We had finally made it to the South of Vietnam, we had planned to spend two days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) where we would commence our final few days in the country.
We arrived late in the afternoon after a long eight hour bus journey from DaLat. Due to the higher accommodation prices in the city we had decided to stay in another mixed dorm hostel.
As we were walking up to the hostel, tired and sweaty from our journey, I was convinced Shaun and I were in the wrong place. My gaze was fixated on a side street which was piled high with rubbish and debris and I was staring so intensely at the side street that I nearly didn’t notice the rats scurrying in front of me! Surely, our hostel was not here?
Much to my disappointment, this was indeed the street that our hostel was on, and it really didn’t get much better once we were inside, the hostel was extremely small and stuffy and a strong smell that I can’t describe filled the building. We checked in, put our bags down onto our beds and I had a pathetic little cry.
I feel the need to explain that I am not opposed to staying in more basic accommodation, more often than not Shaun and I will stay in lower budget accommodation. However, I draw the line at unhygienic!
Within 45 minutes of arriving in Ho Chi Minh, I had decided this was my least favourite place and I hated our hostel. I could not wrap my head around the huge disparity between modern buildings in the centre of the city, and the obvious signs of poverty on the outskirts where we were staying. On top of that, I cried EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. we left the hostel and I had to two step around rats just get across the road.
Our first night in Ho Chi Minh happened to coincide with the 2018 World Cup Final. We felt quite lucky to be in a new city during a pretty big sporting event, so we wanted to make the most of it and go out to watch it.
Neither of us are huge football lovers and being Welsh we weren’t particularly invested in either teams success. So we put a little bet on France to win, to make things a bit more fun for us.
Bui Vien Street, or commonly known by tourists as Backpacker street, is a nightlife hub in the city. The street is lined with restaurants, hostels, bars and pubs so for many people it really is a one stop shop for all your evening needs.
Shaun and I had walked through this street earlier in the day to get to Nonla Guys, but it really feels like a totally different place in the night, the lights come on – the bars and restaurants double in size as they take over the pavements with tables and chairs, and music is pumping throughout the street.
Bui Vien is Vietnam’s answer to Thailand’s Khoa San Road, the similarities are unmissable – including a lot of the unsavoury characters that roam these areas. For that reason, this may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but it is a spectacle which I think people should see, even if they don’t stay for very long.
Shaun and I thought it was the perfect place to watch the World cup Final, we found a seat (which were VERY limited) out on the pavement with view of a large screen so we could watch the game and ordered some beers, the street was heaving with people, and whilst usually busy, i’m sure was even more packed due to the world cup – the whole experience felt quite surreal.
After my awful introduction to Ho Chi Minh, I found myself having a great time watching the game and giving in to the chaos of the city. To top it off, France won and we pocketed £45 – a great way to end out first day!
War Relics Museum
Shaun and I visited the war relics museum on our first full day in the city. Having visited a war museum in Hanoi which had quite an obvious political agenda, I wasn’t sure what to expect as we arrived at the War relics museum.
The name makes is sound as if it focuses on ‘war’ generally, but the majority of the displays focus on the Vietnam and America War. As with any retelling of history, it is hard to find a truly impartial version. However, Shaun and I felt like we really learned a lot about the context of the ‘Vietnam War’ and it’s impact on the Vietnamese during our trip to the museum.
The ground floor of the museum houses an array of military equipment, including fighter jets, tanks and helicopters. Shaun was really in his element as we looked around this display, whilst I appreciate the historical significance of the machinery, they could have been toy planes for all I cared.
However, the exhibits inside the museum were much more interesting to me. There is a large display of photographs from the war, which shows it in all of its true, unfiltered form. There are exhibitions which look at the works of photographers killed during the course of the conflict, the effects of napalm and agent orange and generally just demonstrates the sheer devastation caused by the war.
The photographs are extremely graphic and quite disturbing. I really struggled to keep my emotions under control throughout the exhibition. However, I do think it is important to see images like this, as a reminder to us all to why we should never let this happen again.
We had heard that Ho Chi Minh City Markets were a good place to get cheap clothes. There had been lots of places throughout Vietnam selling fake designer clothes, some quite convincing, others glaringly obvious. Neither Shaun nor I are huge into shopping (I get bored after about 5 minutes) but we had heard so much about the markets in the city that we wanted to go and see it for ourselves. First, we visited Ben Thanh Market, they sell everything here, fresh produce, clothes, watches, luggage etc. However, we didn’t really see anything that tickled our fancy.
Just around the corner is Saigon Square Shopping Centre, in this shopping centre they mainly sold sportswear (this pricked our interest), a lot of the prices were cheaper than in Ben Thanh Market and the stall owners seem less aggressive. I will admit, I don’t think there is as much room for haggling at this market, although I tried my best (maybe i’m just rubbish at haggling). In the end Shaun and I walked away with a under armour t-shirt, Nike sports bra and a black skirt for £13.
Cu Chi Tunnels
We couldn’t really visit Ho Chi Minh without going to the Cu Chi tunnels, so we had booked on a tour to go here on our second day.
The Cu Chi tunnels, were a network of underground tunnels stretching thousands of miles, used by the Viet Cong (VC) during the Vietnam War. The tunnels which were several stories deep were used by the VC to disappear to safety during attacks, they also included storage facilities, living areas, kitchens, hospitals and even trap doors and booby traps to capture american soldiers.
Our tour guide was called MR Binh, or MR Bean as he asked us to call him. He was an old Vietnamese man who says he fought for the American Navy in the war, they called him a ‘puppet soldier’. He was an extremely eccentric character, he told us a a lot about his life, how he had paid for all of his siblings to move to Australia and now he is the only one left if Vietnam.
Once we arrived, we watched a video which showed us some background information on the tunnels, when we were walking around we were then shown the various traps and tactics used by the VC.
We were shown the tiny entrances to the tunnels by our guide, looking down at it, it’s hard to believe that anyone could fit down into that. However, this was all part of the tactics, whilst the smaller Vietnamese men could squeeze down in to the tunnel, it was extremely difficult of even impossible for the broader american men to fit. The guide asked if I could lower myself into the tunnel to demonstrate, before I really had a chance to think about it I was ducking down in this tiny soil box with the lid closed over my head, I think I lasted a grand total of 10 seconds before popping back up again because I was getting scared (See video)
Towards the end of the tour we even got the chance to walk through a short passage of the tunnel, at first I didn’t seem so bad, the light from outside was still peeking in and the walkway was fairly wide, but the further in we went, the darker it became and the more narrow the walkway, in the end we had to waddle in a squat position, at this point I started getting a bit freaked out because I didn’t know how long it would be until the ‘end’ and my legs were starting to ache from crouching.
At the end of the tour Mr Binh told us about a book he had written about the war, having met him personally Shaun and I thought it would be really interesting to read it. I felt like I couldn’t quite get a full grasp of his personality during the time we spent with him, so I hoped the book would help me understand him and his experiences a bit better. However, after some extensive googling since getting home, I cannot find any trace of this book. Although, Mr Binh has made quite a name for himself amongst other tourists as I have seen lots of other reviews and posts about this tour, which include the charismatic Mr Binh – I can’t help but wonder how much of him/ his story was genuine and what was created to entertain western tourist – maybe I’m being a bit cynical?
Food and Drink
After I had recovered from my post check-in meltdown, Shaun and I showered and headed out for some food. We decided to visit Nonla Guys, which was located down a narrow alleyway of Bui Vien Street. The restaurant is small and narrow and offers a causal dining experience which was perfect for us. They serve Asian/ Mexican fusion dishes and Shaun and I ordered Quesadillas with a Vietnamese twist. The food was really great, and Shaun and I always enjoy trying new foods and flavour combinations, so this place ticked all the boxes!
Banh Mi Bui Thi Xuan
I had read in a blog post that this place was a must try for cheap and delicious Banh Mi, it was walking distance from our hotel, so one morning we decided to try it. Like many Banh Mi restaurants, the outside is very unassuming and the Banh Mi is displayed in a small glass trolley. I ordered a cheese Banh Mi and it was really tasty, although the chilly inside did blow my head of a bit (that will be my western pallet I guess). However, a great sandwich for £1, you can’t really go wrong.
On our first full day in Ho Chi Minh, I had decided to skip on the free hostel breakfast, given that we had still been unable to identify the unpleasant smell throughout the building, I didn’t want to chance the food. We discovered this place was close to our hostel so walked over for a morning coffee, it was very starbucks-esque and the coffees were nice, but potentially a little out of our traveller budget.
I mentioned in my last post that Shaun and I thought the last time we would see Jayce and Mackenzie (our Canadian friends we met in Sapa) was in Dalat. However, lucky for us they had one evening in Ho Chi Minh before catching their flight home, so we seized the opportunity to meet up with them again before they headed back. We thought it would be nice to go to a rooftop bar for our final drink and found ourselves at the View Rooftop Bar. The view over the city was amazing, you could clearly see all of the lights on the skyscrapers and Ho Chi Minh looked like an ultra modern city, you could easily forget about the reality below.
Ho Chi Minh actually grew on me a lot over the two and a half days we stayed there, the longer we were there, the more I was able to ease myself into the city (and become accustomed to the hostel smell and our rat neighbours). After the initial shock, I did really enjoy my time here and I am really grateful that we got to visit. I certainly wouldn’t rule out coming back in the future, I would just make sure we book a different hostel!!