Vietnam: Saigon and Beginning of the end

Blurb

The final call, the curtain closing moment, my last destination. An amazing journey, one life goal completed and I ended on a high. After a long six months, I had my final two and a half weeks in Vietnam where I would meet Bev. I had absolutely no regrets in doing it and when I lay on my deathbed, I can rest happy that I did this.

Vietnam is a popular place to visit and I could see why. The beautiful scenery, the friendly people and the cost of living was extremely cheap. A lot of travellers will tend to spend 4 weeks here or even longer. A common trend I saw was that people would come over to Vietnam, teach English for a year and then purchase a motorbike to travel around that part of Asia. A motorbike in Vietnam is allowed to cross the borders of Cambodia and Lao but if it’s the other way around then it’s a no go. However I will warn those thinking of doing this that they will likely charge a fee to allow your motorbike to cross into their country.

I want to cover what I really enjoyed in Vietnam and the spots we visited, from food to scenery and dancing Koreans.

Oh and it’s a two parter – just like the movies.

Value for money

I spoke to some friends and travellers and they all said the same thing. Vietnam is probably the best value for money in Asia. The rumors are true. Generally hostels will range from £3-£9 a night, a lot of the hostels are mid range which are £5 a night but from what I found, they were clean and breakfast was usually included.

When Bev arrived, we stayed in hotels and they were all really nice. We spent £100 each for hotels which spanned our two week trip.

Food was also very cheap, if you went to a local restaurant or street market then you can get beef pho (pho bo) for 30VND (Vietnamese Dong) which equates to about £1. This freshly cooked, slow roasted beef broth with noodles costs the same as a big bottle of water in the UK! However the price can range from £1-3 but still, who is complaining for fresh local food.

Ho Chi Minh or Saigon

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Notre Dame cathedral

Saigon as it was formerly known as the name given to the old capital by the French. It was renamed Ho Chi Minh after the North and South provinces were reunified to commemorate its leader, Ho Chi Minh.

I reached HCM a few days earlier than Bev, when I was booking and planning my flights around the world. My flight to Vietnam was cancelled and I was refunded my money, it was a blessing in disguise because I could choose whenever I wanted to go to Vietnam. However as a general rule of thumb, the flights booked last minute will be more pricey. I think I paid £80 one way from Vientiane to HCM.

I want to mention about the visa too, if you purchase a visa on arrival or an immediate visa prior to arriving in Vietnam, it is almost double in price than if you purchase an Evisa online. Just something to bear in mind.

When I arrived in HCM, I noticed there were no tuk-tuks and as I didn’t fancy being ripped off I ordered a Grab-bike. However any bike or car will usually not come to pick you up at the airport because there is an entry fee. So I had to cross the highway to find my grab-driver but it was worth it as the journey from the airport to HCM centre was 50p.

My friend (Tristan) was already in Vietnam and he decided to stay there to teach English before finishing his travels and then return to Australia. He recommended I stay around Bui Vien district because this was the backpacker region and there were plenty of hostels. So enough of the back-story what were the highlights here?

Bui Vien Street

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Where road rules don’t matter

Similar to Khao San in Bangkok, the eclectic street in Ho Chi is literally a club street. It’s loud, bright and fiendishly addictive. As I walked down the streets with Tristan, there was non-stop music and promoters trying to drag us into each bar. There are a lot of restaurants in the area but they will charge tourist prices.

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Me and Tristan enjoying pho ga

For backpackers, this is the perfect place to stay as it is cheap and if you are into the party lifestyle. However the lights and noise of Bui Vien may grow tiring after a few days. I want to also mention Ben Thanh markets, as that was also quite an interesting market to buy souvenirs but also taste local food too. However if you haven’t got an iron stomach, tread carefully.

Cuchi Tunnels

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These tunnels were a network of tunnels located North of HCM and operated by the Vietnamese Guerilla troops. During the Vietnam-American war, these tunnels were dug out by the Vietcong and were complete genius. There were even rooms sculpted out to sleep in and exits leading towards the Mekong river if they needed to escape.

I booked the tour through my hostel for me and Bev. It cost £9 each and definitely the cheapest tour you will get, it included the tour guide and travel cost. The entrance into the tunnels is not included and I would recommend bringing lunch (like a banh mi) with you as the restaurant we stopped at was terrible.

I really enjoyed this tour because it was really interesting to see the tunnels and Guerilla tactics. The measures that the Vietcong went to in order to hide and kill American soldiers was extremely clever.

War Museum and Art Museum

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Famous lacquer art piece 

The war museum and art museum are not located far away from each other. The entrance fees are reasonable but if I had to choose between the two. I highly recommend the war museum as you will leave knowing at least some information about the Vietnam war. The museum has four floors and takes you through how the war came about, the progression and aftermath of the war. Some of the details about the American bombings and use of Agent orange are truly horrifying and is another tragedy in the aftermath of war.

The art museum is another interesting museum with a good display but there isn’t much information about the displays. I enjoyed the lacquer art and the art techniques that the Vietnamese utilized and a lot of the pieces were not abstract like a lot of modern art you see nowadays but portrayed Vietnamese life and the aftermath of war. If you are an art fan then definitely pay the museum a visit.

Mekong boat trip

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Me and Bev enjoyed the cu chi tunnels tour so much that we decided to book the Mekong cruise tour through the same company. The tour included a tour guide, lunch and entry fees. I will admit I didn’t enjoy this tour that much but it was still interesting as we had the chance to visit local villages on the smaller islands on the Mekong. The highlight of this tour was the coconut village, where the locals used coconuts to make ornaments, bowls and coconut candy.

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Bev and a snake

Hue

Bev had organised the trip and we decided we wanted to see what middle Vietnam was like. Hue is the ancient capital of Vietnam and had a lot of historical sites and tombs of ancient rulers. I believe that the old Imperial city within Hue is a UNESCO heritage site. I could see why, as everything was beautifully preserved and well presented with information. We visited most of the sites here but are the highlights

Imperial City

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This citadel is enclosed around the old city walls and is truly amazing. The fact that they managed to preserve the citadel is one thing but when you are walking through it, it does feel like you are walking into the past. However as the citadel is so vast, it did get very tiring walking from site to site. I would probably recommend booking a tour with a caddy, so you get both a tour guide and the comfort of being transported to each site within the citadel.

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Pagoda of the Celestial Lady – Thien Mu Pagoda

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I really enjoyed the visit to this pagoda as it is situated next to the Perfume river and the view from the pagoda is beautiful. There are a lot of stories about the pagoda, I might be wrong but the ruler at time was deciding where to settle the capital of Vietnam. An old lady recommended he carry incense with him and walk along the Perfume river and where it extinguishes should be where he builds the capital. He followed her advice and the pagoda was built on the hill to honor the woman. Another version of the story is that the lord was told to build his capital on the hill by a celestial lady who visited him in his dreams.

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car which transported Quang Duc

Another piece of history resides at the pagoda and that is the car which transported Thich Quang Duc who famously self-immolated himself in Saigon protesting against the South Vietnamese leader’s (Dinh Diem) treatment of Buddhists as he was trying to Catholicise Vietnam. This self immolation was photographed and one of the most iconic photos in Vietnamese history.

Tomb of Tu Duc and Tomb of Khai Dinh

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The tombs are easily accessible and I would recommend renting a scooter as you will cut down your costs a lot. The tombs were built for the ancient rulers of Vietnam and there is a display of their dynasty and the history of how they ruled. I remember reading about one of the rulers and his burial site was actually unknown. Workers were used to dig his burial site in a secret location and then after he was buried, they were ordered to be killed so that his grave site was never known and therefore not desecrated by others.

Bun bo Hue

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Anthony Bourdain would be proud of me

Ok. So this isn’t a site but I wanted to mention it, bun bo hue is a dish which originated from Hue. It is like pho but the broth is different, it consists of slow boiled beef broth with lemongrass and banana flower. It is so delicious and you have to try it at least once when in Hue.

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