Straight off the plane from the beaches of Thailand, our first few steps in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City were a little overwhelming. We passed through the airport and out the doors to a huge crowd of family members waiting for their loved ones. We entered into a city of over 8 million people and reportedly more than 12 million scooters/motorcycles. We followed a couple signs toward the taxi line as we exited the airport and ended up being ushered into a waiting taxi van to take up to the hotel. This was the typical airport taxi trick as we found out later it was over 3 times the normal price (be warned), but really it was only $15 to get the 3 of us straight to our hotel at almost midnight (pricey for Vietnam, but nothing compared to the western world). Anyway, our driver dropped us off at the Graceful Saigon Hotel in the heart of the tourist section of Ho Chi Minh City. Along the road our hotel was on, tables and chairs spilled out onto the sidewalks where karaoke entrepreneurs entertained the crowds. It was nearly the equivalent of having booked a room on Khao San Road in Bangkok or Bourbon Street in New Orleans and although we were hesitant at the location of our hotel, we were excited to see what was next.
Lilli only had one full day to spend with us in Vietnam before heading back to the states, so we wanted to hit the highlights of the city. We set out in the morning with a handful of places on our itinerary. Our first destination was actually the Saigon Tourist office where we booked a couple tours for the next 2 days, then we headed over to the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. Located in the center of the city, this church highlighted the French colonialization of this part of the world in the late 1800s. There happened to be very limited opening hours here so we never actually got to go inside, but it was still an interesting sight.
Next we passed by the historic Saigon Central Post Office also built in the late 19th century.
We were beginning to get a glimpse of the history of Vietnam and headed over to the Independence Palace. Also known as the Reunification Palace, it was previously the home and office of the president of South Vietnam before becoming the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon in 1975 when the North Vietnamese Army took control.
Much of building was rebuilt and renovated to exactly what it looked like prior to the Reunification. It was almost a time warp to 1970’s Vietnam as we made our way through the front doors. We spent a couple hours wandering through the palace and reading various plaques of information. It was a very interesting look at a piece of the history in this part of the country.
Next, we made our way over to the War Remnants Museum. The War Remnants Museum holds a number of things that remained after the withdrawal of all US troops at the end of the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese people call the American War. Tanks, a few planes, many bomb remnants and other items sit outside, while the lasting effects of war were told through words and photos throughout the museum. I’ll say that the stories are of course one sided, but then again, there is no good way to describe the effects of war no matter what side you are on. The most disturbing section we visited related to the use of Agent Orange and other chemicals during the war. The disturbing images portraying some of the worst effects will forever rest in my mind and I hope everyone has a chance to read a little something on this topic to better understand it all.
A little somber after reading our way through the museum, we started on our way toward our hotel in search of dinner. On a tip from a friend we decided to stop at Nha hang Ngon. This turned out to be one of the best restaurants we have eaten at in Southeast Asia. We enjoyed a nice mix of Japanese and Vietnamese dishes as a final meal for Lilli’s 2 weeks abroad. Then, the icing on the cake was a final walk through Ho Chi Minh Square followed by a late night drink at The View Rooftop Bar. We were so glad Lilli could join us on this part of our adventure and truly wish she could have stayed longer (unfortunately, Spring Semester at UGA was beginning soon and she had to head home).
Up momentarily at 4am the next morning to send Lilli to the airport, I was able to get a couple more hours of rest in preparation for a full day tour. Our tour guide from Saigon Tourist picked us up at the hotel early that morning and off we went for a full day Mekong Delta tour. As it turned out, Whitney and I were the only participants that day so we lucked out in having a lovely private tour. It was a bit of a drive out of the city to begin the adventure, but we soon arrived at a small bike shop where a local guide met us.
Once we selected our bikes, we rode along the narrow streets and down a couple small village roads to an authentic Vietnamese home. The elderly gentleman who lived there met us at his gate and invited us in to see his collections of various treasures. I believe his most prized possessions, however, were the numerous photo albums of tourists that have visited over the years. After walking us through his home he later invited us out to the garden to attempt to climb a coconut tree (I presume for the comical photos to add to his cherished albums).
Next, we rode further along to a local restaurant. The family prepared a tasty meal with the local Elephant Ear fish as the centerpiece. Aside from looking quite scary it was actually pretty good.
After lunch we ditched the bikes for a trip down one of the many waterways of the Delta. Our 2 guides, Whitney and I, slid into a small wooden boat to head downstream along the muddy waters.
When we got off the boat, we were met by a tuk-tuk driver ready to take us to a couple different shops. First, we stopped at a weaving company where Whitney tried her hand at making a floor mat, then we visited a coconut candy shop to sample a few bites.
The tuk-tuk then dropped us off at another boat, but this time it was a large river boat. Still on our private tour we had the entire ride to ourselves heading back up the river toward the bike shop where it all started.
Along the way we made our final stop at a brick making factory. The workers hand make thousands of bricks each year mixing, cutting and baking them all without the use of any modern machinery. It really was an in depth look at life on the Mekong Delta and we highly recommend taking this tour.
Exhausted from the day, we were starving by the time we got back to the city. Additionally, having already checked out of the party central hotel, we still had to pick up our bags which the hotel kindly held for us while we were out, and then head over to our new digs. Sounds simple, but we were starving and it was going to be a 30minute trek across town in the muggy city dodging the motorcycles with everything on our backs. We made it only a block before stopping for a welcome dose of Pizza Hut; it was amazing.
We had a bit of confusion in route to our hotel…we tried to check-in to the wrong hotel at first, but they were kind enough to escort us to the right one once we figured it out. Finally, once we were checked in we were generously given a free upgrade to the incredible Executive Suite at the Sheraton. Two giant rooms made up the suite along with the beautifully done bathroom all looking out from one of the highest floors in the building. We didn’t have all that much energy left and settled into the king bed for the night. On a side note: since it was the day before NYE we had reserved this hotel room weeks in advance and since we used our Delta SkyMiles to pay for it,we essentially stayed for FREE 2 nights over New Year’s eve with an entire suite to ourselves. SkyMiles well spent.
As I mentioned, our last full day in Ho Chi Minh City happened to be New Year’s Eve. The plan was to tour a bit during the morning then get back to our suite to prepare for a huge New Year’s celebration with a massive fireworks show from Ho Chi Minh Square. The only problem was that the government decided to cancel the fireworks show at the last minute stating that the funding for the celebration should instead go to the communities experiencing flooding in other parts of the country. (I think cancelling something at the last minute probably defeats the purpose, but what can we do). Anyway, we decided to keep a positive attitude and make the best of it. We headed down to the lobby to wait for our next guided tour with Saigon Tourist.
Intrigued by the secret Cu Chi Tunnels dating back to the Vietnam War, we opted for a half day tour and soon met our guide. We loaded into the van with about 14 other people and headed off. During the ride, the guide gave us a bit of background, then welcomed us to the tunnel site. Our group gathered together and walked the designated trails pausing briefly here and there, noting the hidden ventilation areas and small tunnel entrances around. The displays of traps and such were quite nerve racking, such as seeing where a small misstep could mean being impaled by sharp bamboo spikes especially carrying a heavy rucksack as a soldier. (Obviously nothing compares to the IEDs that are a part of today, but these primitive traps were still a frightening sight). The trail eventually led to a small shooting range where tourists could opt to fire a variety of old military weapons…for a price of course. I didn’t feel the need to fire a rifle for $10 a bullet, that’s for sure. We waited for a few of the group members to test their skills on the firing range, then carried on back toward the tunnels again.
Finally the guide pointed to one of the tunnels, warned us that it was very small and pointed to the exit about 50yards away. Excitedly, I gave Whitney a nudge to go first and followed her into the tunnel. Bent forward and partially squatting with my shoulders slightly turned to the side I could slide through the tunnels safely. We paused a couple times along the way to feel our way around a couple bends in the path until we eventually saw light at the end and found the exit. It’s hard to imagine what it was really like as these cramped tunnels were actually enlarged to make room for the tourists. Still it was an interesting place to visit and worth the trip out there.
The bus got us back home early afternoon and we began to prepare for our New Year’s night. We didn’t really have a great plan since the fireworks were cancelled, so we decided to make the most of our night in the Executive Suite. We grabbed a few drinks and snacks at a nearby gourmet market and headed up to our suite. As evening approached, I scrolled the room service menu and found the top options for our night and ordered a long list of items. We really treated ourselves…I’ll leave it at that. With a foreign news station on the big screen, Whitney and I rang in the New Year from the comforts of our King bed at the Sheraton.
The next morning we packed up, indulged in the enormous buffet breakfast feast in the hotel, and then set off to the airport for our next destination.
Overall, Ho Chi Minh City was a busy and crowded place with quite a bit of history as it relates to the Vietnam War era (or the American War as it’s known there), but the best parts were outside the city itself. Our favorite part was the Mekong Delta tour with Saigon Tourist and we would definitely do that again. For now, it’s off to the charming town of Hoi An.