An evening view of HCMC from Sheraton’s rooftop bar
A trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam was born when a girlfriend and I discussed about taking a short trip together. We have not seen each other for 2 years, it was about time we met up. And so we did, with my mom and her sister coming along too, joining in the fun in this all girl trip!
My impression of Ho Chi Minh City was at first intimidating due to the traffic especially the number of mopeds on the roads. Crossing the road yes can be rather daunting, although after a day or two , you do get the hang of it. Due to the influx of tourists, some of the main tourists areas and Ben Tanh market are filled with touts and shops trying to rip you off everywhere you turn. That was sadly, my first day impression of the city and her people, chaos and cheats !
As we all know amidst all chaos, there lies the true nature and spirit of the place and its people – like an unpolished gem. I found in general people are truly kind and friendly, helpful. Food is great and their local arts/crafts absolutely beautiful. A note on that though, too many local artists despite their huge talents had to resort to copy works of famous artists for a living instead of following their true expressions, simply because life as an artist is yet a struggle bordering on poverty for most, except the lucky few.
A local neighbourhood stall selling helmets for the mopeds
We stayed at a hotel located in District 1, called Hotel Ellyse Nga Khanh on Ly Tu Trong. Perfectly located, all the sites/shopping/eating are roughly 1-2 km in each direction. The hotel is simple, 2 star, clean and the staff was friendly. A night cost us usd30 for a room with 2 single beds and attached bathroom/wc, included breakfast. Staying in District 1 is recommended due to the close proximity to most sights and interesting streets. There are many similar standard hotels in the area.
A lady at Ben Tanh market selling lotus stems
From the hotel, it was just a stone’s throw away from Ben Tanh market. Be warned, many stalls in the market are very aggressive towards tourists and the bargaining process can be very intimidating with either party shouting at one another at the end. Rather unpleasant, sad as it is, you just need a handful of bad apples to spoil it for the rest of the decent folks trying to make a living. But that is life anywhere you go.
So for those who insist to shop at Ben Tanh market, we found a ‘store’ at the far end of the Ben Tanh market that sells at a fixed price, and it was the best place to purchase kitchy lacquer wares, souvenirs, fake tshirts, handbags, etc.
Other places to shop would be along Dong Khoi (Mai’s and L’usine have great clothes), Le Thanh Ton, Pasteur Street, Mac Thi Buoi , TT Hiep and Le Loi. You can easily spend a whole day just doing that!
Opera House at night
So what other sights did we see in HCMC? We visited the Independence Palace (it is a reminder that we were still in a communist country despite the openess in general around us and the western influence from US/France) . The palace stands without a doubt, a symbol of the glorious victory of communist North finally taking control of the south in 1975.
To escape from the bustling traffic, we had an evening drink up at the Sheraton Rooftoop bar, a treat just to relax and wind down and enjoy the view over the city. Make some time for it, if you can! I highly recommend it.
The Post Office inside
The Post Office across the Notre Dame Cathedral is definitely worth a visit, the building itself and inside where you still get to do your transactions as they were done 50 years ago! At noon,each day, the siren would go off. We walked pass the Opera and the People Committee Hall, all very lovely buildings. The general architecture of HCMC is a mix match and sometimes mismatch of horrible concrete structures to colonial grandness to old rundown buildings which are still homes for many people. But that is the charm of the city – no pretence, a reminder of the war and how life has been hard on many despite life improving right now, there is always this constant reminder of their difficult past.
As for food, well if one loves vietnamese food – you are in for a treat. There are lot of street food vendors, so it is up to you if you dare to, or if your stomach can withstand the onslaught of bacteria, parasites god knows what else that could be in the food. We saw waffle sellers, to dumpling sellers to pho and even rice/dishes at street corners, customers eating right by the road side or on the pavements.
A few noted places we tried that was really nice was the Huong Lai restaurant serving really good Vietnamese food (staffs are from orphanages, the streets, impoverished families providing them a learning experience for better opportunities in the F&B industry when they ‘graduate’, some go on to work in hotel/renowned restaurants).
For casual low key dining, at the corner of Ly Tu Trong and Nguyen Trung Truc during dinners , locals swarm the place for stir fried dishes of snails/clams , chicken , frogs etc to accompany the usual rice meal.
Lunch at Huong Lai
We had our pho at Pho 24 which was a good decent meal – nope, skipped Pho 2000 the pho place President Clinton apparently visited. We had a lovely lunch at Wrap and Roll, great lunch buffets at 120,000 vnd per person and dinner at I love Bun. I did venture out for some street snacks like the toasted banana flakes until my runny tummy kicked in. Well I will have more street food the next time I visit Vietnam, there are so many other places to see still – on my list so far are Dalat, Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay.
For some cultural exposure, we decided last minute to head down to watch the water puppet show at the Golden Dragon Water Theatre at Nguyen Thi Minh Kai. It was a very nice experience , the play displayed the lifes of the peasants in the villages and excerpts from their local famous folklores. The entire show was accompanied by their folk music and instruments. Their cultural traditions are steeped with chinese influence as can be seen in the play here.
Water puppet show
HCMC is really a lively city, full of third world charm and energy. As a matter of fact, one can move around quite comfortably despite the traffic chaos. So don’t be discouraged. Someone asked me about the sounds and smells of the city, how was it like? Truth be told, in any big city with traffic, one cannot escape the exhaust fumes that linger, just stubbornly hang around you. You hear the constant honking of all vehicles, some as a friendly warning while others were more like ‘get the hell out of my way, you twat’! The latter tend to get a glare or two from me, although it is quite hard to stare down a bus bigger than myself! Darn!!
A neighbourhood house in the city downtown
Shopping and eating is good, people are friendly and streets are relatively safe to walk around in even at night. And one must not leave the city without trying their local coffee, filtered coffee dripped, with condensed milk. Just right.
Cables (Vietnam telecoms) abound, at your street corner.