The jewel of the south, Ho Chi Minh City.
We left Hoi An via Da Nang Airport and after a quick flight we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City which still locally uses the old name Saigon. On arrival the first thing that hit us was the heat. It was noticeably hotter than Hoi An, with a leap from mid-late 20s to 35+oC.
We opted to get the local bus which was 5K ($0.24) Dong each into the city centre rather than the much more expensive option of the taxi. For anyone planning on getting the bus in Vietnam, the luggage compartment is at the front- unfortunately I didn’t see this so I proceeded to smack everyone in the face with my bag/hoops before I got to a free seat halfway down the bus. Unusually for the Vietnamese, no one said anything! It was about 15 mins later while looking out the window and spotting a bus go past that I realised where the luggage rack was. Oops! The comedy of errors continued while we tracking the bus’s progress on Maps.me, the bus was going all over the place and we ended up getting off FAR TOO EARLY and had to walk for ages with all our stuff as we watched the bus go down the street we needed to go. Typical. We walked and walked until we got to our street. Tired and snappy we decided to stop so that one of us could find the place without the weight of the bags as the numbers were all over the place! It was just after 1 pm when we finally found our lodgings tucked down a side street in a little group with loads of other guesthouses.
This time we had opted for a Guesthouse-basically a homestay (renting a room in someone’s house), the cheapest, best rated we could find but didn’t include breakfast at $11 a night. It was Nam Chau Guesthouse. Now the room we had gone for, the cheapest room possible, was a double with no window. Which was a bit weird- like sleeping in a box and you had no idea what time of the day it was. We had a quick shower and then headed to have a wander and book at tour to the Chu Chi Tunnels, before meeting Sarah and Simon. I’d met them at Simon’s brother’s wedding a few years ago and had kept in touch.
Ho Chi Minh City is the powerhouse of Vietnam and we noticed quite pronounced differences between Hanoi and HCMC. The most pronounced one was that a lot of people spoke English and it was more relaxed than Hanoi- less pushy touts for example. That said there is a higher risk of bag snatchings (though we didn’t see any) and there seemed to be a large amount of visible injuries on other travelers, cuts, burns and scrapes due to trying to negotiate the traffic on a bike.
Also the prices are quite a lot lower for basic things like water (5L in Cat Ba= 35K, 5L in Saigon=22-25K). There was also a massive Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds and Burger King. We hadn’t seen these up till this point and they have only recently come to Vietnam in the last 2-3 years.
We met Sarah and Simon at an Aussie bar on Bui Vien (the backpacker district-10 mins walk from out guesthouse), called the Spotted Cow. After a quick beer there (as it was expensive 25K per beer ($1.20 rather than $0.75-1 in other places) and a catch up, we headed to a restaurant down the street called Five Oysters for some fish and seafood dinner. Then across the road to a hotel with a roof top terrace for a cheeky cocktail/many beers. Ronan was also still in town so we managed to catch up with him here before he flew off ahead of us into Cambodia. I had a margarita which was enormous- and got quite tipsy very quickly and ended up stubbing my toe on a marble step. It was not until the following morning that I realised how hard I had hit it. Damn you alcohol and your numbing properties!!
The guys were up for work in the morning so just before midnight we parted company- we had not realised how late it was and our curfew was midnight! We made a quick stop in the supermarket for some water and snacks and then hot footed it home to the guesthouse. Luckily they hadn’t locked us out (they probably wouldn’t anyway to be fair) and we headed to bed.
The next morning, we were feeling a little bit delicate and were glad we had booked the tour for the afternoon so after a slow start we dragged ourselves out of bed, grabbed some lunch (soup/ribs and com ga) and on down Bui Vien to our pick up point at the travel shop. En route we got stopped by a very chatty cyclo driver, and got sucked into another conversation which led to him and his friend wanting to take us on a city tour, which we were not on for doing at all. As we had a tour booked we managed to get away with that as an excuse.
So off we headed to the Chu Chi tunnels The group was quite small and we had a really good guide. I didn’t catch his name but it transpired over the course of the tour that he was a veteran of the South Vietnamese Army and had fought in that area against the Viet Cong.
The tunnels themselves are part of an impressive network of criss crossing tunnels with some sections over as far as the Cambodian border, Cu Chi alone has over 200 km of tunnels. The part that we visited is the tourist centre where a small section of the tunnel has be widened for tourists. After an extremely dated propaganda video we were led into an area where we were shown one of the small entrances into the tunnel by one of the guides- a small wooden board covered with leaves under a tree. You’d never have spotted it if you were looking!
Then a few of us got to try it, myself included.
After that we got to see the size of the tunnels, how they were constructed and ventilated and a rather gruesome area with all the traps.
Followed by the option of a firing range. Bullets ranged in price from $1-4 dollars but you had to buy 10. Gav had a go with an AK-47.
After that we went to grab something to eat. What we ended up getting was one of our worst meals in Vietnam, in a moment of weakness we decided to get some burgers that were on the menu of this rather busy place close to Bui Vien. I opted for the chicken burger and Gav for the burger. To say it was disappointing would have been an understatement.
We were both exhausted by this point so we headed back home to sleep, but we were still hungry so stopped off for snacks.
The following morning we decided to go to the market for breakfast and then a long walk to downtown. Unfortunately (or more accurately fortunately) we arrived at the market too late to see the still live peeled frogs that they have for sale there. I’m sure I can cope with not seeing that. For breakfast we had Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio. This was amazingly good and was at our usual $4 for two bowls and two drinks.
After breakfast (it was now noon) we made our way through a series of parks to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in the very swanky downtown area.
The second park had some rather interesting and odd statues, much to Gav’s annoyance I wanted to take pictures of loads of them but then some guy started talking to us and then the “oh your sandal is broke let me fix it with superglue- pay me for fixing” scam started on Gav and having seen this before and escaped we weren’t getting trapped so we cleared out.
As we neared the cathedral the main park before it was partially closed off. At the end of April there will be the 40th Anniversary of Vietnam’s foundation in it’s modern state (following the fall of Saigon) and as a result they were building huge stages for the celebrations in the park. This work was obviously quite exhausting.
Moments later we were at the back of the cathedral and seconds after that at the front- it was closed until 3pm. It was now 1.45 pm. Oh well.
Since the cathedral wasn’t open and it was fiercely hot, we nipped in next door to the Post Office. A rather grand colonial era building and one of Gustave Eiffel’s works. It was a welcome break from the scorching heat outside.
So with no cathedral to go to unless we waited ages we went wandering. Past the Opera House..
….and down to the waterfront. Unlike most of the cities we had been to, Saigon had a lovely waterfront but absolutely nothing going on at all! Maybe it was the time we went. There were only guys trying to get us to go out on their boats which we didn’t fancy.Anyway it was a nice walk about.
The heat was fierce so after acquiring some beverages, we hid in the shade under a tree for an hour to regroup for the walk back to the guesthouse (I’m making it sound worse that it is but it was damn hot and we had a nice spot next to some of the gardeners who also stopped for lunch for an hour under the same tree.)
That evening Sarah and Simon brought us to Propaganda!
Followed by cocktails at Last Call. There was a mix of wine, beer and cocktails going on- I had a Rosemary’s Baby it was delicious! It was also opposite one of the swanky hotels which made for some interesting people watching.
A quick cab ride a bit later and we were home.
The following morning we decided to go to the War Remnants Museum. Like other museums in Vietnam it had a load of planes outside but also had a reproduction of part of one of the South Vietnamese Prisons.
Inside they had some really well assembled exhibitions most of which were quite horrific. Most notably they had one of media photographers who died during the Vietnam war whilst reporting on the war. Some of whom died moments after their last photo was taken (includes British, American, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese from both sides of the conflict). It was a very “bones laid bare” exhibit and very balanced. Another one was one from the US army photographers which documented the horrific My Lay Massacre. One photo in particular documents a group right before they were shot in which the photographer allegedly shouted “stop” to allow him to take a photo, then turned to hear a volley of bullets and bodies drop. There were quite a few like this or similar. It was horrible. The other main exhibit here is the one on Agent Orange and it’s after effects which are still being felt in the country with numerous unusual birth defects being reported.
We ended up doing this museum in two parts as they closed for lunch. So we went looking for somewhere. Where we ended up was ridiculously over priced and tasteless so I’m not even going to discuss it. We would have been better off staying in the coffee shop next to the museum (we popped in there before round 2).
With the museum completed and feeling pretty depressed after the horrific images and stories in the museum we decided to head home via the Reunification Palace. En route we met a friendly coconut seller who chatted to us while helping us across the road in our dazed state. Jokingly he handed Gav his surprisingly heavy load and then 2 seconds later we had small fresh coconuts in our hands and he wanted 50K. We didn’t really want them but they were so cold and we were so hot that we relented and paid him! Damn it! At the time Gav didn’t even like coconut water at the time, but now sees how good they are. Apparently it is a common trick to catch people out and we met 4 others roaming the block around the palace trying the same thing.
So then it was the palace- rather unremarkable from the outside and with tired legs we decided to head for home instead. Via the booking office to book our onward travel (more on that later).
That evening as it was our penultimate night in the city we decided to check out the Bitexco Financial Tower, as recommended by Simon and Sarah for some sunset cocktails and photos. Not to bore you with two many here is a selection:
On the way back we stopped in a local food court for some more Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio and for those of you enjoying (or getting sick of) the food photos, there is the menu for this place. Wish we had found it sooner it was epic and super cheap!
Then we had a lazy walk home.
The following day was stupidly hot and humid so we took it easy. It was our last night and as we wouldn’t see the guys in a while we met them for one last drink and a bit of food (Gav had a Vietnamese version of Irish stew and I had the smallest amount of salmon ever in passion fruit sauce- it didn’t even come with rice!!) then we headed to bed (via the supermarket as I was still hungry) ready for our early start and our last voyage before leaving Vietnam!