Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Well it was the last chapter of my first ever trip to Vietnam as my visa only had a few days remaining and I was on my way to Saigon (I will call it Saigon during this post as everyone else in Vietnam still seems to call it that).

Just in case anybody isn’t aware, like I wasn’t, Saigon is the former name of Ho Chi Minh City, to which it was re-named after the Vietnam War. As it turns out, many Vietnamese and travellers still prefer to call it Saigon although for Vietnamese this name refers mainly to the central, urban area of HCMC. The reason I am mentioning this is to help anyone avoid my mistake, when planning for this trip, of searching for Saigon on a map and wondering where the heck it was! I am afraid to admit that I didn’t realise they were one and the same city. That being said, I didn’t know very much at all about Vietnam before I arrived here which is one of the reasons I wanted to visit

After staying in cheap, basic hostel accommodation during my trip through Vietnam, I had decided in advance to splurge a little in Saigon and treat myself to a hotel so that I could get cleaned up, have some decent rest and prepare for my trip to Cambodia. There were lots of cheap options around for hotels anyway. Also, after my few drinking nights out in Dalat I thought it would be a good idea to have a few days off the sauce and generally speaking, staying in hostels means sauce. By “sauce” I mean copious amounts of alcohol including rice wine and cheap beer. It really did seem to be quite hard to stay off the sauce when travelling hence the reason I had decided to seclude myself in a cushty, yet lonely, hotel.

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Room after 5 minutes – You could tell a messy backpacker was living here!
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It is hard to convey in words the excitement and joy a backpacker feels when seeing a bag full of clean laundry and how much pleasure I had touching, feeling and wearing these clean, sweet smelling clothes.

Next I made my way down to Backpackers Street or Bui Vien as is it’s official name. Now I have had some pretty good holidays in my time and been around to a few party places (not Ibiza granted!) but on the face of it this was hands down for me the most buzzing party street I had ever seen in my life. There must be about 200 pubs and clubs on this road and about 10,000 people partying from all sorts of different nationalities. It was also called Walking Street, although I have no idea why as bikes and cars still plummeted down here with their usual homicidal intent.

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The start of Bui Vien Street.

The next day, I woke up and I had told a mate of mine from back home, who had spent some time in Vietnam teaching English, that I had arrived in Saigon. This friend had already given me some pretty good tips during my travels and very helpfully put me in touch with an expat he knew who had lived here in Saigon for 8 years. Unfortunately, his friend wasn’t available to meet for a beer that day but he gave me some great tips on some restaurants and other local haunts that you wont find in your usual travel guides, which I did check out during the day including the best chocolate brownie I have ever tasted! He also said he might be available to meet for lunch the next day.

The first full day in the city I did what any self respecting tourist does when you arrive at a new city for the first time – I pounded the pavements like a deranged lemming searching for sights and collecting photos as if everything was only here for one day and would soon vanish forever; walking until I could barely walk any longer and all the muscles, bones and organs in my body ached and screamed at me to give them some mercy. Here is what I saw that day; a day in which I clocked up 28,206 steps – my personal Vietnam record beating my previous day record of 20,152 quite significantly.

Firstly, I was walking past a bank and I saw this – I asked a local what was happening and they said this was how the bank opened every day; not quite sure if they were winding me up or not but it was about 9AM.

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Next stop was a walk in a nice park. When I visit a city, the first thing I usually want to do is get out of the city and a green park is the closest thing.
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Next stop was the War Remnant Museum, showing remnants and photos from the Vietnam War.
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I am starting to look tired in every photo and was actually starting to feel it to be honest. Backpacking takes it out of you! I think a few days at a beachside are in order.

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I didn’t actually take that many photos inside here, the reason being was that the place mainly consisted of shocking, harrowing and truly disturbing pictures from the Vietnam war. There was no censoring in this place. The most shocking was images of dead children and there was lots of images of mutilated bodies. It was a very sombering experience visiting this museum and did well at showing the horrors of war – photo framed and in full frontal view for all to see.

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This large building in the background is the Bitexco Financial Tower which is the second tallest building in Vietnam, Hanoi has the largest.  It is also the 124th tallest building in the world in case anyone is interested. I love a big skyscraper and I particularly liked the look and design of this one. I had a pretty stupid moment just before I took this photo where I was typing the name of the tower into my offline map to try and locate the way to get to it. If you don’t realise why that is stupid then you are just as bad as me!
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Just in case it is not obvious that is a helicopter pad at the top.
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I was thrilled to discover that you could go up the thing and walk around a sky deck at the top for a small fee. Nothing was going to stop me from doing that.

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I think the views of Saigon beats the views of Hanoi. If you have read my previous posts you will see I also went up a tower in Hanoi.
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After taking a photo of the city centre town hall…………
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………..I visited the “must see” Notre Dame Cathedral. My travel guide told me I must see it, so I did. I must say it looked a bit like my village church back home.
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Next I went to see another “must see” which is the Independence Palace. As I walked up to the building, I realised I hadn’t actually read past the section in the book which told me it was a “must see” so I had absolutely no idea what this building was or what its significance was.
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I soon learned from reading some of the stuff around the entrance that this was the home, workplace and planning area of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. All of the rooms had been left exactly as they were before it was opened for the public to visit. It is a very significant building in Vietnam and they even depict it’s image on some of their currency.
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Many people also say that it was right here at the entrance to this palace that the Vietnam War ended during the fall of Saigon in 1975 when a North Vietnamese Army Tank crashed through its gates.
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Presidents bedroom, left almost exactly as it was. One observation that I made was that it was very noisy in this room from the traffic from the road and I wondered why the president of the country would put up with such a thing. I thought noisy roads were for backpackers in cheap lodgings only. Maybe they didn’t beep their horns so incessantly back then.
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The president had a helicopter at his disposal on the roof and a pilot on call at all times. I am not sure if this was the actual helicopter he used or just a replica.
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This was in the bunker where war planning took place and was also a shelter in case of attack.
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This was the presidents actual car.

After all the sights, I finished up that day with one of the nicest chicken curries I have ever had. I know I keep making these dramatic, over the top exclamations about food but it really is that good here. I am afraid I have forgotten the name of the restaurant but it was in Bui Vien.

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Doesn’t look anything special I know but it was the sauce that did it.

The next day – a Saturday – turned out to be a very good day.

I had done all the main city sights and had decided to skip one of the biggest and most important sights here known as the Cu Chi Tunnels which are tunnels from the war. I am probably one of the few people who has visited Saigon and not gone to see them but for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I just didn’t fancy it and I had also spoken to a couple in Hoi An who said they didn’t enjoy it which put me off slightly – they said it was just like being on a tourist conveyor belt. I think the reason is that I didn’t have the appetite for another bus based tour. If I come back here again, I will make the effort but for now I just wanted to enjoy the city as there was enough to do and see where I was.

Instead, I woke up and took an Uber motorbike across the city and back again to a few different spots in the city just to experience what it was like to be in the madness, rather then just watching it from the pavement. My mate who had lived here recommended this and it didn’t disappoint, was a bit of an adrenalin rush. Next, I went to a place called Café Tram which was recommended by the expat which I mentioned earlier in the post for breakfast and a coffee. It has got a sort of forest theme and ponds etc. Lovely place and one of the most unique coffee shops I have ever seen – staff weren’t too friendly though for some reason and wouldn’t let me sit where I wanted and seemed to get annoyed when I asked for the WIFI code but it was a nice oasis from the city.

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I had been talking to the expat I mentioned earlier over Facebook and we arranged to meet for lunch that day. I met him at the spot we had arranged and he took me on the back of his motorbike to a local restaurant. He was from my home town and had been living in Saigon for 8 years doing pretty well for himself teaching English. During that time, he had married a Vietnamese woman and he told me an interesting story about their wedding and some of the customs in Vietnam, the wedding took place in her local village and first he had to travel all the way there to formally ask the parents permission to marry their daughter – although this tends to be a courtesy in the west, this is an essential custom over here and must be done in person. His wife also then turned up at the restaurant and joined us for lunch. It is always great to meet someone from home and was nice to meet his wife too as I love meeting locals – we had a good chat about his life in Vietnam and I told him about my travel plans. I am always listening out for travel tips and one thing I picked up on was that he wasn’t too keen on Laos which is the second or third person I have heard say that, however, on the other side of the coin I have also heard a lot of people say they loved it, it seems to be a love or hate place. I will have to see for myself I guess.

Next, from all the heat and dust in the city I felt like I needed a swim. I got back to my room and did some research and discovered there was a  large, fancy hotel near my hostel called New World. I thought I would try my luck and walked into the hotel, followed the signs to the pool, took a seat confidently as if I was a guest and ordered a lemonade. So far, so good.

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It looked cloudy but it was actually really hot!

I took a long swim which felt fantastic and by the time beer o’clock had arrived………….

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…………..I was feeling pretty smug about myself and like a proper rebel – nobody knew there was an intruding budget backpacker lurking among them.

I hadn’t foreseen a key thing that always happens in nice hotels when you order drinks – when it was time to leave and pay up, they asked me my room number to put the drinks on the room bill. I quickly decided to just be honest and say I wasn’t a guest but thought it was open to the public. It turns out it was open to the public before 6.00PM as long as you purchased drinks so I wasn’t such a rebel after all.

Furthermore, when they brought the bill over for one sprite and one beer it was 210,000 Vietnamese Dong. Now, anyone who has been to Vietnam will know how utterly shocking what I just said is. I mean even by English prices that is very steep coming in around £7.  A sprite and beer in a normal Vietnamese pub would be around 40,000 Dong in total for both or around £1.30. I had been truly stung, my smug rebellious buzz was truly burst, and there was only one person with mug written on their forehead when I left that place. I guess this is what happens when you try and get one over on the Vietnamese, they don’t miss a trick. I did have a great swim though and eventually managed to get over what had felt like a daylight robbery, by thinking of the extra charge as an entrance fee for the pool!

During my time in Saigon, I had downloaded and set up an account and profile for the room sharing app, Couchsurfing. I think this is because I had chosen to stay in a hotel so was feeling a little secluded from the main backpacker community and this app does have a great feature, called “Hangouts” where if you activate it you can search people nearby and connect to explore the place, meet for beers, go to food, meet a local etc. During my time at the pool, I had connected with a couple of local university students, which was a very common thing to do in Saigon where you go to speak to them for an hour or so. For the traveller, they get to meet a local and learn a bit about the country and culture and for the student, the benefit for them is that it helps them practice their English. My hotel receptionist and also my travel guide had also recommended it. Later that afternoon, I met two students called Pham Xuan (Male) and Pham Thi (Female) in a coffee shop and basically just chatted to them for an hour about Saigon, my travels, their university, the food in Vietnam, the coffee in Vietnam, other people they had met, what courses they were doing etc etc. We had a decent conversation and I think it was a worthwhile experience. I always like meeting locals when I am in new places and I think I even taught them a couple of English words

I decided to go out for a few beers that night at Bui Vien, which is the buzzing party street I mentioned earlier. After sitting and watching the world go by for a while……

………..I thought I would try out the Couchsurfing App again and it worked! There was a group who had arranged to meet for beers. I met them in a small local bar and the group consisted of an American couple who told me they were digital nomads which means they seem to be permanently travelling and they work online (I was pretty impressed by this and have made it my new ambition in life!), one Spanish lady, and a Fillipino Lady. It was getting quite late by this point but I had a good chat with them for about an hour or so, enjoyed a couple of beers with and then we went to get some street food before heading home. If I am totally honest, even though it does seem to be a great way to meet people, the experience did feel a little random and forced to me – I think I prefer meeting people naturally as you encounter them in a bar, hostel, tour etc but I may use it again if I am staying in a hotel or non-social hostel. Maybe it just felt a bit awkward for me as it was my first time doing such a thing! They were all nice people though and was good to meet them.

Weird moment – while I was on the way home, there was a rude Vietnamese kid who came up and swore at me in an aggressive manner telling me to “F” off basically and a few other words for absolutely no reason whatsoever. It is the only negative encounter I had with the Vietnamese during my month here apart from some of the pushy street hustlers but they were just doing business. Most of them have been warm and friendly. I have no idea what his issue was and I definitely didn’t do anything to provoke it but at the end of the day he was only a kid, about 12 – 13, so I just ignored him and he carried on walking. Ironically, the kid was going to get his wish as it was my last day in Vietnam and I was off to Cambodia the next day on the bus, Phnom Penh being my first stop.

Next Stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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4 thoughts on “Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

    1. Buzzing city. Will go back for sure!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Oh Dan. Reminded me of when u tried to carry on swimming in that nice pool in malta after our holiday with u. Worth it tho for the lovely time u spent by that pool i reckon ! Xx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha ha. You should read the 2 Cambodia blogs when you get a chance. Had some great experiences there!

      Like

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