The Big Trip: Day One - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam was approximately two hours and a half long, but when I landed, it was 12:30am. Vietnam is an hour behind the Philippines, so upon landing, I had to adjust my watch and my cellular phone clock.

airport arrival

I went through immigration with no problems, and since I didn’t have to claim any bags, I headed for the exit, but not without changing some of my dollars into Vietnamese dong. (One US dollar is approximately 17,500 Vietnamese dong.) I got a taxi at the airport and told the driver to take me to the Pham Ngu Lao district, to Bui Vien street. Pham Ngu Lao is the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City; you’re bound to find a dorm room, a hostel, a guesthouse, or a budget hotel in that area, even at such odd hours.

I had prepared a list of hostels that had positive reviews or were recommended, either at HostelWorld or on Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. I asked to be dropped off at the hostel on the top of that list, but alas, the place was actually being renovated; in fact, the building was TORN DOWN and being built from scratch. So I had to scan my list and try to get a balance of cost and potential comfort. I ended up at the Duc Vuong Hotel, a budget hotel in Bui Vien street. It was on the far end of the street, so it wasn’t really in the thick of things, but that was okay, because it still wasn’t far from the action, anyway. Their mini-rooms (the cheapest single room they had available) were fully-booked that night, but there was an availability for the rest of my stay. They offered to put me up on the first night in a Standard room for $22.60, on  a 20% discount from the usual $28 rate, then transfer me to a Mini-room for $18 per night for the rest of my stay. At this point, I was extremely exhausted and too lazy to look for other, cheaper options, so I agreed. Included, among others, was a free buffet breakfast every morning, as well as free internet terminals near the lobby. I headed to my room, and passed out for the night (or, well, morning).

That morning, I prepared myself for a long day of walking. I needed fuel, so I took advantage of the breakfast buffet. It was awesome. The buffet had pretty much everything: Fresh fruits, bread and butter and jam, bacon, eggs, fried rice, sausages, mini has browns, coffee, juice, and beef stew. I was surprised by the inclusion of beef stew, but I definitely wasn’t complaining. The food was good, I had my fill, then I headed out.

I didn’t really have a proper map at this point, nor did I have any idea of where I actually was, so I walked around aimlessly for a while. I wanted to head straight for the market, as it was close to most of the attractions I wanted to check out, but because I wasn’t sure where I was, and because the street signs were a little confusing (and not all the streets were indicated on my little map), I was walking around aimlessly. I ended up going back to my hotel room and studied the map more closely.

After regrouping, I headed back out, this time in the right direction, towards the market and the rest of the city sights. I also wanted to go to the visitors’ center to try to get a better map, and maybe perhaps a few other goodies. As I walked, I saw just how motorcycles dominated the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. They were EVERYWHERE. I’d heard about how motorcycles filled the streets in Vietnam, but seeing it first hand was definitely quite an experience. It was a challenge crossing the street sometimes, but eventually, I got the hang of it (I didn’t get run over, anyway). Some of the motorcycles were for hire for tourists, who could sit at the back of one while the driver takes you around. As you can see in the video below, I was offered the opportunity (and it wouldn’t be the last time), but I turned him down because I wanted to save my cash.

After a few minutes, I finally found myself at the roundabout, where a statue of General Tran Nguyen Han stood. He was on a horse chasing after a bird, and I really had no idea what the significance of that was; there wasn’t any information at the statue regarding the man, the horse, or the bird. (General Tran Nguyen Han served under Emperor/King Le Loi in the 15th Century. Apparently, Le Loi revolted against the occupying Chinese and succeeded in gaining independence from China. You can read more about Le Loi on Wikipedia.)

Tran Nguyen Han statue

The statue was in front of Ben Thanh Market, which was the major marketplace of the city. It was a beautiful old French building, so naturally I snapped away. (According to Wikipedia, the current building was built in 1912 and renovated in 1985.) I didn’t go inside, though; I wanted to save that for another date, so I could combine a little bit of sightseeing with a little bit of shopping.

Ben Thanh Market

Something funny happened while I was at the statue/market area. Another tourist – he was Japanese, I think – asked me if I could take his picture with the Ben Thanh Market in the background. I said yes, and snapped his picture. (I found it funny that, while he was so congenial and lively while chatting with me, he was completely cold, stiff, and expressionless when I took his picture. Is that a Japanese thing?) Anyway, after taking his picture, he started talking to me in something that sounded like Vietnamese. I then explained to him that I wasn’t Vietnamese, and asked him if he could speak English. Instead, he started to speak in something that sounded like French. I walked away from that more confused than ever.

Now that I found my bearings, I walked a little further towards the visitors’ center. On the way, I ended up on a little courtyard of sorts. As it turns out, I was surrounded by the People’s Committee Hall (also known as the City Hall, formerly the Hotel de Ville), the Rex Hotel, and the Hotel Continental Saigon. The crowning glory of the courtyard was a statue of Ho Chi Minh himself, depicted as a kindly uncle. (The statue is identified as “Bac Ho.”)

Uncle Ho statue

It was nice to finally be at what seemed to be the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s colonial area. I was surrounded by beautiful French architecture, starting with the People’s Committee Hall. Unfortunately, it’s closed to the public, but the building itself was pretty as it is.

People's Committee Hall

People's Committee Hall

Standing in front of (and facing) the People’s Committee Hall, to my left was the historic Rex Hotel, which was home of the press corps and the location of the daily news briefings during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, I never got to go inside and explore, particularly the famous Rooftop Garden at the 5th floor. Maybe when I go back…

Rex Hotel

To my right was the Hotel Continental Saigon, another classic colonial hotel which was the setting of the Graham Greene novel The Quiet American. Again, I didn’t get to go inside.

Hotel Continental Saigon

The Tourist Information Center was nearby, so I ducked in to enjoy a bit of airconditioning, and to grab a handful of maps and brochures. The official map also included a privilege card that provided discounts and freebies at a few establishments.

Armed with my tourist maps, I made my way to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. According to the official brochure, the building was built in 1885 and designed by the French architect Foulhoux. It was originally built as a commercial museum, but had a myriad of different uses instead, including the French High Commissioner’s residence office in 1945. In 1978, it was used as the Revolutionary Museum, and now it’s the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Ho Chi Minh City Museum

Ho Chi Minh City Museum

Inside, there was a lot about the city’s history, about its past as a major trading port (particularly at the harbor), as well as the handicrafts made in the city. There was also a section regarding the revolutionary struggles of South Vietnam that ultimately led to the Vietnam War.

Ho Chi Minh City Museum mural

There were also old, vintage vehicles housed outside the building, each with its own individual history. There were also replicas of a tank and a helicopter as used in the Vietnam War.

Ho Chi Minh City Museum vehicles

After visiting the museum, I headed back to the budget hotel in order to facilitate my room change from the Standard room to the Mini-room. On the way, I slipped into an ice cream parlour as temporary relief from the scorching heat. I had a yummy coffee ice cream sundae, and several glasses of their iced house tea. (Basically, it’s the same tea that they serve in Chinese restaurants, but iced.) I also passed by a large bookstore, which had Vietnamese translations of best-sellers, including Confessions of a Shopaholic and Twilight. I also took video of the vehicles (mostly motorcycles) circling around the roundabout:

As soon as I got back to the hotel, I quickly switched rooms. The nice lady at the reception counter also showed me some sights I should see on the map, including the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace. She also recommended a good pho place that I should go to for lunch.

I made my way to Pham Ngu Lao in search of the pho restaurant. The pho place is Pho 24, a fastfood chain that actually has a branch here in the Philippines, at Power Plant Mall in Rockwell, Makati. Pho is a noodle soup that typically includes rice noodles and thinly sliced beef. I had a regular pho, and it was absolutely delicious.

pho

After eating that wonderful bowl of pho, I started walking again, this time in search of the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. Following my maps (yes, plural), I walked into a building, thinking it was the Reunification Palace. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t, but I started taking pictures anyway. Doing a little research, I found out that I actually stepped inside the premises of the City Court of Ho Chi Minh City.

City Court of Ho Chi Minh City

As soon as I realized that it wasn’t where I intended to be, I started to head out.

And then it started to rain.

It fell in drops at first, and then it progressively got stronger and stronger. I scrambled to grab my raincoat from my bag and put it on, but I was already a bit wet. Once I put it on, the rains got really strong, and my rain jacket became less and less effective. I scrambled to find a place I can duck into and get cover from the rain. Relief came in the form of a not-quite-nearby Highlands Coffee. Highlands Coffee is sort of a local version of Starbucks (akin to our Bo’s Coffee), serving your typical coffee blends, as well as the traditional, local coffee. I entered the store soaking wet. The lady who came to greet me stared at me, then I stared back, and somehow we communicated the ridiculousness of the situation and burst out laughing. She was very accommodating, though, and helped me as much as she could with my predicament. I ordered a traditional iced coffee and a pastry, and passed the time until the rains died down.

When the rains finally eased up, I decided to go back to the hotel in order to get dry. The weather didn’t look like it was going to get any better, and I decided that I had time to check out the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum on a later day. I ended up taking a nap, and upon waking up, I started to get ready to go out again… and then it rained again. I took advantage of the hotel’s free internet, and when the skies finally cleared up, I headed out and explored Pham Ngu Lao.

Pham Ngu Lao is the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City, and it is a very lively part of town. Every building on Pham Ngu Lao, Bui Vien, and De Tham streets appeared to have beds and rooms for rent for tourists and backpackers. The ground floor would have some sort of business, be it a bar, a restaurant, a tour company, a souvenir shop, a convenience store, an art house, anything. Then, the above floors would be a hostel or guesthouse. There are a lot of choices for a backpacker to stay at, and a lot of places for a backpacker to eat at. As a result, there are many backpackers who just stay in the area when night falls.

I decided to book a ticket for my tour to the Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels the next day at one of the travel companies. I also bought a souvenir shirt that I would be using to crawl through the tunnels (I realized my other shirts were too nice or delicate to be worn at a tunnel, and I was planning to buy a souvenir shirt, anyway.) I ended my day at Go2 Bar, a popular backpacker haunt at the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham (you can’t miss it, there are giant neon lights with the Go2 logo identifying the building). I had dinner and a few bottles of Saigon Beer (or “bai” as it’s called locally).

Go2 Bar

The bar is a good place to people-watch. There was a kid selling packets of tissues and gum to anyone at the bar. Other vendors selling everything from sunglasses to pirated Lonely Planet guidebooks try to entice tourists to buy from them. Some bar patrons are watching football on the television screen, while some are playing billiards. It was definitely a lively place.

After a few beers, I walked back to the hotel then slept. The next day: The Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels!

I’ve got a raw-er entry on my first day at Ho Chi Minh City here; it was written during the rain break on that day. I’ve also uploaded unedited photos at Multiply, and my edited photos on Flickr.