Well, Vietnam sure has pulled out the big guns. Although we thoroughly enjoyed the Philippines, it was rather hectic and chaotic. Everything took a lot of effort to accomplish, even without much of a language barrier. Above all, Manila was mentally taxing and physically exhausting. It was loud, smoggy, dirty, smelly, everything was rushed, and few things were orderly. Given the stories, we were entirely afraid of Vietnam.
With a huge language barrier and notoriously bad traffic, we expected it to make Manila seem like Reno, Nevada (what’d you expect? London?? :P). After a long day of travel (really, lots of waiting for connections), we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), in Southern Vietnam.
We had already taken care of our Visa on Arrival (use this site. It’s cheap and works well.) meaning we only had to go to the Visa on Arrival counter and get our passports stamped. After 5 or 10 minutes, we paid our $90 and got our stamps. It was smooth and painless.
We walked out, had immigration check our Visa, and we were officially in Vietnam. Things got scary from here. Taxis in Saigon have a bad reputation for scamming you. We had heard of two companies that are generally more honest (Mailinh and Vinasun), but the taxi attendant directed us to a different company. “Uh oh.” We asked about those two other companies, but he said they were all metered. “Fine.” We hopped in the cab and handed the driver the directions. It was about 2am, so there was zero traffic on the road. In just a few minutes, we were at our guesthouse. He charged us the correct amount with no issues at all! “Phew!” (Well, we didn’t know better, so we gave him an 80 cent tip, which was a lot for a $3 trip. But, obviously, it was hardly a big deal.)
The next morning, we stalled on going out, fearing what was ahead. As soon as we walked out, dozens of motorcycles zoomed by on a street/alley no more than 10 feet wide (~3.5 meters)! It starts…
From here on, we realized that it wasn’t so bad. Yes, there is really nowhere to walk as all the sidewalks are filled with parked motorbikes, and moving motorbikes can come at you from any direction, regardless of what side of the street you’re on. But once you get the hang of it, it’s hardly a bother.
We entered a little restaurant as we figured we should wait a day to eat street food while we got the hang of how things work. Fortunately, the girl at the restaurant spoke English and helped us understand what they had to offer. We ordered delicious spring rolls and were very happy with our first meal.
Since then, things have been great in Vietnam. Saigon is a beautiful, surprisingly clean city. Believe it or not, its well-groomed gardens compete with those of Paris or Barcelona, in my mind. For a city this big (~13 million people), the air is rather crisp. There are tons and tons of motorcycles (motorbikes) but few cars and other large polluting vehicles, compared to Manila and most western cities.
After our stint in Manila, we expected more pollution, more noise, more trash, more (obvious) poverty, more chaos. But, although the people still continue to throw the trash on the sidewalk and in their bodies of water, it seems that they have teams of people picking up and cleaning up on a regular basis.
With that said, allow me to tell you about a few of the attractions that we’ve visited.
With so much to see and no idea of how the city works, we agreed to walk around for the first day and just explore on foot. By luck, we stumbled upon the Independence Palace (AKA Reunification Palace). It’s a stunning presidential palace once serving the President of South Vietnam as his home and workspace. I must say, it seems like a pretty cool place to live and work!
It was here that, in 1975, the Northern Vietnamese forces crashed through the front gate with their tanks, effectively ending the war and reuniting the two nations.
If you find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, I highly recommend paying this palace a visit. Not only is it extremely grand and beautiful, but reading the history behind it and seeing the rooms, halls, offices, and bunkers where the Southern Vietnamese forces were headquartered is quite the experience.
While walking, we also came across some remnants of the French colonial period: the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Post Office.
Not for the faint of heart, this museum portrays the horrors of war. Some say it is one-sided; others say that it’s exactly as it happened. Whatever you may believe, war is not pretty. People will do terrible things. Things that they would never in a million years do living a normal life.
As we walked around and read the stories, it was a little hard at times to hold back tears due to the images of men, women, and children injured or much, much worse due to bombs, traps, hunger, or chemical warfare.
This is not the type of museum where you want to take pictures. There ARE some interesting weapons of war in the outside plaza, such as an F5-A Fighter Jet, an M48 Patton tank, and a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter. But we decided to skip the photos.
One thing that I can definitely say about this museum is that it is intriguing, and I have since taken an even greater interest in the Vietnam War.
Cu Chi Tunnels (90,000 VND)
Continuing with the story of the Vietnam War (known here as the American War), the Cu Chi Tunnels give you a good feel for how some of the Viet Cong lived during the war. They built tunnels with 1, 2, or 3 levels as much as 10 meters deep, where they, ate, slept, fought, and even had surgery!
Tons of places in Saigon offer a day trip out to the tunnels (some 40 km northwest of the city). However, we opted for the do-it-yourself tour. We took Bus 13 (7,000 VND) from the Ben Thanh Bus Station to its final stop in Cu Chi. From there, we hopped aboard bus 79 (6,000 VND) and were dropped off right in front of the Ben Duoc Cu Chi Tunnels main gate.
Once inside, we walked along the path and came across the unexpected Ben Duoc Memorial Temple. From what I understand, this temple was dedicated to the memory of the people of the region who lost their lives during the war. It was certainly one of the most tranquil, serene, and beautiful places I have been to.
After that, we ventured off to the area of the tunnels. Naturally, we got lost a few times. But it wasn’t our fault! They gave us a really crappy map. And the signs along the road were not much better. Anyyyywayy, we came across a couple of fellow tourists. I asked if they knew where they were going. They said no. I asked if they had seen the tunnels. They said yes. Shortly thereafter, we too were at the tunnels.
They begin with a long 20-minute propaganda video from the 60’s about the war. After that, they give you a decent description of how the tunnels were used and how the people lived. Finally, they walk you over to the tunnels which, at first sight, are nowhere to be found. They move a bit of brush and — PRESTO — the tunnels present themselves.
Ceci and I both had the opportunity to climb down into the tunnels. It was quite the tight fit! Given that the Americans were quite a bit larger than the Viet Cong, they struggled to move through the tunnels, especially with their large backpacks!
A large, older man that had joined the group decided to try his luck in one of the tunnels. The tour guide started to get worried and kept asking him if he was ok. Once he made it out of the 30 meter-long tunnel, he asked for a 5-minute break to catch his breathe. Poor guy! If you’re bigger or older, check out the small tunnels, but stay out of the long one. You’re really going to suffer.
Once we were out, we were shown to tables where we would try the meals often consumed by the Viet Cong. It was a simple bowl of tapioca roots (similar to yucca or sweet potato) and a dip consisting of sugar, salt, and crushed peanuts. It was delicious! Even though I imagine were only supposed to try it, Ceci and I almost finished the plate. We were hungry! Oops!
Soon after that, we stopped for an ice cream cone and were on our way back to the city…
Getting back: If you are doing the DIY tour, be sure to catch the final 5:30pm Bus 79 (or earlier!) to the Cu Chi bus station and the final 7:30pm Bus 13 (or earlier!) back to Ben Thanh. I suggest you get to the park early as there is quite a bit to see and it takes a while to walk around. You can also rent tandem bicycles, participate in paintball, and shoot an M16 or AK-47 (though it costs about $1.50 USD per round!!)
The Food and the Experience
The food in Ho Chi Minh has been outstanding. We’ve had pho bo (beef noodle soup), banh cuon (spring rolls), bahn mi huynh hoa (sandwich), Vietnamese pizza (not really what you’d imagine), smoothies, and one of the things we’ve become very fond of: ca phe (coffee).
Most of these places have been normal, average street food. People set up their food stalls and a few tables and chairs around on the sidewalk. Food is quite inexpensive, ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 VND (about $0.50 to $2 USD). Also, it’s regularly delicious. Not every bowl of pho (pronounced something like “fuuhh”) is better than the last, but most are quite good. However, there are always a few standouts that are the mark to beat for every succeeding bowl.
Ceci might be a little addicted. I often hear her quietly chanting “pho! pho! pho pho pho!!” I fear for her well-being. I’ll keep tabs on her and inform you if her condition worsens.
Besides Ceci’s impending dementia and obsession with pho, Vietnam has been a wonderful experience thus far.
Have you heard of or tried any exquisite Vietnamese dishes that you recommend we try? Let us know below in the comments!