Our final stop on our tour of Southeast Asia is the country of Vietnam. There’s quite a bit to see in the long, skinny country. We had heard a variety of opinions from fellow travelers about the country: some loved it, but other disliked it and said they wouldn’t go back. We were excited to see where we would fall on this spectrum. Also, as Americans, we were interested to learn more about the war that affected our parents’ generation so deeply, and to see how we would be received in this country.
We chose to start from the south and work our way to the north in the hopes of finding cool weather. Our first stop was the most populous city and the base of US operations during the war, Ho Chi Minh City.
You may be confused, thinking that Saigon was where all the action occurred. Well, they are actually the same city! The name was officially changed once Southern Vietnam was liberated (or taken over, depending on your point of view) by Northern forces and the country was reunified. Many people in the city still informally refer to it as Saigon, so we found ourselves doing the same.
We were coming from Ko Lanta, our beach destination in Thailand. We were able to find a flight from the Krabi Airport to Saigon (via Bangkok), which simplified things. Our trip away from Ko Lanta wasn’t nearly as frustrating as our trip there, but it still had its bad moments.
Booking a minivan transfer to the airport was way easier than figuring out how to get from the airport. Every travel agent in town offered the same service, with vans leaving once an hour. We were the first ones picked up and therefore had to spend almost an hour picking up other travelers. Once the van was stuffed, we headed towards Krabi. The lines for the ferries went quickly, and we made it in plenty of time to check in.
Our check-in was a little unique, since we were boarding a domestic flight to Bangkok but ultimately would be going to an international destination. Our airline, Air Asia, gave us special stickers to wear to show that we needed to be taken through extra steps. We were stamped out of Thailand in the Krabi airport, and ended up in a waiting area for international flights. When it was time to board our plane, an Air Asia rep found us and took us to the domestic terminal. What was funny was that our transport to there was a full-size bus… for just the two of us and the rep! And the bus only went about 100 yards.
In Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport, we again had a special escort that took us through a side door into a transfers area, where they checked our documentation, did another security scan, and then dumped us into the main international terminal. We didn’t have much baht (Thailand currency) left, so we had one last pad thai each, and then shared some fries from McDonalds (please don’t judge, there was no cheap local food available..).
Our plane was scheduled to take off at 7:30, then around 7:00 we saw lightning flash outside and it started pouring rain. We were excited to see the moisture falling from the sky after so many dry, dusty days, but we were worried about flight delays. Sure enough, a few minutes later, every gate in the area made announcements about delays. Ours ended up not boarding until almost 9:00. We could see large pools of standing water on the tarmac, but takeoff went smoothly.
In the Saigon airport, we had to wait to get our visas. We had used the Visa on Arrival service from Hotels in Vietnam, and all the paperwork they provided worked great. We did still have to wait about 30 minutes for the visas to be processed. At this point it was 11:30 or so.
We were very glad that we had pre-booked a driver to pick us up from the airport, because the few taxis in the ranks looked like the scammy ones we had read about online. Our driver was very relieved to see us. He didn’t speak very much English, but later we found out that he had been waiting since our original arrival time. We had emailed the hotel to let them know about the delay, but apparently the driver had heard that it was on time and didn’t trust them.
When we finally got to our hotel, the clerk roused himself from a nap, checked us in, and then we all headed to bed. Another long travel day in the books!
Where We Stayed
We booked a double room at Giang Son Hotel 2 in the middle of the backpacker area. Our room was a little small, but we really enjoyed the AC and bathroom after “roughing it” at our beach bungalow. The front desk staff seemed very competent and friendly. The included breakfast was good as well.
What We Did
We were especially excited to see the sights around Saigon because we had both recently read the book Saigon by Anthony Grey, a historical fiction novel which used many different real-life locations around the city.
HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) Museum – Our first day, still a little tired from the late night, we just decided to visit one museum. We headed to the city’s history museum hoping to get a good overview for what we would see on subsequent days. It is housed in an impressive colonial building that has seen a variety of uses from its construction in 1885: it has been the residence of the French colonial governor, offices for the South Vietnamese government, and now a museum. The ground floor houses a few exhibits on the history of the city and the culture of its residents, while the second floor is all dedicated to the revolution in Saigon, first against the French, then the South Vietnamese government (supported by the Americans). We also found a small door leading down to a bunker in the basement, which the leaders of one of the South Vietnamese governments had built to use to escape in case of a coup.
Saigon Old City Walk – We followed the self-guided walking tour route laid out in the Lonely Planet to see some of the sights of old Saigon. Some of the highlights were the bustling Ben Thanh market, the modern Bitexco Financial Tower, the Majestic Hotel by the riverfront, the large square with the Opera House and two other historic hotels, and the People’s Committee Buildings (which is weirdly next to a fancy shopping mall). The tour ended at the Notre Dame Cathedral and the main Post Office, where we made sure to meet each other at noon to test out a potential rendezvous plan.
Reunification Palace – On April 30, 1975, the Communist forces of the Vietnam Liberation Front crashed a tank through the gates of this complex, the home of the South Vietnamese government. The leaders inside surrendered, and the country was reunified. Interestingly, they have left the building almost exactly as it was at this moment, so it functions as somewhat of a time capsule for the era. There are a multitude of ornate reception rooms, the President’s residence, and on the upper floors a lounge, a movie theater, a helipad, and a dance floor. The basement is maybe the most fascinating part – here there was a giant bunker complex where you can still see the old radios and maps that were used by the South Vietnamese as the Viet Cong forces grew closer.
War Remnants Museum – This sobering and sometimes disturbing museum shows the effects of the “American War” on the countryside and people of Vietnam. It definitely portrayed the American actions in the war in a negative light, from the massacres of innocent civilians and the long-lasting effects of the deployment of Agent Orange. On the other hand, it did not describe any of the war crimes committed by the Viet Cong side, so it felt like we only heard part of the story.
Cu Chi Tunnels Tour – The Viet Cong were successful against the American forces in part because they engaged in guerrilla warfare. One key part of these tactics was a network of tunnels that they built which enabled them to launch sneak attacks and then disappear quickly. We took a half-day tour up to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where a section of these tunnels has been preserved. The tour took us past some exhibits on the wartime activities in the tunnels and examples of the booby traps that were also a part of the guerrilla strategy. The experience itself felt a bit rushed, but we did ultimately get to crouch-walk through about 20 meters of tunnels (which are only about 3 feet tall).
Explore Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown – This neighborhood in Saigon was originally founded as a separate settlement by Chinese immigrants and still maintains a heavy Chinese influence. We rode a city bus over and spent some time wondering its streets. Our first stop was the large Binh Tay Market. We were amazed by the size of this place; at one point we thought we were in the center, and then realized that we we still in one corner! We also visited two Taoist pagodas, where we got our first look at a type of religious structure that we hadn’t yet seen. Our final stop was at the Cha Tam Catholic Church, where South Vietnamese President Nguyen Dinh Diem and his brother hid during the coup against them.
Attend the HCMC Tourism Festival – We were excited to discover that a large festival was going on in the park just across the road from our accommodations. The purpose of the festival was to promote tourism in the region, and it was definitely aimed at the local population. Still, we enjoyed visiting the different booths, recognizing many of the places we were planning to visit soon. Also, on the first night we got to see a nice dance performance where each number portrayed a different one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Vietnam.
Survive the Traffic – Saigon has a reputation for crazy traffic, and it definitely lived up to this. Crossing larger roads was quite an adventure, especially in a few cases where there was no light. We were very grateful in two of these instances when a local person led the way for us and we were able to get across safely. Even the sidewalks are not safe – sometimes in cases of heavy traffic the motorbikes would drive along them!
Where We Ate
We enjoy eating Vietnamese food back home in Denver, so we were pretty excited to get our first taste of the cuisine in the country itself. One of our favorite things to eat is the famous beef noodle soup called pho, and fittingly this was the first meal we enjoyed. We ate at a local chain and are very happy to report that it was quite good! We also ate at another local chain near our accommodations for dinner one evening.
Another good feature of the festival beyond the dance performance was that it had many food booths set up that allowed us to sample some different cuisine. One night we each got soups that were unlike anything we had had before (they had some random meat parts and herbs in them), and another night we had a more conventional soup and a vermicelli bowl. We were also excited to order draft beer here for just 50 cents a glass!
The day we went to the Cu Chi tunnels, our tour guide us talked into ordering a local special savory pancake called banh xeo. It was very tasting – a large pancake made with rice flour, and stuff with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts.
We never really dipped our feet into the Saigon street food scene because it was just so hot outside, and we preferred the air-conditioned comfort of inside dining. Even with that restriction, we found two local restaurants with nice cool interiors where we were able to enjoy some local specialties.
At most of these meals, we ordered an appetizer of fresh spring rolls, which was especially exciting for Della since they are one of her favorite things. We even were able to find some in a street stall outside the Bin Tayh Market – our one (delicious) exception to not eating street food!
We were unsure about how much we would enjoy Saigon, but we actually quickly decided that we liked it! The city was vibrant but not overwhelming, the sites were easy to explore, and the cuisine was excellent. Saigon served as a great introduction to Vietnam and hopefully the first of many fun places to see there.