Friday, 10 April 2015

Ho Chi Minh Highlights

We arrived in HCMC on a Saturday night around 6pm. Lee and Claire were meant to arrive half an hour later, but unfortunately their plane had been delayed nearly 2 hours, so it was quite late by the time we set off for our hotel. We changed over some money at the airport, as the research I had done prior to the trip said we'd get the best rate if we changed our money once we got to Vietnam. The rate we got was $1 AUD = 16,500 dong, which was close to the rate quoted on xe.com, which was just over 16,600 dong. Other than change money, there is not much to do at this airport - it's big and clean but pretty boring! 


This trip is the first time I've visited Asia so I wasn't sure what to expect. HCMC is huge; much, much bigger than I thought it would be! Traffic is what I imagined, seems chaotic to a Westerner, but actually compared to India it seems pretty tame. Our first couple of times crossing the street were pretty scary, but we realized that you basically just have to go... walk straight and keep a steady pace! Those on scooters will slow down and avoid you. Once you've been here a while you realize that the way traffic flows is pretty impressive. Everyone seems to drive the same speed not many are swerving in and out, and there is little to no road rage. A sort of organized chaos. 


HCMC is very hot and humid this time of year, temperatures were in the mid-thirties and so you basically start sweating the moment you walk outside. 

The city is divided up into Districts, making it sound like you are in the Hunger Games! We were staying in District 1 which is where most tourists sites are, along with District 3 which is apparently the posh bit of the city.

Here are some high (and low!) lights from our 2 days spent here:

The hotel we stayed in was the Beautiful Saigon 3 (there are 2 other Beautiful Saigons nearby). Our rooms were small and windowless, but are clean and relatively modern with good air-conditioning, free wifi and free breakfast. All of the Beautiful Saigon hotels are in the main backpacker area called Pham Ngu Lao, in District 1. It's pretty noisy and hectic at night. In this way I'm glad for the no windows as we can't hear a thing from the streets! Also for $50 per night including breakfast it was a pretty good deal. The staff were very good here, and I'd stay here again if it wasn't for the no windows (I think if you pay for a better room you get windows).

Beautiful Saigon breakfast area
Bui Vien from above

Our first morning here Andy and I both woke up at 3:30am and could not get back to sleep. We finally got up around 6am and ventured outside for a coffee and walk around. We discovered Sozo, a coffee shop about a five minutes walk from our hotel on Bui Vien, one of the main streets in the Pham Ngu Lao area. The Vietnamese coffee was a bit more expensive there than you'd pay at some other places - 25,000 dong for a black coffee and 40,000 if you want it with condensed milk (which I did - so yummy!) but we went here as this cafe trains and employs disadvantaged people to work there. Getting up early to enjoy the slightly cooler mornings and less traffic, walk around and go for a coffee turned into a routine for us while we stayed in HCMC; it was a great way to people watch and start the day.

Watching the world go by at Sozo Cafe
We discovered that if you go to a Western looking coffee shop you pay Western prices for a coffee! We made the mistake of this once, but never again!

Traditional Vietnamese "drip" coffee
Our first morning we headed to the War Remnants Museum (which used to be called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes). It was a very confronting experience, and I must admit I know very little about the Vietnam war. There are American war planes and tanks outside, and inside are photographs from the war. The ground floor shows posters and photographs from antiwar movement internationally, while the top two floors are mostly photographs of those affected by the war. It is pretty horrifying to see the civilian cost of war in such detail, however it is an important part of history and I would recommend checking it out. Entry is 15,000 dong.

Walking through Culture Park on our way to the War Remnants Museum
Fighter jet outside the War Remnants Museum
After the museum we were so hot we decided to pay $6 US to use the rooftop pool at the Rex Hotel. It was a lovely afternoon spent relaxing, swimming, reading, and drinking overpriced beers (for the boys) and coconut juice (for Claire and me). We also ate lunch here which was a HUGE mistake, it was expensive and not very good. They also had an amazing looking gym however it was about $20 US if we wanted to use that as well which was pretty steep! I'd pay the $6 again and again on a hot day though!

Chilling out at the Rex Hotel
Ben Thanh Market is a huge covered market selling pretty much everything and anything. I could only last so long in here, it was very hot and stuffy and mainly full of knock-offs and tourist junk - not my kind of thing! They also sell food, kitchenware, candy, fresh flowers, etc. I think the key here is to know what you want and to bargain as apparently they will quote tourists 50-100% more than what they would normally sell things for, no surprise there! 

We treated ourselves to some spa treatments at the Beautiful Saigon Spa, which was affiliated with our hotel chain. There are millions of spas around HCMC ranging from dirt cheap to comparable to what you would pay at home. This one was somewhere in the middle, I had a spa pedicure and foot massage for 270,000 dong, and Andy had a 45 minute massage for about 300,000. Both were well worth the price!

Eating was a bit hit or miss for us. I've decided (after our first night) that I am pretty much done with just wandering around a new city hoping to find an amazing restaurant to eat at. I guess that makes me a pretty unadventurous traveler, but frankly I don't care! There is so much information on the internet now, between other bloggers and sites like TripAdvisor, that I feel like a little research can go a long way. Our first stop after dropping our bags at our hotel was at La Casa, which was a Mexican on the corner of Bui Vien and our hotel. I know, I know, Mexican?! But it was really just to stop and get a drink and catch up with Lee and Claire, who we hadn't seen since July. We had some nachos as a little appetiser before moving on to find dinner. 
First beers with Lee at La Casa Restaurant
Bui Vien is full of small restaurants that are packed with people, with seating spilling out onto the entire pavement. We went to a BBQ place that looked ok, and was just that, ok. Hence the desire to actually look something up the next time we ate! The two restaurants we ended up at over the next two nights were called Papaya and Propaganda. Propaganda was by far our favourite, a self-described "Vietnamese Bistro". The food is not traditional Vietnamese apparently, but we were all very satisfied with our meals. Dinner with appetizers and drinks ended up being about 300,000 each. Papaya was highly recommended, as the chef has a lot of experience working in top hotel restaurants. The food was traditional Northern Vietnamese. We were less satisfied with this, our meals were good (although Andy hated his) but nothing amazing




As far as drinking goes, there is a huge variety in prices depending on where you go. The main beer here is called Saigon, and the cheapest price we found was 12,000 for a bottle at a little stand on across from La Casa restaurant called Coffee Break. On the other end of the spectrum, we went to the rooftop bar at the Sheraton Hotel where you pay for the spectacular view. Cocktails here were about 180,000 (still way cheaper than in Australia, but expensive for Vietnam). I was obviously a very cheap date this whole trip being pregnant! I must say I've had enough fruit juices and smoothies to last me a while, although I did love that you can get fresh coconut juice pretty much anywhere! 

Cheap beers and deep conversations at Break Time Coffee


On our second day we went on a tour of the Mekong Delta. We booked this hastily through our hotel, and it think it was through TNK Travel. It was probably our least favourite day in Vietnam. Probably not worth doing just a day tour as it was over 2 hours of driving each way and even then you are just at the start of the Mekong Delta. We stopped at a pagoda, went on a boat ride, ate a horrible lunch, then visited a coconut farm. This was probably the best bit, they showed us how they made delicious coconut candy and we bought some to take home. We also went on a smaller boat ride through narrower rivers and saw a group of men hunting amongst the huge reeds which was cool. We then visited a beekeeper who helped people dip their fingers into a swarm of bees to taste fresh honey, and then listened to a live performance of traditional Vietnamese folk music. It was a full day tour, we were picked up at our hotel around 7:30am and then dropped back at 5pm. It was only 210,000 dong each, so I guess you get what you pay for! I would not do this again, or find a better tour company. 

Biggest Buddah ever!

Mekong Delta


After 3 nights in Ho Chi Minh we packed up and headed off to our next destination, Nha Trang, to get some sun and beach time. I really liked HCMC and would spend time exploring more of the other Districts if I ever go back. We also didn't have time to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, however my pregnant belly would not have fit through them anyway! 


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