We set off from the hotel around 9am, for a self-guided walking tour of Ho Chi Minh city. We started off heading towards the site closest to our hotel: The Reunification Palace. This was South Vietnam’s presidential palace, until 1975 when Saigon surrendered to North Vietnam. Since then the building has been left exactly as is. The furniture and everything is still there. It was quite a nice building.
After this we headed to the War Remnants museum, but in the four blocks walk there we got stuck in a downpour. Its the wet season here, so you sometimes get a sudden downpour and then it stops. So we stood under the awning of a shop for about 20 minutes until it had eased up a bit. We walked the last block to the museum to find it was shut. Many of the museums close in the middle of the day, from around 11:30 to 1:30. So we found out from some locals that the Jade Emperor Pagoda would still be open and we caught a taxi there.
We got stooged by the taxi! It cost us $10 (which was a price he rounded up to..it was 197,200VND so he rounded up to 198,000. RUDE!) to travel around 5km, when you can hire a car for a full day for $30!!
Anyway, the Jade Emperor Pagoda was gorgeous. It was a stunning timber structure, with features of jade. It had some fish ponds outside that had a variety of different turtles and fish.
After spending time at the pagoda, we decided that we could walk back to the War Remnants Museum (not take another taxi), and if we stopped for lunch on the way, it would be open by the time we got there.
On the walk we spotted a scooter parked on the footpath, it had a cage full of puppies on the back. There was also one slightly older puppy tied to the top of the cage. He was driving around the city trying to sell them. He had stopped because a girl wanted to buy one. The little doggies were very cute, and it was awful to see this. I kind of wanted to buy one just to cuddle it and make it feel better about not being locked up.
Of course I couldn’t take a puppy, so with a sad look a the puppies we headed of to the War Remnants Museum to see lots more sad stuff. Here they had heaps of photos, stories and artefacts from the war. It was awful to see what was done to the Southern Vietnamese people, both by the North Vietnamese people as well as the Americans.
The effect of the chemicals used during the war, particularly Agent Orange, is still clearly visible in Ho Chi Minh city. In Vietnam there are 3 million people affected by Agent Orange, born with deformities and disabilities and are unable to look after themselves. In the market we saw a guy who couldn’t use his legs, they were folded up and tucked under his armpits as he dragged himself down the street with thongs on his hands.
After visiting the museum we wandered up ad down the main streets of Saigon, down to the Saigon river and back up. (When referring to the big city area you use the term Ho Chi Minh city, when referring specifically to the center of the city, Saigon is generally the term used). Then we headed to Banh Thanh market, but by this time (6pm-ish) it was closing up for the day. This really surprised me since all shops and restaurants are typically open till about 10pm!
So after all this walking we found restaurant to sit down for some dinner and a drink. It was a pretty average meal. By this time it was dark, and with all the crazy traffic I wanted to try and take some night time shots, so we went for another little wander. We also happened across a small night market & had a bit of a sticky beak.
All up we spent about 12 hours wandering around. It was nice to see many sights, but I have to say I don’t particularly like it here. Its really just another big busy city where people just want your money.
Oh and so far no one has tried to steal from us, but in our travels, basically everyone who had been here has had stuff stolen or people have attempted to steal from them.
At 8am we were collected from our hotel to head out to the Cu Chi tunnels. It was about 50kms out of Saigon, in the country-side of Ho Chi Minh City. It took us about 1.5hours to get there.
The town of Cu Chi became a military target at war time, so to be able to stay alive the Vietnamese dug tunnels and rooms underground. There were three different levels, but I don’t remember if each level served a different purpose. The tunnels were used to get from room to room, the rooms may have been family ‘houses’, kitchens, uniform rooms, weapons manufacturing rooms etc. There were also many different tunnels heading up to the surface.
We got the opportunity to go through some tunnels (they were especially widened for tourists). Stopping low (not so low for a shorty like me) we walked along a 30metre tunnel about 3.5 meres underground. I didn’t find it scary at all, but it was certainly stiflingly hot!
At one point I also got to climb into an emergency escape tunnel..it was tiny. We lifted a tiny square of timber out of the ground and I dropped into a tiny hole, and ‘covered’ my tracks by putting leaves on top of the square of timber and pulling it down over my head once I was in the escape hole. It was a tiny space and pitch dark!!
We were also provided some of the food that the people lived on – boiled tapioca and you could dip it into a mix of sugar and crushed peanuts. The little dry mix was much tastier than the tapioca!!
So for 20 years the people at Cu Chi lived underground, they came up at night to tend their crops, to watch themselves and to get some fresh air (by the way, there were ventilation holes into the rooms and tunnels, but its not quite the same as being out in the open). All the food they had access to in this time was white rice and tapioca. I found the tunnels very cool, and would have found it interesting to do some more exploring, but the idea of living there is awful!
At the Cu Chi site there was also a shooting range where had the chance to shoot AK47s, M16s or M60s. I would have been keen to shoot an AK47, but you had to buy a minimum of 10 bullets, and I only wanted to take 2 shots. So I gave it a miss, but many other people had a go, and we could hear bursts of gun fire throughout our visit – I guess that also makes the concept a bit more authentic, only the guns weren’t pointed at us!
Back at the hotel, we had some time out before heading off again. We wandered the streets of he backpacker district, mostly just to found some cheap lunch. Unfortunately for us there was some sleazebag Englishman at the same restaurant, being a complete tosser and very loudly implying that the Vietnamese girls are rude for not wanting to f*** him. It was disgusting!! The minute we finished out meal we left!
Just to comment on that concept..it is pretty common to see older white guys here with younger vietnamese women. I call it ‘rent-a-wife’. Not very nice. But then I guess if $100 a month is an average workers wage, then hitting it off with a foreigner who makes that much in a day might not seem like a bad idea. I wouldn’t make that choice for myself, but I can see why some people might.
Since it was only fairly early in the afternoon we headed off to Benh Thanh markets while it was open. It was quite a nice market and the people weren’t too pushy. Mostly every stall has exactly the same as the last, but you occasionally find little gems amongst them. We ended up blowing all our cash on cheap clothes.. so after a while we had to go back to the hotel to get more money to change.
With our Aussie dollars we headed back to the backpacker district to find a money exchange. You just go from one place to the next until you find a rate you are happy with, or you get sick of it. Yesterday we got 21,600VND for $1 and today we were less lucky (got sick of hunting for a good rate) and got 21,300 for $1. Either way it works out well because in the shop if they try to sell you something for $1, they convert with 20,000VND .. so more money is left in my pocket. I don’t remember if I already wrote about it, but in Hoi An I actually bargained with the people to get the rate I wanted..it was great!!
Its a pretty crazy currency. For the last two weeks I have been a millionaire!!!
Anyway, we spent the whole afternoon dawdling and eventually sat down for some food. Mum got some weird conical shells in coconut milk. Its so gross..you just suck the creature out of the shell. I took a photo, but that was as close as I was getting!!
We had a morning pickup and headed off on the 3hour bus ride to the boat terminal at Cai Be. Also on the tour the young dutch couple on their honeymoon (who were also on the Cu Chi tunnels tour) and a family of 4 from Sydney.
At the boat terminal we all got on board a narrow wooden boat with a thatched roof, and we each got a lazy sling chair to lay back into. We headed off to see a wholesale floating market. Here each boat sells goods, maybe only the only thing maybe more. On top of the boat they have a stick and they tie one example of the product that they’re selling onto the stick. Then people who are looking for that product can easily find it. They may be looking to buy or they may be looking to trade. Everywhere you looked were boats loaded up with Pineapples, or Sweet Potatoes, Rice or Fish and much more. There were also lots of smaller boats zoofing through the masses, some of these were floating take-away restaurants, or drinks stalls. It was pretty cool to see!
After we had passed through the whole market we headed off to a little factory where they produced rice and coconut products. We saw how the popped rice, then made a sugary syrup and mixed it all together to make sweet popped rice cakes…tasted great! We saw the production of rice wine…tasted disgusting! Like the firewater in China. Then we got to see how they made coconut candy, through using the all the coconut juice out of the flesh and cooking it with a caramel syrup until it produced a thick caramel sauce, which when cooled was a tasty chewy coconut lolly. I bought some of these for my students to try when I get home. At this factory it was great to see everything was used. The rice husks and coconut shells were used to feed the fires cooking of each of the products I mentioned.
After checking all this out we sat down and were provided with a cup of lotus tea, which was delicious, and a plate of sweets, including some of the ones we had seen get made. We also had a little look around their shop, which is where I bought the coconut candy. Here is where we also got the chance to try some snake wine. They have a big jar of rice wine, and fill it with dead snakes..it was really rancid! Even worse than firewater.
We hopped back on the boat and headed o the next stop: Asian House. Its a house built in the french colonial style on the outside, but the interior is very traditional Vietnamese. We stopped here for some Pandan leaf tea (disgusting!) and to watch a short folk music/ singing performance. It was pretty cool – but the show we saw in Hoi An was much better.
Back on the boat again, next stop was a ride down the river in a Sampan. The step off our boat onto the sampan was huge, so mum didn’t go on this one. Instead I went with the lady from Sydney. We were both given a conical hat and away we went down the river. Every now and then the lady rowing, who couldn’t speak much english, would point to a tree and say ‘Yum’. So along the way we saw bananas, coconuts, jackfruit and mangosteen growing by the river.
Our next stop was a fruit tree nursery where we saw all the teeny tiny trees ready for sale. I think we saw just about every tropical fruit there is!! Guava, Banana, Coconut, Mango, Mangosteen, Pomelo, Rambutan, Lychee, Longan, Jackfruit, Durian etc. After getting the chance to try some Guava, Pomelo and Jackfruit, e continued on to our lunch destination.
We pulled up at a teeny tiny village where a set menu lunch had been organised for us. Here we had about four courses and all of it was beautifully presented. The fish was upright as though swimming and had been cooked whole, they made all the scales stick out which looked kind of cool. Most of the other dishes had little men made out of cucumber on them. A cucumber man rowing a sampan, a cucumber man carrying baskets of rice etc. Very cool!!
By now it was time to start making tracks/waves to our destination. We headed off on the 3hour boat trip through all the little waterways of the Mekong Delta. We laid back in our lazy chairs and watched the gorgeous landscape pass us by, we saw some local people bathing, swimming, fishing, riding bikes along he river banks, trimming trees. It was so relaxing to just observe the lifestyle and enjoy putting down the river, until…. the big rain clouds rolled across the sky and it started bucketing with rain, the wind came up and caused big waves. Our guide gave us each a little plastic poncho and we all tried to huddle in spots where we would stay a little bit dry. We also had to pull up along the river bank until the rain and wind eased off. In such a shallow boat the waves can be very dangerous, especially since we ere coming up to cross one of the main branches of the Mekong river.
Once it was safe enough we travelled then last 20 minutes to Can Tho city, which is the hub of the Mekong Delta. We walked through the drizzle to our hotels where we checked in and dried off.
By this time the sun had set and it was time for food, so mum and I headed off to wander the streets and see what we could find. After not too long we found a restaurant that had english menu’s that wasn’t too westernized. Here the ‘Speciality Dish’ was snake, so we thought we’d better give it a whirl. We ordered a sate flavoured snake dish, and as a backup we ordered some fried rice and squid. The snake had a rather non-descript flavour. It was grainier than most meats and didn’t have a heap of flavour (though it may have been masked by the sate sauce). All in all it wasn’t too bad, the worst part is knowing what you are eating.
After bit more of a wander we headed to the top floor of our hotel to have cuppa at the rooftop cafe overlooking the lights of the city.
The aim for the morning was to get to the market early, before there were too many tourists and before it got too hot. So we left the hotel at 6am, hopped on another little boat and headed down the river. This was another wholesale market, but being in the morning it was much busier. Boats were heavily loaded with their fruits and vegetables. In trading good they would throw their fruit across to the person on the other boat.
Because many people can’t be bothered going to the effort of getting out in a boat to buy their food they go to a local (land-based) market to buy stuff. Of course all the people selling at these markets had already been out on the river themselves to buy their goods. So after, we had passed through the floating market we were dropped off at a local market to check it out. We got off the boat and walked through the dirty mud around the market.
One of the first stalls we passed had big tubs of live fish, one of the fish was squirming and carrying on like a pork chop until it flew out of the bucket and slapped me on the leg. I squealed like a little girl!! For the rest of the morning, until I had a chance to wash my feet/legs, I was very conscious of my fish slime leg..uggggg!!!
Around the market we saw all the usual fruit, veg, meat and fish as well as the additional stuff like tripe, pigs liver, pigs head, frog, chicken foetus etc. It was interesting to look at but very smelly and dirty. We spent about 2.5hours exploring the floating and non-floating markets before heading back to the hotel for breakfast & to pack up. I was very happy to wash my feet and legs once we got back to the hotel!!
Once packed up we hopped on the bus and headed back to Saigon .. yet anothr 3 hour bus ride. I must admit, I did lay down (very uncomfortably) and doze most of the way.
Once back in Saigon, we weighed up our options for the afternoon before deciding to have some lunch and then go to the Zoo.
Next to our hotel is a Beef noodle house. So we popped in for a bite to eat and I ordered what I thought was pretty stock standard beef noodle soup. Much to my displeasure the meat didn’t look a whole lot like normal beef. We decided that based on appearance it had to be some kind of organ. I voted mum be the taste tester. She couldn’t really tell what it was but I am pretty sure it was cows testicles. Having already eaten these disgusting things in China I was not prepared to do it again! So I chucked all the pieces of ‘meat’ out on to a separate plate and proceeded to eat the rest of the noodle soup. I was very cheesed off!!!!
So with one unhappy duck, we caught a cab to the zoo. We ere lucky with our cab this time, our tour guide had told us to stick with the cab company ‘Vinasun’ because they are always fair and honest. So this time we travelled further than when we went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda and it only cost about $2.50. Much better!!
The zoo..I’m a bit of sucker for the zoo. I really love to look at animals, especially monkeys, but in China and now also in Vietnam I have been horrified to see the animals. They are all in tiny enclosures, mostly made of concrete, and they all look sick and unhappy. I think a part of the problem is the Vietnamese people who visit the zoo. They throw food and rubbish into the enclosures. I saw an obese orang-utan drinking ice tea from a plastic bottle. I saw a man throw a coke can at a tiger to try make it move. I saw people poking their hands into crocodile and lion enclosures…of course the animals were going to snap at them! It was pretty awful!
After the early start and several hours wandering in the warmth of the day, we headed back to the hotel for some time out. Catching up on blog writing, doing some reading etc.
By late evening we headed out to the optometrist to pick up our new glasses. They’re so pretty!! I am stoked with them. They are pretty pink (imitation) Miu Miu frames. Mum got some nice orange frames and she’s really happy with her glasses too.
So then we went to find somewhere to eat. Just down the street from the optometrist we found a nice local restaurant. After my lunch disaster I really wanted something nice and non-freaky to eat. But curiosity got the better of me and I ordered something called Four Seasons Beef. I tried to ask the waiter what was in it and he couldn’t really understand what I was asking, and even if he could he wouldn’t have been able to answer me.
Out came my food, it was a clay pot with a lid, sitting on top of a plate that had chunks of white stuff (looked kind of like kopha, must have been same kind of fat). Then the guy lit the white stuff and over the next 10-15 minutes, my dish cooked in the pot while displaying an assortment of different coloured flames. Eventually when I got to eat it, it was delicious! It was beef with oil, herbs, some green veggies, and peanuts and I got some steamed rice to go with it. I took a risk and this time it paid off!!
To top off the evening we stopped off at the super popular cafe across the street from our hotel and had a vanilla milkshake..yum!
After attempting to sleep in (I managed to sleep till 6am, mum till 8am), we got up, had some brekky and started packing.
Once we had checked out, organised our airport taxi and stored our luggage for the day, we headed off to spend another half day in the city. We started by catching a taxi to the market in China Town ‘Binh Tay’. This market was huge, and the hallways so narrow. You had about 30cm width to walk through, in which you had to pass other people, workers carrying loads of boxes would push past you, mum actually got pushed into a stall and fell against the stall holder. The products weren’t very interesting and with all the pushing ans shoving we got pretty sick of it pretty quickly. I lost count of the times I got shoved, almost run into by trolleys and almost run over by motorbikes.
I have decided that if anyone to ask me I would say that Ho Chi Minh city is not worth visiting. Some of the sights in the city are interesting but there aren’t many worth seeing, the sights outside of the city are definitely worth visiting. But Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) is smelly and dirty, and full of extremely rude people.
So after china town we headed back to the main market Benh Thanh and got some last minute souvenirs. We stopped for a frozen yoghurt and then wandered back to the hotel to catch out taxi to the airport.
This concludes the Vietnam leg of the journey…tonight we will be in Cambodia.