Our 2 days and nights in HCMC were non-stop! In fact the whole trip to Vietnam was a bit of a whirlwind with 2 nights in Ho Chi Mihn, 3 in Hoi An, and 3 in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.
Where we stayed:
Christina’s AirBnb (‘The Mothership’ location) $157USD for 2 nights.
What we did:
Cu Chi Tunnels Tour – $28USD each for private car, tunnels entry and tour.
XO ‘the foodie’ tour – $72USD each for 5 hours of 1-to-1 guide, moped transport around the city, and more food and drinks that you could possibly eat.
War Remnants Museum – $1 each entry.
Run along the Saigon River – free
Where we ate:
Nahn Quan – $5 each for beef noodle soup and 2 beers.
Tout Les Jours bakery
XO tours – see above
We flew on Good Friday, 8hrs direct from Sydney to HCMC. I had never flown Vietnam Airlines before and was pleasantly surprised with the service and the legroom.
Our flight was delayed 1 hour – which didn’t bode well as we’d heard horror stories of endless cancellations for internal flights – but Vietnam Airlines apologised and gave us each $15 food vouchers for Sydney Airport.
When we landed at Ho Chi Minh there were slight visa nerves…Ben, like the majority of visitors to Vietnam, had been required to go to the Vietnamese consulate in Sydney in advance of our trip to get a visitor visa. I’d read on the British Foreign Office website that British passport holders didn’t need to get a visa if travelling before June 2016 and for less than 15 days. So there I was, queued up in Vietnam without a visa, really hoping the Foreign Office had it right and I didn’t have to try and explain to passport control why I didn’t have one!
In the end all that they wanted to see was a copy of my departing flight details (presumably to show that I would be leaving within the 15 days).
In Vietnam, like in Cuba, every accommodation is required to ‘register’ your presence with the government, so don’t be surprised or concerned if you’re asked to hand over your passport on check-in. I don’t know how real-time the system is, I.e if you went to stay at a friend’s place would the government immediately know that you’d gone off the radar?
Safely through passport control we got our bags and went out of the airport to the taxi rank. We’d been recommended to get a ‘Viet Song’ taxi into town (pillar 6 outside the airport) which you pre-pay 220k Vietnamese Dong (c $10USD) to get to district 1 and avoids any disputes with drivers over price.
At ‘Christina’s‘ we got a fantastic welcome from a host Duc, with some fresh juice, Vietnamese sweets and a map of the area with key sites. Christina’s is a network of AirBnBs around Vietnam that was established 22months ago. They now have 3 in HCMC, and some in Hoi An and Hanoi. For us it was the perfect mix between the formality and services of a hotel and the relaxed friendly vibe of a hostel/AirBnB.
We strolled out to the main ‘backpacker street’ which reminded me of Khao San road in Bangkok, but far less hassle-y (something that I noticed all over Vietnam). Here we booked our Cu Chi tunnel tour for the next morning. Duc had told us that prices would vary from c $10pp for a huge group tour to c $30pp for a small tour. The first agency that we went into told us they only either had a huge group tour, or a private tour for $65pp. We moved on and found a place that offered small group tours for $25pp, however it turned out this was fully booked for the next morning so for $3 each more we got a private car to take us – which was fantastic as we didn’t have to spend time driving around collecting people the next morning.
Dinner was at a no frills, authentic Vietnamese place recommended by Duc. We both got a steaming bowl of noodle soup (mine prawn, Ben’s beef) and tonnes of vegetables on the side to put in, and we were off 🙂
Saturday morning we were collected at 8am for our tunnels tour. We both woke up early (Vietnam is 4hrs behind Sydney) and went to the Tous Les Jours bakery to get some breakfast goodies. It was a bit of pot luck as there weren’t any labels so we ended up with some good-ones (bacon and egg tart, donut twist) and some less-good-ones (chilli-sweet-pork flakes and red bean filled rolls).
Cu Chi tunnels were fascinating (if slightly claustrophobic!!) I had originally felt take-it or leave-it about visiting but I’m really glad that we did.
Our driver dropped us at the entrance and gave us tickets, you then walk through a shop and a wide underpass before arriving at the site. Everyone seemed to be in tour parties already so we were slightly baffled where we’d find the ‘local guide’ that the driver told us to find inside. We asked a woman in one of the Viet-Cong black and white scarfs, who luckily was staff and not an over-zealous tourist, and she instructed us to go and watch a video first. Video out the way a guide then waved at us and led us and a Dutch couple around the site.
The tunnels were dug by the Viet-Cong (the ‘Rebels’) during the Vietnam war. They ended up digging over 250km of tunnels, some 30m below the ground, to help their fight against the South Vietnamese army and the American troops.
They effectively lived underground, and even had underground kitchens, with complicated smoke systems so that the smoke would be expelled some distance away. The ventilation system was also clever, with man-made termite hills with air vents built in.
Now, as mentioned in my diving post, I can get a bit claustrophobic and panicky in small spaces. People said that the tunnels were worth visiting even if you didn’t go into a tunnel, and when the guide told us that the tunnel you could go through was 70metres with no stops, I wimped out.
However, I saw Ben and the Dutch couple pop up a short distance away and so decided to join them for the next part, it really wasn’t too bad. The tunnels have been widened for tourists and it was probably more like 15m underground before you emerged, and lit.
We got back to town about 1pm and walked to the backpacker street again and got a massage. It was $20 for Ben to have a full body massage and me to have a foot massage. I much preferred the style to Thai massage, but it still didn’t measure up to my sports masseuse Mat in Sydney 🙂
Lunch was at a faux military style cafe (Cong Caphe), which was decorated well inside, but sadly was sold out of virtually every Vietnamese dish on the menu… We saw another Cong Caphe in Hanoi so it must be a chain.
XO foodie tour was my highlight of the HCM visit! Not only was it a fantastic way to see the city, but also to eat some dishes that I would otherwise have no idea how to order!!
Our guides, Tan and Quin came to collect us from Christina’s at 5.30pm. All of the XO drivers are female – as Tan told me they are more sensible, and more beautiful, haha! We then had a safety briefing about not leaning too much, and whizzed off into the bustling HCM traffic.
I’d read a lot about how busy the streets of HCM were, and how to cross the street you can’t wait for a break, you just have to walk. The scooter market in Vietnam is double that of Europe (and Indonesia is double that again!!) If everyone who was on scooters had been in cars the city would have been at a total standstill!
We drove about 5 minutes to our first destination where we met the other people doing the tour. There were 12 of us in total, although the way they designed the evening you were always sitting with the same people. We were with Rob and Rebecca from Sydney, who were both lovely but it would have been good to mix it around and meet more of the group.
At the first stop we had a beef noodle soup, but not Pho, as our tour leader Hieu strongly stressed. I think Pho must get all the Vietnamese noodle soup credit, so XO wanted to give the soupy underdogs their time to shine.
We then drove to Chinatown where we weaved our way through the street market. My feet were skimming baskets full of live fish! We had a stop-off in Chinatown to see the wholesale market (where most of the street vendors you see in the backpacker area go to get their hundreds of ‘Ray-Bins’ (!))
Next foodie stop was a DIY-BBQ grill. Hot coals were brought to the table on which we cooked a selection of: Okra, beef, goat, frogs (skin off and skin on….skin on tasted like fish!) and prawns (including heads!)
This was followed by a shot of rice wine and a chopstick championship competition involving putting peanuts into bottles. Ben was chopstick champion and was presented with a badge which he proudly wore for the rest of the evening.
Fourth stop was another cultural stop in the new district, district 7 (every time they said this I just thought of the Hunger Games!!) which was far more like Singapore than the rest of HCMC in terms of architecture and cleanliness.
As we rode from District 7 to our final foodie stop, there was a pretty cool moment as we were going over the Saigon River, with a big barge passing underneath, cars and bikes rushing by and a huge red moon rising over the river.
Final stop was seafood 😋😋 we started with some crab claws. Then my favourite dish of the night: seared scallops with lime and a sweet sauce and peanuts. They were so delicious!!
We also tried a local speciality, duck embryo. I mean it tasted okay, but the concept was just not very pleasant, it was a little baby duckling which was growing in the egg but not hatched. I tried a teeny spoon and had to down it with beer, not to be repeated.
Throughout the whole tour I felt in super safe hands with Tan driving. Her English was fantastic and chatting on the bike was a great chance to find out more about Vietnamese culture from someone my age.
Sunday we woke early and still full. We went for a run along the Saigon River into town. I love getting up early and exploring as you see day-to-day life in the city before it’s targeted to tourists.
We stumbled across a huge group of people, including lots of school kids, walking and singing and a band playing. Not sure if this was to do with it being Easter Sunday (which we only remembered about 5pm!) or it was just a Sunday thing. We also saw a bike race preparing to set off! 🙂
We returned to the bakery for round 2, more savvy avoid to the spicy shredded pork rolls, before walking to the museum of war remnants.
This was an excellent museum and I’d strongly recommend it if you go to Ho Chi Minh. Even if you don’t have an interest in war, this isn’t really about war, it’s about the last 75 years of history for Vietnam. Some guidebooks referred to it as propaganda-ridden however I found it far less state-centric than the Museum of Revolution in Havana, and mainly it was a factual account of the last 75 years, however unpleasant that may be.
After this we walked around the Reunification Palace complex, but I’m not certain that we saw the palace 🙈 and then a brief trip to the artefacts museum, which I wouldn’t really recommend, other than the cool old building that it is in!
We were flying up to Hoi An (Da Nang) airport that afternoon with domestic airline Vietjet and had our first experience of flights being delayed or cancelled. On our first internal flight. Excellent…
We’d be notified earlier in the week that original flight was cancelled and we were moved onto another flight, a couple of hours later. We then received an email that this flight wouldn’t be leaving until nearly 7pm, meaning we wouldn’t land in Da Nang until after 8.
It turned out though, that when we called Vietjet and requested that we be put onto an earlier flight that they were showing on their website, this was relatively easy and they did it free of charge.
So in the afternoon we jetted off for the next adventures in Hoi An… coming soon!!