The long wait is over! After almost 10 months of preparing and researching, the much awaited backpacking trip came into fruition.
Six hours of waiting plus flight time after, the taxicab driver welcomed us in Tan Son Nhat International Airport with a signboard that was hard to miss. Being in the said airport just 3 weeks earlier, getting lost was not an option since I am very familiar of the nooks and cranny of the newly minted aeroporto (almost 10 hours of layover last time allowed me to explore the spaces). I think that HCMC is well prepared for the deluge of tourists arriving in their city.
Oh, the places to stay!
Our hotel is located in the backpackers area in District 1, in between Pham Ngu Lao and Vu Dien. Being distinctly Vietnam, floor area per story is small but establishments (or in our case, hostel) can go as high as 4th floor. Picking out a place of rest in Pham Ngu Lao was a wise decision. It is a walking distance to everywhere – from the parks, Cho Ben Thanh (the famous market) to pubs and restaurants to coffee shops and bakeries.
One has a choice among high end, mid range and affordable yet comfortable types. Being in the backpacking area, affordable yet comfortable are the buzz words. Guesthouses, houses turned hostel and little hotels line up Pham Ngu Lao and Vu Dien streets. Hostels generally provide free breakfasts which most likely consist of baguette, butter, jam and scrambled egg plus coffee and/or juice. Can’t say no to free breakfast, no? One has to note, though, that their 1st floor is actually a second floor. The first floor is really a garage slash dining area or receiving area, so be prepared for a long climb especially if you end up at the 4th floor. Oh yeah, do leave your footwear by the stairs on the 1st floor, it’s customary.
Oh, the sights to see!
Ho Chi Minh connotes Vietnam War, Cho Ben Thanh, Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral and a whole lot more. One never runs out of places to visit in the city. Ben Thanh alone needs almost a whole day for those buying sprees of anything Vietnamese (hello, ref magnets, bangles, lacquer sets and wallets) and TNF and Kipling bags. If the market closes on you by 7 P.M., a night market will open beside Ben Thanh by 9 P.M. for uninterrupted shopping again. When I checked out the prices, they increased a bit but still cheap.
For history buff, however, the sights within District 1 is enough to satiate the historical craving one got upon stepping in the city. Unfortunately for me and my BFF, we never saw the shadow of the The Reunification, City Hall or Opera House. Boo-hoo for us! We made up for it, however, on the morning before we left for Cambodia. We took a short drive to Notre Dame Cathedral to gawk at its structure and color. Beside it, lo and behold was the Central Post Office. How lucky can we get? We got to see a building designed by Mr. Eiffel!
HCMC = Cu Chi Tunnel. This is the reason why we are in HCMC : to see, feel and experience Cu Chi Tunnels. Going to the area is a 2 hour bus ride passing through rural Vietnam. Dusty roads , rustic interiors followed by a rubber plantation – these are the sights on the way to Cu Chi.
As a background, Cu Chi is an underground system of tunnel with numerous levels and spread like a cobweb over 200 km. It became the base of the Cu Chi District Party which resisted the Americans. It was a place to sleep, eat and socialize ( if there is such a thing back then). One can not fathom how the Vietnamese lived in tiny spaces for a long time, alluding American soldiers.
Oh, the things to do!
Take a tour to Cu Chi, I must say. Our group was lucky to have Ty as our tour guide for Cu Chi. He is young, hip and funny. With an accent to boot! There was never a dull moment with him, for sure. The tour, btw, was arranged through the hostel and the guide will pick each member of the group in their respective hostels. It was a half day tour composed of looking and going into the holes Cu Chi people made, looking into traps (foot trap, body trap, leg trap—name it, they invented one), going through a portion of the tunnel and shooting real guns (for a fee, that is).
The highlight of the tour was walking inside the teenie weenie tunnel for good 25 meters in the actual tunnel size! Not the one adjusted for tourists. Thanks to Ty, he suggested to get into the actual one to experience the real thing and avoid the long line atthe tourist tunnel. WTG, Ty!
Another must do has something to do with a motorbike. No, it is not crossing the busy streets since one can get the hang of it. It is actually riding one! We were supposed to join the VespaAdventures that will tour the city at night via Vespa but it was too expensive at 75 bucks each. The next best thing came through the disguise of manong that took us to the Notre Dame via motorbike. Yes, it is like riding a habal habal. Yet, the new thing was that we were in Vietnam and manong drives like he is in a motorcycle race! Whew! It was an exhilarating yet exciting experience.
To be authentically Vietnamese, take a sit at those low chairs, face the road and drink some iced cold coffee. Yes,the ultimate killing time moment. It is nice to see the world go by while finishing up those last drops of sweetened milk.
Oh, the food to eat!
Similar to Ha Noi, one can get a fill of hot pho, banh mi and ca phe anytime one craves for some Vietnamese food. Added to the list, though, is the savory fried chicken with golden bread (a fried bun similar toasted siopao bun) sold outside Cho Ben Thanh. Partnered, with Saigon Beer (What else?!), it is the best beer match in this side of Viet Nam.
Or something fried like the spring rolls can make for a relaxing meal.
One can never have enough of Ho Chi Minh. The hustle and bustle of downtown Saigon and the rustic feel of the countryside maybe worlds apart but in this city, you will gladly embrace the idea that they are made for each other. The tandem makes HCMC one of the must visits in South East Asia.