Wednesday, September 26, 2012

24 Hours in Ho Chi Minh

We were in Ho Chi Minh, the capital of Vietnam for only 24 hours. We had flown in around midnight, and had a day to soak in this colorful city. Early the next morning we had to hop on the bus to go to neighboring Phnom, Penh Cambodia. So what follows is a catalogue of sorts, of a day well-spent in the city formerly known as Saigon.

1. Good morning, Vietnam!

Hong Han hostel, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Mia and I had traveled together before, but we had so far only gone to local destinations. An all-expense paid, writing assignment to Club, Noah Isabelle, Palawan. A spur of the moment Davao adventure. A 9-day tour of the entire Camarines Sur province. Now this trip in early November to Vietnam and Cambodia was a dream come true for Mia and I.

We woke up that morning and were immediately giddy at the thought that we were in Saigon -- the first leg of our three-city trip.The hostel we were staying in, Hong Han was a real bargain. It cost only US $12 per person, per night. The room was clean, simply furnished, and best of all, it came with complimentary breakfast. Served at the hostel's pretty lanai, the breakfast consisted of a baguette, a choice of fried or scrambled eggs, lemon juice, coffee and bananas.

Backpacker district, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 

For some, the view from the lanai would leave a lot to be desired. The street was crammed with hostels, laundry, computer shops, crisscrossing electrical wires, and men in tiny plastic chairs sipping the local broth. But we were in the heart of the backpacker district, and we loved it.  

2. "Please, beautiful lady, you buy..."

Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

We got ourselves a map from the front desk and set off on a walking tour of Ho Chi Minh. Our first stop was the famous Ben Thanh market -- which was 20 minutes on foot from our hostel.

Built in 1912, the market is stuffed with shops that sell everything from cheap dry goods like shirts, silk, and bamboo, to plenty of knockoffs of famous brands. There were several souvenir stands and eateries, as well as a wet market section that sold meat and fish. 

The entire time we were there, we were showered with compliments, "Please, beautiful lady, you buy..." and variations of the phrase. But beware. The vendors there assume that when you stop and handle their goods in any way, that you intend to make a purchase. If you don't then all the gloves are off, and the sweet girl who was, just a moment ago, calling you the prettiest thing to walk this planet, is now calling you something else entirely. 

 3. Lost in Translation

After Ben Thanh, we walked the long way round to the Reunification Palace. When we arrived at its front gate, we found out it was closed and wouldn't open till after lunch. We decided to go straight to Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office in the meantime. This was when we  realized we were lost and couldn't figure out what street to take to the cathedral and post office. But what a splendid place to get lost in. 

We were at a park, fronting a university. To rest our legs, we sat on a bench for a bit, soaking in the scenery of tall trees and lush greens. It was then that I was cajoled into buying "kem" (dirty ice cream) by a vendor. One thing about Saigon's street vendors, they are very, very persistent.

4. The Expat Club 

Au Parc cafe, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 
When we finally got our bearings, we set out for the Notre Dame Cathedral, but along the way, we spotted  Au Parc Cafe on Han Thuyen street. Mia said it was highly recommended by CNN, and so we decided to stop here for lunch. 

Au Parc serves Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cuisine, and its interiors are Moroccan inspired. It was apparently, a favorite of the expat crowd in Saigon. We were the only Asians that day, and when we started to take photos of our food -- a bagel with bacon, melted Camembert cheese and rockets -- the French ladies at the nearby table watched us, amused.

5. A Post Office and a Church

Notre Dame Basilica, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 

We finally reached Notre Dame Basilica at the Han Thuyen, Dong Khoi area. A wedding had just taken place, and the bride and groom were gamely posing for photos of their memorable day.

The cathedral is magnificent -- something that you would imagine seeing in Europe and not in Communist Vietnam. Built in the 19th century, this neo-Romanesque structure used bricks from Marseilles, and stained-glass windows from Chartres. The cathedral's two spires reach up to the sky at almost 200 feet. In front, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands guard. 

Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 

Across the street, the pastel pink Central Post Office is another remarkable reminder of Vietnam's days as a French colony. The Post Office' style is Gothic, and it was designed by the renowned architect Gustave Eiffel.

Interior of Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 

Inside, the post office resembles an old-style railway station. 

Interior of Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 

We amused ourselves by taking photos of the elegant interiors. Here the wall is lined with clocks showing the different times in different cities -- Paris, Canberra, etc. I didn't see Manila, though.

6. War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh Vietnam 

After waiting it out at the high-ceilinged HSBC lobby, we decided to splurge and hire a cab to take us to the War Remnants Museum. 

It was  a sobering experience -- this painful reminder of a very tragic time in Vietnam's history. The war's atrocities are well-documented here. There are  photographs of Vietnamese peasants, taken moments before they were shot to death by American soldiers. There are exhibits detailing how napalm and agent orange were used to annihilate entire villages. There is a gallery of photojournalists who had all died covering the Vietnam war. 

7. Water Puppet Show

Water Puppet Theater, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 

It was still raining so hard after we left the museum. Mia and I  decided to buy raincoats, because we were bent on watching the Water Puppet Theater. We trudged our way through puddles and muddy streets to get to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater at the Labour Cultural House. 

This 11th century art form originated in the Red River Delta of Vietnam. Now, they say that  the best water puppet shows are shown in Hanoi, in the north. But this one was pretty great too.  

Tales of fishermen and water dragons, and tigers and princesses, are told through lacquered puppets floating and splashing about, on a small pool of water. The puppeteers are hidden behind a screen, while a live orchestra laced the stories with music and song. 

8. Pho for Presidents  

Pho 2000 Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 

You can't visit Vietnam without tasting their signature dish, pho. By now, everybody has heard of, or has even tried pho in its many incarnations in local Vietnamese restaurants. For those who don't know, pho is a beef broth that can be enjoyed with your choice of noodles. The thin, flat ones are standard, but they say you can also try it with egg noodles or clear noodles.

Of course, we were not leaving Vietnam without a good bowl of pho. After the puppet show, we walked back towards Ben Thanh market, under the downpour, using our map as our only guide. We were looking for Pho 2000, where President Clinton ate during his visit several years ago. 

And we found it -- a hole in the wall eatery near the market and bus station. Pho 2000's tag line, Pho for Presidents is affirmed by the photo of Clinton, prominently displayed on its walls.

The white tiled walls and fluorescent lights notwithstanding, it was the best pho I've tasted in my life. It was just perfect. -- steamy, sweet-salty broth, with tender beef, and the minty touch of basil. It was an excellent end to a long walk under the rain. 

10. Backpacker Beer

We walked slowly back home but before calling it a night, we decided to have a couple of drinks at Go 2, a small bar a few meters away from our hostel. It was crowded with Westerners of every shape and form -- the street of our hotel, Bui Vien, is a well-known backpacker area, along with Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham Street in District 1

Go 2's walls were adorned with Communist art, but nobody really took notice. The plastic chairs and tables were crowded in the sidewalk and all faced the street. We drank Saigon beer, talked about our day and observed, as the two complete strangers in front of us, slowly fell in love under a fake palm tree with multi-colored lights.

11. Motorcycle Country 

Motorcycle country,  Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 
The next morning, we were up bright and early to leave for Phnom Penh. The hostel told us there would be a shuttle service to bring us to the bus station. But what we didn't know was that the said service was a motorcycle. 

And so it was, that on our last day in Vietnam, we were able to join a throng of motorcycles for their daily monopoly of Vietnamese roads. Though the ride was quick, it was nice to experience what it was like to not be on the pedestrian end of the game played daily on Saigon's streets. Mia calls it, the "patintero of death.


  1. This is great Ho-chi-minh city advice, thank you!

    I will remember the Au Parc Cafe and pho, for sure =)

    1. Btw, it is okay if I add you to the blog links on my page? :)

  2. Glad you found it helpful! :) Looking forward to reading your upcoming posts about your travels through Southeast Asia :)


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