It's different in Ho Chi Minh City. You pick that up straight away. Even if you've been to south-east Asia before, it feels different here. Even if you've already visited Vietnam, if you've hung out in Hanoi in the north or Hoi An in the middle – the city they still call Saigon feels different.
There's an energy to HCMC, a vitality. There's a sense of chaos that sometimes feels organised, though never for very long. It's wild, but it's enjoyable.
Here, glass-fronted skyscrapers abut ramshackle old apartment blocks. Fancy restaurants somehow find a place next to cheap-plastic-chair joints. People hustle along the pavements. Scooters careen everywhere. The air smells like charred meat and rotting garbage and exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke and everything in between.
What's up with Ho Chi Minh City? What's so great about this place? Why do we apparently love it so?
Australians are flocking to HCMC. The city is booming. Flight bookings on Skyscanner last year from Australian cities to Saigon rose by 23 per cent – the highest of any city in the world. The next highest was Singapore, at 17 per cent. What's the story?
You call in to roadside cafes to sip iced coffees and lie in hammocks.
You could start, of course, with the price. Ho Chi Minh City is cheap to get to – thanks to the likes of Air Asia X and Jetstar – and cheap to exist in. I recently scored flights here from Sydney for $350 return, via KL. And that's not out of the ordinary.
You can also get a bargain-basement hostel dorm in the middle of the city for only a few bucks, or go all the way up to insane five-star luxury and still only pay a few hundred dollars a night. A good meal costs $3. A beer is far less.
But there's more to Saigon's appeal than that. There are, after all, plenty of cheap destinations around. You could travel to Bangkok or Bali or Phnom Penh on just as tight a budget – and the former two destinations, to be fair, are still extremely popular. But they're not growing as fast as HCMC.
Let's talk about the food. Australians love food, and when we travel, we want the good stuff. And Saigon has it. Some might even say it has the best of it.
There's nothing that's wildly unrecognisable here. Australian travellers are already pretty savvy when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. We know our way around a bowl of pho. We've been eating rice-paper rolls for years. Pork rolls are getting to be as Australian as meat pies. So there's nothing to worry about in Saigon.
Still, there's plenty of new food to discover, plenty that you just know is going to taste good. You can't leave without trying bun rieu, a pork, crab and noodle soup; and banh xeo, the turmeric-laced fried crepes; and oc, fried sea snails.
There's also the not-insignificant factor of Saigon having extremely good coffee – another high priority for your modern Aussie traveller. In this Vietnamese metropolis the coffee is served cold and sweet, tipped over ice cubes and mixed with condensed milk. It's cheap, it's delicious, and it's just the tonic for those times when the heat and humidity are getting to you.
But again, there's more to HCMC's appeal.
It's close to home – relatively, at least. Australians think nothing of flying eight or nine hours, so Saigon is easy. It's also seen as a safe destination, untouched by the threat of terrorism, a place with no worries about committing a religious faux pas, with no concerns about what you should wear or what you should say.
Ho Chi Minh City, and indeed the rest of Vietnam, is also an adventure. It can be as safe or as crazy as you want it to be. You can eat fancy meals and stay in nice accommodation and take day trips out of the city in airconditioned chauffeur-driven vehicles if that's the way you want to travel. Or you can get down and dirty at street stalls for food, you can stay in guesthouses, you can hire a scooter and take on the insane traffic and see the country under your own steam.
Either of those approaches will be good. Either will be rewarding. I did a mix of the two the last time I was there – stayed in some fancy digs in the city, then hired a scooter and rode out to the countryside and stayed in $8-a-night guesthouses – and it was amazing. Luxury one day, hardcore adventure the next.
You get 50 kilometres outside of Saigon and all of a sudden no one speaks a word of English, and everyone's staring at you like you're an alien. You stop at markets for lunch. You call in to roadside cafes to sip iced coffees and lie in hammocks. You cower under a sturdy shelter as the afternoon storms roll in and the sky lights up and the torrents rain down. Good times. Interesting times.
Ho Chi Minh also provides easy access to some of Vietnam's other big hitters: Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat, the Mekong Delta, and more. Plus the city and its inhabitants are super friendly, and they have a great drinking and nightlife culture.
It feels different in Ho Chi Minh City. Everything does. But that's a very good thing.
Have you been to Ho Chi Minh City? Can you see why it's so popular among Australians? What are the best things to do there?
See also: 20 reasons to visit Ho Chi Minh City