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Saigon or HCMC?

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Sunday, March 31, 2013

Since the end of the Vietnamese war, the official name for the metropolitan area of the city has been Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). However, the city centre is still officially called Saigon and many locals refer to the city as Saigon. Even train tickets and timetables call it Sai Gon, so when in Saigon we decided to do what the locals do, and called it Saigon!

Day 1

As the mercury keeps climbing it's now way too hot to be carrying so much stuff around. So with a lot of travelling over the next few weeks we decided to send some stuff home and also dump a load of stuff in our room! So the first stop today was the Post Office, at the time we both thought it was an impressive building but we didn't know its significance, until later that day when we re-visited on our walking tour.

We decided to take the Lonely Planet walking tour but after some dubious tours in China and Hanoi we tweaked it by cutting out and adding bits in along the way. The notable first stop was the Ben Thanh Market which sold just about everything you can image. A visit to an Asian market is always an interesting experience as we have nothing like it back in the UK, a Sunday market is pitiful in comparison. However we wouldn't recommend you visit one if you are claustrophobic or don't like to be hassled. On the other hand if you enjoy haggling this is the place for you, as nothing has a price and there are bargains a plenty.

The next notable stop was the Bitexco Financial Tower. The tower only opened at the end of 2010 and it's architecture is based on the Lotus flower which is the national flower of Vietnam. The viewing deck on the 48th floor was impressive but is nowhere near the top of the building as it has 68 floors; also you aren't allowed on the outside deck as it would appear from the ground as it is a helipad. However the inside viewing deck is just under the helipad and is in a part of the building that protrudes slightly from the main building which does give great downwards views. Well worth a visit even if the entry fee is in Western prices, 200,000VND per person is twice the price we have been paying for an evening meal with drinks!

After the Financial Tower we visited the downtown business district and took in the City Hall, Cathedral and Post Office ending up at the Reunification Palace.

The Reunification Palace has had a torrid history. The original palace building was built in 1868 for the French governor-general. When the French departed it became home to the president but he was so unpopular in 1962 the palace was bombed in an assassination attempt. The president demanded it was rebuilt with a bomb shelter in the basement to protect him, but before it was completed he was assassinated. The new building was called Independence Palace and later renamed to Reunification Palace as it is today. It is well worth visiting the palace but it is strangely eerie as you walk around and peer into the perfectly laid out rooms some of which look like they have only been used yesterday. The basement is particularly eerie and doesn't look like it's been touched since the war. Complete with a telecommunications centre, war room and a network of tunnels it was like time had frozen still. The smell of stale air added to the atmosphere and it was certainly somewhere you wouldn't want to be if the lights went out. Which incidentally they frequently do in Vietnam, we have experienced two major power cuts, one whilst eating in a restaurant which gave a new meaning to a candle lit dinner!

After our evening meal on the way back to the hotel we saw possibly the strangest thing yet. Our hotel was situated in an alleyway just off the main backpacker street which is full of other hotels, people's houses and shops. The alleyway is so narrow in some places with arms stretched out you could nearly touch both walls at the same time (for Ross at least) and being a thoroughfare the street is always buzzing with people coming and going. So when we turned the corner and saw a gathering of people we didn't think anything was unusual, until we got a bit closer and saw a Buddhist Monk... and then an open coffin! Yes we had walked right into a funeral in somebody's front room. With what appeared to be mourners kneeling for a service in the alleyway, tourists where weaving through the crowds to get to their hotels and the nearby bars. Stranger still were the people in the houses nearby, continuing life as normal selling food, offering haircuts and watching TV as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. The next morning we had to be up bright and early for our tour to the Cu Chi tunnels and as we walked to our pick up point the open coffin was still lying in wait in full heat of the morning sun. Very bizarre and slightly disturbing! Our photo was taken long after the funeral finished unlike some tourists that were snapping away all evening.

Day 2 - Cu Chi Tunnels

The tunnels were built during the war and helped the VC take control of a large rural area outside Saigon. In their peak the tunnels stretched as far as the Cambodian border and the tunnels in the Cu Chi district were over 250km in length. They contained everything you needed to live underground for an extended period of time, simply an incredibly feet of engineering.

Having read so much about the tunnels with limited public transport available we decided to take one of the many organised trips and experience them first hand. After a bit of shopping around we booked a half day tour for just US$5!

However with both having mild claustrophobia we were slightly concerned about the 'tunnel walk' part of the tour but when booking the tour we read that the original tunnels are now closed to tourists and they have built some 'Western' tunnels for Western bodies' which at the time put our fears at ease. However on the way to the tunnels the tour guide gave us a description of the tunnels which did not help with our fears:

  • Tunnel 1 - Monkey, need to crouch and walk like a monkey
  • Tunnel 2 - Rat, you need to crawl and pull yourself through!
  • Tunnel 3 - Gorilla, you can bend over and walk through

He also warned us 'if you get spilt up from the rest of the group do not look for the tour group just return to the bus and carefully follow the pathway because of unexploded mines and bombs' Added to the factor that we were both a little scared about the thought of going into the tunnels we started to question why we were on the tour in the first place!

The first part of the tour was a walk through the jungle looking at various tunnel entrances and booby traps with the odd American war relic thrown in for good measure. In the middle of the jungle we arrived at the shooting range, where unbelievably you were able to shoot real guns with real bullets. We're not talking about air rifles either, AK47's and M60's to name a few. If that wasn't bad enough they sold beer too, so you could enjoy a cold beer before picking up the machine gun. Plain crazy!

Next stop was the tunnels. There were 3 sets of interconnecting tunnels but you have the option to do any or all of them. Both feeling a little apprehensive mainly caused by the tour guide descriptions we nearly skipped 1 and 2 and went straight to number 3. However after a bit of debating we decided to give 1 a go. While we were waiting to go in a couple of girls came back out saying 'it's too small' didn't help with our nerves but we decided to go in anyway. Apart from being exceptionally hot it wasn't too bad and neither of us felt claustrophobic. We decided to skip tunnel 2 and did number 3, which turned out to be very similar to number 1. Having spoken to a couple of people that did number 2 apparently you only have to crawl for a very short distance and the rest can be done bending over. Now either the tour guide doesn't know his animals very well or he thinks all Western people are on the large side!

The tour finished with a video about the tunnels and very similar to the documentary we saw at the Reunification Palace it was very biased and full of propaganda but this time from the Vietnamese side. We both felt a little disappointed by not doing tunnel 2 and it's a shame we were put off by the tour guide, but overall we had a great day and at just US$5 probably the best value tour we have ever taken.

Hard Rock Cafè

Our first Hard Rock since the terrible experience we had in Moscow many miles ago. But this experience couldn't have been more different. Even the walk there was completely different, last time we were suited and booted in snow boots and ski jackets as we trudged through the snow in sub-zero temperatures this time it was T-shirts in the sweltering heat even at 20:30. It was nice to enjoy some real western food not the tinned stuff the locals claim is 'real western food' and to get shot glass number 46. It's nice to splurge once in a while but when the bill came in at over 1,000,000 we both had to remind ourselves we are in Vietnam! Nevertheless even after converting back into £'s we spent more in one meal than we have been spending in 3 days!

Day 3 - Mekong Delta

Although you can get to the Mekong Delta by public transport the options are fairly limited and if you want to go off the beaten track you are likely to need to use a motorbike taxi at some point. So after looking at various tours we opted on a two day tour with an overnight stay in 'homestay' with a local family. Including all entry fees, accommodation and transport it cost just US$28. We met a couple of people who made their own way to the homestay and reckon they would have spent approximately the same as we did although their trip involved a bus, 3 motorbike taxis and a lot of stress!

We noticed straight away that our tour guide was a bit of a ladies man (not a lady boy, although we're sure that they will be getting a mention in future blogs) He really fancied himself and seemed to spend every spare second checking himself out! When he wasn't admiring himself he was flirting with all the local girls or texting every two minutes, like his life depended on it. It was funny to watch but it would have been nice to have a guide who had a little bit more enthusiasm and not just there to enjoy the perks of the job.

We travelled by bus to My Tho where we were transferred onto a boat. As we sailed along the Mekong Delta the guide bravely managed to prise himself away from his phone, long enough to explain the days itinerary and told us a little bit about the river itself. He pointed to Tortoise Island which was to be our first stop of the day.

The Island was covered in coconut trees and we soon realised why as we entered a workshop that made coconut candy! The guide took us through the process of how the candy is made and we tried a few samples, at which point the guide must have seen a lovely lady as he soon disappeared and left us to it. We found some more free samples and the ladies working there did their best to encourage us to buy as much as we could carry. Although it was very tasty, we avoided temptation.

Eventually the guide returned and called everybody over to look at something. We followed him only to realise that it was a massive Python. Neither of us like snakes so we made our way to the back of the group and watched all the crazy people holding the snake around their necks... voluntarily!

After lunch we visited Unicorn Island, we have no idea why it's called Unicorn Island although the guide did start to explain a unicorn in Vietnam is not a horse with a horn but more like a dog, we never got a full explanation as he received a text. We think it is just called Unicorn Island as it sounds better than Dog Island!

After visiting the bee hives we had the opportunity to try the fresh honey with some local tea. We sipped it out of shot glasses and it was a combination of honey and malt seeds with tea and a splash of fresh lime juice. It sounds disgusting but it tasted lovely and was really refreshing. We also tried banana wine, similar to rice wine it was plain disgusting! It has no resemblance to wine and was just lethal. After this we visited a small village that we reached by a rowing boat and listened to local people singing traditional Vietnamese music. It was entertaining but we don't recommend that they enter X-Factor any time soon.

We were transferred back to the bus and taken to another stop off point where we joined a different tour group to head to our homestay accommodation. When the tour guide couldn't find our accommodation on his list we were a little concerned but he convinced us he would sort everything out. After an hour or so in the middle of nowhere on Highway 1 the guide told us that we were to be the first to be dropped off.

We took this to mean we would be dropped off in a small town in a nice safe car park. But as we approached the magnificent Japanese bridge we soon found out he meant on the hard shoulder of Highway 1! Now Highway 1 isn't quite the M1 but it is the main road in Vietnam linking the North with the South and is a seriously busy dual carriageway. We nervously made our way up to the front of the bus with our fellow passengers all giving us worried glances with shouts of good luck. We laughed along and as we got off there wasn't a house in sight!

We were met by a friendly local man who pointed across the road to two bikes. After crossing the crazy road we were promptly given a helmet each. Ross' neck strap didn't even have a buckle and he had to hold it on his head. Also his motorbike was sooo old and worn out the speedo didn't work which was the least of his worries as it didn't have a suspension so every bump and pothole felt like his teeth was going to fall out and finally when we got to a tiny bridge it couldn't make it up the hill so he had to get off and push! When we finally arrived in the middle of nowhere in the countryside there was two girls from Brazil and France and they were surrounded by loads of local children. We had a great time eating, drinking and chatting and were entertained by the children who were dancing and singing to 'Gangham style' a fun night with a lovely family. Much nicer and more memorable than another budget hotel!

Day 4 - Mekong Delta

The next morning we woke up before the cockerel and got out of bed at 5.30am. After a quick breakfast we were led along the road and through the village to our boat transfer to Can Tho.

After being reunited with the rest of the tour group and some welcoming smiles from people who thought we would never be seen again, we set off to the floating markets. The Can Tho floating market is the biggest in Vietnam and is a wholesale market where people come from all over to sell their goods to local retailers. There were literally hundreds of boats selling a multitude of different fresh produce and whole areas selling the same thing, for instance there must have been 20 or so boats selling nothing but Pineapples. An amazing sight and well worth seeing.

After the floating market we made our way along the river to a factory run by Chinese people. They immigrated to Vietnam a long time ago, bringing along their traditional recipes. They still produce Chinese rice paper today which is cut and becomes Chinese noodles. We tried a sample of fried noodles and although they were extremely unhealthy it was delicious!

Our next stop was a fruit farm built on an area that was heavily bombed during the war. The massive fishing lake created by a bomb was a shocking reminder of the war.

The last stop on our tour was lunch before the 4 hour bus ride back to Saigon. The lunch menu was typically Vietnamese and had some unusual items such as 'Fried Rat with Onions' and 'Fried Snake'. We both enjoyed the snake, it was our little revenge on one animal we both dislike!

Vietnam Our Departing Thoughts

Since visiting and falling in love with Thailand back in 2008 we have wanted to visit more of South East Asia. So being able to visit Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos all in one trip was a mouth-watering thought!

Apart from visiting KL and Singapore which aren't really on the same tourist circuit, Vietnam is our first experience of another South East Asian country after Thailand.

Billed as 'Thailand 20 years ago before the tourists' excited both of us before arriving, however after being here for 3 weeks our opinion has changed. Vietnam only opened their borders in the late 80's and quite frankly it shows. The tourist industry is still young and doesn't feel as well polished as say Thailand. Also they haven't realised that tourists do not like to be hounded 24/7 for the mighty US$, sometimes less is more. Don't get us wrong in touristy areas of Thailand like Phuket the constant background noise 'tuk-tuk, massage, you want a suit sir' does grind you down after a while too, but in Vietnam there is also so much going on under the table to try and win your US$. It probably happens in Thailand too but if it does they cover it up so much better. In Vietnam along with the constant ear bashing which you quickly grow to ignore, even when you pay good money to go on a tour you are forced into shopping trips and other things that the tour guide wants you to do for something on the side. Be it free food, drinks or money we have seen it all.

If you can get away from the tourist traps and do stuff by yourself, as we often did you can have some fantastic days out.

With so many varied things to see and do, from vibrant cities to sandy beaches it is a great place to come and see, and value for money is simply amazing. For instance a beer at a bar in Saigon cost around 12,000VND (approx. 30p) in comparison the same thing last time we were in Phuket 2 years ago cost around 120B (approx. £3!) However if you are looking to come here for a sociable night out forget it, unlike Thailand where you can walk into any bar and strike up a conversation with just about anybody it is not as easy here. Don't get us wrong it's not unwelcoming in anyway but it just tends to be groups of backpackers sitting and chatting and the layout of bars etc. sitting on the pavement or in the road makes breaking into a group difficult. Also in Thailand there are so many staff around if there aren't any tourists to talk to you can always talk to somebody.

We leave Vietnam after a fantastic 3 weeks. We regret not visiting Hoi An and have heard so much about it we either kick each other (or ourselves) each time another traveller tells us how beautiful it was. But we had good reasons when we were doing our planning to cross if off the itinerary. It might be our biggest regret but it gives us a reason to come back one day.

We hope the tourist industry matures and they learn from their big tourist brother. If they do it won't be long before Vietnam is a major destination in South East Asia. If we were going to open a bar as many expats seem to, we would choose Vietnam as we believe in 10-20 years' time it will be a massive tourist destination possibly not rivalling Thailand but certainly giving them stiff competition.

Hotel Review

We stayed at Thanh Thuong Guesthouse in a double private. Our guesthouse and room was nothing special but equally we had nothing to complain about either, apart from the ant infestation! The guesthouse was in a great location, situated on an alleyway adjacent to the main backpacker road with just about everything you could need or want within a few minutes walk. However there are literally hundreds of small guesthouses and hostels to choose from within a few blocks, with so much choice availability is unlikely to be a problem if you want to have a peek before you part with your cash. A great location with okay facilities and service.


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