A walk around Ho Chi Minh City

Dear Hector,

After a jam packed two weeks in Vietnam, our final destination before heading into Cambodia was Ho Chi Minh City, formally known as Saigon. Our journey to get there? That’s its own story altogether; stolen money, panic stays in dorm rooms, and 22 hours on a train; but that’s for another day, when I will share with you the more disastrous (and significantly less prestigious) side of travelling. Long story short, we booked a same-day flight from Nha Trang, on the East of Vietnam, and had our last glimpse of the coast on our trip.

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Pham Ngu Lao

We’d heard a lot about how crazy the city is, but I think Hanoi had prepared us well for the manic traffic. Even the short drive through one of the jam-packed bar streets didn’t faze us compared to the shock we experienced on our arrival into Hanoi. Our hotel, Hong Han was located in the Pham Ngu Lao area (basically a backpacker central) and stated on the reservation had a 24 hour reception, so we weren’t too worried that we were arriving at 11:00pm. What they didn’t say is that they completely shut up the front entrance with only a tiny, unmarked buzzer to alert the reception staff that you needed to be let in after a certain time of night. After this initial panic that we’d been victims of a horrible scam, the remainder of our stay was much more enjoyable! Our twin room was located on the first of seven floors; which was rather lucky considering that the building doesn’t have a lift, but did mean that we could also hear the buzzer whenever this was used during the night. As we were so tired, this wasn’t something that particularly disturbed us. Breakfast was served on the first floor outdoor terrace, allowing prime viewing of the busy street below, and I was able to have my first poached eggs since the UK (you can imagine the joy this brought!) and the portions were definitely plentiful enough to prepare you for the day ahead. A good little hotel overall in a good location with very friendly staff, but a warning about the night time lock down’s would have been helpful.

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View from the terrace
View from the terrace

After recharging on the beach in Nha Trang (albeit for much less time than we had anticipated), we were ready for a day of exploring, and making the most of our last day in Vietnam, so chose to follow a suggested walking route from our Lonely Planet guide, which conveniently started very close to our hotel. Iced coffee’s in hand, we set off through 23-9 Park, and took in the view of the skyscrapers ahead – everything in HCMC certainly looks very new.

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The first stop on our walk was at the Ben Thanh Market which is the citys largest indoor market. What fun there was to be had in there! Countless little walk ways with jam-packed stalls either side, with sellers with varying degrees of enthusiasm trying to encourage you to stop (rather amusing watching those so intently trying to complete levels on candy crush whist muttering “you buy something sir…”). All of a sudden the shopping addict in me kicked in, and the bartering and panic buying began. As we hadn’t managed to purchase much in the way of souvenirs or gifts until this point, this was definitely the perfect place to start. The market is roughly organised by product (clothes, packaged food, fresh food etc) it was fairly easy to negotiate, but do shop around if you want a particular product, as you will find that so many of the stalls have exactly the same items at different prices. Bartering is pretty much expected, so do give it your best shot!

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One of Saigons crazy roundabouts with the market to the right

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Feeling pleased with our purchases, and loaded with some mangosteen’s to snack on, we set off to continue our walk. We passed some small galleries (which we unfortunately didn’t have time to peruse) and a fascinating street full of antiques shops, where you would certainly need an expert at hand to decipher exactly which items were legitimate. We then reached a small outdoor market, which still certainly had its share of the weird and wonderful, and a much less crowded location for locals to pick up their meat, fish and veggies!

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A short distance from here was the large Nguyen Hue square, with a statue of Ho Chi Minh (the first leader of North Vietnam) at one end, however at this point we ventured in the other direction towards the river. I had read that a river cruise in Saigon was recommended, but there didn’t look to be too much to see, so we opted against this and continued on our walk. We passed the Majestic Hotel and several sights from the movie “A Quiet American” (still on my “must see” list…) before reaching the Opera House, which was very impressive indeed. This area of the city was full of prestigious hotels and designer boutiques, in other words: very us (or perhaps an area I could search for employment if I ever moved to Vietnam!)

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Statue of Ho Chi Minh

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Moving onwards, we perused the Notre Dame Cathedral and the large Central Post Office, both of which were built by the French. Although still an impressive sight, the Cathedral is a little smaller than its Parisian counterpart!

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Notre Dame and the Central Post Office

Interestingly as we continued towards the Reunification Palace, we saw a large increase of communist propaganda lining the roads, which was rather fascinating to peruse. The palace itself isn’t a palace as you would traditionally expect and has a very “60’s” look about it, but signifies a very important part of Vietnamese history. We chose just to view from outside rather than pay to enter, but it did look very busy with tourists.

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Reunification Palace

From here, we chose to end our stroll at the War Remnants Museum. For a small entrance fee (15,000 dong – approx. 50p), the large museums gives an indepth insight into the brutality of war in Vietnam. It’s embarrassing to admit how little I knew about the Vietnam war, and the extremely graphic displays were extremely eye opening, and often horrifying. Certainly not for the faint hearted, and not a place for children. Although the museum gives a fairly one-sided tale of the war, a lot of the photographs are from US sources. As a bit of a history geek, I left the museum feeling like this is a part of history I should learn more about, and would encourage anyone to visit when in HCMC to gain a greater understanding of the hardship the country has been through.

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After a long day of sightseeing, we set off on a mission that had to be completed before leaving Vietnam, and to see a different side of their culture – the “exotic” cuisine. After some research, we discovered Restaurant 31 – a very simple restaurant, with a far from simple menu. Dave had vowed to eat sparrows in Vietnam… and well… 8 sparrows later there’s definitely no doubting that he completed his mission; with a scorpion appetiser to put a little icing on the cake. As you might imagine, I did not partake in the sparrow tasting session, and happily sat with my bucket bbq cooking my ostrich (which I must say, was delicious!). With a huge array of different (and not so delicious sounding) dishes at very reasonable prices, this is definitely a spot for the more adventurous to visit. We had heard that it gets very busy, but visited late afternoon and had absolutely no trouble getting seats on one of the large banquet sized tables.

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We easily could have spent a few more nights here with plenty of sights, restaurants and bars we didn’t have time to visit, but the time had come to wave goodbye to Vietnam and see what Cambodia had to offer. But not before another round of poached eggs breakfast of course…

With kindest regards,

Penelope xoxo

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