Pit Stop: Ho Chi Minh City

Deemed as the “Paris of Asia” for its romantic atmosphere, Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) startlingly  exudes an unrivaled beauty that is a tangle of the old and new. It doesn’t have the splendor of Prague nor the sophistication of Venice, but it is a charmingly unique city with an eventful past.

 To set things straight, I was submerged in deep reluctance before making up my mind about this trip. In fact, my skepticism weighed even heavier on the scale once I reached their airport. I may have chickened out beforehand but I will be forever indebted to my guts for intervening along the process. Inside the cab on the way to the hotel, i nestled into an unheralded adventure as Ho Chi Minh City’s history nonchalantly unfolded right before my eyes. So if you ever ask yourself why would you consider going to Saigon, please, just read.

 

 

 

Snippets of what you should know. . .



 

Point of compass

 

The largest and the former capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is on the southeastern side and occupies around 0.63% surface area of the whole country. Vietnam’s boundaries are surrounded by China, Cambodia and Laos. The population in the metro has reached over 9 million in the past years, making it the city with the most number of citizens in the region. 

  

In the past, it was just a tiny fishing village that became a relevant business seaport. But today, French influences are noticeable in their culture because HCMC was a colony of France way back in 1859. HCMC’s colorful history is a combination of defeat, blood bath and victory. After winning over the French invasion, they suffered the ruthless occupation of other super powers like Japan and US. It was 1975 when the Vietnamese finally won back the city. The following year, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established. Ho Chi Minh City was proclaimed to be the official name of the city to honor their great communist leader, Ho Chi Minh.

 

 

 

 Currency 

 

 

Vietnamese Dong (VND)

1 Vietnamese Dong = approximately 0.00005 US $

1 Vietnamese Dong = approximately 0.00006 SG $

1 Vietnamese Dong = approximately 0.00204 Php

Sample computation:

                                Php 10,000 = VND 4,891,590

                                US $ 100 = VND 2,077,630

 

 

 

Getting there

 

Tan Son Nhat (Tân Sơn Nhất) International Airport is about 8 kilometers away from HCMC city centre. Being the largest in Vietnam, it offers both  domestic (Terminal 1) and international (Terminal 2) flights.

 

In 2007, the Japanese funded the construction of the international terminal. But come 2020, a new travel hub called Long Thanh International Airport will be opened for international travelers.

 

 

 

 

What you need to get in

Immigration protocols in Vietnam are not that strict once you arrive in their borders. You can obtain social visit pass upon arrival for a limited number of days.

 Asian countries that are exempted from Visa requirements if for holiday purposes:

         Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Laos – 30 days of stay

         Philippines – 21 days of stay

Other countries that are also exempted from these requirements only if traveling and staying in Vietnam for 15 days or less:

          Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Japan, South Korea and Russia

For Citizens of United Kingdom – Single or multiple entry visa costs around  £100 -£200 to process. Documents like valid passport, photos and travel itinerary together with the downloadable application forms are usually needed to submit to Vietnam embassy.

For US Citizens – Entry visas are also required, and documents needed are the same with UK citizens. Processing fee for single or multiple entry costs around $150- $300.

For full information about Visa requirements in Vietnam, click this site:

Vietnam Visa Requirements

 

 

 

Gastronomic Gratification

 

Green Mango w/ Vietnamese Chili Salt  – Not exactly the first thing you should eat when you walk around Saigon, but I got addicted to this incredibly cheap street food that almost every night I made sure to buy one during my 5-day stay. The sweet & sour taste of the green mango together with the chili & salt will explode inside your mouth and will emit tons of flavor.  (I am warning you on the addicting part, seriously.)

Pho (Vietnamese Noodles) – The rich broth with rice noodles, tons of veggies and herbs, and your choice of either beef or chicken, truly, pho is one of the most wonderful things your mouth could ever taste. I made sure that I get to eat at least one variety each day during my whole trip. And the beef noodles became my source of instant joy.

 

 

 

Vietnamese Egg Rolls (Cha Gio) – We commonly know this as spring roll, the difference perhaps is that egg rolls are served in bite size so it’s a little bit smaller. The ingredients inside are a total surprise, you’ll get either pork, crab meat or shrimps with veggies like carrots and  mushrooms. I found the crispy version better tasting.

Grilled Seafood at Ben Thanh Night Market – Enjoy a variety of grilled goodness at night from restaurants on the street of Ben Thanh Market. Don’t forget to try their fresh crabs and prawns and have them grilled, and of course the huge selection of fish.

 

 

 

 

 

Spots never dare to miss. . .

Reunification Palace

During the Vietnam War, this palace is home to South Vietnam’s President. This was considered as the homebase of the central ruling government at that time. Currently, the Reunification Palace serves as a tourist attraction and a huge museum in Saigon where tourists could take a glimpse on Vietnam President’s workplace and house. For VND 20,000 as entrance fee, the management provides a guided tour around the palace. It is open everyday from 7:30 up to 5:00 pm.

What you can see inside:

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  • Foyer where the former ruler receives guests. Elegance and beauty is obvious in every corner of this room even after so many years.
  • One of the control centers used by the soldiers and government officials during the Vietnam war.
  • The Presidential chopper on stand by at the rooftop of the palace.
  • Communication devices during that time.
  • Elegant rooms that served as home to many guests.
  • Vintage Presidential car that is still looking great.

 

 

The Reunification Palace at a closer look.

 

 

Saigon Cathedral

The architectural design of the Saigon Cathedral is too hard to ignore. Centrally located at District 1 of Saigon, this is a shining symbol of Vietnam’s religious side. 

 

 

Saigon Post Office

A stone’s throw away from the Saigon Cathedral is the city’s post office with equally fantastic architecture. Who would think that this is in fact a post office when you first see the wonderful facade.

 

What you can see inside:

The effort of the government to preserve this place is astounding. It is huge and well ventilated, plus you get to make a quick tour on how the old HCMC looks like through their displayed photos in the gallery.

 

 

On both sides of the building, there are several souvenir shops that offer local products and goodies.

War Remnants Musuem

This museum showcases all what was left during the dark times that Vietnam went through. In here you can learn through photos and memorabilia how their people struggled to achieve their independence from the invaders.

 Giant missiles and bombshells are displayed in one corner.

 

 

Stationed just outside the building are the fighting planes, helicopters and tanks that serve as the last remaining reminders of the war. For VND 15,000 as entrance fee, you can visit this place everyday from 7:30 am up to 5:00 pm.

Water Puppet Show

 

The secret in catching the show within your travel is to book your ticket once you arrive in Saigon. We got our ticket from a travel agency inside the Saigon post office. Admission fee is VND 150,000 and you will get to enjoy a unique and entertaining show that could transport you to Vietnam’s early days. Be sure to search for the location of the theater which is in Tan Dao Park early in the day so you won’t get lost.

The puppets on the water dance to wonderful music performed by these very talented artists.

Some of the great puppet performances you could see on the show:

Saigon City Hall & Opera House

The best time to visit these sensational spots is during the night. You will appreciate the magnificent works of art when their dazzling lights are turned on. The complicated design of the Saigon City Hall will truly amaze you.

 

 

 

The center for entertainment among Vietnamese in HCMC is the Saigon Opera House. This huge building can hold up to 1,800 people inside. The influence of the French could not be denied on the elegant architecture of the place. Famous artists both local and international have performed in this theater making it an elite place for world-class talents.

 

Cu Chi Tunnel

 

One way to thoroughly understand the horrible things that Vietnamese experienced during the war is to allocate a half day visit to  Cu Chi tunnels. It is located 40 km northwest of the Ho Chi Minh City centre and there are numerous options how to get there. Since we are on a backpacking mood, we chose to travel via public transportation because it’s cheaper and fun, so here’s a rough estimate on how much you can spend:

Board bus 13 at  Ben Thanh District bus interchange going to Cu Chi bus terminal

                    Fare = VND 6,000 – 7,000 (per person)

                    Travel Time = 1 hour (max)

From Cu Chi bus terminal, there are two options in going to the tunnels

                   Board Bus 79

                        Fare = VND 5,000-6,000

Travel time = 30 mins.

                                                      OR

                   Hire motorbikes and enjoy an adventurous back-ride

                         Price = VND 75,000 (2-way travel for 1 person, driver included)

Travel time = 30 mins.

We chose the latter because we believe it will be more convenient for us. Just don’t forget to agree with your driver on what time should you meet him after the tour. Entrance fee is around VND 80,000 for a guided tour.

The Cu Chi tunnels were utilized by the Vietnamese guerillas during their battle against the US. It is a complicated network of underground diggings that served as hiding place, military base and shelter. Their life under these tunnels was as difficult as it could be. They struggled for food, suffered different diseases & parasitic infections and were threatened by wild animals while fighting the military forces of their invaders.

 

Here are the things you can see during the tour:

 

Man-made traps are scattered through out the  camp.  Dangerous and lethal spikes await any intruder that could dare set foot on their camp.

This hole served as the only source of ventilation for the guerillas living under the tunnels.

Believe it or not, this small ground opening serves as the entrance to another world below. A world that is dark & cramped with limited resources to make you survive.

I deliberately allowed my fiance to try going down on one of the tunnels because 1. I’m semi-claustrophobic (if there is a condition as such) and 2. I don’t think I could fit or if ever I do, i won’t be able to get out in one piece. (overweight problem, LOL)

 

Notice how the holes were camouflaged with barks of trees and dried leaves. You wouldn’t even know they exist unless you take time to stop and get a really close look.

 

Here’s an inside look on one of the tunnels. The smell of earth is strong, not to mention the limited presence of fresh air to breathe.

 

 

My fellow tourists opted to cover 75 meters of the underground tunnel, I was able to explore 20 meters with great effort that I almost fainted because of fear. That is why I salute all those guerillas that were able to survive for months even though they were obviously deprived of everything.

 

The bonkers which were formerly used as storage of firearms were brilliantly transformed into tiny museums that display the things they used during the war.

 

 

 

At the far end of the camp is a shooting range where visitors could try target shooting. This is an awesome way of relieving stress.

Top photo: A vintage battle tank used during the war.

Our very friendly local tour guide who’ve helped us not to get caught in the traps.

 

These life-size mannequins show how the guerillas look like during those times.

 

The empty bombshells that were dropped on the camp by the US soldiers in their attempt to bring down the Vietnamese.

The tour concluded with a light snack of boiled cassava and Vietnamese tea. According to our guide, this combo was the common food consumed by the guerillas under the tunnels. You’ve got to give them credit for being able to withstand the difficulties that even the littlest things we enjoy & often ignore like comfortable bed, abundant food and fresh air were robbed off of them in their pursuit of independence. Hats off.

Mekong Delta River Cruise

 

Locals will convince you to spend an overnight cruise on Mekong River, but there are short day trips that are also satisfying and will give you enough time to explore this side of Saigon. There are different destinations in the available tours you can find, and the Mekong Delta is a great option just to have a feel of the place. The port is located southwest of HCMC and could be reached via airconditioned bus.

 

During the cruise, the Bitexco Tower can be seen which is the financial tower of Saigon.

One famous destination of the cruise is the Cai Be Floating Market. Boats selling fresh produce like fruits and vegetables can be seen.

 

 

Globetrotter tips

Language Barrier

I aim to emphasize this part as a major problem that you will definitely encounter during your travel. The main reason why I mentioned earlier that I was reluctant in pushing through was  because communication with their people was utterly conflicting. The accent was almost impossible to discern that when we tried ordering food from an international food chain, it  took us more than 10 minutes (no exaggerations) to understand that the set meal we like was already sold out. The lady in the counter resorted to writing down the word “finish” just to let us realize the problem.

Another one is when the hotel concierge booked us a tour to Mekong Delta River when I was just inquiring about the package price and how the tour will be. She was claiming that I said okay, and from her understanding my “Okay” meant I’m availing the tour package, when actually it was more of “Okay, thanks for the information you’ve given us.” What happened is that the hostess had to cancel the one she booked and charged us with VND 10,000 for the cancellation fee. It was an irking situation but we let it all pass so as to settle everything.

 

 

 

Taxi Scams

When you take a cab from the airport going to your hotel, make sure you know exactly where your destination is. Memorize the address, know the landmarks near it and apply all the haggling skills you have. Insist on using the taxi meter and never settle for a fixed rate because the drivers will fool you that the journey will take long. In our case, we were made to believe that our destination is around 45 minutes away, when it was just 15 minutes really.

Take note that airport taxi ticket will be shouldered by you, and the cost should not exceed VND 10,000. Because we were having a hard time understanding the accent of the driver, it came to a point that he scolded at us for not giving him the money right away. He even grabbed a few pieces of Dongs from my fiance and returned to us what we believed to be our change. When we arrived to the hotel, we realized that the driver took one VND 500,000 note from the money he forcefully took. So you should remember one thing, being a tourist makes you vulnerable to this kind of scam. Hold on to your money and never show them that you do have that much.

Hotel Theft

The secret to finding a decent hotel to stay is doing an early research weeks before your desired tour date. There are numerous reports in the internet showing how hotel theft is rampant in the backpacking district of the city. Hotel workers could get into your room and steal your valuables. So make sure the hotel you will book is a trusted one and has no bad record of such crimes. Secure your belongings whenever you travel and make sure to bring with you all your important things whenever having a day tour. Luckily, we made the right choice on this particular journey and never experienced any trouble until our very last day.

 

 

 

Shopping

Cheap finds are available at a bargain price in the biggest shopping market in Ben Thanh. Here you could find every imaginable souvenir and goodies there is. The great thing is that you could haggle and could buy stuff on their wholesale price. This huge place used to be a train station in Saigon and was then converted into a commercial hub for your shopping needs.There is also a night market in this area where all sorts of local products are being sold.

Several malls can also be seen in the city. High end brands can be bought in them and the one I have been to was the Vincom Center located just a few blocks away from the Ben Thanh Market.

Coffee Shops

Being one of the largest coffee producers in the world, Vietnam has a variety of coffee mixes offered by the shops along the tourist district of the city. So if ever you got time for some coffee productivity, you could let the time pass by while enjoying a mug or two of your favorite caffeinated concoction.

Pedal-Driven Rickshaw

Never conclude any day trip in the city without riding their version of pedal-driven rickshaw. You will enjoy the relaxing ride while taking advantage of the surrounding.

 

Although the entire experience was somewhat amazing, we had a problem when paying for the ride. Turned out, we misunderstood how much it costs to drop us off to our destination. Initially we thought that the ride is just VND 150,000 for two people only to find out that the uncle meant VND 150,000 per person. So again, remember to clarify everything before dealing with the locals.

 

A City of Motorbikes

This is the only city I’ve been to wherein there are far more people riding their motorbikes than people driving their cars. You will be astounded on how many motorbikes this city has especially during rush hour. The discipline of the people is also one striking thing you will observe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Globetrotter Rating 

 

Personally, the rating part of this travel blog is the toughest. For Ho Chi Minh City, I could give an 8 in its entirety. Topping my reason is the fact that my travel to this place is one of the cheapest I had as of this writing. Who would not want to stretch your budget and still embark in a life-changing realization about an enigmatic city with an illustrious past? Although the glitches of communicating  with them has tainted my plan, I will never forget their smile and the feeling that tourists like us will always have a place in their country.

 

My memories I have in this particular journey is an aggregate of RESPECT because of their compelling love for freedom, and of SANGUINE EXPECTATION that the country and its people may recover wholly from the grim of the past. May all the wounds inflicted to their history motivate them to move further and celebrate life that is eminently Saigon.

 

 

 

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