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.
If you’ve ever observed 73829 stag parties, steadily drinking their way through the classy establishments of Kuta Beach, Bali to the steady hard bass of Sky Garden’s electro lineup or the kitschy but irresistible dance anthems at Paddy’s Pub… you may be a die hard Bali goer… or you might be longing for an ever so slightly more relaxing, low key getaway.
I have two words for you: Nusa Lembongan. Lembongan is one of the many small island getaways just a short boat ride from Bali, but is a bit further from the beaten backpacker path than say, the Gilis or Lombok. This is my third or fourth trip to Lembongan, and I’m already checking my calendar to see when I can fit in my next trip… why do I keep coming back? Because this, my friends, is paradise. Yes there are thousands upon thousands (literally) of remote islands with gorgeous pristine beaches in Indonesia (not to mention Thailand and beyond), but Lembongan just has a special vibe – maybe you’ll love it too, maybe not. But hey, either way, you’ve gotta see it at least once. I first discovered Lembongan while living in Jakarta, and desperately needing to escape to a beach every weekend, away from the deadly traffic (another story). It was love at first sight.
This weekend, I returned to Lembongan for the first time in a full year, and it felt just like home. I chose to do this weekend trip as an easy getaway from my KL workweek, a great beach escape that still has an element of total relaxation and for my second weekend back in SEA, ease of familiarity.
Flying out of KL late Friday evening, I arrived to Bali Denpasar around midnight. After clearing immigration and customs (sigh) I made my way out to the familiar throng of haggling taxi drivers, who naturally triple their prices at the first glimpse of blonde hair. Despite my attempts to go lower, I managed to get a very kind older driver to take me for 80,000 IDR (note on taxi from airport to Kuta Beach: don’t pay more than 100k, though it will likely be challenging to find anything as cheap as a ride in simply because drivers claim the need to pay several additional tolls and fees associated with leaving the airport grounds). Part of my routine, I naturally told him to head to “Grand Barong Resort, Popies dua” (note my extensive knowledge of bahasa…….) The familiar decorative gateway in traditional Balinese style marked my arrival to good ol Kuta Beach, a grimy and horribly touristy, but undeniably charming desintstion in its own right. We trundled down Popies Lane 2, past all of the closed down trinket and souvenirs shacks lining the alleyway, the occasional partygoer wandering his and her way home.. somehow. Eventually, the lights of the Kuta party scene tellingly illuminating the street beyond and the unmistakeable din of the bar next door told me I was back. Amongst countless lovely, cheap, luxurious and anything in between options for accommodation in the Kuta Beach area or surroundings, I continue to return to Grand Barong for a few reasons, which may or may not be totally justifiable. I know EXACTLY where the hotel is, meaning I can even give a taxi driver directions from a certain point in Bali, and I know the surrounding area and where to quickly and easily seek out snacks, water, ATM and so forth.
As the hotel is also a 3 minute walk from the main party street of Kuta, it’s certainly accessible if you’re looking for a stable place to stumble home to after a good rally at a night out. As I almost always took the last flight into Bali, it became a favorite activity of mine to walk down to this street to sit at one of the bars (playing the loudest music imaginable and with a sign in the back naming their house cocktails, including “Green Fuck, Boom Sex, and Dark at Surfer”. I would order a large still water and spring rolls, and just revel in the hilarity of how perplexed the wandering and inebriated bachelors became at my apparent sobriety, and moreso at the fact that this seemed intentional. They just couldn’t comprehend that I was “only in town for about 10 hours, just here to have a snack and head to bed.” (It’s still funny.)
There are most certainly always cheaper ways to accomplish things in Indonesia, but for the sake of storytelling, I’ll tell you how I’ve arranged my boat trip. If you stay with various hotels on Lembongan, they may offer (and even reach out to you by email, for example) a round trip boat service from various points – including Sanur, the main harbor of Bali – often with car pick up and drop off on both ends of the trip. This is all usually offered (also available directly from Grand Barong) for 500,000 rupiah (about $35 USD). While you could get the boat trip for 300 and negotate a much cheaper version of transport to and from the harbor on your own (perhaps Grab, perhaps a friendly motorist with a scooter; plenty of them offer), the choice is yours simply for price vs. convenience. Arriving to Sanur Harbor, I grabbed some coffee and corn flakes at a nearby homestay-style hotel’s breakfast and waited for the ferry. If you haven’t been, the harbor is lined with many of the same exact shops that you will find in Kuta or other central tourism-heavy areas of Bali, selling swim accessories, batik and various trinkets and souvenirs, in case you feel the need to do some last minute shopping. There are a few different cruise companies that do shuttles to and from Lembongan, including Lembongan Fast Cruises and Marlin Cruises (I have been on both, recently on Marlin). To board the boat, you will throw whatever shoes you are wearing into one big plastic bin, so flip flops are advised. You’ll then hand over your baggage to be kept aside by the crew, sometimes on the roof – if you just have a smallish backpack, they’ll let you keep it on your lap during the ride. Some boats require a metal ladder to board, while others are accessible directly from the water after wading out, knee-deep. The boat ride only takes about 30 minutes as they are quite speedy, and then in no time, you are pulling up to the lovely little island of Lembongan!!
RE: the topic of cheaper transport, the 500k IDR that I have paid for the full return trip including pick up and drop off on both sides; as I never even have more than a small backpack for the weekend and if I stay at Cliff Villas, it is actually accessible from a path that runs up from the main harbor area alongside the cliff, past The Deck (my favorite cafe on the island!) and on up the hill, which I feel would honestly take far less time than the shitshow (excuse my French) that is usually the process of even finding, let alone waiting for, someone vaguely involved with your given tour company until enough straggling visitors are gathered to fill one of their transport trucks, after which they will drive you around the island and drop everyone off at their respective hotels, in no apparent given order (the beauty of Indonesia, my friend). All things considered, I think I’ll just say to hell with it and walk to my hotel next time, to get to my point. Anyway, transport was eventually found and I was dropped at Cliff Villas, to be greeted by a familiar peacefulness and breathtaking tranquility. There are only about 15 villas that, as the name suggests, perch along a lush green hillside with views out over paradise to the harbor, where one can see the small boats lazily making their way around, or dedicated surfers who have paddled out to an excellent spot to catch the rolling waves. There are two swimming pools at Cliff Villas, one down at the reception level (all outdoors) and one at the highest level, all the way up the stone staircase. This infinity pool is the ultimate definition of dreamy getaway, with chairs to lounge and sunbathe in surrounding the blue water, which in my opinion is the perfect temperature and with the same amazing view of the harbor and the rich tropical flora decorating the island. You could certainly make a day (or a week) of lounging by this pool, cocktail or fresh juice in hand. After saying hello to the pool and checking into my room, I donned my island clothes and rented a scooter from the hotel (they say 80k/day but I ended up paying about that much for 1.5 days because it was all the cash I had on me and my host preferred that over taking my card…)
I navigated the familiar rocky paths out from Cliff Villas, which is quite tucked away, to the main road, and turned right – towards dream beach and the yellow bridge. I headed for the famed yellow bridge, the singular crossing connecting Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan, its slightly less-developed neighbor but home to equally beautiful sights and experiences. I had read an article several months prior that during a religious festival, so many people had crossed the bridge all at once that it collapsed under the weight – fortunately, it seems to be up and running (rebuilt) again, even stronger than before, and just as yellow! A quick crossing brought me to the Ceningan side, and turning right at the first fork, I followed the small road that winds along the water for some distance, passing by small shops and houses, greeted by locals and passerby with a variety of waves, comments or confused expressions; perhaps at the prospect of a strange tourist riding a scooter in a bikini with a half silly smile pasted across her face. I kept following the road along until it too turned into rocks and dirt, and eventually came to a familiar pull out with a small sign indicating “Blue Lagoon.” Perhaps the spot had become more popular among travelers, or perhaps I just chose a busy afternoon, because the spot I once had gone to sit alone, staring out at the ceaseless waves, was now the backdrop of numerous selfies and snapchats. After spending a few minutes catching up with the lagoon, I backtracked just a way to “Le Pirate Beach Club,” as made famous per Instagram- I’m sure you’ve come across at least one photo of it’s cute turquoise beach huts in a precious row, facing the ocean. As Le Pirate isn’t only a place to stay, I try to stop by for lunch or at least a smoothie bowl every time I’m on Lembongan, because the food and views are too lovely to pass up. I usually sit down on the sun deck overlooking the water, in utter paradise, happily munching away at my hot pink dragonfruit smoothie bowl.
Following my peaceful lunch, I returned to my scooter and rode my way back across to Lembongan, and headed for one of my favorite destinations on the island (and perhaps ever)- Dream Beach. I played around a bit, riding my scooter over the open expanses of dirt and the small ruts and hills across to the point where busloads (literally) of tourists were scrambling across the sharp rocks, taking pictures against the backdrop of ocean spray and sparkling water. I spent the rest of the day reacquainting myself with one of my favorite beaches in the world, and then made my lazy return to the hotel when I could tell the sun would be setting soon. I wanted to walk to my favorite cafe for dinner – The Deck Cafe – it is a perfect walking distance from Cliff Villas along a special path overlooking the ocean and nestled among flowers and shrubs and passing by various hotels, resorts and restaurants. The familiar whitewashed wood and hipster vibe greeted me at The Deck, where I literally haven’t ever had a bad time, nor a bad meal. I always sit downstairs at one of the sofa tables or the chairs along the bench directly overlooking the water and harbor, so I can have the full view of the gorgeous island and water and little boats. From here you can watch the surfers catching their first (or last) waves, watch cruises and fishing boats arrive to the harbor, and watch small private snorkeling and diving tours coming and going. The music, setting, menu and everything about this place creates the absolute best vibe, and I have to say the food is delicious from morning til night; I just don’t think you can go wrong. I munched on my dinner while watching the sun go down across a purple sky, simply happy to be alive. I walked home that night in peaceful quiet, watching the moon reflect off of the calm ocean, and because I had zero other commitments for one evening, I decided to go to bed – at a splendid 7:30PM – it just doesn’t get any more wild than that.
Thanks to my extreme bed time the night before, I was up and wide awake by 7AM Sunday morning, and got to see the first surfers paddling out for a post-sunrise ride on the fresh new waves, with the mists of the night still fading into the rapidly warming morning. After preparing my things to check out that day, I headed for breakkie back at The Deck, which was once again gorgeous in the morning sunlight. After a wonderfully relaxing and delicious breakfast, I came back to my hotel and my scooter to head for a beach day. On my way back to Dream Beach, I stopped by the Leaning Tree boutique, just down one of the side streets near the turn off for Dream Beach. This boutique has an airy, effortless vibe and sells all of your bougie (but awesome) beachy necessities, from Bali style bikinis to clothing for women and men, to accessories, cute Turkish towels, bags, and even kitchen decor! I spent the rest of the morning and into the afternoon effectively posted up on Dream Beach, dipping into the strong salty current every once in a while to cool off. Sufficiently salty, sandy and sun kissed, I eventually rode back to my hotel, once more saying goodbye to a place I love so very much, but to be back again soon!
As is the case with Sunday returns, it was the classic ferry to Bali, taxi to airport and flight to KL that eventually saw me into my bed, bleary eyed and already missing my sunny palm-tree paradise.