Cambodia and Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City

We caught our flight from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City just fine. We are eligible for entry up to 14 days without visa, but they did request to see the return ticket on entry. I had mine printed, but my boyfriend had issues with the airport wifi, so it took him a while to display his return ticket on his phone.

When we got into the lobby, we needed to withdraw cash as we didn’t have any Vietnamese money with us and also got a SIM card for wifi. Reading the Lonely Planet guidebook, I was prepared for something chaotic, but the arrivals hall was rather quiet. In the book it said that the Ministry of Tourism did a survey a few years back, which showed that only a few per cent of tourists would consider coming back to Vietnam and the discomfort was mostly due to scams. Apparently it raised a lot of concerns as Vietnam is trying to build a thriving tourism industry, so my guess is that since 2016 when the book was written, the airports were “cleaned” and only reputable taxi companies are allowed. In either case the taxi companies most recommended are Vinasun and Mai Linh. Otherwise the situation is the same as in Cambodia, i.e. you cannot drive yourself, so all rental cars come with a driver. The thing that is different is that there are no tuk tuks in Vietnam, but there is Uber (both car and motorbike), so what we actually ended up using the most is Uber. I’m not the biggest fan of the company in light if the recent events, but it was super convenient and there is no risk of scams. The only negative thing was that the traffic is usually quite heavy, so if you are taking a car somewhere, it takes much longer than anticipated. So for some cases, Uber bike would be much more convenient.

But on the first night there we just checked into the Hotel Equatorial, which on the map seemed to be quite close to everything, but in fact almost everything we ended up doing was located in District 1. And while the distance wasn’t much, it always took closer to half an hour just because of the traffic. In addition for some reason the hotel played music in hallways from something like 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., which was audible through the door and was super annoying if you wanted to sleep in. Otherwise it was perfectly fine if a bit dated. But the service and especially breakfast were really good.

We got to the hotel around 5 p.m. and the only plan was to get a nice dinner because it was my boyfriend’s birthday. I had booked a table at La Villa French restaurant and we had a tasting menu with wines. We decided to eat in the garden outside as it was a beautiful night. The food was excellent and well-presented. The wines were also good, but it is usually a bit of waste of money as the wines in Asia as ridiculously expensive.

1_La Villa
La Villa

As we were eating in the garden, a small frog jumped on our table. 🙂

I think I loved all the dishes except for a beef soup served in a small jar, which was rather average and I’ve had much better.

2_La Villa
La Villa

 

The next day we slept in and decided to get bahn mi sandwiches and do some light sightseeing according to a walking route in the Lonely Planet book. We picked up the sandwiches from a place called Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, which was supposed to have some epic banh mi sandwiches. We took two and decided to get some drinks and sit somewhere in the park and enjoy them. Well, we found some drinks, but not the park as the route suggested by Lonely Planet is now just a huge construction site. We ended up eating the sandwiches in the small cafe we bought our drinks from and they were actually super good, but also very spicy.

We also visited a market nearby, which sold all manners of probably counterfeited goods and a lot of junk. We ended up buying some Vietnamese coffee and tea for ourselves and as gifts. Then we continued to the riverfront.

438_Bitexco Financial Tower
Bitexco Financial Tower
440_Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City

Riverfront unfortunately wasn’t anything special. One guy asked us whether we wanted a boat ride on the Saigon river and another wanted to clean our shoes with a toothbrush, but the view was this:

441_Saigon River
Saigon river view

So yeah, not super impressive. It did have some cool-looking boats though.

442_Saigon River
Boat on Saigon river
443_Saigon River
Boat on Saigon river

And the statue of Tran Hung Dao, who was a prince and a successful military leader in the 13th century.

444_Statue of Tran Hung Dao
Tran Hung Dao
445_Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City

At this time, we were super sweaty and we had booked a street food tour with Back of the Bike Tours, so we needed to go back to the hotel, take a shower, and come back to approximately same area as the tour would start from the Opera House.

We reserved some extra time to get back to District 1 in order to be on time for the tour, so we had about 15 minutes to look around a bit. This seemed to be the center of Ho Chi Minh City and it had some gorgeous old buildings.

447_People's Committee Building
People’s Committee Building
450_Opera House
Opera House
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Opera House
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Ho Chi Minh City

Then we met our guides from Back of the Bike Tours and we headed into the evening on the back of small motorbikes, which were operated by young women, who were twice as small as we were. 😀 It was a bit uncomfortable at first, but then you learn to trust your driver and see that other bikes aren’t bumping into you, and it gets quite fun actually. It is also a cool way to see a bit more of the city.

There were more guides than tourists on this tour as every tourist had their own driver, but there were also a couple of people, who were driving ahead and arranging things and who also took a lot of pictures. This tour was much more organized than the one we participated in Siem Reap and we didn’t have to even to take any pictures, everything was taken care of and when we arrived, the food waited for us at the table. The drivers/guides told us about the dishes and they were also eating a bit with us.

459_Back of the Bike Tours
Back of the Bike Tours

I think that we visited only five different places, but we were stuffed at the end of the evening. The food was very good and it was fun to learn more about the ingredients used and the way things were cooked.

This time I even tried the 15-day egg, which looked very similar to the 18-day egg in Siem Reap. It still didn’t look delicious, but it didn’t taste anything as bad as it looked. 😀 Also we were told that you eat it to turn your luck around, so if you have bad luck, you need to eat 1 or 3 or 5 eggs, otherwise if you eat an even number, first you turn your luck around and then around again and it’s bad luck again. 😉

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15-day egg

But the rest of the dishes were much better, luck or no luck. 😉 Also the desserts were pretty good.

460_Back of the Bike Tours
Back of the Bike Tours

Our last location turned out to be very close to our hotel, so our drivers gave us a ride to our hotel rather than to the pick up point we left from. While on the bike, it was interesting to ask them about different things as you don’t often get a chance to talk to locals and the language barrier doesn’t help either.

Back of the Bike Tours sent us the link to the photos they took the next day and we could just download them, which was very handy. 🙂

On our last day in Ho Chi Minh City, we had booked a tour to see the Củ Chi tunnels, which are a network of tunnels, which were used by Viet Cong soldiers for hiding, food and weapon storages, and as supply routes. They played a major role in Vietnamese resistance to American military.

I wanted to combine a visit to Cao Dai Holy See into the same trip, but unfortunately on this day, the company didn’t offer it again reminding me that time spent on planning does usually pay off. We initially wanted to do two different things, but for some reason a lot of tour operators accept two people as minimum, so we had to do a compromise and ended up booking with a company called Les Rives. It is possible to get to Cu Chi by road and I think that even by public transportation. Les Rives operates tours with a motorboat, which means that you save some time getting there. I think the way there took closer to one and a half hours, when it takes the bus almost two hours. The ride is quite loud, so try to sit away from the motor, but it was nice to enjoy the breeze.

 

544_Mekong River
Mekong River

We did get there ahead of the crowds as promised, so we managed to see a lot of the area without having to bump into other people. First we watched an outdated and a bit silly (they called Americans “crazy devils”) video on the history of the tunnels and then we went out to explore.

492_Củ Chi Tunnels
Three levels of tunnels
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Entrance to a tunnel
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Tunnel site employee showing how to enter the tunnel and cover your tracks

There were different traps on display as well showing how the Viet Cong set traps for American soldiers.

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Window Trap
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Door Trap
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Re-purposed ammunition

We also had an opportunity to visit one tunnel. I’m 170 cm and I could walk bent in half, my boyfriend is taller and he had to duck-walk. It was very short section of the tunnel and you followed a guide with a flashlight, but it was super uncomfortable. Especially when we finally got out, they told us that the tunnel had been made both wider and higher by half a meter in each way to accommodate tourists. I can’t even imagine what it would be like without light and basically crawling on your stomach.

534_Củ Chi Tunnels
Entrance to the tunnel
537_Củ Chi Tunnels
Follow the guide

At the end of our tour, we also had lunch, which was included in the tour price and it was actually surprisingly good. I don’t usually expect much from food in popular tourist places. 🙂

542_Củ Chi Tunnels
Lunch at Cu Chi Tunnels

After lunch we headed back to our hotel and because we were picked up from the hotel really early, I think that we were back around 1 p.m. We relaxed at the hotel and went for a swim at the hotel swimming pool and around 4 p.m. we headed to Chill Skybar to enjoy drinks and the sunset with the view over Ho Chi Minh City. Ho Chi Minh City has a large amount of rooftop bars and all of them seem to have a happy hour in the afternoon, so the drinks are usually half price.

546_Chill Skybar
Panorama from Chill Skybar

We didn’t have a reservation, but luckily that wasn’t a problem. We had a couple of drinks and something small from the menu as we were going to a restaurant later on. The first set of cocktails were really good, but the second only average. The food we ordered was also very good. But the view was of course the best.

552_Chill Skybar
Chill Skybar
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Chill Skybar
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Chill Skybar
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Chill Skybar
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Chill Skybar

After sunset we headed to Hum Lounge & Restaurant, which is a vegetarian restaurant. The food was quite good and the restaurant interior was very cool.

560_Hum Lounge & Restaurant
Hum Lounge & Restaurant
561_Hum Lounge & Restaurant
Hum Lounge & Restaurant

All in all, Ho Chi Minh City is very modern and probably has much more to see than what we had time for, but I think that three days was enough to get an idea of what the city is like. The upside of our hotel was that it had a pool as it was pretty hot most days, but if I would go to Ho Chi Minh City again, I would spend more and stay in the city center. Unfortunately hotel prices in the city are very expensive, so that would likely mean not having a pool in the hotel.

Another thing is that the city is quite big and while it is somewhat more walkable than any place we’ve been in Cambodia, it still isn’t comfortable due to traffic, small sidewalks, and the amount of people.

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