So here I am again, continuing on my 3rd part of my Indochina Journey.
It has been 14 crucial hours in the bus from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
I got an invitation from my best friend Maria to visit her 2nd home at Vietnam. Aside from that, this was a point of interest for me because of her intrigued and endless stories that Ho Chi Minh has so much to offer for being at the heart of the bustling city. Hopping on from a local &provincial place, I am now immersing myself to get back to the rural city life. Not to mention, the time to feast on delicious Vietnamese cuisines!
For the next 48 hours, I will conquer my quest on the 3rd city of my Indochina experience. If you haven’t read any of my Indochina story on Bangkok, Thailand and Siem Reap, Cambodia I recommend and invite that you do.
We boarded the bus from Siem Reap, Cambodia at 11pm. It took us 5 hours to get enough rest in the sleeper bus en route to the capital Phnom Penh.
At 4am in the morning, a wake up call was announced that we needed to get off the bus and transfer to another one going to Vietnam. It could have been tricky for us, since there were other destinations that the bus will be going, so you need to be precisely clear to the bus conductor on your final destination. Better yet have your ticket with you at all times.
At 6am, we were aboard to take on another six hours in the bus. This includes a stop at the immigration office. Finally we arrived at Ho Chi Minh 1300h local time. It took us almost 14 hours to get here, including immigration stop. What a relief!
Day 1: Miss Saigon
The Ho Chi Minh tour was unique because we explored the city by just walking like real tourists do equipped with a map. In this city we had the overwhelming experience to find ourselves lost in the city with the opportunity to understand the Vietnamese culture and meet the people at its natural state. Though we conquered the tour by walk, there were times when we had to take a cab. But aside from that, accessing the city by motor bike, or through cab is convenient. Grab Car and Grab Bike are good options too.
Our tour in the city includes:
- Pin-pointing historical and iconic monuments of tales in Vietnam;
- Tasting authentic Vietnamese food, street snacks, coffee and milk tea;
- Being cautious on motor bikes passing the area;
- Living in the reality as the hunger games by naming and choosing to walk around the different districts of the city;
We decided to focus on touring at District 1. It is the center of commercial buildings, businesses, famous landmarks and home to 5 star hotels. This is the right place to start and set the trail of the Ho Chi Minh tour.
We were caught up being amazed at the Notre Dame Cathedral. This remarkable structure showcases the influence of the French culture and its impact on the Vietnamese people.
Just around the corner and across the Notre Dame Cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office. Tourists buzzed the place by coming in and out collecting stamps and sending post cards to different places around the world.
This post office is one of the oldest buildings in HCM, but the establishment still remains to be the most visited by tourists.
I also took the initiative to collect one for myself and send a postcard.
The afternoon heat caught us thirsty for a refreshing drink. Maria suggested that I should try the Vietnamese coffee. I did have the idea that one of the best coffee beans hail from Vietnam. Although I am not a coffee drinker, a little taste of it got me excited for more.
Catinat was a petite coffee shop just in front of the post office and the church. I must say, Vietnamese coffee did taste bittersweet but extraordinary.
The coffee shop also provided drinks perfect for cooling the body in this hot weather such as the local version of milk tea and fruit juices. This is one of the best things that I’ve achieved by just walking around, discovering one of the best coffee chains in Ho Chi Minh.
We continued our tour strolling around within the radius of District 1. We walked for hours and came across other tourist attractions such as the Reunification Palace and the National History of Museum. Our walk is like a virtual tour gazing some of Vietnam’s iconic and historical treasures with a touch of French architecture such as the Saigon Opera House.
A few blocks down, and we found our way to the Ben Thanh Market.
Now this marketplace truly captivated the iconic ‘Asian market setting’. It was a market for souvenir items, handcrafted goods, authentic Vietnamese street food in hawker-style carts, and almost branded products as well. But being inside fairs like these, and in the mountains of Vietnamese items here, we braced ourselves for the tricky part of marketing which is bargaining.
When we entered the market, the smell of street food welcomed us in. We were welcomed by vendors trying to sell products varying from food, souvenir items, clothes and even herbal medicines. We continued on to venture other stalls inside the market. At the end, we were overwhelmed in buying products with a good bargained price. It can get really rowdy inside the market too, so expect a lot of vendors and stall keepers to sell you things, you don’t necessarily need.
Now my favorite part of my Vietnam trip was the shopping! Just across Ben Thanh market, there are a number of stalls selling consumer goods that vary from clothing, shoes, bags and other souvenir items.
It saved me time from bargaining in the rowdy crowd of the market and most items were marked down. We left the market with smiles on our faces and backpacks full of purchased goods.
As evening drew by, we made more pit stops circling around city hall. By this time it was rush hour, so we can see how busy the motorists and the taxis are as they race their way along the roads, while we enjoyed our tour by foot.
The Ho Chi Minh’s People Committee complex stands lit up across the park. We took shots from afar but enjoyed the view.
The shift to nightfall gave the shine of lights from the different establishments in the metro. The city night tour became a more exciting walk.
Book Street was around the corner, if you are into books or fancy going to libraries and browsing on books this must be the best place for you.
This street is filled with books, magazines and brochures that pose almost like an outdoor library.
It is a recreational park that stores thousands of books for your reading consumption. You can even donate and purchase books to your heart’s content. Also , around the corner you might see and encounter this fatso.
After a tour in city hall, we felt hungry and Maria decided we try Banh Mi at a little shop famous for the Vietnamese healthy sandwiches “My Banh Mi”.
Most of the food in Vietnam, promote healthy living. Practically almost all Vietnamese cuisines include vegetables!
Aside from the main attractions and landmarks, there were a couple of stops that grabbed our attention. This is clear evidence why walking around Ho Chi Minh, is still the best way to see the city.
Here are some snaps from today’s mini escapade bolstered with fun and fulfillment:
We topped off the evening and ended our tour at Bui Vien Street. This was a place where party-goers and people looking for places to eat, drink and probably to have fun.
It was one of the few places where you get to see live performances on the streets as well. I was amaze with the kind of setting that Vietnamese have during “happy hour” little chairs and tables are set outside of the bar for people to come in and go.
We got invitations on a few places where you can also find yourself to try exotic and local drinks and also “laughing gas”.
After a few drinks and sight-seeing, we headed back to the apartment to re-energize for the next loaded set of activities.
Day 2: The Jungle Experience
Our wake-up call caught us early to commence the 2nd part my Vietnam tour. Today’s agenda? A Jungle adventure to Cu Chi Tunnels.
Cu Chi is a district located in the far end of Ho Chi Minh that was used as a military base during the Vietnam-U.S war. It was an extensive network with a series of tunnels in the heart of the jungle used by the Communist guerrilla troops, Viet Cong. Now the government made it into a military museum park that is open for public viewing.
We were running late on our tour bus, but luckily got the chance to make it on time. After an hour of travel, there were stops for passengers to take a break and have a glimpse of the paintings and art pieces displayed in the gallery, hand-made products by the local artists.
Upon reaching Cu Chi, gun shots were heard all over the place. The setting made it feel like we were in an actual war zone. Later on, we did realize where and why the guns were fired.
DISCLAIMER OF THE CU CHI TUNNELS TOUR:
Little did we know that there are some unexpected hints to remember before embarking on the Cu Chi Tour. One can choose to be a courageous adventurer but also develop fears or find discomfort that one might not be aware of. Here are some points to remember, and taken from experience:
- Gun Shots. Expect to hear them for the entire duration of the tour. This is because there is a shooting range inside the area where tourists can fire a rifle either an AK-47 or M30.
2. Tunnels. The base camp of the Vietnamese was based on guerrilla warfare. Most of the activities in the tour might include visiting tunnels and underground camps. This includes dressing appropriately as well, if you want to go under the tunnels.
3.Claustrophobia. If you have heart problem, or have this kind of phobia. I suggest that you do not have to try entering the tunnels even if you are being pressured by your peers.
4.Do Not Touch. Most of the items on display may be the actual piece used during the war. In order to preserve the items, be guided accordingly by your tour guide.
5. Tour Guide. At all times must you listen and follow the tour guide.
The Cu Chi tour is not possible without a tour guide. You cannot enter if you do not belong to any group. In fact, we were given stickers with a definite color to recognize that we are part of his group. A guided trail had to be followed depending on the tour guide. We definitely did not want to get lost in the jungle maze!
The tour was fun and educational. It will definitely make you feel like a Vietnamese soldier back then. Being caught up in a war zone setting was definitely one of the grandest activities I have conquered.
We did experience getting inside a real tank, holding weapons used during the war and also trying the food during the war. Pretty much, we were just hanging around.
We also got to witnessed the different war strategies back then. What a way to revisit the past?
After much time spent going around the camp, the group was given a 30-minute break. Right next to the resting place, was the shooting range.
It staged as an actual mass field with the machine gun and the rifle. I stood at the side and witnessed one of my friend do it instead.
At the end of the tour, the tour guide asked our group who would like to enter the tunnels by willingly crawling inside. While few backed out, we the daring kids from the Philippines took the challenge.
I didn’t have that much photos while inside the tunnel because I was focusing mainly on trying to scurry my way out of the dark which makes me feel smaller and smaller. We eventually managed to make it towards the end of the tunnel. Despite of my height, guts and company it is a worthwhile experience.
After a half-day tour we travelled back to the city. We capped off the night celebrating Maria’s pre-birthday dinner. Just in time to have authentic Vietnamese food which includes Pho!
BITS OF TIPS FOR YOUR VIETNAMESE EXPERIENCE
1.Mind the motorbikes: The city life might put you in quite a shock. Probably, I’d advice you to beware of special belongings and also of passing by motor bikes. Riding in tandem is in effect here.
2. Book your Cu Chi Tunnel Tour ahead of time: It guarantees space and transportation to and from the site. But make sure to check with the inclusions in the tour.
We associated our tour with Kim Travel Tour. Since we got the half day tour only, the website fee is $25.00. But we got ours for $20.00 only since we booked directly to the agency. The travel agency has a number of other satellite offices, but we booked ours at Bui Vien.
3. Practice Bargaining. In the market, the only way getting around and moving in the market is to bargain with the locals. But don’t be easily deceived with the items sold.
Just like a soldier, she continues to move onward in that almost victory,
Padayon ang biyahe!