Yet another randomly thought weekend getaway is a 2 day trip to the southern part of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City or formerly called Saigon. I prefer the latter as it denotes a more historical tone and Asian belongingness to it, providing a rustic feel when hearing it.
We booked for the earliest possible flight within the day so that we can maximize our stay and start our own tour as soon as we arrive. At the airport, we hired a cab which took us to the hotel, as we thought this is the best and fastest way we could get on with and as I’ve also read that cab fares are pretty cheap in Vietnam, it costed us about VND 180,000.
We booked Sofitel Saigon Plaza hotel. While we were in transit going to hotel, we already saw the scooters and motorbikes that Vietnam is famous for and captured in on travel articles and magazines. Narrow spaced to each other, almost filling up the roads and having their own lanes, these 2 wheelers seem to be the most loved mode of transportation by Vietnamese and some foreigners even. It took us about 30 minutes to get to the hotel which is situated as Accor say, 0.84 km from the city center, peacefully located at Le Duan boulevard. Once there, we rested for a while, sipping our welcome drinks at the Boudoir Bar which exudes a Parisian feel – red carpets and curtains, dark wood floors and velvet sofa.
While there, we composed ourselves and look further into the map as to where our feet would take us for the day. Good thing is, we were at a good location and just walking distance are some of the famous landmarks. Since we cannot check-in yet, we asked the hotel staff to store our baggages so we could head off and saunter comfortably, carrying only ourselves and our light weight bags. We started of with nearby landmarks, which are about 10-minute walk from the hotel. First up, was the Notre Dame Basilica. I do appreciate cathedrals especially the oldest ones, exuding with it the evidence that it has been established and standing there through years or even decades. Notre Dame is a landmark showing the influence of French civilization and Christianity over Saigon, its architecture being European, built with red bricks for its walls and colored glass windows.
We saw few couples taking their prenuptial shots beside the cathedral, posing under the sun, guided by their photographers. We walked around the cathedral and apparently, we did not see an open entrance to the basilica :(. So we did not manage to get in and shoot the church’s altar and holy statues.
While outside, we passed by a lady selling holy rosaries and statues, something that you won’t usually see in other Asian countries, apart, of course, for Philippines, where it is a normal scene seeing side street vendors selling these.
In front of the basilica is the Saigon Central Post Office. The impression that I have when first seeing this is that it looks and feels like a railway station with the big clock hanging on the facade.
Going inside, huge photo of Ho Chi Minh overlooks the expanse. The establishment is built with vaulted roof and arched windows, architectural pieces that I appreciate.
This is a working post office, so people still go in to send their mails. Visitors can also buy post cards, coins and other collector items. Spanning the sides of the post office are also thrift shops where people can buy their souvenir items.
Some of the many items being sold in the souvenir shops
While waiting for customers to pay, lady plays a xylophone looking instrument
Walking farther from the post office, we saw some sidewalk vendors selling pop up paper cards in different colors and styles such as their famous landmarks.
The lady gave us stools to sit down and see the displays and we took this as an opportunity to rest for a bit. I find them as nice souvenirs and pretty cheap considering the effort put in in the paper art. These cost for about VND 30,000 which is less than SGD 2 so I didn’t hesitate to buy from the lady.
After admiring the paper cards, we continued with our walk, where we were beginning to see white buildings which I find “Frenchie”, and they stand out from the strip of usual Asian buildings and stores. It shows that the strip is updated with malls that boasts of luxury, branded items such as Bulgari and Gucci.
Farther down is the Hotel Intercontinental Saigon which blends out with the other white, radiant establishments making it more like one of their enclaves. The facade of the hotel has arched windows with flowers perched on window boxes and I find the facade beautiful.
The front part of the hotel is comprised of the restaurant which has seats and tables setup in alfresco style.
We continued our stroll and we passed by the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh city or famously called Saigon Opera house. There was an on-going theatrical show, closing it to the public, so we also did not manage to get in. So we just took photos of the building’s facade which also show a French colonial architecture.
We resumed our walk through Dong Khoi street which is a strip of souvenir shops, local and western cafes, fashion houses and eateries. As we were getting hungry we decided to eat at any seemingly nice place that we can find along the way.
Since our tummies were already complaning, we bought a sweet sesame fried donut from this lady on a bike carrying with her these goodies, costing VND 10,000 each.
Prior to the trip, I saw most articles giving good reviews to this famous restaurant called Lemongrass. Luckily, it was on this street as well and we passed by it! So, we decided to just have our lunch here as it is included in Asia’s 101 top restaurants. The entrance has this beautiful yellow flowers on baskets. Entering the place, it looks like a fancy restaurant where everyone can dine in cosily. A separate food blog has been dedicated for this, please click here.
After having our Vietnamese lunch, we continued our walk on to the Saigon river. We were actually looking for the Ho Chi Minh museum and passed by this boutique hotel called Hotel Majestic, since we’ve got no one to ask directions from, we asked the guard standing outside. He can’t understand much English but he can understand the word “museum” and he was very nice to try to talk to us despite the language barrier. He pointed us to that direction and accompanied us to cross over to the Saigon river (of course, it was quite scary crossing streets because of the speedy motorbikes and scooters). Thanks to this guy, we managed to cross quickly and safely. We visited the river and took photos, although it was not really fascinating seeing the river cos it is murky and brown and the sides enclosing it, are full of dried leaves and even some garbages.
So we just continued on to finding the museum but we really could not and we were only led to a fly over which seemed to mean there is no pedestrian lane anymore. We then hailed a cab to go to the War Remnants Museum. From the entrance, you would see many tourists queuing up to buy tickets. The open ground is comprised of war tanks and US army aircrafts.
An enclave located at the left of the actual museum is a mock prison camp complete with vaults and cells which I find very eery.
One of the morbid ways of torturing the prisoners are these tiger cages were a shocking 5-7 people would have to fit in. At this point, the tour was really getting dragging for me.
Another area in the enclave is this Guillotine (very very creepy and I felt down when I saw this, honestly!), used to decapitate the prisoners back then. 😦
I was caught unprepared when I saw this diorama of an imprisonment condition, my heart skipped a beat when I saw this creepy looking prisoner as he looks real!
Prisoners were shuttered using these heavily locked prison cells!
Inside the museum are photographs taken by the reporters who were also killed during the war, relics and exhibits as well as weapons used. Taking you further through the war period are photographs that blatantly show the mistreatment and morbid ways of torturing and killing people back then.
I bet you have heard of “Agent Orange”, I can still remember there is a song about this and only during this trip that I got to know about the true meaning of this. The US military during the Vietnam war used defoliants for their chemical warfare. Almost 3 million Vietnamese people are affected by this causing birth defects, malformed babies, miscarriages and stillbirths to women and skin diseases due to exposures. As much as I would like to include photos in here, maybe I’ll just have to pass. They were just so distressing and I don’t wanna immortalise those in my blog post. =S
An area has also been dedicated at the top most part of the museum promoting world peace.
Another stop that we went to was Xa Loi Pagoda. But on our way, we passed by this cozy looking cafe, radiating in white, with tables setup alfresco style, ornamented with flowers. Since we were thirsty and felt tired from all the walking, we decided to go in and order ourselves some refreshments. Saigon has quite few small thrift shops and alfresco style cafes and watering holes. You would be lost in trying to choose which one you want to try.
Next time I’ll visit the city again, I want to try Nam Phan, the place really looks nice and I’ve seen good reviews about it. Apparently, when we went there, it was closed yet. Below is a shop that we passed by selling ice cream coffee, I wonder how it tastes like, but sounds yumm. Will try out too, next time. 🙂
The House Of Saigon is found on the way going to the market. It is a cozy looking thrift shop selling local made crafts, souvenir items and coffee and tea. Though I think the price is in conjunction with the style of the place, quite pricey.
Below is a busy strip of stores and people all over are crossing the streets
Beautiful flowers at one of the shops along the side streets!
Xa Loi pagoda is the largest among other pagodas in Ho Chi Minh. History has it that this pagoda went through series of raids from the government of the Roman Catholic president. They attacked and vandalized the pagoda because of civil rights protests by Vietnamese Buddhists.
Inside the pagoda are dwellers that are in meditation, on lotus position facing the Buddha statue which looks over the proceedings.
Reunification palace or the Independence palace was our next stop, which was the working place and home of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. As it has an entrance fee, we decided not to go in, also since we were sweating and tired from walking under the sun.
In front of the Reunification palace is a park with trees lining up and benches, with people sitting down, reading books, chattering and relaxing.
We decided earlier in the day, during our mini tour planning, that we will hit the popular market later in the day. And since we were almost callling it a day, we hopped on a cab which took us to Ben Thanh market. The market is an expansive, roofed establishment with lanes of shops offering different stuffs. There are lanes which are dedicated to those selling local food and their famous Vietnamese coffees together with the phin filters. There are also stalls where you can order local food and some selling souvenir items. One thing that I’ve noticed, they would really pat you on the arms and say they have this and that, and if you are interested. They are really keen on capturing your attention for a possible lucrative venture with you. Another is, when you asked for the price and try to haggle, they wouldn’t really stop until you both agree at a certain price. However, when you decide not to take the product and while you walk away, they would start to talk in their vernacular (lol!). There was only one item that I bought in the market, and it was the batik pants which I actually find a bit pricey and costed me around VND 180,000 (but well, it’s cute lol). Since it was crowded in the market, I did not take photos, since people were bumping into each other.
Since the day is almost ending, we went back to our hotel, to lie down a bit and take a shower, and enjoy our soft beds and pillows for a while. Afterwhich, we headed to Rex hotel to visit one popular bar that is on the rooftop.
We were full from the dinner and drinks so we strolled through the nearby strip where we could still see shops selling vintage shirts, souvenir items and tiny little cafes. We also managed to pass by Ho Chi Minh City Hall which is a beautiful expanse especially at night. Below is my only photo and was trying to rush as it was drizzling.
We thought we hadn’t have the local coffee yet so when we saw one Trung Nguyen shop, we went in and ordered some dripping coffee.
I ordered Thanh Cong Sua Nong which costs VND 64,000 and that which is dark, strong and full-bodied and my friend, the Tu Duy Sua Nong costing VND 50,000 and that is fragrant and smooth. I have tried dripping Vietnamese coffee before in Pho Hoa, back in Manila. I find that drinking this coffee is more for those who wanted to pass time first and have the patience to wait for some time before they can sip their ca phe. As for me, I wanted to order and down on my caffeine fix right away, and pass time drinking it and not waiting for it. We waited for about 20 minutes I think, before it entirely pour down. Thing is, when it was all inside the cup, there was only like less than 1/4 of the cup full. As for me, I had to pour about more than 1/2 cup of milk to drink it, yes, this has been the strongest coffee that I have ever tried. It’s a good experience but I think I will prefer buying their instant line rather than the brewed one. lol.
The day has been packed, our feet tired and ourselves a bit exhausted from walking under the sun and visiting as many landmarks as we can, but it was a day well spent. I find that walking through places anew, despite you getting tired, is still a relaxing venture for me. 🙂 Ho Chi Minh evidently retains its old world charm, a thriving city that has yet to change.
We concluded our Ho Chi Minh city tour, spending the entire day for it, thinking we had seen most of the landmarks. So the following day, we were thinking of another Vietnam destination that are hailed as a must-see. While we were in the post office, we saw a tour operating one for a Mekong Delta trip; tour operator being Phuong Nam Viet Travel.
We left the hotel at 6:15 am as we had to go to another hotel where the tour bus is located and we thought it would give us ample time to try to find the place. We were there around 730 am but we waited until about 930 before we were called to board, when they had actually told us that the tour would start at 830 am. Not only that, we actually didn’t board yet but we walked together with the driver to pick up other passengers on neighboring hotels before we actually went to the bus. They were also having a bit of confusion as they asked us, about 20ish of us, to board the bus when it was actually full!
Finally boarded the bus! We were seated all the way to the back.
Mekong River is an interesting river as it encompasses or is a trans boundary river between 6 countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and of course, Vietnam. It is the world’s 12th longest river and Asia’s 7th. Its waterways serve as a channel for people carrying goods and to navigate through communities via boats which still transpires today. So we say, this experience must be nice to try.
From HCM, it was roughly about 2 hours bus ride going to Mekong specifically My Tho. On the way, I saw similar sceneries when going from Manila to nearby provinces such as Laguna, Batangas or Bulacan. Green, lush rice paddies and fields on different sides of the roads, “sari-sari” stores everywhere (convenient store), vulcanizing shops, carabaos and stray dogs as well. We reached a stop where we could buy some refreshments, a break for 15 minutes. We bought iced white coffee and iced local coffee for ourselves before we resumed with the road trip.
And so we had reached the port where the boats were located and hopped into it. I was quite surprised to see the Mekong river as a brown, murky water – yes, it is brown all over. It actually felt eery for me! lol. But then I thought this might be a different experience to my usual boat rides along crystal blue and pristine waters of Philippines.
For the day, we were told that we would be visiting some islands which are called Con Lan (Unicorn Island), Con Long (Dragon Island) and Con Phung (Phoenix Island).
And so the tour guide talked us through the Mekong day tour and the Mekong per se until we had reached a stop to get some drinks. The place is more like a bee farm where they culture bees, produce honey and sell them.
While the tour guide was talking us through, we were prepared with a hot and soothing tea, poured into shot glasses, one that I really liked during this trip.
She initially poured in honey into the shot glasses. Followed by the bee pollen. It is said that this has various health benefits such as anti-inflammatory, it aids digestion due to its enzymes, supports the cardiovascular system and so on. Afterwhich, she poured a hot tea which tastes gingery though I can’t say what specifically it was. Lastly, she drizzled some small lime juice. Next round, we did it ourselves and I think I had many shots. lol
Next stop was Que Dua which is a place manufacturing coconut based goodies. We were walked through the process of how they create coconut candies.
There was also this painter which we chanced upon at the back end of the place and I noticed that all his paintings are different houses, which I find quite interesting.
Up next, lunch! We headed to Con Phung where we would be having our free meals. Guess what were in the menu?
Snakes, crocodiles and ostriches are part of the menu! LOL
Since this a tour, we of course, got a very very very plain dish.
After we had finished our meal, my friend and I were still not satisfied haha! We felt like we still need to eat more, so we ordered ourselves their popular fried fish, which would then be paid out of our pockets.
The fish was served together with noodles, lettuce and rice paper!
So the way the fish should be eaten is to slice a portion of it, get some of the leafy veggie and noodles, pour some of the sweet and spicy sauce and wrap it and roll it in the rice paper. Now, this one, satisfied my palate! It was really good and I can’t stop eating it. haha
After our lunch, the Mekong river boat ride begun! We hopped out of our tour boat and into the wooden rowing boats, four in a group, together with two local paddlers. I got quite scared at first as a bit of movement would cause the boat to sway. So I composed myself, relaxed and stayed put into the boat together with the local hat! 😀
Palm trees rooted from both sides of the banks arched and met up each other, forming a shade and limiting our view of the sky. Rivulets on the sides of the main waterways, boats, paddlers and passengers passing by one another coming from opposite directions, paddlers rowing in unison, a nice vista of boats with everyone wearing the hat, murky waters which at this point I didn’t mind anymore, houses balanced on stilts, children on hammock perched on two wooden poles where they don’t mind that right below them are murky waters, narrow waterways causing boats to somehow bump into each other, passengers sitting steadily enjoying the boat ride. These were the experiences that were captured during my boat ride along the Mekong river.
Boats were also parked in the same waterways, causing a bit of a jam to the moving ones.
Right at the endpoint of the channel is a place where you can dine it and try out the tropical fruits that came in bounty through the delta, be serenaded by local singers and buy some more souvenirs.
The Mekong River is not your scenic tourist attraction, if one is not into the type of trips where you had to sweat through the tour because of the heat and hopping in and out of the boat and rowing through murky waters, then you might have to think twice before heading here. As for me, be it a scenic place or not, one’s destination is always about experience and trying out, seeing and feeling different cultures and traditions and getting acquainted with others’ ways of livings, things that you could only experience once in a while but will be instilled in you for the rest of your life. Rowing through this river has opened up my eyes once more, that despite most usual cities being updated and people getting more and more modernized, there are still some parts of the world living out in their traditional ways, but you can’t say they’re not contented with it. 🙂
On our random trip to Saigon, I’ve previously read through some articles on how a weekend could be well spent and maximized. As with any travel, I cannot miss trying out the good and well praised food in any city. On most articles, I have read that one of the must try restos in the area is Lemongrass Vietnamese Restaurant. Luckily (without really looking for it) we happened to pass by it during our stroll in Dong Khoi. Outside, there is a banner bragging that the restaurant is one of the 101 of the best in Asia.
Entering the place, one would feel the candle lit type of atmosphere, intimate and somewhat romantic, although the place is not very spacious. But I do think that especially at night, it must be nice to dine in, have good food with an intimate chit chat with a loved one, family or friends.
As for the food, I ordered the famous local food which is Pho. I got the one with both the beef and pork. It was a hearty soup which was just right for my palate, not too salty, not too bland. The beef was tender which is really good and the pork was actually not the usual pork slices but one with a “spam-like” texture.
We also got some vegetable and seafood noodles which was actually good as well.
I also ordered a cold Vietnamese coffee with milk which costed me VND 49,000. Now, there has been two drinks that are my top favorites: Thai Iced Tea and Vietnamese coffee (especially the dripping one!).
I would rate the dining experience 3.5 out of 5. Good points are the ambiance, the reasonable price, and the friendly service (the waiter even chatted with us about Imelda Marcos having dined there, if I’m not mistaken, just recently). The food is good especially the Pho. I would not mind dining out here again next time. 🙂
Lemongrass Restaurant: 4 Nguyen Thiep Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Vietnam