Two days after finishing school for summer, on the 21st July, we started our journey around Vietnam. First stop; Ho Chi Minh City. At first I wasn’t sure what to expect, I’d pretty much booked the flight accidentally and before we researched where we wanted to visit in our short time (8 nights) in Vietnam. You often hear of a lot of beautiful places that you ‘must see’ in Vietnam and the city named after its infamous former leader isn’t always one of them so I did wonder whether or not I had made the correct decision. We decided that we would spend just two nights here before travelling North and booked a lovely room on Air BnB which promised to be central.
Upon landing in Vietnam, we happily went through the airport and up to immigration. In the queue to hand in our passports, Conor and I got into a discussion about why he has an Irish passport rather than a British one (he hails from Northern Ireland so could choose either), which resulted in Conor deeming that his Irish passport was superior in his eyes. A few minutes later, we realised that the opposite was true when I was allowed to pass through immigration without a visa but Conor was not and was made to purchase an emergency visa – a lengthy and expensive process! Moral of the story: check the visa requirements for your country…
Three hours later, we finally were able to get into a taxi and we realised that at 5.30pm it was rush hour and we were about to see the true extent of Vietnamese traffic. Chaotic and noisy, we watched in awe as motorbikes carrying families of five weaved in between the cars on roads where lanes appeared to have been made redundant. We arrived at our accommodation and were met by the lovely Kevin who explained that one of the main ‘backpacker’ streets wasn’t too far away. It really was in a great location. We quickly got changed and went out to grab a bite to eat as we were very hungry. I was expecting a lot of western people and people trying to entice you into their establishments with promises of buckets filled with alcohol. Whilst there was a lot of ‘happy hours’ going on, there wasn’t the commotion that you often find in Thailand’s backpacker street nor the same magnitude of western tourists. We chose a restaurant with a terrace above the main street and quickly chose to eat two bowls of Beef Pho (amusing to the Vietnamese people, who usually eat Pho for breakfast…) alongside a few Saigon beers. Delicious. We later also went and ate some BBQ food at another eatery as we both just wanted to try all the food! Due to a lot of travelling we both decided on a relatively early night, ready for a day of exploring Ho Chi Minh City the next day.
We had a good amount of sleep and then decided to get out our map and explore some of the city but first stop was for breakfast and the opportunity to try some of the world famous Vietnamese coffee. We were not disappointed, the coffee is unbelievably delicious. Some places better than others but you will pretty much get a good cup wherever you go. They often are a little bemused that we want our coffee hot and you will often have to request it as Vietnamese coffee typically is served cold.
Next we took a walk through Ben Thanh market and then onto the Central Post office and Notre Dame Cathedral, although not before being accosted by many local Vietnamese people who loved my pale skin and Conor’s beard! We walked around the city, taking a look at Parliament buildings and Pagodas and using excellent map reading skills before arriving at the War Remnants museum. I’m ashamed to say that I knew very little about the Vietnam War before I embarked on this trip but this museum explains every heartbreaking detail. It’s extremely informative and every visitor to Ho Chi Minh City should visit here. We decided then that we would go to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, the tunnels used by the Viet Cong in the war, the next day.
We then took a cycle taxi to our next destination, the Brixtco Tower. According to our guide book, these taxis are unique to Vietnam so we decided to try some. A word of warning: have the correct change! We were massively ripped off because we only had large notes. The Brixtco tower is in the financial district and the viewing platform offers the best views over Ho Chi Minh City. I think the picture speaks for itself.
Next we decided to see one of the famous water puppet shows. I hadn’t heard a lot about these shows before we arrived and I was very unsure what to expect. We booked tickets inside the central post office and then walked about 20 minutes further to our destination. We were ushered inside into a beautiful, old-school styled theatre with excellent air conditioning (anyone who’s travelling in Asia knows how important this fact is…) and took our seats and awaited the show with anticipation. What followed was one of the most bizarre yet brilliant performances I have ever seen. I won’t tell you what happened in case you decide to visit but also because I haven’t actually got the slightest idea what the show was about! However the puppetry and the music was absolutely superb and considering the puppets can weigh up to 15kgs each, the movement of them was brilliant. I’m not sure what confused us more, the story or how the puppets were put into action! I would definitely recommend this visit.
Finally we decided that before we went back to the accommodation we would go for a few drinks. Conor had looked up a couple of bars that offered craft beer but they all seemed a bit pricey. It was then that we remembered a chirpy American bloke who tried to convince the apparent ‘hipster’ couple into his bar the previous night with the promise of IPA’s and so we returned to Sancho Cantina. We were not disappointed, they served craft beer that was brewed here in Vietnam. It was all on draft and we can vouch that both the IPA and the blonde were delicious. Despite the porter looking tasty, we decided it was just too hot. Prices here were really reasonable, 50 dong at most for a beer and only 35 for a blonde. After a few more than we had previously anticipated, we finally retired for some sleep before our busy next day.
We arose bright and early ready for our half day tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels which left at 8am. We booked this when we were in HCMC and less than 12 hours before – it’s still a little cheaper than booking in advance on the Internet and you have the added bonus of knowing exactly where you will get picked up. After visiting the museum, we were both eager to see the tunnels. The drive from Ho Chi Minh City is only a couple of hours and our tour guide, Mike, was excellent and talked to us about the tour on the way.
Upon arriving you are shown a video and spoken to about the history of the tunnels. You are then shown around the forest (mosquito repellent is a must) and shown what the entrances to tunnels, breathing holes and bunkers would have looked like. Finally we had an opportunity to go through the tunnel ourselves. I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t make it far, between my dodgy knee and dislike of small spaces I think I only managed 20m! However there are up to 140m of tunnels and many of our group managed to go the whole way.
There is also the opportunity to shoot one of the guns that were used in the war, if that kind of thing is your cup of tea. A few hours after returning to the coach we arrived back at the city centre and grabbed a beautiful Banh Mi, or maybe two, from the Ben Thanh food market. We then quickly headed back to pick up our cases before flagging a taxi to the airport and meeting one of the happiest and friendliest taxi drivers I have ever met, despite our language differences. Next stop; Hoi An!
Ho Chi Minh City highlights:
#1 The best Banh Mi we tried in Vietnam was found at Ben Thanh market. I’m currently writing this from India and I can’t even describe how much I would love to eat a Banh Mi.
#2 The people we met were all so friendly, between our taxi drivers, tour guides, restaurant staff we received nothing but a very warm welcome.
#3 The view from the Brixtco tower is breathtaking and really gives you a great feel for how busy the city is.
#4 The war remnants museum is quite upsetting but extremely informative and we quickly realised that the Vietnamese expect you to know a little about their country so this is important.
#5 Water puppetry. Nonsense at its finest.