We had a great trip to Thailand and Cambodia in 2016. While we were there we heard great things about Vietnam so in 2018 we took a four week trip to see it for ourselves. We live in Canada and travel in the winter so we focused on the southern part of the country. The north looked amazing too but we wanted a trip where no coats were required.
We flew from Ottawa to Newark where we had a planned 2 ¾ hour layover to ensure we did not miss our flight to Tokyo. It was good that we did because even though we have NEXUS cards they did not put a TSA pre-check stamp on the boarding cards and we had to go through the regular security line. We also had to change terminals but we made the flight with time to spare. It’s a 13 ½ flight from Newark to Tokyo. No matter how many movies you watch or books you read that’s a really long time! We had a 1 ¾ hour layover in Tokyo and a final 7 hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City. We arrived at 10:45pm two days after we left home. If you include driving to the airport it took us 30 ½ hours to get there and we lost 12 hours along the way.
We had a small amount of Vietnamese currency with us and we used it to take a taxi from the airport to our hotel. To get a taxi at the airport you go to a desk inside the airport and pay them. They give you a piece of paper which you give to a guy at the taxi stand who finds you a driver. The fair was 230,000 VD, 30,000 VD more than we were told to expect but still not bad, converted it was about $15 Canadian.
We were staying at the Saigon Inn ($65 US for 3 nights). We had directions from booking.com and some additional ones provided by the hotel. The trip was quite an adventure. The taxi driver dodged in and out of heavy traffic even though it was almost midnight while talking on her cell phone which she was holding to her ear with one hand.
She dropped us off and told us we were at the hotel. We had been warned that the hotel was down an alley so we got out and headed in the direction the driver indicated. We were wandering through the alley in the dark when we met a dog who did not seem pleased to see us. We went back out onto the street. A random guy standing on the street assured us that we were going the right way he even walked us back in the correct direction. We found the hotel and were safely in our room by 12:30 am with two cold 13,000 VD beers.
Despite the time difference we were able to sleep until 7:00 am the next morning. Breakfast was included and they had a full menu of western, Vietnamese and vegetarian options. Everything was made to order with unlimited coffee and fresh fruit included. It was a most excellent breakfast. We chatted with an American who had worked for an NGO and been deported out of Indonesia. He told us tales about the refugee camps on the Thai, Cambodian boarder in the late ‘70’s where he was a health officer trying to prevent the spread of Syphilis. We were once again reminded of how lucky we are to have been born where we were.
We had been warned about the traffic in HCMC. There are 8 million people and 7.4 million scooters. The scooters outnumber the cars and they are everywhere. If the road is too full they just use the sidewalk.
After Bangkok we thought we were ready, we were wrong. The only way to cross the street in HCMC is to step out into the moving traffic and walk straight across the road in a calm and orderly way. The scooters can and will go around you, the cars may or may not go around you and the buses are best avoided.
Unless you plan to spend your entire trip on one city block you have to cross the road sooner or later. Our first few days we waited for a local to cross the street and tucked in behind them, We generally chose older women or mothers with small children as we assumed no one would try and run them over.
Some of the bigger intersections have traffic lights but those only stop the cars going straight. The traffic turning left and right drives straight through. Buses stuck in intersections can actually be useful because they stop the scooters from running you over.
Some of the big intersections have no traffic lights at all. There were places with heavy traffic coming from four directions and just driving around each other.
It took a while, because we had to cross the street three times, but we walked from the hotel to the Ben Thanh Market It has been in operation since 1914 and it’s one of the oldest markets in HCMC. It’s a big, noisy, busy market with lots of food and local crafts.
We walked from there to the Reunification Palace it was the home and office of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War which they call the American War in Vietnam. The Vietnam War ended here during the fall of Saigon on April 30 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates. On the subject of names although the city was formally renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war everyone still calls it Saigon.
We paid 40,000 VD for the two of us to get in and toured through the rooms which look like they came directly from the 1970’s. I expected Pierre Elliot Trudeau to pop out from behind a chair.
There is a helipad with a real helicopter on the roof, old tanks on the grounds and a plane which is supposed to be the plane that bombed the palace. The building is still used occasionally for official functions.
Our next stop was the biggest grocery store we could find. Most of the stores were little shops but we find bigger grocery stores useful because you can spend time quietly reading the labels on cans and boxes to figure what you are actually buying. We bought water and some coconut crackers.
After that we continued on to the War Remnants Museum which costs 20,000 VD. The grounds are full of tanks, bombs and planes from the war. The inside of the museum is dedicated primarily to the terrible things the US did in Vietnam with a whole gallery dedicated to pictures of victims of agent-orange. It seemed a bit one sided but most of what we know was written from the American point of view. It does make you think about how history is written and either way it’s a reminder that war is horrible.
We moved on to the Notre-Dame Cathedral which was closed for renovations and the Central Post Office which is a nice building. There was a public writer there who would write letters for people who can’t write.
We had an encounter with a friendly, pushy, coconut seller and eventually paid way too much for a coconut because we figured he would put the money to better use than we would.
We also discovered the Saigon version of Khaosan Road in Bangkok, Pham Ngu Lao Street, a bustling walking street full of cars and scooters? There are restaurants, bars, stores and backpackers everywhere. It also turned out to be very close to our hotel.