I was in Ho Chi Minh city last Summer to volunteer at a local school as a teacher. I volunteered for almost a month, did a lot of activities, explored places and ate traditional Vietnamese food, all for under $1,000. Here’s how I did it.

The former capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh (HCMC) is the largest city in the country. Filled with untamed culture and evolving urban lifestyle, the city of Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon is a pulsating land of hope and happiness. The glow which it carries gets better and exuberates as the day moves from dawn to dusk.

I like to think that I am an intrepid traveler. I seek adventure in traveling like a local, and that’s one of the main reasons why I always take volunteering trips. Vietnam was on my list for a long while, and finally last summer I ticked it off. While traveling in Vietnam, I understood that despite moving at a remarkable pace towards development, there is a section in the society that still remains in the ruins and need a helping hand to come out of the dungeons.

I was in Ho Chi Minh city last summer to volunteer at a local school as a teacher; a brilliant experience indeed! Volunteering abroad has always been more than a satisfying experience. It’s been a learning curve. The icing on the cake was the fact that it was a complete budget trip. I volunteered for almost a month, did a lot of activities, explored places, ate traditional Vietnamese food, and all this under $1,000. I know, right!?

Xmas came early

I volunteered in Vietnam with this placement organization called Volunteering Solutions. I first traveled through them a few years back, when I traveled to Nepal. There programs are amazingly affordable and well organized. Since then, I always go through them. Although, there are a few who choose to travel by themselves as well to volunteer abroad, but (and it is highly advised) I always prefer volunteering through a placement firm. When you do, you don’t have to handle the burden of hotel bookings, activity shortlisting, bearing cultural shocks, and a lot more such things that are on the list of a new traveler to a new place. Most importantly, you save a lot of money.

More about volunteering in Vietnam later. During my month in HMC I happened to indulge in a lot of activities. So, let’s talk about what all you can do while traveling in Vietnam; whether on a volunteer trip or otherwise.

Unify your travel expedition

The vibrant city of Ho Chi Minh has a past written in blood, but over the years things have improved drastically. To learn and understand the history of the town, all you need is a visit to several of the landmark monuments placed within the vicinity. The HCMC museum and the Reunification palace (also known as the independence palace) are the two most significant of the lot. You can learn all you want about the fight for freedom and the fall of Saigon regime.

The cup of coffee you can’t miss

That Vietnam is the second biggest exporter of coffee in the world is just one of the reasons why you must try the coffee out here. If you are one of those who like it filtered (like me), without milk, just ask for cap he da and what you will get is a rich ‘chocolaty’ black coffee with ice, a classical Vietnamese improvised version of what you thought would be served. The best part is, be it from the coffee vessel of a street vendor or the highly mechanized filter machine of a fancy restaurant, you are always in the win-win situation when it comes to the taste of it.

Take a bite out of the history

A standing witness to the modernization and evolution of the city, the lively stretch of Dong Khoi has a number of lined up food stalls, reverbing bars and fancy restaurants. One can enjoy the street food (better than a sophisticated restaurant meal, at some level) while walking through the streets of Dang Khoi that reflects a perfect amalgamation of historical and modern times of the city; a good reflection to the city nightlife.

Shop all you can

If New York has Times Square, Ho Chi Minh has Lam Son Square. Considered to be one of the high streets of the city, decorated with sophistication and prestige, the place is meant for venturing a great night and high end shopping. The social bugs from the affluent families can be seen wandering here, splurging all night long. Cho Ben Thanh in district 1 area and Cho Lon (a massive Chinese market) are other significant markets in the city; best amongst the entire lot to bargain for your kind of souvenir.

Take a divine abode

The culture of Vietnam is influenced from a heavy mix of Chinese and Indian traditions. There are a number of mesmerizing temples (Pagodas) that have been there from decades. The Jade emperor Pagoda is considered to be the most flamboyant out of the lot. Built in the first decade of 20th century, this ‘God’s own place’ was built by Taoists and Buddhists, both. The Thien Hau Pagoda, Notre Dame Cathedral, Mariamman Hindu temple are other divine places one can visit to have a peaceful solace.

If you think that you have it in you what it takes to volunteer, and if you are a travel enthusiast, then Ho Chi Minh City is the place for your next sojourn. But whether you volunteer or not, Vietnam is a certain “go-to” place and I hope these suggestions would help you have a great time.

Vietnamese tradition captured... Check!

Need any more convincing? Here are the 15 Reasons You NEED to Go to Southeast Asia. When you are ready to book your trip, check out our tours of Vietnam and discounted student flights to get there.

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    About Dave Dronacharya