First sabbatical stop: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon to the less PC)

Posted on May 16, 2013

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Perhaps a little melodramatic but I’ve taken a sabbatical from life. Between leaving Paris after seven years and looking for my next career move/country to live in, I took a few weeks to get away and travel to SE Asia, starting in Ho Chi Minh City. Renamed in honour of ‘Uncle Ho’ after the war, this is the bustling southern metropolis of Vietnam.

I had less than 3 days but it’s easy to pack a lot in. The city centre, district 1, is relatively small and easy to walk around. There are two main tourist areas: Backpackers hostels are situated on Bui Vien; and the more upmarket hotels near the river. Mid range are in between around the market Ben Thanh market.

To get over jet lag as quickly as I could I got straight into tourist life, booking a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels for the morning after I got in. The hotel used TNK Travel who do fairly standard day tours. The tunnels are a 2hr drive and it’s easy to spend a couple of hours as guides explain how the guerillas fought. All the standard tours go to the Ben Dinh tunnels (which have been widened slightly for tourists) and are well set up to tell the story, including examples of the traps used on US soldiers. The more remote Ben Duoc may give a more accurate perspective. The trip cost US$7 plus entry of 90,000VND (around US$3.50) and travel is in an air-conditioned coach.

After the tour we were dropped at the War Remnants museum, which is an absolute must see. For me it was interesting as I didn’t know much about the war and although it’s clearly one-sided propaganda, it made me go away wanting to learn more about what actually happened. I loved the Requiem photography exhibit. Very moving – although be warned that many of the photos around the museum are harrowing.

I also  took a day trip to the Mekong Delta with the same operator the next day which was fine but not spectacular. Doing the trip again I think I’d try to get a couple of days on the Mekong travelling to Cambodia or Southern Vietnam. If you go to the area you’ll probably be offered ‘Elephant Ear’ fish, unique to the area. Let’s just say that there is a reason it hasn’t been exported!

Back in central HCMC the indoor market has a lot to offer and feels relatively authentic although it’s predominately tourists that visit. Go hungry, the food stalls in the centre are fantastic and give a great excuse to stop shopping and watch the world go by. There are also street vendors wandering around trying to flog knock off books (no, I had no idea you could rip off books either) to sunglasses, pineapples or hammocks.

HCMC StreetfoodAll over Vietnam I loved the street food. It’s cheaper and often better and fresher than many of the restaurants. A Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) and a local beer (333 pronounced ba ba ba) will cost you about 37,000VND, just under US$2. It’s relatively easy to spot the good street stalls – most have tables and chairs so just glance at the food, and check out how many locals are eating there.

One of the best things I did was a Back of the Bike tour of the best street food in the city. At US$50 it was probably the most expensive meal I had but well worth it. Not just for the food, which was delicious and often adventurous (I eat most things but could only manage a couple of bites of the – strangely popular – chicken embryo). Going through the city on the back of a bike is an experience in itself.

Also try to pop to one of the rooftop terraces, such as Shri, for a spectacular view of the city.

One afternoon I sat in the park that runs between Le Lai and Pham Ngu Lao, a popular place to hangout in the shade of the trees. I was approached by a young guy who asked if he could talk to me. Finding it a little strange, but not remotely threatening, we started chatting. He was a student that wanted to practise his English. Before long I was talking to a whole group of young Vietnamese. It turns out that this is a popular practise and students and young adults come to learn what they often can’t from a Vietnamese teacher…good pronounciation. It’s a wonderful exchange where tourists can learn about Vietnamese culture (such as why locals cover up with jackets whilst we’re sweltering in incy summer dresses), and the students get to practise their English. A more organised version of this offering tours of the city for no fee is Saigon Hotpot.  I didn’t manage to set this up in time but heard that it is a great way to see the city.

I may be travelling for a while but I can’t quite bring myself to go back to hostels and loud bars (as my mother tells me, I’m not backpacking, I’m flashpacking) so I am staying just around the corner at the fantastic Beautiful Saigon 3 Hotel. At US$35/night ($30 if you’re not bothered about having a window) it’s excellent value for money. There are computers in each room plus free wifi and a good breakfast, and airport transfers can be arranged for US$20 each way. Staff are friendly, they happily organise tours without being pushy and just put everything on the bill to pay at the end which makes life simple.

As a lone female I felt safe in the city (and all of the SE Asia countries I visited). The biggest danger is trying not to get killed when crossing a road – stand next to locals, it really is the only way to do it.

Next stop: Phu Quoc island

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Posted in: Asia