Ho Chi Minh City: Exploring the Paris of the Orient

It was so hard for me to leave Hoi An, but the journey continues! Next stop is Ho Chi Minh City but I prefer calling it Saigon. It is probably the busiest out of all the places I visited in Vietnam. With a population of more than 8 million, just imagine the number of motorbikes in this city!

Saigon’s origins date back to the early 17th century when the area became home for refugees fleeing war in the north. Towards the end of the century, once the population was more Vietnamese and Cambodia’s kingdom waning in influence, Vietnam annexed the territory. Within a very short time the French began to leave their mark on the city. Some of the best hotels in Saigon are within grandiose colonial buildings overlooking gorgeous boulevards dating back to Saigon’s heyday as the so-called Paris of the Orient. For the French, Saigon became the capital of Cochinchina, an expansive region encompassing parts of modern-day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. (Source)

Now, Saigon is a bustling city with different cultural influences. There is always something for everyone, from food, sights, arts and nightlife. With limited time I have in this city, I want to explore and immerse in the local culture as much as I can.

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Going to Ho Chi Minh

Took a flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh which took around 1.5 hours. I booked the flight together with the Hanoi-Da Nang route thinking it was the cheaper and most convenient option. I actually slept in Da Nang Airport because my flight is 7:40 in the morning, and I want to avoid waking up late and missing my flight.

Turns out, I had a horrible experience sleeping in the airport. I will be coming up with a different post about sleeping in Vietnam airports and my experiences. Nakakaloka, that’s all I have to say for now.

I actually considered doing the sleeper train from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh just to experience how is it like riding the train however I skipped it. Bus is the cheapest option for you to get to Saigon, you may want to check this one out to have more information. Both train and bus will take you around 17 hours. More information here.

Staying outside District 1

Thank god for couchsurfing again, I found a host in Ho Chi Minh! Originally, Soul (Tuan Anh) declined because he is supposed to go to Da Nang to visit his family but luck has it, it got cancelled hence he let me stay in his place.

After I arrived in Ho Chi Minh, I booked an Uber motorbike just for the experience. Met up up with my driver outside the airport because they are not allowed to go inside the area. My host stays outside the popular District 1, where the backpacker street is located. I get to live and experience how is it like to be a local. His place is in Ngo Tat To street, Binh Thanh District, which is like around 20 minutes away from the city center by motorbike. Not bad because there are Uber and Grab pretty much everywhere.

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View outside my host’s place

I prefer to use Uber because the one time I tried Grab, the driver asked me to pay in cash even though I am using my credit card in my account, maybe he did not understand what I was trying to tell him. After I got down the motorbike, I immediately called Grab’s customer service to report and request a refund which I got after 3 working days. Good thing I have a local sim! Whew!

Unfortunately, my host was very busy during the time I was there. He made sure though I was at home and even told me to just get food in the fridge or cook instant noodles. I did get my own room but no bed, meaning I have to sleep on the floor, which is totally fine cause I’m not paying anything. It’s also nice of him to let me stay for additional 1 night when I decided I want to extend to explore the city more.

Eating like a local

The night before I got to Ho Chi Minh, I signed up for the Saigon Free Walking Tour to take me on a street food tour the following night. Free Walking Tour, doesn’t mean totally free, you have to pay for the motorbike and all the food you’ll be eating, but you won’t pay the guide any service fee or anything. I pretty much slept the whole afternoon on my first day in Saigon due to my experience in Da Nang airport and skipped lunch to prepare for all the food I will be eating later that evening. Woke up at around 4:30pm and got myself an Uber to Benh Thanh Market, where the meeting place will be.

My guide, David, was very nice and knowledgeable about all things Saigon. Typically, the street food tour consisted of 1 main dish, 1 snack, 1 local drink and 1 dessert but because I was hungry and really prepared for this, I asked if we can do 2 main dishes. With my charm and all, David agreed.

David met me in Benh Thanh market as discussed and he was there even before 6:00pm which is the start of the tour. So before I rode with him in the motorbike, he showed me photos of the food and drinks and asked me to choose. So I chose, sticky rice with meat, crab noodle soup, peach milk tea, Vietnamese pizza and lastly coconut ice cream with sticky rice for dessert.

The following day I decided to try the best Bun Cha in Saigon. Bun Cha is a Vietnamese dish of grilled pork and noodles, which originated in Hanoi. My Uber driver said it was a great choice choosing Bún Chả Ánh Hồng Hà Nội to get my Bun Cha fix. It is one of the best in the business. I got a seat and ordered, after a while food was served. It was really good! Hands down.

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The best Bun Cha in Saigon

Things I did in Saigon

Once you’re done eating, it’s time to check out different attractions in and out the city. Being a major part during the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh has a lot of war-related sights that are worth checking. There are also French-colonial buildings within walking distance from each other, feels like you’re walking in Paris but in Asia.

Part of the Saigon street food tour is also checking out some of the sites at night, first stop was Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica and Saigon Central Post Office, which is right beside each other. We also had a side trip to book street which is beside the post office. After that we made our way to the Saigon Opera House and walked to the Ho Chi Minh City Hall and the walking street. But of course, I revisited all these sites the following day to get a day shot of the attractions.

1. Walk around District 1 and visit famous buildings

District 1 is the financial and commercial hub of Saigon. This is where most of the major sights, bars and restaurants are located. District 1 was designed by French architects hence the wide, tree-lined streets and a lot of parks.

You will find notable attractions here which includes the Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Saigon Opera House, Saigon Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Independence Palace, Bitexco Financial Tower to name a few. Everything is conveniently just a short walk from each other. You can spend a whole day walking and getting lost in this district.

2. Take a look inside the Independence Palace

Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Palace, which was once 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.

My favorite part of the palace would probably be the lower chamber where all the war related things and rooms are located. It’s very interesting how they do it before, with all the old machines, maps and other stuff. Entrance ticket will cost you 30,000 VND.

3. Experience Cu Chi Tunnel Tour

Going to Cu Chi Tunnel was unforgettable! First we had a Filipino-Vietnamese guide who, throughout the tour, I barely understood what he was talking about. He speaks English but I don’t get it whether he is serious or making jokes. I was talking to this Indonesian dude and British girl and they have the same sentiments about our guide.

You get to see different traps, strategies and places the Viet Cong used during the war. Highlight of this tour will be walking in one of the tunnels in the area, which was scary and exciting. For people with claustrophobia, I don’t recommend you doing this but in case you’re feeling adventurous, you can still do it and there are emergency exits in the path.

Oh and you get to fire REAL GUNS, I think it was AK-47 and M30. You can check out Swig’s shooting experience for more details.

4. Reminisce the war in War Remnants Museum

Right after the Cu Chi Tunnel tour, me and my British seatmate requested to be dropped off near the museum. We have to walk for a couple of blocks and was greeted with different aircraft and tanks at the entrance.

Walking around the museum you get to read a lot of war stories and get to see things that were used during the war like torture machines, guns, photographs, etc. I did get emotional while I was reading the different stories of war survivors and civilians affected by the war. It’s frightening what humans are capable of. However, to some Vietnamese, this museum is a propaganda. It pretty much shows that Americans are bad and Vietnamese were the victims.

5. Check out a rooftop bar

Remember Paige, the American girl I met in Da Nang, she was also in the city and she was actually out with a new friend. They were in this bar in Bitexco Financial Tower called EON HELIBAR, tallest skyscraper in Vietnam, and invited me to join them. I hopped on an Uber motorbike and made my way to Bitexco. I went up to the 51st floor of the building. The elevator experience was very amusing because there are people who will be assisting you like a personal butler.

It was very fancy and expensive! Well it’s much cheaper than paying 200,000 VND to go to the viewing deck, at least going to the bar I get to drink beer. Paid for a Tiger draft beer for 114,000 VND, and with the view of the city at night it was worth it. There are also other rooftop bars that you can actually check out, probably cheaper.

6. Drink in Backpackers street

After finishing our drink in EON we decided to transfer to backpacker street which is cheaper. Stopped by a side street store to buy beer to drink while walking. Backpacker street is pretty much lined up with bars and pubs that usually caters to travelers. We settled in a bar and got a table on the side street and just watched people, cars and vendors pass by.

7. Haggle in Benh Thanh market

One night, after booking my bus going to Phnom Penh in Pham Ngu Lao, I walked to the most famous market in Saigon, Benh Thanh. Everything here is overpriced and mostly caters to foreigners.

I found this cute backpack in a stall outside and asked for the price, the lady said 300,000 VND. Surprisingly she can speak Tagalog because according to her she has a lot of Filipino suki. I tested my haggling skills and she ended up giving it to me for 150,000 VND. I also bought a Vietnam sando for 70,000 VND! I love haggling and shopping. 🙂

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8. Ride a motorbike during rush hour

Riding a motorbike in Saigon is something you have to experience. Personally, back in the Philippines, I don’t ride any motorbikes because drivers there will kill you. Here, maybe because I am more adventurous, I always ride motorbikes to get around the city. During rush hour where everyone is trying to get to work or go home is the perfect time to hop on a motorbike. In my experience, motorbikes here get to the sidewalks especially when they are in a hurry, it happened to me multiple times!

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Exploring Hidden Cafes on my Last Day

On my last day, I wanted to just chill and get some writing done hence decided to go and explore hidden cafes in the city. Unfortunately, because I was too busy and in the zone I was only able to check out 2 cafes.There also 2 other places worth mentioning which I visited during my stay in Saigon.

Just like Hanoi, there are a lot of coffee shops all around the city, some of them are tucked away in old, dilapidated buildings. Don’t let it turn you off or scare you because these little gems are hidden in there somewhere.

Mockingbird Cafe

Address: Tầng 4, 14, Đường Tôn Thất Đạm, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh

Chai Cafe No. 2

Address76 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, Đa Kao, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh

Saigon Oi

Address: Lầu 5, 42 Nguyễn Huệ. Ho Chi Minh

Thi Fi Cafe

Address4 Tôn Thất Đạm, Nguyễn Thái Bình, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh

Leaving Vietnam and the Immigration Experience

With a heavy heart, I booked a bus going with Sinh Tourist to Phnom Penh that leaves at 8:00am for 189,000 VND. No need for a sleeper bus because it will just take you around 6 hours to cross borders from Vietnam to Cambodia.

It is my first time to experience crossing borders overland. I’m used to the immigration process in airports. Exiting Vietnam, our bus conductor collected all of our passports and told us to follow him. I am pretty much lost and just followed everyone inside this warehouse. Instead of the usual thing where you line up and go to the immigration officer one by one, here, all the passports are dumped in the booth of the officer and they’ll just stamp it. Being a Filipino, there is no need for visa in any Southeast Asian country. Yay! After your passport get stamped, your bus conductor will shout your name and you have to move forward and get your passport. Once you get your passport, time to get back inside the bus.

As for the Cambodian border, it is just a few meters away from the Vietnam border. The bus conductor collected all of our passports again, but this time, to save time they let us have lunch first and will return our passports once we get back in the bus. It got me scared for a while because, hello, it’s my passport and I have no idea what was happening! But I was assured by this lady to just trust the guy because that’s really the process from what they read online.

After finishing our lunch, we already headed to Phnom Penh. Hello Cambodia!

Cheers!


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4 thoughts on “Ho Chi Minh City: Exploring the Paris of the Orient”

  1. Brings back memories ! I was in Ho Chi Minh City two years ago but it was with a tour group, so I didn’t get to experience it as a traveler in that sense. Maybe a return trip is in order to see the city in a different light. 🙂
    Cheers,
    Eris

    Like

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