26.10.2016 - 29.10.2016
After a month of traveling and transiting through airports our journey to Ho Chi Minh has been our most interesting. Just about to board and they pulled Gus to one side saying something about security and baggage check before taking him off to another area leaving the rest to wonder what was happening and would we be missing our flight. But after explaining what the 'mysterious' torches in his case were, he and his luggage were allowed on the plane and we could continue our journey.
Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon to those from the south of Vietnam is a city of 10 million people and 7 million bikes and they were all on the road as we drove from the airport to our hotel 😜.
A mix of old and new, affluent and ramshackled, the city is chaotic but on a larger scale than Hanoi and has a large city feel rather than the quaintness Hanoi had. It's also a lot more expensive than we have experienced on our travels so far.
Visiting the local market and riding around the village on push bikes with the locals welcoming us and shouting hello as we passed by.
The boat ride on the narrow waterways of the Mekong River
We were warned by the hotel to take care of our valuables whilst walking the streets and not have mobile phones on show as they could be snatched by motorbike riders. We were also warned by a stall holder when she could see a mobile phone sticking out from a pocket in a handbag. Whilst we have taken care of our valuables as we have travelled, this is the first time we have felt unsafe.
We experienced the most sudden down pours here than anywhere else on our travels, however luckily they occurred whilst we were in a cafe and had stopped by the time we left one evening, and on and off all afternoon on our last day but as we were just chilling in the spa at the time wasting time until checkout so wasn't too much of a problem.
On our first night, and in a local restaurant recommended by our driver, we were offered wet wipes in packets on our arrival and then again before our meal arrived. We used the first ones but not the second set and later found we had been charged for them on the bill- no warning of this before.
We wandered the streets by day and by night.
The Ben Thanh Market is open until 6pm and sells just about anything, from flowers, fruit and veg, meat, poultry and fish, freshly made food, coffee beans, and clothes, shoes, bags, silks .......the list goes on and we were advised they have 'originals' and copies.
In the evening the night market takes over with its food stalls where amongst the usual you can get yourself a BBQ'd turtle ( known as Ba Ba). The stalls also sell everything the inside market does but not quite the same 'originals'.
We did our own walking Saigon City Tour, starting by passing the Revolutionary Museum to the Independence Palace which served as the South Vietnamese PresidentIal Palace until the first communist tanks in Saigon crashed through its gates on the morning of 30th April 1975 when the South surrounded to the North. After a quick refresh at nearby Gossip cafe we headed to Notre Dame Cathedral and the huge building with its two 40 meter high square towers is rises up in the centre of the road. Unfortunately it was not open and so we could not see inside. Facing the Cathedral is the Central Post Office, this impressive building was designed by Eiffel and painted on walls inside are historic maps of South Vietnam snd Saigon. Heading back we passed the People Committee Hall before stopping at Ben Thanh Market for a little browsing and then Ben Thanh Street Food Market for cooling drinks and ice-cream- tried sugar cane juice which is strangely refreshing.
We chose a private tour of the Mekong Delta with Buffalo Tours to avoid the masses and busy tourist places. Our guide, Ha, met us at our hotel to drive out of Saigon to the Mekong Delta some 70 kms away.
First we stopped at a temple dedicated to Cao Dai - a young religion started in 1926 and an amalgamation of 8 religions including Christianity, with the main 3 being: Buddhist, Tao and Confusious.
Next was a local market where we seemed to be centre of attention with our white skin, blond hair and high noses as very few westerners are seen there. Everybody was very friendly and gave us samples to taste, as we wandered around with Ha buying some vegetarian food and fruit to have with our lunch.
We picked up push bikes from a village nearby and cycled around the local streets and through rice fields, where we found concrete structures built to encourage swallows so the locals could collect their nests for birds nest soup. The locals and school children were waving and shouting hello to us as we passed.
Lunch was at a small restaurant at Muddy Beach. In addition to the food we had purchased at the market we had fresh tiger prawns snd clams, spring rolls, vegetables, catfish in clay pot, fried tofu with lemongrass and sweet and sour soup followed by fresh fruit. On the horizon were some small islands which were Australian Army bases during the war-Ling Tan, and where veterans return to visit.
An hours drive later we boarded a boat for a trip on the Upper Mekong River. The river crosses through 5 countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and is the 12th largest in the world. At the point where we crossed it there are 4 islands: Turtle, Unicorn, Phoenix and Dragon- which we went round. On the other side we boarded a Sampan to navigate through the smaller waterways passing coconut plantations. After disembarking we tried some snake wine - definitely not to be repeated in a hurry. before heading back to Saigon.
The hotel pool, jacuzzi and gym was the place to cool down and relax after a hot day of sight seeing. And we wasted away the afternoon here in the day we were leaving having drinks in the spa during a downpour.
Eating and drinking:
Tan Lap 272- well that was an experience never to be repeated. Our driver recommended here for good, cheap local Vietnamese food. We ordered, pointing to our selection on the menu as the staff spoke little English, but when it arrived it was nothing like our order. It took quite a while, and someone from a neighbouring cafe to establish that seafood was not in the dish we ordered and they took it back, deciding not to reorder but to move on elsewhere we drank up and paid the bill- only to find they had charged us for the wet wipes packets they gave us on our arrival 😳. Cross that off our great eats list. 😜
Ben Thanh street food market - what an awesome place this is. A collection of street food stalls all in one place: you get your choice of food and eat at communal benches. Anything from fresh coconut, smoothies and beer, ice- cream and sticky rice, fresh and fried spring rolls, soups, filled Banh Mi and lots of other full meal
options- all at very reasonable prices and we visited here on a couple of occasions.
We found The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf after we had exhausted ourself negotiating in the market- the coffee would be good if the regular size were not so big as they were just a little too milky- but for the first time in a month we had skinny milk! A little expensive but great location to watch the madness unfold as motorbikes fought with taxis and buses during rush hour,
Awesome food from Phuong Ma vegetarian restaurant and really reasonable prices. The eggplant was awesome, as was the Pad Thai and Schezwan Tofu, Veg and Mushrooms.
We were presently surprised by Gossip the cafe, being located near the Independence Palace we thought it might be an expensive tourist trap but it seemed full of workers on their laptops. The prices were reasonable for the city, as was the food: salads and filled Bahn Mi, and the coffee and cold drinks were awesome- thumbs up for their latte.
We tried Cyclo Restro on the recommendation from someone we met, Located at the bottom of a quiet dead end street, it is a family run restaurant proving a fixed set menu of 5 courses for $135,000 dong (approx $6USD) of traditional Vietnamese dishes with s home cooked feel, and they provided alternatives for those who don't eat seafood or meat. The food was good, especially the prawn and pork spring rolls, green melon snd prawn soup and the green bean and pork fish, and a great way to be introduced to the different Vietnamese flavours, especially if starting out on your travels through Vietnam but we were at the end of ours and during that time we had eaten some awesome dishes.
With the risk of a further sudden downpour and not wanting to be caught in it we opted for a restaurant round the corner from our hotel - Alfresco providing pizza, pasta, Mexican and burgers. We opted to share a pasta and pizza and was pleasantly surprised to find the pizza bases were good- thin and crispy and whilst expensive it was all very tasty.
Nguyen Hoang coffee shop which had a range of coffee bean blends to choose from for our morning coffee fix.
Une Journee a Paris felt like we really had been transported to France so what else to order but Pain Aux Raisins, Croissant Almande et chocolat chaud
Alagon Saigon/poolside bar- expensive for food and drinks but had THE best herbed wedges.
Alagon Saigon Hotel and Spa - after a request to move from our initial room- which was located on the 9th floor next to the stairs leading to the rooftop and the lift to access all lower floors, we found ourself with a lovely, slightly larger room on a lower floor with windows looking over downtown Saigon.
There are 3 hotels in the chain taking up a corner block and using their roof space to provide garden, bar, pool, jacuzzi, spa snd gym areas. An ideal location in District 1- Dong Khoi areaway him walking distance of the Ben Thanh Market and other tourist sites.