

This is a uniquely satisfying, albeit painful, experience every traveller to Ho Chi Minh City should try. As you are probably on a whirlwind trip through South East Asia for several weeks, chances are your body and immune system is under quite a bit of strain. Cupping will release the toxins and help you feel refreshed…eventually. While you are undergoing the treatment you will experience extreme sensations a less experienced person might consider torture. The glass jars are filled with alcohol and lit while placed on your back to “suck” out the toxins, trapping the bad air in and cleansing your body of the bad stuff. There are some studies that say it’s effective but not any better than a good sauna or just getting some rest. But who cares about that, you want to try something unique right? These places are easy to find and almost any respectable spa will offer the service. If you want to do it on a budget look for a sign which says “Tam Quat” and bring your translator.

7.Wander through a local wet market.

Do you prefer wholesale flowers or fish? Vietnam has some of the most sensory stimulating markets on the planet. The colors, the sounds, the SMELLS! Surely you should wander outside the city center to experience the real market culture you crave. You’ll need to head out super early the catch the real action though. Vietnamese are very sensitive to the morning heat and try to get their business done before 9am. Although you probably won’t be able to eat much at these markets, if you are doing a homestay you can try and bargain some of the fishmongers and have your host cook it up for you.

Some of the best markets include:

Wholesale Seafood Market

Flower Market

Binh Tay Market (Known as the “Big Market” – Cho Lon)

8.Get a traditional medicine (thuoc bac) checkup and tincture prescribed to you.

This is kinda fun to see the shop and all the various herbs behind the counter. They will most likely prescribe you something that you have to take over the course of several weeks. It will definitely taste strange but it’s almost certain you will feel better afterwards. Even perfectly healthy people take these courses in Vietnam. And surely they live very active lives well into old age.

9.Riding on the back of a motorbike with a local.

This might seem like a silly thing to some but the richness of experience a local has about their own city cannot be overestimated. The things that you don’t see even if you stay in Ho Chi Minh a long time will be missed without the eyes and ears of someone who points them out to you. There are a lot of options these days but if you are short on time and want to experience a local eating or lazer focused shopping tours that won’t leave you yawning, check out XO Tours. They offer fluent all female drivers who know the city, and English, as well as anyone. You’ll eat excellent street food, see the hidden highlights of the HCM you might overlook and you’ll be able to ask unlimited questions to your motorbike tour guide who, most likely, will be a decent looking local. There are other tours obviously but this one doesn’t mess around and gets consistently good reviews.

As you can see, there’s a hell of a lot more to do in Ho Chi Minh these days than just crawl the propaganda war museums, drink on Bui Vien with sexpats, get ripped off on Dong Khoi and wander the generic shopping malls crowding out the authenticity of this great asian city.

Ready to set off on a journey you’ll never forget? Once you arrive in Vietnam, click open this map, decide how you want to get around: motorbike, tour guide, bus, taxi, walk?  Then chart out a schedule which suits your fitness level and get your hands dirty in the ‘Gon. If you have any questions just leave a comment below, there’s a lot to discover but sometimes just asking directly yes or no helps you get the most out of your time in Saigon.

Map of Unique Places in Ho Chi Minh