There's Something About Saigon
Trip Start Jan 03, 2012
163Trip End May 02, 2013
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It starts with picking the next destination. Then we research accommodation options using our guidebook, travel websites and, if we're lucky, advice from friends or other travellers. Reviews may be outdated, misleading or simply written by people very different from us. We decided to book in advance for Saigon, but before we got there we realized we could get more for our money and might want to stay an extra night to see more of the Mekong delta
On arrival, we spent a couple of hours changing our three-night reservation to two and finding another place for two more nights. Besides having limited useful amenities, our small $25 hotel room also suffered from a few design flaws. The bathroom door opened into the cramped bathroom, making manoeuvring for one, let alone two, almost impossible. The towel racks were on the opposite side as the shower (past the door) but this one actually had an enclosed shower, a rarity in this part of the world. Most places have all-in-one shower, sink and toilet bathrooms, meaning the floors are almost always wet.
All that would be fine, except that later we found possible evidence of bedbugs. Too late to leave, we literally slept on it and moved rooms the next morning. After a thorough check, we dashed out to find our tour bus for the day. The pickup spot was actually the next place we had booked. The welcome was both friendly and generous as they offered us breakfast before the tour. Feeling good about our decision, we headed for the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Information here always requires verification with at least two sources. The guidebook said the tunnels are 23 km away and the tour pamphlet said 50 but the guide told us it would be a 65 km (and about two hour) drive, including the obligatory stop at the handicraft / souvenir shop.
The tunnels themselves form an intricate underground network stretching over 200 km. They were originally built by the South Vietnamese to evade the French and were later expanded as a key tactical strategy during the Vietnam War
Back in the city, starving from the strange lack of food stalls at the tunnels site, we desperately needed pho, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup that comes in many varieties. This time we tried pho bo kho (noodle stew) from Pho Quynh, a corner joint in the backpackers’ area and it did not disappoint.
The next morning we moved into a sixth floor room at Madame Cuc 64 and with no elevator we had to hike the stairs. Our backpacks, however, were pulled up by a hook-and-cable system so we simply met them upstairs.
We took to the streets on foot with a bucket list of sites to see. First stop, Reunification Palace... closed for lunch. On a tip from a roaming coconut salesman who told us the War Remnants Museum was open, we headed there next... closed for lunch. Backtracking beyond the first two stops we breezed past Notre Dame Cathedral and the main post office, stopped for more pho, then headed back to the Palace.
An informative guided tour through this anachronistic but superbly decorated Asian and French-inspired structure spurred us on to the aforementioned museum. This hall of horrors had our hearts leaping and sinking with every story and photo. War is unthinkable, even to today’s young Vietnamese, the first generation not forced to fight for their home country in hundreds if not thousands of years
With a little more left in our legs we checked out City Hall, then made our scariest street crossing yet to reach the Saigon River. On the way back Sylvia sniffed out an amazing place for dinner. We started with pork and shrimp pancakes followed by bun bo hue (spicy noodle soup with oxtail) for Sylvia and bun thit nuong (grilled pork on vermicelli) for Jason. The drinks were fabulous; called che, it’s a sweet soup with many varieties. Each one is a unique combination of layered condensed milk, beans, fruit, jellies and coconut milk served in a tall glass with ice. After dinner we strolled through a nearby night market with no intention of buying anything. However, Jason spotted the perfect iPho tank top for Sylvia so we just had to buy it.
We were pleasantly surprised by how modern and clean Saigon is compared to other cities we’ve visited. The young Vietnamese are noticeably more fashion forward and seem to readily adopt (mostly faux) western styles. Even motorbike helmets are decorated with Burberry or Nike patterns. Communism rules officially, but capitalism reigns on the streets.
More research from Sylvia had us scheduled for a tour of the Mekong delta the next morning. The tours ranged in price from $7 to $70 depending on the company and the descriptions were all quite similar. After checking online reviews we chose one of the more expensive options.
We took a boat ride to an island orchard and ate fresh local fruit (jackfruit, dragonfruit, sapodilla plum, pineapple and banana) with tea while listening to live traditional music
For the next stage we rode bicycles through town and into a village restaurant. This was the highlight of the tour with an outstanding lunch that included a whole elephant ear fish, scooped out and wrapped in rice paper with vermicelli, cucumber and pineapple dipped in tamarind sauce. Large prawns, hot and sour soup, pork fried rice, spring rolls and fried banana flower with lime and honey tea rounded out the meal. After a quick nap in the hammocks we were paddled through a small canal to the Mekong. Drinking from coconuts on the return boat ride to the dock we prepared for another nap on the bus back to Saigon.
Jason ventured out to try something a little different; getting beaten by a blind masseur. This is a common way for the blind to make a living in Southeast Asia. Although initially a little uncomfortable with the surroundings, Jason settled in and got worked over pretty hard.
One more shout out to the staff at Madame Cuc 64 who provided us with a light dinner for free before we enjoyed more snacks, shakes and beer while people-watching on Bui Vien.
With a beach-bound bus booked for the next morning, we climbed the stairs one more time.