The city of Saigon in South Vietnam was renamed Ho Chi Minh back in 1976 in honor of the communist revolutionary who led the North to victory in the Vietnam/American war. It is the largest city in the country with a population of around 14 million.
Unsurprisingly, with its location in the South and its French colonial past, it has more of a Western feel to it than Hanoi (the capital) in the North. The tumultuous recent history of the country gives an insight into why that’s the case. Read more about that here.
Since the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, bilateral trade has grown from $451 million in 1995 to nearly $35 billion in 2014. Isn’t it amazing that two governments can put a savage past behind them and let bygones be bygones when dollars are on the table?
(It helps that Vietnam is feeling threatened by Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and needs a strong ally in the region. My enemy’s enemy is my friend.)
We took a short domestic flight from Danang airport (near Hoi An) to Tan Son Nhat International Airport. While it’s just a $10 taxi ride downtown, we chose to take the local bus (#152) for a more modest $0.45 and in doing so got a little tour of the city.
The most difficult part was finding the bus stop; though located just outside the domestic terminal next to the taxi line, it was not clearly marked. You’d almost think the unscrupulous taxi drivers didn’t want us to find the bus stop!
We went everywhere on foot but one can easily rent a motorcycle or take a taxi if needs be. Just like Hanoi, the streets are buzzing with scooters and motorcycles and the sidewalks are packed with parked vehicles and street vendors. However there seems to be a little bit more room for pedestrians here so you don’t always find yourself walking in traffic.
So much respect for the motorcycle, people even remove their shoes when taking a nap…
Unlike Hanoi, where dogs are snatched up for meat, Saigon has many dogs roaming the streets. Many run wild and are in poor health but thankfully there is more of a ‘pet’ culture here than in the North.
This girl was very sweet and well behaved, and the dog was too…
We stayed at Hotel Beautiful 2 (so good, they named it twice…but not quite!) which is located in the very popular District 1 – an area where most of the backpackers tend to stay.
After 40 minutes on the bus from the airport and a further 20 minutes walking, we finally checked into our first room. Unfortunately, it did not have any windows (unlike the pictures online), so we requested a change.
The second room, bigger and brighter, was an improvement but was located adjacent to a construction site in the building next door. After a few words with the manager, we were moved down the street to another building, Hotel Beautiful 3, and a quieter third room.
The hotel was a disappointment as far as the expectation set by the TripAdvisor reviews and in comparison to other accommodation (some cheaper) we had in other parts of the country. They weren’t responsive to emails in advance, the rooms were so-so and the breakfast buffet was a little sad. The lack of breakfast photos in Alina’s camera roll says it all!
Trying to get a better WiFi signal…
Places to eat
In contrast to the other places we visited in Vietnam, Saigon has many American franchises and chain restaurants – McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut, Subway etc. Despite the high prices, they don’t have a shortage of customers; both locals and foreigners alike. Spending $3 to $4 on a coffee in Vietnam is insane; spending $0.45 on a McDonalds ice-cream cone, not so much!
Here is a rundown of the eateries we visited during our stay.
The Sozo Cafe is an outreach initiative to give underprivileged Vietnamese an opportunity to develop the basic skills to later find a job. They have 15-20 staff members in training at any one time. All profits go back into education and training of new workers so we were glad to ‘donate’ by having some very tasty dessert. Perhaps more people would vote in national elections if it involved eating dessert?
On our first evening in town, we turned to TripAdvisor and hit up this highly rated joint. Very tasty chicken and Pho with a fresh baguette on the side.
Tam Hao Handpull Noodles
Stumbled upon Tam Hao while walking around the neighborhood one evening. Chicken noodle soup and a beer. Can’t go far wrong with that combination.
Surprisingly for the top rated restaurant in Saigon, the place was dead when we popped in on a Tuesday evening. The owner is super friendly and gave us lots of tips which we couldn’t use as we were leaving the next day. #timing
Definitely worth checking out if you are craving a burger. It would be embarrassing to go to McDonalds and order Double-Cheeseburger, Fries and Coke Zero, right? Or do that, twice?
I’m literally a fan of this burger…
We popped in for the ‘two-for-one’ cocktail special (was it really a deal when the drinks weren’t that special?) and had a chat with a few teachers living here from the UK. Nice space, average drinks. Highly recommended for hipsters, mechanics or beer drinkers!
Bakeries & Cafés
Thanks to its French colonial past, Saigon has an abundance of cafés and bakeries selling all sorts of tasty goodies. Unfortunately none compare to our favorite bakery back home in the Bay Area: La PanotiQ which has both amazing sandwiches and desserts.*
* BeesGoneWild has not been paid to endorse La PanotiQ. (Yet!)
Despite the good reviews, this café is too expensive for the average flashpacker. Contrary to popular belief, we do in fact have a budget! And we blew it on Cappuccino and Croque Madame. Which seems like the French thing to do. Sacré bleu!
The local and cheaper alternative to Starbucks is good. Frappuccino tastes better when your wallet feels a little heavier!
Things to do
Many of the main tourist sites are within walking distance of each other and here are our highlights during our short stay.
War Remnants Museum
Originally the museum was known as the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”. (What crime Kermit the Frog committed, I do not know.) Later it became known as the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” until finally it was given the more diplomatic name that we have today.
While some may consider the museum to be one-sided or indeed propaganda, it is certainly another perspective on the war. Photographs speak for themselves and what they say is not easy to digest no matter how you spin it.
The remnants of the US military presence…
The infamous ‘napalm girl’ pulitzer winning photograph from June 8, 1972…
This photo was a centerpiece in the collection of artifacts regarding the use of Agent Orange. Even 40 years later, the US government is still amending regulations to give disability benefits to veterans exposed to these chemicals. Unfortunately the civilian victims remain having little or no support in dealing with their disabilities.
Formerly the Presidential Palace of the South Vietnam government, it finally fell to the communist forces in 1975 when tanks came crashing through the main gates. Today its main function is as a public museum with most everything preserved as it was when the troops took it over.
The palace has everything a president may need – reception rooms, conference rooms, game rooms, theatre, cinema, rooftop bar, nightclub and helipad. Not to mention the tunnels underneath with the war room, extensive telecommunication rooms and a shooting range. All that’s missing is an escalator for Donald Trump to make his entrance on!
It’s a good place to mail a few letters and postcards. But more importantly it was built by the French architect, Gustave Eiffel, between 1886 and 1891. So architecturally it is an insight into how many of the buildings looked in the early 20th century.
Ho Chi Minh Square
Around Ho Chi Minh Square is where you’ll find the five star hotels and expensive shopping boutiques (Ferragamo, Hermes, Chanel, Old Navy etc.) In the evening, lots of locals come out with their dogs and hang out or sit at the a nearby café.
Security guards are on duty to prevent you from getting too close to Mr. Minh.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The tunnels of Cu Chi were originally constructed in the 1940’s during the French occupation. Over the next 25 years, they grew extensively and were vital to the success of the Viet Cong forces operating in South Vietnam. You can learn more about the tunnels here.
After 6 months of backpacking, I was finally in the shape required to fit into this tunnel access point. Though I did struggle with lifting the 2.5kg plate. Mission accomplished!
Below you can see our guide demonstrating the various types of traps used by the Viet Cong forces. The purpose of each was not to kill but to maim and slow the enemy soldiers down. A lot of ingenuity was required to fashion these out of bamboo or even waste metal from unexploded ordinance / disused military equipment. Man’s capability to maim and kill knows no bounds.
Our guide explaining that this is a puddle…
Finally after a tour above ground, our group got to go down into the tunnel system and walk/crawl between two access points. It was a very uncomfortable experience with the tunnels being very hot and sticky. It is hard to believe soldiers and villagers alike lived underground for days and weeks at a time over many years. Let’s not even talk about the poisonous centipedes, scorpions, bats, mosquitos and all of the diseases spread by having little ventilation, no clean water or sanitation underground.
It should be noted that these tunnels have been widened to allow tourists to fit inside. The original tunnels were only wide enough to fit the smallest American soldier; commonly known as a tunnel rat.
Next to the tacky gift shop is a firing range where tourists can purchase ammunition,$1 per bullet ($10 minimum), to shoot with AK-47 or M16 assault rifles. While in the tunnel, I could hear the rattle of gunshots from the rifles overhead. Most definitely a surreal experience.
Bitexco Financial Tower
The big tower in this photo is the tallest building in Vietnam. It costs $10 per person to visit the SkyDeck – which obviously we didn’t do. Instead we visited the bar on the floor above for free where one was encouraged to buy a cocktail or dessert (that unsurprisingly costs about $10 per person) – which obviously we didn’t do either! But we did enjoy the view for a couple of minutes while studying the aforementioned bar menu studiously!
Like temples, once you have seen three in South East Asia, you have seen them all. Great if you need something in particular but otherwise just needless consumerism. Just ask the Pope!
So there you have it. Four weeks in Vietnam. After a rough start witnessing the inhumane treatment of dogs in Hanoi, we had a major highlight in visiting the seaside town of Hoi An before coming back down to earth with a short stay in Saigon. Without doubt, the best food in South East Asia is to be found in North and Central Vietnam and that alone is a worthwhile reason to visit.