Ho Chi Minh was my first introduction to the beautiful country of Vietnam; as the largest city in Vietnam, I chose to visit HCMC first and experience its hustle and bustle, food, culture, history, and all that contributes to create such a vibrant and interesting city.
I arrived into HCMC Saturday morning after a sleepy 1.5 hour flight from KL, waking up to a turbulent and cloudy landing, just as our plane glided over the rooftops of waves upon waves of houses – my first glance of the city. I had already arranged everything for my visa (online application prior to traveling required) and so I went to the windows to turn in all materials necessary (application papers, 4×6 photo and $25USD) and eventually received my passport back, visa inside. After getting through immigration, I arranged a taxi at one of the many small counters inside, which was prepaid at 220,000 VND (Dong). I had read that a taxi from airport should cost around 160,000, but these counters all charged the same so I assumed the price had perhaps increased since, though in retrospect, as Grab is available in HCMC, it may have been possible to get onto the airport free WiFi and Grab, which would have been presumably cheaper (next time).
It took about 30-45 minutes to drive into the city, and I arrived around 10:30AM at my hotel, the Liberty Central Saigon Riverside. My room as reserved was not yet ready but I was informed that I could already have a 2 bedroom that overlooked the river, so I checked in and got settled. Before heading out to explore, I had a glance at the rooftop pool, which also overlooks the Song Sai Gon river, with expansive views of all the barges, cruises and everything else floating along.
Needing breakfast, I grabbed my laptop and headed just 3 minutes around the corner to The Workshop Café, on Dhong Koi street. I’ve made it my goal to at least find one funky hipster café in each new urban destination that I visit, and was able to immediately check that off my list after a delicious breakkie of eggs benedict and coffee at The Workshop. After walking up a few flights of stairs in what seems like a derelict building, I was greeted by a cozy, creative nook of a space with a central coffee bar and overhanging lamps throughout. Inside is a mix of long communal work tables and separate small tables for ones or twos.
Sleepy, but well fed and happy, I dropped my laptop back at my hotel and was ready to explore. I had downloaded an offline Google Map of the city and so getting around wasn’t a problem – I set off for the War Remnants Museum first, feeling that as such an important reminder of Vietnam’s painful history and a true must-see while in HCMC, I would start with this museum and take as long as needed there. The walk took about 30 minutes, passing by a mix of shanty shops and hole in the wall pho or street food stalls, alongside sky-scraping glass office buildings, already illustrating the diversity of the city in many realms.
The fence outside of the War Remnants Museum sports signs with peace slogans and cheerful emblems – once inside the compound, American military planes, helicopters and tanks already contribute to the discomfort of the place. An adult entrance ticket costs 15,000 VND. Immediately at the entrance is an example structure of the prisons and torture areas utilized during the war; models and explanations of the ranging and many torture techniques employed against prisoners, including “Tiger Cages” and many revolting practices are illustrated through models and information boards explaining. This section as well as the entire museum includes photography, some certainly more graphic than others, so good to come prepared. As would be imagined, the museum itself, through three floors of exhibits, offers quite a solemn and difficult experience. Comparable (experience-wise) to a visit to the concentration camps of Europe or the museums and memorials commemorating the tragedies and atrocities of WWII, the War Remnants Museum offers a sobering glance into the history behind the American war of aggression as perpetrated in Vietnam in the 1960s-70s, the lasting impacts, many of which have transcended time, and the worldwide sentiment of solidarity with Vietnam which emerged during that time. As mentioned, some exhibits are more graphic than others – particularly those illustrating photographs with descriptions taken in and around the battlefield, the aftermath of American time bombs, which both during and (many years) after the war, caused many deaths. The exhibit focused on the impact of Agent Orange (and more specifically, the toxic dioxin chemical), is especially grim, showing detailed photos of the effect on many people during and after the war, including four generations of children born showing a multitude of physical and genetic defects caused by the exposure of their parents and ancestors to the horrific substance. An elderly Vietnamese woman, giving a tour in Spanish, explained – “the effects of the dioxin chemical were horrific and long lasting. Eventually, the American veterans that were affected with symptoms demanded from the U.S. government for retribution, and they were helped. The U.S. never helped the Vietnamese people that had been affected and were still suffering.” The museum is noticeably propagandist, but nevertheless an important, necessary and interesting experience to have while visiting Vietnam and HCMC.
After spending about 3 hours scouring the exhibits of the War Remnants Museum, I decided for a change of scenery. I was headed for Ben Thanh Market when after walking for about 15 minutes, I felt the first few heavy drops of rain… not wanting to stand for who knows how long exactly under a random overhang, I decided to keep going and try to at least find a spot to eat; I had read about a Pho restaurant right across from the market and knew I was getting close. In the time it took me to walk only 100 yards, the droplets had turned to downpour, people scattering in all directions to find shelter. Hurrying the last few steps and slipping in my flip flops, I ducked into the “Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf” café, above which was the restaurant I was looking for, Pho 2000. I was pleased to find that I was one of, if not the only non-local in the nondescript spot. I ordered vegetable Pho (Pho Chay) and a Vietnamese iced coffee. Alongside the Pho was served plates of fresh bean sprouts and fresh herbs to mix into the broth, and delicious rich coffee, poured over ice and sweet condensed milk (a Vietnamese specialty – get involved if you aren’t already). Who’s to know how strange they thought I was, sitting alone at my little table, dripping ever so slightly.
After a delicious lunch of Pho, I ventured back out to find that the rain had all but ceased, so I crossed the street between motorbikes and into the Ben Thanh Market. Ben Thanh is one of the largest and most famous markets in HCMC, which translates into most touristy, but it is still an amazing place to see, experience, and get some souvenir shopping done. Selling everything from clothing and bags to magnets, candles and all crazy trinkets in between, Ben Thanh market is home to a constant noisy hum, absolutely buzzing with activity. Vendors shouting out to me from all sides, I wound my way deeper into the market, pushing past bundles of clothing and tables full of collectables. After haggling the price at least in half (and a piece of me thinks I should have done even better), I bought a few things and headed on my way. To give you an idea of price, I was told that a cloth backpack with embroidered flowers (similar to bags in Thailand and SEA) was 800,000 VND – I ended up paying 380,000 for the bag and several smaller trinkets. I was later told that a single scarf costs 1,000,000 – I ended up with 2 for less than 400,000, but the ones that weren’t “100% silk”. The argument for higher prices is always something along the lines of the goods being handmade up in the mountains, or real pure silk, or some other variation; I completely agree with this and also that the goods are amazing works of art, though I also know that no matter what I end up paying, it is still a very decent deal for the vendors and so in the interest of saving money, I bargain to the bitter end most of the time anyway – it is expected and anticipated for in the high first prices that are given, which are always up to double for tourists anyway.
After visiting the market, I made my way back to my hotel (the whole day I explored by foot, as I felt this would allow me to slow down and take in all the sights and surroundings as much as possible to experience the city better). Nearby my hotel a lady stood outside handing out business cards for the upstairs massage business, and after taking a few steps past, I thought “why not” – and circled back to inquire about a foot massage. I ended up getting a lovely foot massage, though more expensive than I am used to in KL (only by a few USD of course), and adherent to a much more pressured tipping policy. Of course, tipping varies in every country and then further in each massage house, but in this case the lady that I was with followed my foot massage with “so you tip me” – not exactly a question. I had said of course and pulled out the VND I had left, which clearly did not please her. She became a bit flustered, exclaiming how small the Vietnamese money is and that this is nothing, she then said I would pay and tip by credit card. At this point, I didn’t have a choice and followed her down to a hotel lobby (they must collaborate) as she carried my credit card and told the lady at the desk what amount to charge (300 for massage, 100 for tip) – something that just wouldn’t happen in Malaysia, or hasn’t yet to me, but it was a one time thing, so fine. Nevertheless, it was lovely and I returned home lazy and comfy after a long day of wandering, exploring, and was embarrassingly ready to turn in for the evening.
I had heard and read a bit about the backpacker street (supposed Khaosan Road of HCMC), which is the go-to night spot for travelers and locals to have a beer and chill or get wild. Despite my desire to explore and experience the full spectrum of life in the city, after getting back to my room to drop off my stuff, I was feeling so tired from the early morning of travelling and not much sleep the night prior that I couldn’t bring myself to leave again. So, I proceeded to convince myself that I wouldn’t be missing TOO much, and that surely it is similar to all of the other “backpacker streets” in Asia (let me know if I was horribly mistaken and should go back?!) and swallowed my FOMO, to happily curl up in bed.
My Sunday in HCMC started well-rested, and with a lovely continental breakfast at the Liberty Central Saigon Riverside hotel. After eating a leisurely breakfast, I geared up for more exploring (read: highly touristy sightseeing) and headed out. On my way to the sights, my attention was caught by THE MOST AMAZING boutique shop – Thuy Design House. Just from the windows outside, this place looks crazy. Once inside, I was greeted by colors, sequins, crazy patterns galore; just my kind of place! This shop seems to combine traditional Vietnamese styles, patterns and fabric with the insanely eclectic creativity of the designers, who have created some truly amazing pieces! Certainly quite unlike anything I had ever seen before. After dabbling in the store for a while, I continued on my original quest. Here are the places I visited:
Saigon Notre Dame Basilica and Central Post Office
The cathedral, a mini Notre Dame in light reddish brick, sits perched in a well-manicured garden in the center of a roundabout-like square, backdrop to a variety of tourist photos and wedding shoots. I did not go inside actually, as there seemed to be a service going on for Sunday, and the gates were closed. I have also been advised that because this cathedral is so popular, it becomes extremely busy inside to the point of almost not worth seeing around. Regardless, it is indeed a beautiful building from the outside and very photographic, so recommended to at least see. The Saigon Central Post office is a vivid yellow building from the exterior, almost directly across from the Notre Dame cathedral. Designed and built by Gustave Eiffel in gothic style, it began operations in 1886 and still remains one of the most famous and celebrated structures in the city – and is still in full use as a proper post office! The interior of the post office, with stark contrasts across a long, domed roof, is drippingly instagrammable and striking in and of itself – definitely worth a glance inside.
Tan Dinh Market
Having already explored Ben Thanh the previous day, I wanted to see a different type of market, and Tan Dinh was just that; this is a place for locals, truly. I didn’t honestly encounter a single tourist nearby or inside the market, which sells a staggering variety of goods, on a massive scale. The market is most famous for its cloths and fabrics, of silk and any and every variety, color, print, and style that you could imagine. If you seek traditional Vietnamese fabric or any variation thereof, and especially if you plan on designing some of your own clothing, this is your place. One downside is that the fabrics are mostly sold in quite large quantities, which are perfect to buy for the purpose of clothing design etc., but just so happen to be a bit inconvenient for the luggage-bound traveler. Still, an amazing place to have a look around, and the vendors are far less pushy and rather uninterested in visitors, so you can wander through quite peacefully. The glances that I got wandering through were some of the most amusing- some quizzical, some simply bewildered, and some of the warmest smiles I’ve seen. Being in this market, and wandering even to the very back, among the bags of rice and spices and household goods and foods finally felt like a piece of true Ho Chi Minh, if not of Vietnam.
Tan Dinh Parish Church
Where Barbie goes to church. No really, I’m serious. Have a look for yourself. This church was built in the 1880s, during the French colonial period. The church is the second largest in the city (after Notre Dame) and is drenched in the most obnoxiously precious shade of bubblegum pink. Instagrammers, at the ready (ew). What a beautiful church though, pink or no pink – although the color certainly helps its random appeal (you’ll see what I mean when you see the street at which it is situated) – with impressive roman architecture creating a splendid grandeur, smack in the middle of an otherwise rather rough and tumble Asian street. A peaceful garden outside of the church hosts statues of Jesus and apostles, and offers a peaceful, quiet and shaded place for those wanting to pray, reflect or just sit and take it all in. Looking through the windows, I could see the inside of the church is completely whitewashed (it was closed for entry that day, and the gates to view the outer part were closed until 2PM, probably due to services).
Seeing these main sights took me a fair distance through the city, and after I had visited them all it was nearing my time to head back. As I would, I got caught in a total downpour while walking back, ducked into a high end mall alongside many other soggy walkers, and eventually ended up hopping in a taxi for the short ride back to my hotel, as the rain didn’t seem to intend on slowing down anytime soon. The rest of my time before airport was spent in the hotel lobby, happily curled up with a cup of coffee and reading.
My time in Vietnam (the very first for me!) was short but filled with interesting experiences, thoughts and observations. I would like to go back for a longer visit, to get an even better feel of the society, culture, and history.