After boarding a bus at the bustling market place in Phnom Penh we headed for Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, formerly known as Saigon.
So far Vietnam was the only country on our trip requiring us to obtain a visa in advance. In all other countries we could simply apply for an entry visa directly at the boarder. After checking all Visas several times and stowing our backpacks away, we were allowed to enter the bus.
On the inside we got flashed by the quite particular opulent golden decoration of the interior….
The bus ride and the Cambodia-Vietnam border crossing took several hours, but everything was well organized by the bus company. First we had to get out of the bus at the Cambodian side of the border and collect our exit stamps. The next stop was at the Vietnamese side of the border, where we had to unload our luggage once again and present it for inspection before entering Vietnam. After about an hour of queuing and presenting our passports we made our way back to our bus and finally continued towards Ho Chi Minh City.
By the way, Cambodian music turned out to be the perfect lullaby. They kept playing Cambodian music on the bus and Tini kept falling asleep the entire ride 🙂
When we arrived in Saigon we were surrounded by taxi drivers touting for potential customers. We chose one and being quite versed by now we made sure he was from one of the popular taxi firms and made the driver agree to using a taxi-meter. Despite all we ended up getting ripped off because the driver was operating with a manipulated meter.
We had estimated the distance to our hotel and knew approximately what to expect. When the meter showed the fare we had expected for the entire ride, Andy’s GPS showed that we had just about made half the way. We approached the driver with our accusation but he just played stupid and conveniently spoke no English. He then stopped several hundred meters away from our hotel instead of dropping us off at the entrance giving us some sleazy excuse of construction work in that street. We found out later that most hotels have cameras filming the outside and when their guests want to report fraudulent taxis, the hotels are more than glad to help identify the license plate they captured on the camera footage.
In any case we weren’t ready yet to pay our driver what the meter showed and kept discussing and arguing with him. In the end he managed to tire us to the extent that we did not want to continue arguing with him. Also he handed us his own wallet which conveniently only had enough change for our large ATM bills to match his claim. So all in all a very tricky fellow and not easily intimidated by arguing tourists. The part that bothered us the most wasn’t so much about the money, but that you feel kind of stupid falling for a tourist trap. We ended up paying about 6 USD instead of 3 USD and checked it off as an instructive experience with a Vietnamese taxi driver.
Despite this first bad experience in Vietnam we were convinced things would only get better from here on. And they did! Our hotel was perfectly located in the middle of the city and surrounded by tons of restaurants and shops. After checking in and getting settled it was already dark when we started exploring Vietnam and got confronted with Vietnam-traffic:
One of the first restaurants we passed by was a “Bavarian” beer garden, promoting German beer. The waitresses were wearing interesting interpretations of dirndls which looked rather funny.
The beer garden was not very tempting for us since we were out to try some typical Vietnamese food. We ended up choosing a nearby place called “Wrap & Roll” where we shared fresh spring rolls with mushrooms and steamed rice crepe rolls with “pho” flavored beef as an entree:
And of course we had to sample Vietnamese beer. This particular one was not really that great:
As a main course we shared a Vietnamese beef hotpot, that was quite delicious:
Next day we explored more of Saigon’s city center, for example the Notre Dame Cathedral, that is a replica of the one in the Normandy:
Or the impressive Saigon Central Post Office, which was constructed by the famous architect Gustave Eiffel when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in the early 20th century:
We walked around the city the whole day, did some shopping, were impressed by the crazy traffic and finally it was time for dinner. We went to a vegetarian restaurant, which had some interesting comments about the food in the menu. For example the lemongrass and ginger tea was claimed to be “a flu-easing drink and recent research shows that fresh lemon grass helps kill cancer cells”. The ginger tea with lotus plumule was attributed to be “a calming and soothing drink”.
Tini’s young ivory bamboo soup on the other was claimed to have “Vitamin C and fiber which makes your body lighter and more energized” 🙂
Andy had the veggie rolls: “Celery cabbage offers significant protection against growth of poisonous elements; more tasty with Hum’s (the name of the restaurant) strong spicy sauce”:
As a main course we had spinach fried rice: “Spinach is an excellent choice for nutrition without high calories; besides plenty of vitamins A & C in bell-pepper, tomato and zucchini make the dish more healthful and tasty.”
The highlight were definitely the steamed mushrooms served in a coconut with brown rice: “Plentiful vitamins from fresh Lingzhi and mushrooms assorted with natural sweet flavor of coconut, eggs and lightly spicy taste of chili.”
All in all it was amazing to see and taste this delicious variety of meet-free food and the HUM’s restaurant is definitely a recommendation if you happen to visit Ho Chi Minh.
On one of the next days we took a day trip to the Mekong Delta, south of Ho Chi Minh City. We’ll have an own post dedicated to that trip coming up soon.
Another trip led us to the famous Cu Chi tunnels, which is the perfect place demonstrating the tenacious spirit of the Vietnamese when they were fighting against the siege. The tunnels played a major role in facilitating the Viet Cong to control a large rural area only 30 kilometers from Saigon. At its height during the 1960’s the tunnel system stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border. In the district of Cu Chi, there were more than 200 kilometers of tunnels. After ineffective ground operations targeting the tunnels claimed a large numbers of own casualties, the US targeted it with their artillery and bombers, transforming it into a moonscape. Parts of this remarkable tunnel network have been reconstructed and two sites are open for visitors.
Today the Vietnamese see the tunnels as a testimony to their resiliency. In the visitor hut the guide explained the basics about the tunnels using this model of the tunnel system. It shows the different levels and traps used. The tunnels did not only serve as living quarters, but also as supply routes and hospitals for thousands of guerrilla fighters. Many died there from malaria and other diseases, and a few were even born or got married inside the tunnels.
On this picture you can’t see one of the hidden entrances:
Can’t see it? Have a look at the following two pictures:
The entrance and the entire tunnels are unbelievably narrow and hardly accessible for any regular sized Westerner, let alone a geared up soldier.
This is another fortified entrance to one of the tunnels:
Even if you are not claustrophobic, crawling through these tunnels does awaken some anxieties…
Some of these cramped tunnels were the central of the Vietnamese strategic operations, including the famous 1968 Tet Offensive. This offensive was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, launched by forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army against the forces of South Vietnam, the United States, and their allies.
As a countermeasure the American B52 bombers dropped hundreds of missiles leaving huge craters behind. We passed some of the scene exhibits showing more entrances to tunnels and the surrounding jungle:
Typical uniformed Vietnamese soldiers:
Traps of the Viet Cong:
And some of the missiles that did not explode. The Viet Cong would open them and use the explosives for their own bombs and traps and the metal for tools and weapons.
And more traps:
They would make their shoes from old car tires and shape the profile and geometry of the shoe in such a way that the footprint would not indicate which way the person had been walking:
Available in all kinds of sizes 🙂
Some more walking on a tourist path trough the jungle:
A B52 bomb crater:
And a westernized tunnel fortified with concrete and doubled in size to give us a feeling how rushing through these tunnels feels. Every hundred meters there were outlets and people kept leaving. The hot humid and stuffy atmosphere is not a place you can quickly get used to or want to stay in for too long.
Even the kitchens were entirely underneath the earth and the ventilation pipes made from bamboo would carry the smoke several hundred meters to the outside. The heat in that cramped little cave coming from the stove was almost unbearable for us…
With that last tunnel experience we finished our visit of the Cu Chi tunnels and headed back to Ho Chi Minh City.
Our next stop was at the Ben Thanh market. Here one can find pretty much anything produced in Vietnam.
Quite some collections…
We quickly realized that a little meal you can get anywhere was Phở. Phở is a Vietnamese noodle soup which consists of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat. It is one of the most popular street foods in Vietnam and usually served with either beef or chicken. Price: ~2.5 USD.
Besides the soup one is often served a plate with fresh herbs and depending on taste one ads them accordingly:
Another must see in Ho Chi Minh is the Independence or Reunification Palace. It was designed by architect Ngô Viết Thụ and was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April in 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.
The inside is mostly restored and a visiting site for tourists. This is where the president and his family lived and conducted their government affairs and social events.
They even had their own cinema:
And a helicopter landing spot on the roof:
In the basement there was a large bunker constructed to keep the president and his staff safe and allow them to continue their operations:
Presidential bunker suite:
The War Remnants museum is another worthwhile place to visit. It was opened in 1975 and has specialized in research, collecting, preserving and exhibiting the remnants proofs of Vietnam War crimes. To us it appeared to give a very one-sided view, but I guess that is to be expected. And nevertheless it was very interesting.
The museum also has many contemporary witness reports among the many pictures. Reading them can be pretty depressing and visualizes the cruelties of war.
In the backyard they show several very cruel torture instruments used on own and foreign prisoners.
In the evening we visited the Saigon Skydeck which is Vietnam’s first and only International Class A building. It is 262 meters high with 68 floors and its shape is inspired by the lotus, Vietnam’s national flower.
The Skydeck offers stunning views of the city and its surroundings.
And in the meanwhile we also found an enjoyable beer in Vietnam:
Here some documentary pics of our hotel. This was the room we had breakfast in:
And a small selection of the different breakfast varieties to choose from:
After checking out at our hotel on our last day, we strolled around in the streets, did some more shopping and finally ended up in one of the famous Saigon coffee shops. Here we tried two different coffees: One was a special blend of homegrown Arabica beans from the famous hometown of Vietnamese coffee – Buon Ma Thuot, which according to the menu creates an irresistible aroma and very smooth taste with the right hint of acidity. The other coffee was a specially exotic blend of culi beans – Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa and Catimor – that created a very strong and lasting aroma and a full-bodied and great depth of flavor.
In any case the preparation was very interesting. You get this setup of stacked cups placed before you and wait while the hot water drains trough the powder and into the bottom cup. After the brewing, we drank one of them iced and the other with condense milk. Both were very tasty and especially the iced one was a welcome chilling 🙂
After the coffee shop we continued our sightseeing walk and passed by the Opera House:
As our very last stop we had picked the famous Rex Hotel in the center of the city. The view from the rooftop bar is spectacular and it is a great place to chill and enjoy the city.
Here we had some of the most expensive beers in Ho Chi Minh City. At least the peanuts were for free and if you figure you are paying for the view with your drink it isn’t that expensive any more 😉
In the late afternoon we picked up our backpacks and headed to the train station to catch the night train to Danang.
We had dinner in a restaurant at the train station which was surprisingly tasty. Our menu: Vietnamese tea, fried rice with shredded chicken and steamed rice with spicy beef:
After all we got to know Saigon as a beautiful and bustling city and it was a great start to our Vietnam visit despite some initial difficulties. We got to know the people as very friendly and kind and will definitely come back some time 🙂This entry was posted in Asia, WorldMap