Written September 2010
For the past few years, every time I suggested going on a trip, my significant other would say “Don’t you want to go somewhere cool, like Vietnam?”
Having heard this for years, I decided that for his birthday this year, I would take him somewhere cool, like Vietnam. I booked us 5 days in Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), did my Anthony Bourdain research, and on the 25th of August, we set out on our adventure.
Our first day in Ho Chi Minh was a bit of a disaster! Though we did see the war museum, which he loved (and actually had been dying to see), we got swindled left and right by cab drivers!
Ho Chi Minh Tip#1: Ask your hotel which cabs are reliable. Many cab drivers take advantage of the fact that working with a currency set in thousands confuses many foreigners. They state the amount which looks like it’s on the meter, but they’ve already added a lot to it. Or, they may just take you for a ride, going around in circles. Many cab drivers just say yes to what you say, even if they don’t speak English or don’t know where you want to go. They simply want to start driving around while they figure it out. In the meantime, the meter is running.
Ho Chi Minh Tip#2: Get a map from your hotel on your first day and ask your hotel receptionist to mark the places you want to go, and give you estimates of how much a cab to those places are (from the hotel.) This not only gives you a good idea of how much you should be paying, but you also will be able to tell if your cab driver is going in circles.
Despite the fact that we did have a map and were being careful to work with the currency, we still paid waaay to much for our first three cab rides.
The next day, we decided we were better off walking. Many of the sites are near each other anyway, and are quite walkable.
Ho Chi Minh Tip#3: If you can, walk it! Take a cab from your hotel to the farthest destination you have that day, and slowly make your way back. It’s much cheaper, and you get a good feel of the city. (You also get to stop in interesting shops or places you probably wouldn’t have if you were in a cab.)
Getting your hotel to grab that initial cab for you and having the bellboy talk to the driver lessens your chances of getting cheated by a lot! Remember that a typical cab ride will be about 1-3USD at most, so don’t pay more than that! Plus, what you paid going to your destination should be more or less the same amount on your return to your hotel. For the return cab ride, have the calling card of your hotel ready to show the driver.
The sites that are walkable and can be done together are:
– Vietnam History Museum and Zoo
– Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Reunification Hall
– The Rex Hotel, the Opera House, and Dong Koi shopping
– War Remnants Museum
With our new plan, we not only got a lot done, but we became well acquainted with Saigon’s architecture, street food, and everyday sites.
Apart from these city sites, you can check out the Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong river. Book the tour with your hotel. We actually didn’t get to do this tour because it rained every afternoon (it was the rainy season) and we weren’t too keen on getting muddy.
Food is incredibly cheap in Ho Chi Minh. A typical meal for two is less than 10USD, sometimes less than 5USD! The more tourist-y places will cost more (of course), but if you stick to places where you see many Vietnamese people eating, then you’re in for a treat! You have to have Pho, deep fried spring rolls, fresh spring rolls, and the vegetable wraps. Also, try to get the Vietnamese version of a pancake. This is reminiscent of French crepes, and have a unique twist of their own!
As previously mentioned, I did my Anthony Bourdain research before we left Manila. I love Chef Bourdain, and was eager to try all his recommendations. Unfortunately, Bourdain had a lot more help than we did. Many of his stops were hard to find. We never found the Lunch Lady, which was a huge disappointment!
What we did get to do was dinner at Ben Thanh market and lunch at Com Nieu Sai Gon (Bourdain’s favorite restaurant in Ho Chi Minh.) These were both incredibly excellent meals! Remember to have seafood, which is really fresh in Ho Chi Minh, and be adventurous with whatever menu is given to you! Vietnamese food is really good, and it always tastes so fresh! Take advantage of this!
Like our trip to Hong Kong, We found a small, hole in the wall Indian restaurant in the alley next to our hotel. It was a bit scary going down the alley because it was narrow and dark and the only real light we could see was the light coming from the sign of the restaurant. We decided to eat there for dinner of our 3rd day. It was also really really good! How good? We had lunch there the next day! So if you want a break from Vietnamese cuisine, check out the Taj Mahal restaurant on Pham Ngu Lao. Just look for the Liberty 4 Hotel on Pham Ngu Lao street and ask the bellboy where the restaurant is. He’ll show you the right alley.
Coming from Manila, the shopping for fakes at Saigon Square (which is what the square is famous for) didn’t really appeal to me. It’s the same stuff (though admittedly cheaper and of better quality) that you’ll find in Greenhills.
Shopping at Ben Thanh, on the other hand, for Vietnamese products is more worthwhile! Jewelry is cheap, and the other products are really creative. Just be aware of what you can leave the country with or bring in to yours.
All in all, it was a great trip! We once again got to explore a new city, eat some amazing food, and understand a culture better. I can’t wait for our next adventure!