So, once I came back from the US, I took a week off travelling to meet my close friends in Singapore and do some work , as well as to celebrate the New Year. Once that was done, I packed my bags and was off again.
It was meant to be an ORD Trip for Ding Hao (he calls himself Damien now) and I- so we only booked our flight and hostel and left the rest to chance. We went for 5 days, 4 nights which in retrospect was a tad bit long. Neither of us had visited Vietnam before and so it was exciting. We heard a lot about our district – that there would be pickpocketing and all that stuff.
Some essential tips :
- Only travel on the registered Taxi Companies. Anyone else hustling you is going to be an invitation to trouble
- The motorbike ferries are certainly interesting but only go on it in the day – and if you’re really willing to take the risk
- Keep your belongings on you – split your cash and never carry anything that can be easily snatched – especially handbags
That being said, Damien and I were more than excited to begin.
One thing you should know about Vietnam is that cars are rare on the streets. Instead you have swarms and swarms of motorbikes flooding the streets. There are every few pedestrians, in fact the walkways are mainly used to park motorbikes and not to walk.
Our hostel was the exciting Phan Anh hostel in Pham Ngu Lao (the Backpacker’s District) . It was clean, service was great and they provide good breakfast. This was my first time in a hostel and I really enjoyed meeting so many interesting people along the way. We went out with some of them and had a blast.
These are just some of the people we managed to meet and hang around with!
On to the attractions now! The first thing we visited was the War Remnants museum. This was where they showed all the artifacts and weapons/equipment used in the Vietnam war, from a Vietnamese perspective. After reading through the museum information, you become a bit confused on who’s really on the right. Vietnam basically stood its ground that all its affairs are its own and the US had no business there.
And I guess in a lot of ways that’s valid. There’s definitely a lot more to the war than that but one of the saddest conclusions from the war was that all those who used to be Southern Vietnamese ended up migrating out because of fear of being punished by the Socialists. In the end, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh (after the great leader) to commemorate the success. When you walk through this museum, you realise that a lot happened in this country and a lot of lives were hurt .
One of the saddest exhibits in the museum is the Agent Orange exhibit, where they showed the effect the chemical agent had on the Vietnamese due to the US mass usage of it. It’s disgusting and abhorrent how anyone could do something like that to people. It reminded me why I served in the CBRD department of the army. To prevent evil occurrences like these.
The day after we took a bus-ride down to Cu Chi tunnels to visit the infamous war tunnels. Now to digress for a while, the first day you reach the city, find an affordable tour agency and book your tours. The ones that matter most are the Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta trip – the rest are pretty lame and not necessary. We spent a total of $20USD for the bus-ride up to Cu Chi and back, as well as the bus-ride to Mekong and back, the ferry service, a lunch, and a hotel stay. Really value for money.
Ok back to Cu Chi tunnels. This was really interesting. Granted, it has been commercialised for tourists, but there’s still a lot to learn. For one, these traps weren’t built by soldiers, but by the locals who converted to Guerillas to fight the US Soldiers. This is really a product of their innovation.
Let’s take a break from the attractions to talk about the nightlife. Now as backpackers/young tourists, nightlife is an important aspect of travelling. You want to meet people and celebrate. Alcohol here is dirt cheap – you can get beer for a few cents off the dollar. We visited this club called Lush which has a really good mix of locals and expats , as well as good music. There was a lot of fun here 😀
Based on the recommendation of a local friend, we visited Acoustic bar as well which is a really chill concept for local musicians to exhibit their skills. It’s really popular here – people support local music very avidly and for good reason. The music here is amazing. The bar is packed very early and you have to come slightly before 8 in order to even get a seat.
Ok back to the attractions! My architecture buff took over as we visited some of the epic scenes in Saigon. This is the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral.
Just next to it is the Post Office. It looks a lot like the Grand Central Station in New York, just slightly smaller. Also very grand.
A few metres away is the Reunification Palace. It closes during lunch time so we didn’t get to go in. Again, another beautiful building.
Now you probably realise I was on a selfie spree while in Vietnam. Most of my pictures are on Instagram to log my journeys so I had to follow the trend. I even infected Damien with the selfie virus.
Most of you are probably looking forward to this. The food commentaries. Well, the first thing we ate in Vietnam was the Pho. Pho is this delicious noodle soup made with beef and rice noodles. Very simple, but can have so much diversity depending on the sauces and condiments you add that they provide on the table. Our favourite was Pho Le, which is apparently the local favourite. No tourists were there cos it’s really in the heartlands.
Another local popular dish is the Banh Mi, which is basically a snack sandwich. It’s made out of yam paste, vegetables and cured meat put in a baguette. It’s inspired from it’s French colonial past, and it’s really a good snack in the middle of the day, or for breakfast. It only costs 80 cents!
The seafood is a must-try. This was at Hong Hai seafood – really cheap food . We had cockles, clams, escargot and all kinds of shellfish. AMAZING!
Pho is not the only noodle there. There’s plenty of other noodles. This one is called Bun Bo Hue, which is made with carrot and has an oilier broth. But so amazing! We also had the Vietnamese Spring rolls, which is made from Rice Paper, and has lots of vegetables inside. You have to eat it with sweet chili sauce.
They also have a local ice-cream shop that takes advantage of the fresh fruit in Vietnam, called Fanny. The ice-cream is really affordable and is a good counter to the heat in the area.
Considering that Vietnam used to be under the French, it’s not uncommon to try the French food in the area. We went to this place called Le Forkette, which has affordable French Food at fine-dining service. I had the duck confit, and it was a joy chowing it down.
Now, you can’t be eating the big-name items all the time. Near Pham Ngu Lao is the Backpacker Street where they serve all kinds of food. One night, we just grabbed a quick meal and I ordered the Vietnamese pancake. It’s a lot of seafood and meat with vegetables stuffed in a crispy shell. So sinfully good. We had this at Five Oysters.
And a local drink, very few know about is the Egg Coffee. It’s coffee with a dollop of raw egg inside that adds a whole layer of flavour to the coffee. Must-try. Thanks to Samantha for recommending this to me.
There are plenty of noodle dishes in Vietnam. I forgot the name of this one, but we just wanted a quick lunch and we ordered it from a streetside stall. It was really sweet from the peanuts but still a good meal.
These are coconut cakes – damn shiok.
And this is Pho Le, the one that I mentioned earlier. It was my last and best pho.
Dessers are big here in Vietnam. They have their regular custard flan which is sweet but nothing exciting. This dessert below is highly recommended in the market, it’s very colourful. I can’t remember the name 😛
And of course we have to talk about Vietnamese Coffee, which is basically filter coffee. When you’re there , take the opportunity to visit the local chain – it has a very distinctive Vietnamese name and looks like a Starbucks. Okay I found it, Trung Nguyen Coffee. The coffee is slightly stronger and tastes better than your Starbucks for sure.
Now, we decided to take a 2D1N trip to Mekong Delta during our trip as well and took a 3 hour bus ride up to the area. The Mekong River is a huge span of water that supports so many lifestyles and jobs – you really wonder at how much power the river has.
There were many things we did while on the tour, but my favourite was when they brought us on one of these smaller boats deep inside to the trails where we met the locals.
We saw how they made coconut snacks – really sweet and chewy ones.
We saw crocodile farms.
We saw them make lacquer art – which is a really unique form of art that takes a lot of effort. Really earned my respect here.
They took us on horse trails.
And we of course visited the Floating Markets. The produce here are fresh and you should try one of the fruits.
We also got a chance to visit a Rice Noodle Factory where we learnt how they make rice paper and then make noodles out of it.
This is the fried noodle pizza – a good mid-day snack as well!
And finally freshly made honey tea – with bees flying all over you. This was all from one trip to the River – can you imagine the diversity provided by it?
On the last day, Damien and I decided to splurge all our remaining money buying souveniers. There are two markets you can go to. Ben Thanh Market is the tourist favourite because it’s accessible. You get grabbed a lot here so be careful, but you can haggle the prices very easily here. Try to cut your prices by more than 50% – they’re severly marked up here.
Just 100m away is Saigon Square 1, where they also sell goods but the prices are less negotiable. That being said, the prices are generally lower here as well. So you can take your pick.
There was a lot done in the short span of time in Saigon. We wished we booked a longer trip to visit Nah Trang beaches, Hoi and Hanoi, but that’s an adventure in itself.
Really take the opportunity to meet people while you’re in Saigon – that was one of the best decisions we made. Here’s wishing you all the best in your own trips!