Vietnam & Cambodia Trip – Stop Six – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
On the 12th we had another early morning flight, this time a 27 minute flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in Southern Vietnam. Since we arrived in the city too early to check into the hotel, we drove outside the city to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
The tunnels were used during the war by the Viet Cong and now are a tourist attraction. We walked through the jungle and our guide pointed out bomb craters, tunnel entrances and vents for the underground kitchens used by the Viet Cong. In addition to kitchen space, meeting rooms, medical wards, and ammunition “factories” were all located underground connected by these tunnels. For tourists, many of the rooms have been uncovered and sections of the tunnels widened. We saw examples of how hard it was to see the tunnels in the jungle and the various traps which were used. Chris shot a M1919 machine gun on the shooting range then crawled through a section of the tunnels. It was really hot and I cannot imagine what it would have been like wandering through the jungle during the war. The last part of our visit to the tunnels was to sample boiled tapioca root and tea. A typical meal for the Viet Cong during the war and it was served with a bowl of crushed peanuts, salt and sugar. It might have been because we were hungry but it tasted really good.
We drove back into HCMC through some of the worst moving traffic I have ever seen. Traffic lanes, signals, and signs all appear to be suggestions. Traffic was not stopped or backed up, there were just a lot of people and more cars than the other cities we visited. We checked into the hotel and then went to find something to eat. A few blocks from the hotel were a bunch of restaurants in a court yard. We went to Jasper’s for lunch, then spent time walking around the city before going back to try the Japanese food at Blanchy Street.
Gratefully our guide suggested that we meet up in the afternoon to tour the city by foot. We walked by the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City that we had seen the night before on our walk and then walked by the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee Head office. Across from the Committee building a subway system is under construction which would hopefully improve transportation in HCMC. From there we walked to the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica and the Saigon Central Post Office. It appears to function mainly as a tourist attraction now; the main hall filled with vendors. The post office in fact was designed by Gustave Eiffel and the architecture of all these buildings reflect the years of French rule.
From the front of the post office we could see 22 Gia Long Street; the apartment building famously photographed at the end of the war. That seemed to mark the start of the “war years” part of the walk around HCMC. After passing by shops and through a large park we got to the Independence Palace or Reunification Palace. The building was built in the 1960s and was the home of the South Vietnam President during the war. When the North Vietnamese took the city a tank drove through the main gate and is now on display near the palace. We elected to not tour the palace, instead heading to the War Remnants Museum.
We spent a fair amount of time in the museum. It has gone through several name changes in the years since the war but ultimately appears to focus on the negative effects of the American military on the Vietnamese during the war. It is mostly photographs and weapons with propaganda-heavy descriptions. It was depressing, particularly the information about chemical warfare. Even reading the information while thinking about the political focus in mind was hard. Outside are military vehicles and a cage/chamber which illustrates how prisoners were treated. While it is not the relaxing vacation type of attraction I am glad that we took the time to see it.
Our guide took us back to the hotel then we walked to a Popeye’s for a quick familiar meal. We did not really eat much because we were going on the “Saigon After Dark” Vespa tour. It was probably the best thing we did the whole trip. Two drivers on Vespa’s picked us up at our hotel as it was getting dark out. We meet up with about 30 other people going on the tour that evening to meet the guide. We were paired up with three other couples from England and Australia. Once it was dark we were driven the long way around the city. The lights of the city from the back of the Vespa were beautiful. Our first stop was “locals only” seafood restaurant with tables and chairs on the sidewalk. There were tanks with clams, mussels, snails, frogs and eels. The tour was all you can eat and drink, and our guide brought us plates with crab, stuffed mussels, clams, rice noddles and then frog legs. It was all fantastic.
Our next food stop we had Banh Xeo, spring rolls and summer rolls. The restaurant was a bunch of tables in an alley with an open kitchen. Our guide showed us how to eat the dishes like the locals and told us about some of the non-alcoholic drinks available. It is typical to get a glass of club soda with sugar in it and lime juice, that was my go to drink for the tour. From there we went to a small, hidden coffee bar. There is on way we would ever have found this place on our own. We went down and alley, walked through a kitchen area then upstairs to a small living room type of space. While we were there two women gave acoustic performances. One was in English, covering songs we knew the other sang in Vietnamese. It was just beautiful and meditative. I was sad that we needed to move on but the final stop was great too. We went to Woodstock Bar were a band was preforming cover songs. They were really good and took song requests so we stayed for a while.
After the tour I wished we had a lot more time in the city, reflectively it would have been great to take our first night in HCMC.
Chris’ Comments: I absolutely loved Saigon; the name most locals use for the city. It was far more modern than Hanoi, while still maintaining all the charms of Vietnam. The traffic was nuts, the food was absolutely fantastic, and the nightlife we experienced reminded me of the things I love about Seattle. The city is quite cosmopolitan and, as it’s apparently coming of age, strikes that perfect balance of modernity and heritage. I agree the Vespa tour was likely the best experience on our entire trip – I swear I had a massive smile on my face the entire time. I actually shot a lot of Go Pro video that will give context, but I haven’t even begun processing it. I would live in Saigon in a heartbeat, were it not for the subtropical weather; I can’t wait to go back. Also, holy crap the tunnels were mind-boggingly small.
Cu Chi Tunnels
First Day in Ho Chi Minh City
City Tour with Guide
War Remnants Museum
Vespa Tour of the City
Jaspers – I am not sure what type of restaurant this was. It was open when most of the other places were closed between lunch and dinner time so that says something. The menu was a mix of things including some very Western options. We had to try the imported corn chip nachos. Turns out the nachos were made with Doritos. Beyond that the food was not memorable.
Blanchy Street – We found this Sushi restaurant from online reviews. The sushi itself was good but service felt a bit slow and distracted. The fruit plate I ordered for dinner was the best I had the whole trip, but that was the result of a perfectly ripe Mango.
Popeyes – We always like to check out the American fast food places in other countries, normally we try a McDonald’s. This time we saw several Popeye’s in the city and went for it. It was pretty much what we have here in the U.S. with a lighter colored batter on the chicken.
Note to our readers:
If you are interested many of the photographs are captioned, just select the individual images to open them in a new window. Also, we were surprised how large the country was for a small country. I have put together a Travel Map with the places we visited to give an idea of how we managed to cover a good portion of the country during our trip.