Ho Chi Minh: The Unexpected Charisma

Okay, okay,  I’ll admit it. At first, going on this trip did not excite me at all. So why Ho Chi Minh? Well, my bestfriend and I have made it a tradition since 2013 that we go on an annual vacation to Singapore, plus a side trip to a neighbouring Southeast Asian country. Cambodia and Hanoi Vietnam were on the shortlist but having watched Anthony Bourdain’s  show ‘No Reservations’ on Ho Chi Minh City prior to making the decision, that made it clear – we are going to the Lunch Lady! haha

You might be wondering why I am even writing about this four (4) day tour  in a city I initially had no interest in excursioning. Well, the tail end of my Ho Chi Minh  journey concluded with the urge of going back and exploring the charismatic city even more. Here’re the reasons why!

1. Strikingly Sad yet Moving Past
I patiently looked at the photos and installations and read the captions at the War Remnants Museum, and felt an odd churning inside my stomach, heart turned a bit heavy and left me teary-eyed.
The museum’s yard displays actual restored  US planes and tanks from the war, while inside the museum building is a collection of war artifacts and pictures that are very graphic,  schlepped along with stories that set a somber mood. The facility also has a wing that depicts how the prisoners are kept and tortured during the feud.

The War Remants Museum, I believe, should be before all else on everyone’s museum itinerary and should be visited first before going to the Cu Chi Tunnels so one can at least get a brief know-how on the Vietnam war which transpired in 1955-1975.

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War Remnants Museum

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Vietnamese Prison, War Remnants Museum

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Cu Chi Tunnels

 

2. Delectable FOOOD
Indulging in the local cuisine is an essential part of travelling. Satiating ourselves with a gastronomic cultural experience somehow completes the adventure. And first on my list of must-try Vietnamese food are the local noodle soups Pho and the Hu Tieu. I tried a few varieties of the Vietnamese noodle soups like Pho bo and Hu Tieu at different noodle outlets including the Lunch Lady’s stall and two cubbyholes in Parkson Plaza Department Store’s Foodcourt. I am not a Vietnamese soup expert but from the soups I’ve tried, the Lunch Lady’s pho lands only second on my choice in term of overall flavor on the soups I tasted during my visit. The broth was a bit too tangy from what tasted like salt and lemongrass which kinda’ overpowered the beef broth taste. The Hu Tieu I’ve tried at Parksons Plaza Department Store’s Foodcourt however was a good balance of spices, not too salty and broth clearly tasted of pork broth.

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The Lunch Lady’s Bo Pho with fish cake stick

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Hủ tiếu

Bánh Xèo (Sizzling Pancake) is also a popular vietnamese dish of golden crispy crepes made from rice flour, water and turmeric powder stuffed with bean sprouts, onion shrimp and pork fat. It earned the name ‘sizzling pancake’ for the  loud sizzle the rice batter makes when poured on the skillet.

I love Vietnamese Crispy Fried Spring Rolls! It is made with glass thread noodles, carrots, shallots, onions, pork tendons, shrimps seasoned in fish sauce then rolled up in rice flour wrapper fried until golden. Yum!

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Bánh Xèo

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Vietnamese Crispy Fried Spring Roll

 

3. I just Love Vietnamese Coffee
It was love at first sip. <3 One of the best coffees I’ve ever had, and am not exaggerating. Imagine sipping on liquid chocolate with a kick of espresso!
“The coffee are roasted with butter and fish sauce which makes it distinctively tasty,” shared an insider. 😉

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Trung Nguyen Vietnamese Coffee

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Look at the chocolatey color! <3

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I also tried the famous Highlands Coffee and the newly opened Katinat Saigon Kafe.
I feel like Highlands Coffee is a bit too commercial that it seems to look more like a local version of Starbucks. Also, the ice blended drink I had tasted very much alike of that with the Starbucks Frappucino.
Katinat Saigon Kafe on the other hand has a contemporary and young vibe which most likely caters to the millenials. The ice blended is similar with those of commercial cafes, but the tea sweetened with condensed milk still tastes very Vietnamesey. <3
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4. The Charming City

HCM’s District one is truly stunning with its well preserved colonial architectures. And a walking tour is definitely a good idea to explore the area, not to mention its a good form of exercise which saves you money on transportation. 😉
From our hotel situated in the central area of District one, we walked two (2) blocks to Saigon Central Post Office and Notre Dame Basilica – both beautiful structures from the French colonial period. Then to the War Remnants museum to get a glimpse of exhibits relating to the Vietnam War. Next on the itinerary in the itinerary is the former house of the president of South Vietnam, The Reunification Palace. Then off to Ben Thanh Market for some souvenirs. Then off to Bitexco Financial Building to marvel on a bird’s eye view of HCM.

A subway system is currently on construction in Ho Chi Minh which is pretty exciting. I’ll surely be back when it’s finished.

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Taken from the Bitexco Financial Tower Viewing Deck

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Taken from the Bitexco Financial Tower Viewing Deck

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Taken from the second floor patio of the Independence Palace

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Saigon Cental Post Office

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Saigon Notre Dame Basilica

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Statue of late President Ho Chi Minh in front of Saigon’s People Committee Building


TIPS:
1. Be sure you have VDN or Vietnamese Dong before leaving the Airport
Have at least VDN500,000 before leaving the airport for transportation expense and extra cash just in case. VDN is the only legal currency in HCM. There’s a money changer located at the left side of the arrival hall, right after you exit the sliding door from the baggage claim area – right before you exit the airport arrival building. The value of the PH peso at money changers in HCM seems to be lower, so as much as possible bring US or SG Dollars. You can get more VDN at currency changers inside the malls in District one.

2. Get Mobile Data at Ho Chi Minh Airport
 I pretty much rely on Google Maps when I travel. I do ask people for direction but initially, I use Google Maps – my trusted compass to tell me if I’m going the right way. Availing of the PH International roaming from our carrier would cost you an arm and a  leg. So the most cost-effective way is to buy a local sim card with data which can be installed on any open line phones. I bought mine at a kiosk located at the left side of the arrival hall, right after you exit the sliding door from the baggage claim area – right before you exit the airport arrival building. I got a good deal from Vinaphone that included a sim card packed with 5 gigabytes of data for only VDN100,000 or about less than PhP300. And yes, buying a sim card would require you to present your passport for registration.

3. Transportation
Our taxi driver ripped us off with VDN 270,000 bill which should only be VDN150,000 to VDN170,000 from the airport to District one. Airport exit toll is just VDN10,000 but he charged us with VDN100,000. Tsk tsk. So I asked a friend from Vietnam on what’s the most cost-effective and safest way to publicly commute in HCM. Here’re a few suggestions.
From the airport, one may take the Public City  Bus #152  stationed at the right side of the airport’s entrance. Bus fare is less than VDN10,000 per person from the airport to a station near the Ben Thanh Market.
Another way is to book transport through Uber.

4. Cautios and Alert
A few of my friends who have been in HCM have warned me about being vigilant and not to lay bare my camera and other gadgets when walking around HCM because this may attract riding in tandem burglars. My friend who vacationed last year in HCM got her DSLR camera with sling on her neck  snatched by a guy in a motorcycle during their first day of visit. 🙁

Fortunately, none of my gadgets were stolen. But they failed to advice me though to be heedful of coconut vendors who filches extra VDNs from tourists by overly spiking the prices of the coconuts of up to VDN150,000 a shell. A friend mentioned its normally priced at VDN40,000.

 

Sample Itinerary:
Day 1: Arrival
02:00PM Arrive at Hotel
03:00PM Walk around HCM
04:00PM Coffee
06:00PM Dinner at Parkson’s Foodcourt
08:00PM Have a bottle of beer at a pub
10:00PM Back at the Hotel

Day 2: Walking Tour
08:00AM Breakfast at hotel
09:00AM Brush teeth and prepare to go
09:30AM Start of walking Tour
10:00AM Saigon Central Post Office
10:30AM Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
11:15AM War Remnants Museum
12:00PM Lunch
01:00PM Independence Palace
02:30PM Ben Thanh Market
03:00PM Coffee break
04:00PM Bitexco Financial Building
05:30PM Walk at the Saigon’s People Committee Building
6:30PM Dinner
08:00PM Hotel

Day 3: Cu Chi Tunnels and Ao Show
07:00AM Hotel Breakfast
08:00AM Cu chi Tunnels (Book a guided tour)
(bring some food to munch and water)
03:00PM back in district 1 and to the hotel
04:00PM Coffee Break and Snacks
05:30PM Early Dinner
06:30PM Cultural Show (Ao Show)
09:30PM Back at the hotel

Day 4: Hotel Check out + Lunch Lady and pasalubong shopping
08:00AM — Hotel Breakfast
09:00AM — Pack up
11:00AM – Check out
(Leave bags at the hotel and advice to get it back in a few hours)
12:00PM – Lunch Lady
01:30PM – Go to Vincom Center, Parkson Plaza and Lucky Plaza
03:00PM Coffee
04:00PM back to the hotel to get bags
04:30PM Airport bound
5:45PM Airport
6:00PM Check in for flight

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