Finally, my HCMC JBR (taken a while)...
Day 1. We arrived mid afternoon after long, bumpy and tiring bus ride from Chau Doc. It was so nice to arrive at our welcoming hotel (Sen Hotel – read my review in the hotels section). The front desk were very organised. We were a group of 12 and we had our keys within moments of arrival.
A quick shower and we were off down Le Lai street towards the Ben Thanh market, and to try and find a laundry. Over 9 days on the move meant our clean cloth supply was at rock bottom.
The market is maybe 500 metres from our hotel and easy to find. New World Hotel was right across the street and a great landmark to find our way around. Inside, the walkways are very small in some places, and full of people. The stall holders were very pushy - and rude. More than once I was shoved or bumped out of their way as they walked past. They do touch you, and even grab you. I looked at something, asked how much, and then tried to walk off. The lady grabbed my arm and pulled me back to the stall. So you do need to be firm and keep your wits about you. I made it a rule that if they were too pushy or touched me, I would not even look in their stall.
Ben Thanh has a lot of everything – tee-shirts, lacquerwear, clothes, fabric, hardware, and fresh food with lots of fresh coffee beans (loved the smell). There are maybe 10 stalls of each kind too so if you don’t like one, just go to the next. My mission was to buy silks. There was a huge variety with varying prices. That first day, I beat down the seller to $3 US per metre and bought 8 metres of a few different designs (they are so beautiful!!!).
The market closes at 6pm. But a lot of stalls and restaurants open up on the streets out side the market as it closes, so you can keep shopping. On our way back to the hotel, we were approached by many taxis and hawkers, but just politely said no thank you and didn’t have a problem. We stocked up on bottled water and beers for the hotel (as it did not have a restaurant and the mini bar’s prices were way too expensive). All through Asia, we found buying from local stalls away from the markets or tourist areas the cheapest. You also have some fun trying to communicate with the locals and try out your Vietnamese (and sign language).
We joined our group for dinner at one of the places outside Ben Thanh. It’s a lively area with the stall holders displaying live fish, shrimps and other seafood. One of our group ordered some sort of fish and was horrified when she was asked to go up and select the live fish she wanted from the tank. The food at the places around the market is the freshest, as it would have been purchased that day from the market. We all enjoyed our meal with not a single complaint. Though, there was a little language difficulty, particularly for me as I’m vegetarian, Many menus show vegetarian food with shrimps or fish. So trying to get through you didn’t want seafood was challenging. The menus themselves are fun with the some of the English translations amusing.
We also discovered Saigon beer. Now there’s 2 kinds: red label that is ‘export quality’, 4.9% alcohol, 330mls and more expensive; and green label (or called blue label in some places - but it is green) that is ‘local’ beer, 4.2% alcohol, 450mls and less expensive. Many green label Saigons were had during our stay, and we personally found them more refreshing then the red. But many would find them more watery with less flavour I guess. I’d say green label is more of a larger and less bitter and the red more an ale (for those of you beer connoisseurs out there).
After diner, we went hunting for a place to have another beer towards the hotel, but most places were closed or didn’t serve beer. So we crossed the small park over the road from our hotel to the backpacker area. There were many places to eat, drink and a few clubs with music blaring. Even a few shops, many tour companies, and a few laundry services. We were so pleased to find so many options and penciled in dropping our laundry and dinner there the following day.
Day 2. A day on foot. With a good map, we headed out for sightseeing. Most places were only a short (ish) walk from the hotel, and we enjoy walking around towns to get a better feel for a place and the locals. But the traffic – well – it is unreal so you have to be game. The trick is to give way to all cars, mini-vans, busses and trucks, look for gaps in the constant stream of motorbikes, and just go. Keep looking towards the traffic as you go, don’t change direction, keep a constant pace, and they simply go around you. There were a few rare times that we crossed without any traffic around us. But there were many more times we found ourselves surrounded by a sea of bikes. On a couple of occasions, we crossed with locals. We found it funny that they sort of held onto us and helped us out. Truly a unique experience.
First stop, the War museum. It used to be called the ‘American War Crimes’ museum and for good reason. Some of the photos in there are truly horrific and I would not take small children. I mean, we visited S21 and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and the museum was significantly more graphic and disturbing. If I was American, I think I’d have felt uncomfortable as there is a real anti-America flavour to all the exhibits. For example, they show American POWs, eating, happy looking, and in tents etc. Then they show Vietnamese POWs held by the Americans, starving and beaten. It is a bit one sided (actually, all one sided). My favorite part was an art exhibition by local children with the theme of world peace. Though my partner found the weapons and war stuff interesting, it is a good way to remind people just how horrible and hellish war is.
Next, Notre Dame and the post office, which are next to eachother. Loved the post office! Wrote a few postcards and sent them. It is a pretty crowded place with stalls to buy souvenirs etc. The building is majestic and the roof inside a marvel.
By now, it was close to lunch time (and very, very hot and humid), so we found a mall near by (Diamond Centre). It’s a typical western mall with cosmetics, fashion etc. Expensive! We’re not shoppers so headed to the food court for cold drinks and lunch. Definitely could have spent less than half if we had eaten outside at a local stall. But it was good to be in air-conditioning and revive.
Back out to the heat and a wonder past the Reunification palace (which we didn’t go through), over to the town hall (or ‘The People’s Committee Hall’). There’s a square in this area down to the Theatre. Two beautiful old buildings (I’m guessing French something – I’m not much of an architect). On one of the corners there’s a tourist information centre (free internet, good maps and heaps of info). Tax store is also right there, as it the Rex Hotel. The rain was about to pour so we headed into Tax. It’s an older department store setup, with smaller stalls with the same goods as what you’d find at Ben Thanh. I bought a polarizer for my new camera lense, and a 4GB memory card for about $20 US each (bargain!!!) A couple of lemon juices at the café on the top floor overlooking the busy roundabout below in air-conditioned comfort. You really need to get out of the heat regularly as it is draining. We also bought a few things at the stalls (lacquerwear plates, carved boxes etc for gifts for the family). The stall holders bargain with you, but it is not as fierce as the market. No crowds, heat, or pushiness. There are a few stalls, so they do compete with eachother. But it was a much better experience for us than the madness at Ben Thanh.
From Tax, we walked along one of the main roads where there’s plenty of cafes and shops that leads back towards the market (maybe Le Loi street – can’t remember), with a few stops for lemon juice and browsing. Two highlights: a photography shop with great images of Vietnam (some award winning) where you could buy prints; and a silk embroidery shop. The works were hung and simply stunning. In the rear of the shop were ladies who were patiently hand embroidering. I could have spent thousands of dollars. Most of the works were quite large and very expensive. Truly lovely work!
After refreshing ourselves back at the hotel, we went back to Rex armed with tripod and camera for some night time, long shutter photography of the traffic, buildings and hotel all lit up. First a couple of beers on the roof top garden which was just lovely. Highly recommend the Rex for a relaxing beer and good view of all the traffic going through the roundabout below. The setting is nice, wonderful service, but a little pricey.
We then headed over the backpacker area for dinner with a few girls from our tour group. The choices were huge! Western food, local food, and every type you could imagine! We chose a small restaurant that advertised being vegetarian but they had many meat dishes, and some of the veggie dishes had seafood (sorry, didn’t note the name, but it was a Vietnamese name on a small side street that had many restaurants as well as another larger restaurant that also advertised being vegetarian). I had the vegetarian lasagna which was presented cooked in a clay pot with layers of veg and cheese – very, very yummy! We all were very happy with our dishes and the prices were so cheap!
Day 3. With Jason Super Star, and his brand new laptop tour. He met us promptly at 7:30am at the hotel and we were off in his air conditioned, new(ish) Mercedes mini van. He’s a classic guy, lots of jokes, heaps of great info, and just lovely to spend the day with. We had the privilege of being his first ‘laptop tour’ customers and he was just so proud to have his laptop. It was great as he could show us information, download the photos and burn to CD etc. Throughout the day, he took photos and videos of us and the places we visited using his own camera and we received a DVD of everything. It was a really nice touch.
First, a short drive out towards Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh, stopping at a sheltered workshop where disabled people make the famous lacquerwear. We saw the process from raw wood, through the many polishing stages, and the inlaying. Do you know that the average piece takes 2-3 months of hand work to complete? Our guide there showed us all the stages and we got to meet some of the people who make the pieces. Of coarse a big showroom met us at the end where we could purchase it. It was a bit more expensive than what you’d find at the many stalls in HCMC, but it was of a significantly higher standard, broader range, and at least you knew that your purchase was to assist the disabled people there (I guess?).
A little further down the road, we stopped at Trang Bang, Kim Phuoc’s village, who is the girl from the famous photo taken when her village was napalm bombed and she ran naked down the road to escape the flames. We saw the temple she was hiding in and walked along that same road – kind of eerie. Jason also played a DVD of her story which was very interesting.
Next, the midday service at the Cao Dai temple. Truly an experience. The religion itself is fascinating. Jason had some info about their beliefs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cao_Dai) and I was very intrigued – the divine eye, 7 buddhas, saints, and sages including Jesus, Confucius, Guan Yin and the others. After walking around the temple, we went to the balcony above to watch the 12pm service.
Then an embarrassing moment… I’m a bit of an amateur photographer and was taking a lot of shots, after which I went to put my lense cap back on. It’s was a new lense and the cap is sort-of spring-loaded. As I released the spring, it popped of, over the balcony, down to the temple floor below where the worshippers were in mid-chant. Luckily it missed all the people, but was bang smack in the middle of the floor – and the service goes for a whole hour! Jason was beside himself thinking it was hilarious, as did a few others around us – I was mortified! Jason said that we could come back after the service to pick it up. But on our way out, he had a word to one of the temple attendants who went and retrieved it for me. So, after leaving a large donation to the temple, we left for lunch. The restaurant Jason took us too was set up specifically for tourists who visit the temple. There was meant to be a set lunch, but my being vegetarian sort of mucked them up, and we ordered off the menu (which only had a small choice). We got chatting to some other Aussies at the next table and it was a pleasant stop.
It was a 45 min drive to the Cu Chi tunnels from there so we chilled out and watched a DVD along the way. About 30 mins down the road, in sort of the middle of no-where, a tyre blew out. Jason was all apologies, but told him to relax and we didn’t mind. While his driver changed the tyre, Jason noticed a local ‘café’ where we could get a drink while we waited. The villages had a Karaoke machine with huge speakers and equalizers and were singing along enthusiastically. It was a bazaar thing being middle of the countryside, rice paddys, cattle and chickens running around, and here were these 3 local guys singing along (very out of tune). You could hear them for miles!
So my partner and Jason ordered coffees. I went walking along the road with my camera, looking for some shots, and Jason went back to supervise the type change. Within a few minutes, I arrived back at the café, and initially couldn’t see my partner. Then I looked over, and there he was, sitting with the locals, who were doing their best to try to get him to sing. Mind you, the lyrics on the screen were in Vietnamese and the songs were all foreign. On my arrival, one of the guys shoved the microphone in my hands to get me to sing! It was pretty funny, they didn’t speak a word of English, our Vietnamese is non-existent, but we all had a good laugh, my partner sharing cigarettes with them, and we were entertained with their Karaoke singing (however reminiscent of screaming cats…) Well funny!
Soon we were on our way after hearty goodbyes to our new friends. The Cu Chi tunnels were not far from our unscheduled singing stop. And they were pretty amazing. Yes, there was very narrow tunnels, but the history of how they lived underground was also fascinating. We were there probably a good hour, with Jason taking photos of us in the tunnels, on the tanks, holding guns etc. How they fought in the oppressive heat, in thick jungle I don’t know, but you could see why the Americans (and allies) never had a chance.
It’s about an hour drive back to HCMC and Jason pulled out some beers and we chilled out. However, closer to HCMC we hit the traffic. We were stuck in it for nearly an hour, putting us back at the hotel later than expected. But at least we got to see how far the airport was, and to allow an hour to get there the following day in case the traffic was bad. Being in the middle of the traffic, with the bikes going every which way to keep moving, but cars and trucks stuck, you can really see why bike are so popular and advantage in big traffic.
Our last dinner was at a lovely Thai restaurant just doors up from the Sen Hotel. It was quite posh I guess compared to other places we saw, not super expensive, but not cheap either. Great food, huge menu and wine list, and service that would put the most expensive places in Melbourne to shame. A perfect last meal in HCMC.
The lure of a few late beers in the backpacker area was too strong, so we walked the 500 metres over the park, found a spot at one of the places on the corner where you could watch the world go by, and relaxed with some beer and wine. Last night in HCMC and a 8:30am pickup the following morning to the airport for our flight to Phu Quoc (see my separate trip report). But we savored it and finished up about midnight.
Some observations about HCMC (and Vietnam): the blinkers on some cars, minivans and trucks beep much like the reversing signals on trucks in Australia. Funnier than that, their reversing signals play tunes like ‘happy birthday’, ‘lambada’, and ‘twinkle twinkle little star’. Very amusing. Also, the lack of birds was weird. We only saw a couple of pigeons and sparrows. Apart from that, we did notice that many of the locals kept birds – canaries etc – but we did see a couple of Indian Minor birds being kept as pets (they are a pest in Melbourne). And the interesting things you see on a motorbike – a family of 5 or 6 (very common), huge bundles of wood, creates of fruit and veg – but the weirdest, baskets of live ducks – there would have been 100 all crammed into the baskets which hung of the sides, front and back of the bike. Amazing.
In summary, HCMC is an interesting big city. We didn’t get to Chinatown (which was a bit disappointing), and found 3 days to be enough. I’ll upload some photos soon too.
Not sure I can help out too much, but ask any questions and I can try to respond.