I left Vanuatu in 2013 and came back to Philippines ahead of my husband because my residence visa was about to expire. I did not find it practical to renew my residence visa for another year as we already planned to leave Vanuatu for good. However, my husband stayed in Vanuatu for a few weeks but only to finish his contract. From Vanuatu, he flew to Canada to renew his passport and to visit his family on a winter time. The year following, instead of him coming directly to Philippines, we decided to meet in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to spend a short holiday together.
Vietnam. France began to conquer Vietnam in 1858. In 1884, Vietnam was fully occupied by France. Three years thereafter (1887) Vietnam became part of French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos). After World War II, Vietnam declared independence, however, France continued to rule until 1954, defeated by the communist forces under the rule of Ho Chi Minh who took control the north of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh also invaded the US supported South Vietnam which marks the ‘Vietnam War’ (1954-1975) where Vietnam was reunited as a communist country. Since the 70’s Vietnam has been slowly recovering from decades of war and is economically improving.
Vietnam has five central cities: Can Tho, Da nang, Hai Phong, Hanoi – the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) formerly called Saigon- the largest city and the economic center.
Arrival. I left Manila via Philippine Airlines (PAL) at approximately 2 hours and 11 minutes flying time, direct flight. I arrived at Tan So Nhat Airport in the afternoon where the hotel transport met me at the airport. Tan So Nhat airport is the largest airport in Vietnam. There was a bit of a traffic on my way to the hotel. One thing that caught my attention was the tons of motorbikes on the road. The last time I checked, HCM has more than 7 million registered motorbikes and is still counting!
I arrived at the hotel and waited for my hubby, who was also to be picked up by the hotel transport at the airport. He took the flight from Canada to Vietnam via Japan. While waiting in my hotel room, I received a call from the receptionist who informed me that my husband was not at the arrival area. I had a panic attacked and I had to come down to the front desk and inquired what had happened. Did he miss his flight? Was there a plane crashed that I did not know of?! Fortunately, there was a tourist who was at the lobby and overheard my conversation with the receptionist and assured me that it does take a while to process tourist visa and suggested that I should just wait. I had to request the hotel to inform their driver to patiently wait. True enough, my hubby arrived at the hotel but was already at night!
Accommodation. We were booked at Hai Long 5 Hotel, a three star hotel located in Hai Ba Trung Street, District 1, the central urban district. It is situated next to the popular street Dong Khoi. Additionally, the hotel location was walking distance to most tourist attractions in the city such as the Opera Theater and the Ben Thanh Market. We booked for a Deluxe accommodation but was later upgraded to a Suite room with free breakfast. The breakfast at this hotel was superb with plenty of food choices from American, Continental, and Vietnamese.
On our first night, we walked around the vicinity of our hotel looking for a place to dine. We were so excited to taste the Vietnamese food! The location of this hotel did not disappoint us, there were many restaurants situated in this District. We tried one restaurant near our hotel until we discovered the Vegetarian Hum Resto. This became our favorite dining place, and we had most of our dinners in this restaurant. The food served were worth our money – from the food presentation and the flavorful authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Also, the service was fast and the staff were really nice.
City Walk. The day following, we decided to walk around the city instead of paying for the city tour. We love to walk. Walking around HCM city was safe, but crossing the streets posed a problem to us at first. It was scary to cross the road as there were hundreds of motorcycles swamping the lanes. Even crossing the pedestrian lane petrified me. We had to wait for a few expats and locals to cross and followed them behind until we eventually managed to cross the road ourselves. The trick was just to start walking and the motorcycles slowed down when they actually see you.
We walked around District 1 to spend our morning visiting the following places:
Museum of Vietnamese History. This museum displays artifacts, photos, models showcasing Vietnam History starting from the Prehistoric period to the Nguyen Dynasty. The admission fee per person is 15,000 VND or Dong, the Vietnam currency. There is a small coffee and tea shop facing the entrance if you want to just relax for a while, which we did, before we continued exploring the area.
Botanical Garden and Zoo. This is adjacent to the museum of Vietnamese History. This is considered to be Vietnam’s largest zoo and botanical garden which was divided into animal and plant conservation area, an orchid garden and an amusement park. I have to say, this was the last zoo I visited. I no longer support zoos neither animal shows nor participate in any amusements using animals since I started my journey from being a vegetarian to vegan (subject of my future blog soon). The admission fee to enter the Botanical Garden was 15,000 VND while the entrance fee to visit the zoo was 8,000VND.
Notre Dame Cathedral or Notre Dame Basilica. From the Botanical Garden, we continued our walk and headed to Notre Dame Basilica, a cathedral located in the heart of the city. This was built by the French colonists in the late nineteenth century. This cathedral is known for its neo-Romanesque style of architecture, indeed a beautiful religious site!
Independence Palace. This is also called the Reunification Palace which was the Presidential Palace of President Ngo Dinh Diem, former President of South Vietnam who was assassinated in 1962. This is considered to be an important political and cultural site built by the French to mark their colonization of Indochina. The main gate of this palace was crashed by the North Vietnam Army which indicates the end of Saigon and the South.
In the afternoon, we went off to meet one of our dear friends, Pedro, who happened to be in Saigon. We came to know him in Vanuatu while he was doing research to finish his doctorate degree. We spent sometime catching up while enjoying Vietnamese coffee with him. Speaking of coffee: You do not leave Vietnam without tasting Vietnamese coffee.
Accordingly, Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world. What makes Vietnam coffee so special is its strong taste and how it is specially prepared. They actually used a percolator or what they call their traditional coffee maker or Phin (in French it means press). The ground coffee is steeped longer and drips slowly, giving an intense flavor. And, they used condensed milk for the coffee.
War Remnants Museum. This is the most popular museum in HCMC. This museum depicts the horrors of the American War, also called the Vietnam War or the second Indochina War through displays of military tanks, weapons, exhibits of various photographs, films, documents that had ravaged Vietnam for decades. The war images were informative and educational, basically relating to the atrocities of war. Looking at the photographs and reading the documentaries made my heart bled for the fate of the victims of war, most especially the victims of the Orange Agent. The images have touched me and informed me but one thing: the legacy of war brings nothing but eternal sorrow and pain. The admission fee to visit the museum is 15,000 VND.
Ben Thanh Market. This market is situated in the popular Dong Khai street. It is the city’s central market and tourists shopping place. In here, you will find souvenir items from clothes, accessories, footwear, paintings, food items from variety of nuts and spices, flowers, name it, and you have it. We enjoyed our ‘part 1 shopping’ as I always say, because we went back there again to continue the last parts of my shopping. There were many food stalls and eateries just across the market where you can enjoy Vietnamese food. So we ended up tasting some street food in this area.
Day 1. Saigon Tour. We decided to book for a Two-Day Group Tour. We booked our tour at An Travel, situated just across our hotel. It was a breeze to book with them. We decided to have a two day tour considering the distance of the places that we wanted to visit: First day was visiting Mekong Delta River, Unicorn Island, Bee Farm, and temple visits; and our second day tour was visiting the Cu Chi Channel and the Lacquer Painting Factory. The tour included pick-up and drop-off at certain point area. The tour came with free bottled water, lunch and entrance fees.
While we were inside the tour bus on our way to Mekong Delta, we were surprised that the tour guide started to collect some Dongs from the passengers. He said he needed to raise a certain amount to pay the toll fee. We were thinking that everything was included in the tour package, and was already paid for. We learned, however, that we have to pass on the other side of the lane to avoid traffic but we have to pay the toll fee. We obliged because I the traffic was really bad! Did I mention the motorcycles? I think I did.
Upon reaching the port, we had to take a boat ride to cruise the Mekong Delta River. This river is situated in the Southern part of Vietnam. The river was large but it was murky and brownish. First thing that came to my mind was the level of water pollution. But what makes this place a tourist attraction? Mekong Delta River is the 12th largest river in the world. This is the major trade route between western China and Southeast Asia. The rivers flows through six countries: China-Yunnan province, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. The mode of transportation in this area is by boat, and they used boats to sell and display their produce or what they call ‘floating markets’.
After we arrived at Unicorn Island, we were taken to the Bee Farm on horse carriage ride. At the Bee Farm, we had a free taste of honey with lemon and was shown a big beehives with live bees swarming on it. We also visited the coconut candy making factory in the island. The assembly line was manually done by the locals showing us the process of making coconut candies.
We had lunch at My Tho restaurant which was jam packed with tourists. The food served which was part of the tour package was not that good so we ended up ordering our own food. The highlights of our tour was when we paddled our way to another island among the Palm trees and stilt houses. Our boat was manned by a woman who was skillful in maneuvering the boats as there were many small boats in the area. During the boat ride, I was a bit scared because I kept thinking of a big crocodile that would come out of the murky water and will eat us alive!
When we arrived at the other side of the island, we were entertained by a group of young village people who were singing Vietnamese songs while we were served hot beverage.
We cruised back to the main port where our bus was waiting and headed towards Tien Gang Province to visit the famous Vin Thrang Temple and the Pagoda . The Vin Thrang Temple is a Buddhist temple with three big buddhas – smiling Buddha, standing and sleeping Buddha. It was peaceful inside this temple. Our only wish was that we had the luxury of time to go around.
The Pagoda was built in 1849 by Hue Dang, a Buddhist monk. The architectural style of this Pagoda was a mixed of Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian structures. The Pagoda was magnificent!
Day 2. Saigon Tour. In the morning of our two day Saigon Tour, we visited the Cu Chi Channel. This is an underground tunnel created, mostly dug by hand, by the Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. The tunnel served not only as a shelter but also as a based for the communist attacks nearby Saigon.
Before we started our tour, we were asked to watch a short documentary film showing the inside pathways of this guerilla’s tunnel. After which, our tour guide showed us the actual place and size of the dug holes, man traps, weapons and the remains of bomb craters. We were also given the chance to enter the tunnel. However, entering the tunnel is not advisable if you are claustrophobic because the tunnel is so small. In fact, I did not manage to really get inside.
If you are interested to shoot real guns such as AK47 or M30, you can try one for a fee at the shooting range located within the area of the Cu Chi complex.
In the afternoon, we headed to visit the Lacquer Factory where persons with disability were themselves making the Lacquer painting. We witnessed the process of making the lacquer which was handcrafted and meticulously done. We then proceeded to visit the Lacquer Painting shop where many Vietnamese souvenir items and gifts were displayed.
AO Saigon Show at Saigon Opera House. After we ended the last day of our two day tour, we had dinner at Vegetarian Hum Resto; and we headed to watch the AO Show. AO stands for Aaaa and Ohhh which was an excellent live musical show with fascinating performance of bamboo dancing staged at Saigon Opera House, also known as the Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theatre. This is not to be missed when you are in HCMC. The show was spectacular! It was indeed an Aaaa and Ohhh show as we watched young performers doing acrobat dancing and gliding on various performing feats reflecting the Vietnamese culture and heritage.
The day following, we continued walking around the city but started off with a good Vietnamese coffee: Mother Land coffee for my hubby and L’amour coffee for me – this one was mixed with Cinnamon, which my hubby also had a taste of it, so that explains the three cups in the photo below. But really, why not, when you are in Vietnam. We also bought Trung Nguyen coffee to bring home.
As a continuation of my part 1 shopping, we went back to Ben Thanh Market to do more shopping. The Top Five Things we bought for our home were: 1) Lacquer Paintings: We bought a few at Ben Thanh Market and also bought one at the Lacquer Factory. The price that we paid was 200USD but we think it was reasonable considering that half of that amount was for charity to support the Persons with Disability who were victims of the Orange Agents during the Vietnam War;
2) Silk Painting; 3) Set of Tea Pot; 4) Wooden Curving: Buddha; and 5) Wooden Chopstick Box and some chopsticks with holder.
If you fancy buying high quality precious stones, Vietnam has it. I purchased a few aquamarine gemstones on our way to Mekong Delta Tour when our bus stopped at this one-shop-place – cannot exactly remember the name. At any rate, when in Vietnam, buying a bling is recommended!
How to reach Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There is a direct flight via Philippine Airlines from manila or via Cebu Pacific Airlines.
Visa. Only Visa on Arrival (VOA) is required for Filipinos traveling to Vietnam which is free of charge. This is not the case for my Canadian husband. He applied on line to get his visa approval letter and when he arrived in HCMC, he has to take the queue at the immigration to process his tourist visa and paid in the amount of 80USD.
Where to stay. We stayed at Hai Long 5 Hotel, located at District 1. District 1 is an urban district where most major tourists spots and sightseeings, shopping malls, including restaurants and bars are located.