20. HCMC – Sitting at the tail of a dragon

29/12 – 05/01

After a long train journey I finally arrived in HCMC – again on time. And once again I was looking for my ticket for the inspection before leaving the station (it seems this is done only on major stations like Hue or HCMC).

I was actually worried that I had to go through my whole bag, but thankfully I found it at the usual spot after looking everywhere else – my back pocket.

Ignoring the usual touts approaching any tourist look-a-like person I went to the queue and was looking for a Mailinh Taxi (considering all the popular scams it was recommended only to take Mailinh or Vinasun taxis). One arrived quite quickly and I was a bit faster than a tourist couple just coming out of the station (well – you have to be faster for the good taxis). Just when I put my bag into the taxi one of the real official MaiLinh staff came over to check my address, and told my driver where to go.

I heard about the traffic in HCMC, and I thought I was prepared after my stay in Hanoi, but I was still amazed about the sheer volume of motorbikes, cars, vans – the road was packed. Driving through HCMC is an adventure itself (I got much more of this experience during my stay), and really enjoyed the drive to the hotel.

It only took around 40 minutes and I arrived at the Vietnam Inn Saigon, located in the centre of District 1 opposite of a park, and as I found out later – only 2 minutes away from the pub street. As I stayed over New Years Eve I booked ahead a bed in a dorm room for 5 nights. It was 172,000 Dong per night (20,000 Dong extra for New Years Eve), including breakfast and two free beer in the evening. My first bed was in a 10-bed dorm, and my second room was an 8-bed one. The rooms were clean, the bed was comfortable, and everyone had a locker. The shared bathroom and showers were cleaned throughout the day, and in top condition. In addition they had a roof top bar on the 9th floor – with a stunning view over district one. So based on the facilities it is a great place to stay (and to meet people) – but just hope you don’t have to deal with the front office staff. They are as useful as a chocolate tea-pot (the teapot is even more useful, as you have at least some melted chocolate to eat!!!). And don’t book tours with them…More to that later.

After checking in I got my two vouchers for the free beer, but told I can only use them till 9pm that night. Well – enough time to get to my bed, drop my bags and get up to the bar just before 9pm. Ordering both beer at the same time I was then able to enjoy two cold beer. After the long journey an ice cold beer just tastes amazing. Two cold beers are even better. To have a great view while enjoying them is a big plus. They also served food at the bar, but I decided to eat somewhere else.

I just turned right at the entrance and after a 2 minute walk I saw a little place with several tables outside next to the street. As I saw a good mix of locals and tourists (and being too lazy to walk too far) I just took the first seat, and after nearly choosing a noodle dish my eyes spotted something more interest: duck tongue. For my last job I had to travel to London once or twice each month, and from time to time I went with my colleagues to a Chinese restaurant where I tried delicatessen like duck tongue or pork ears – which I really enjoyed. So I decided to try the Vietnamese version of duck tongue. I was slightly surprised when I got the dish served in a clay pot, as the tongue looked quite a bit different than what I had before – it was definitely larger. But, and this was the most important part – it tasted absolute fantastic. A great dish for a late dinner in a new city. A good start for my stay in HCMC.

After a rather restful sleep (the bed was very comfortable, and despite being in a full dorm room it was quiet) I was able to try the breakfast on the roof top terrace –seeing the surrounding in daylight. The breakfast on offer included the usual suspects – omelette, fried eggs and pancakes. During my stay I was able to try all three, and they were all rather good. Coffee was extra – but the ice coffee was actually good as well.

A bit later than planned I headed out to explore HCMC. Equipped with a little map from the hostel I tried to find my way towards Notre Dame. It was quite humid and much warmer than in central Vietnam. But as usual I got easily distracted by some nice looking streets and some parks, so made some detours. This wasn’t really a bad thing – it was actually nice sitting in a park, watching life goes past and seeing the locals doing some exercise, or just having a chat. In the end I managed to get to Notre Dame just after noon – and obviously it was closed. Great. I still used the chance to take some pictures from the outside, and went to the main Post office next to the cathedral. And I must admit – this is one great looking post office. While the yellow walls outside were covered in scaffolding, the interior was quite impressive. Worth a visit. After the “long” walk it was time for a brief ice coffee stop. I used the break to contact Tuan, the Vietnamese journalist I met in Hue, and it was agreed to meet up for dinner and drinks that night. Obviously, I let the locals decide where to go!!!

From Notre Dame I walked down the main street away from the cathedral to head to the Muncipial Theatre, which was another lovely building surrounded by the rather modern office buildings. Unfortunately there was no concert on during my stay – though there was a show on called AO. I was actually interested to get the tickets, but I had already plans for the night, and the only other performance was on the 1st January – and I really wasn’t sure how I would feel after new Year’s Eve. So like in Hanoi I had no chance to see the inside of the theatre. A guy from my hostel told me though that the show is very good – so I missed something.

After a brief stop for a lovely Pho soup (in a little place that even had A/C indoor – which was pleasant) I was then ready to visit the Reunification Palace, one of the more popular tourist places of HCMC. Entry fee was 55,000 Dong. If you wanted a guide, the price was 200,000. The palace was the home of the president of South Vietnam, so it was quite important in the history of Vietnam. Outside the palace are a number of military vehicles. The most important one is a Vietnamese tank, which was one of the two tanks that broke through the gate back in 1975. It led to the surrender of South Vietnam. Inside the massive buildings you can see some quite impressive rooms, from the office of the president and vice-president, the conference room of the government, the hall to welcome foreign visitors, as well as the living quarter of the president and his family. On the second floor was the command centre, with maps from the war campaigns still hanging on the wall. On the rooftop you can visit a room that was designed to provide a retreat for the president to think – but which was turned into a bar. For his pleasure the president had also a cinema and a gaming room in the palace – it was clearly important to keep moral of the president up while his country was at war…. In the basement it was back to military use as it housed the bunker for the president, protected by massive steel doors, and command rooms everywhere with old radios.
Overall it was an interesting visit, and the palace should be on any itinerary in HCMC – oh, and you get some nice views over the surrounding area.

My next stop was the War Remnants Museum. In the past it was called the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression”. However the name was changed after diplomatic relations with the US has been normalised (well, you couldn’t claim that the US would ever do any war crimes and have diplomatic relations – obviously!!!). Well – the name has changed, the content hasn’t. In the courtyard outside the museum you could see a range of different vehicles used during the war – including flame throwers, tanks etc. It was interesting to see the variety of technology used during the war. But the important bits are obviously inside – and I would say it shouldn’t be visited who only wants to see happy places. Over two floors there are exhibits about the war, and how civilians suffered from it. Pictures and stories were shown highlighting the crimes committed against the Vietnamese people – including torture and how the people of whole villages were all killed. Throughout the buildings comments from foreign organisations, condemning the war by the US were shown, and some links to comments made for example during the Nuremburg Trials. The link of what was said, and then done during the war makes your head spin. Another room showed the ongoing effect the use of biological material like Agent Orange has on the civilians today, how many people are still suffering from the side effects (including the soldiers from the US, Australia and the other allies of the US). I must admit, it really made me angry, and sad – as it seems we still haven’t learned about this, and new wars are starting all over the world for nothing but politics, and the civilians are the ones who suffer the most.

One other interesting exhibit came from the US, where the photos of all the war reporters were shown – some of them are well known as they were showed in nearly every single newspaper. It also highlighted the fate of the journalist who took the pictures or reported about the war. Again, it was a sobering exhibition. When the museum was closed I stayed there for 1 ½ hours, but I could have easily stayed longer.

Overall, this museum is a sobering place, it makes you think, it might makes you angry or sad (or both), but it shows once again what the war did to the people living in this country – and how it still impacts it today.

It was then time heading back to the hostel. I followed a different street this time, and after crossing one of the busiest roads I have seen so far (bikes everywhere), I realised how many beautiful streets HCMC has to offer. You really have some proper avenue with absolute beautiful large trees on both sides. It was difficult to imagine such a street only a few minutes after seeing the busy streets. I realised that a few times during my stay how quickly you could turn from a busy road into a rather peaceful looking area.

As agreed at 7pm Tuan and Tri (the two journalists I met in Hue) were waiting with Thuy, Tuan’s friend, outside the hostel with their scooters – so it was time to explore HCMC on the back of a bike. And I must admit – it really is an adventure. The traffic is even more insane when you are in the middle of it. With a detour to show me where the famous pub street is we were on our way to a popular restaurant at the outskirt of District 1 – called Quan Nem. Apparently they serve one of the best crab spring roll and to my delight a nice Bun Cha. That night I was the only foreigner in the restaurant. And the food was fantastic. I actually learned that night that there is a difference between fish sauce Hanoi style, and HCMC style. Both were served with the Bun Cha – and I must admit I preferred the Hanoi one, as it was slightly sweeter (not that I have a sweet tooth at all!!!). But I must admit they I was on the receiving end of some confused and slightly shocked looks, when I took quite a bit of the sauce into my bowl. Every time I added a spoonful their eyes got bigger and bigger. I just asked if anything was wrong – the only response was “You know it is fish sauce, right?”. Considering I never left any of the sauce during any meal in Hanoi, I thought it was normal – well, apparently it is not. But hey – when was I ever normal??? During dinner I also had another first – Tau Hu Lanh, a cold & sweet Tofu desert. I didn’t even know that Tofu was used for desert, but it was actually very good tasty.

Our bellies filled I was taken to the next stop for the night for some beer . I thought we would head to a normal local bar – instead I was standing in front of an office building with a roof top bar. Apparently the One Plus Beer Club is one of the highest roof top bars in HCMC – on the 32nd floor. And the place was impressive. Sitting outside with an amazing view over HCMC, while the first 3l beer tube arrived followed by some snack – that was rather special. I had a great time with Tri, Tuan and Thuy, got to know them better, and having a good laugh. At some point I pointed to a roof of another skyscraper where I spotted flames. Less a minute later everyone was taking pictures and videos what looked like a massive fire on the roof. Being on the 32nd floor that time it was actually a bit weird. I only found out during my return trip to HCMC that actually a building next to it burned down (and unfortunately cost the life of a person), but at the time it looked far bigger.

After a second beer tube it was time to leave this really nice (and posh) place, and to head back to the hotel. I fully enjoyed their hospitality, and I wasn’t even allowed to add anything to the bill.

After my return to the hostel I should have head to bed as Tuan offered to pick me up in the morning to show me around China Town, but I was looking for another beer. Well – instead of one beer I had a few more while visiting a nightclub, and then sitting at a street BBQ stall with a beer and freshly grilled chicken gizzard (these little BBQ places are just amazing), speaking to a few fellow tourists. Much later than planned I was finally in bed.

The next morning (New Year’s Eve) I wasn’t that sure that the few more beers were a good idea. Being tired and having a slight headache I decided it was not a good idea for a trip to China Town, and stayed a bit longer in bed. At some point I managed to drag me out to get some fresh air, wandering around in District 1 (aimless as usual, still enjoying some of the boulevards) and getting some food. This combination of activity was very useful, as I felt much much better, and ready to celebrate into the New Year.

Back to the hostel I got in touch with Garikoitz, the Spanish guy I met in Hanoi, checking if he was in HCMC. Well – he was and despite the pub street already quite busy after 7pm, I found him surprisingly in one of the Bia Hoi places. No need to ask me twice to join him, his brother and a friend when they offer dead cheap beer. And so another great night out started. After a few beers we decided to get some food – so we went to one of the BBQ places I visited the night before to get various freshly grilled meats, noodles and vegetables – and more beer (thankfully they had large bottles). We were soon surrounded by locals trying to talk to us, and you could hear constantly “Mo Hai Ba Yo” (the Vietnamese version of “Cheers” or “Prost”) from our table. Some of our new local friends then advised us where we could see the massive firework – as we decided to rather celebrate with the locals instead of going to the rooftop bar of my hostel. Slightly too late (the beer was too good) we headed off and followed our new local friends to the place they recommended. Slightly delayed by another beer stop in a shop we then realised that we couldn’t walk any further as it got too busy. We managed to get some space just in time for midnight. Instead of celebrating with sparkling wine we did it with beer (tastes much better anyway). Some of the people around us got a bit too excited and I was covered in beer. We also got introduced to a Vietnamese New Year’s activity – showering innocent bystanders with coloured foam from little bottles you could buy on the street. For some reason the locals around us decided to target us poor tourists, so after a short while were all covered in foam – and I was soaking wet. At that time we didn’t have any foam ourselves – but that changed soon. Oh – and I didn’t really see a lot of the massive firework because A) I was focusing protecting my beer from the foam and b) the view was blocked by some trees. But the atmosphere was great and we had great banter with the locals, so it was no big deal.

We headed then back to the Pub street – but you could only move very slowly. And the street was packed with scooters – even for Vietnamese standard. It was mayhem. When we finally arrived at the bars the traffic couldn’t move as people were celebrating with drinks and foam (and it really was fun covering strangers with foam….you could get through a few bottles rather quickly).  Over the next few hours we walked from one bar to another one, ending up at an entrance of a nightclub that didn’t let us in (apparently wearing T-shirts was not acceptable) and instead went next door to their pub club – drinking, dancing and smoking Shisha with the locals there. I think this was probably my best New Year party I have ever been to – it was fun and I was glad we celebrated down here. When I was finally back at my hostel a bit late (more like early morning) I couldn’t believe my eyes, when the same girl I met at Halong Bay and on Christmas Eve in Hoi An was in front of me at the elevator in my hostel. I really cannot remember how often I said during the trip that the world is a small place – but it really is…

Without a surprise I stayed a bit longer in bed, but I felt absolutely fine

But I really wasn’t motivated to do a lot that day. First I spoke to the reception staff about a day trip to the Cao Lai temple and the Cu Chi tunnels. When I wanted to confirm the price I was slightly surprised to hear that there was a 50% bank holiday surcharge for the trip on the 2nd January. When I said I am not paying that and didn’t book a trip for the 3rd straight away the surcharge disappeared before I was able to walk to the computers. No need to call anyone – so the surcharge was from the hotel. Not a great service trying to rip off your own guests. hence I would advise not to book any trip there. Well – I did for the following day.

After that drama I still wasn’t motivated to do anything, so I headed to the cinema nearby to see if any interesting movie was on – and so I watched the third Hobbit movie in English with Vietnamese subtitles, while eating a mix of salty and sweet popcorn. What a great way to start 2015.

For a dinner I went to a restaurant that belongs to a chain, but served a lovely selection of spring rolls fresh noodle rolls. Unfortunately I cannot remember the name of this rather good restaurant.

For my planned second last day I was up rather early for my day trip to the temple and the Cu Chi tunnels. Unfortunately the queue for breakfast was too long, so instead I had another chance trying some of the Banh Mi sold on the street. I must admit – it is much better than pancakes.

After some chaotic scenes at the reception (there was no organisation at all) I somehow managed to get onto the correct bus. And off we went. Our tour guide on the bus was actually great. He was nearly 70, and was a translator for the US Army during the war. Throughout the day we heard some interesting stories, and made the longish bus journey much more interesting. Considering how quiet everyone was on the bus when he told us another story shows how interesting it was.

The first stop was one of the main temples of the Cao Dai religion. It is a religion that somehow combines parts of the other world religions. I was a bit confused about it when we were told about and arrived at the temple on time for their noon prayer. The temple itself looks very interesting, with clear signs of the different religions. But for some reason I had to constantly think about the Lord of the Ring, as I could spot an “All-seeing eye” everywhere around the temple. I was actually wondering if anyone in our group had a special ring….

For the prayer tourists were allowed inside the temple, but obviously we had to wait until all the members of the religion were inside. Some of the tourists (quite a few buses arrived after ours) were not too happy to wait outside. Well tough – it is still a house of religion and we are just guests. As soon all members of the church were inside the main hall, we were allowed in, and watching the religion (not allowed to enter the main hall). To get the best pictures several tourists became a bit ruthless and pushy. Growing up in Cologne and enjoying the parades on Rosenmontag I thankfully knew how to use my arms etc to hold back any pushy people – as I wanted to watch the ceremony a bit. Obviously I let people in front of me, but I really do dislike people trying to push their way in front of others. The only other thing I disliked more were people talking quite loudly. No respect for their hosts, or being considerate for the prayers. The worst of tourist’s behaviour were shown here.

I did a bit of walking around the church. Besides the all-seeing eye it is a fascinating and beautiful temple (just don’t try to walk in front of the entrance after noon – this is a big no no).

Soon enough we were back on the bus, and headed for our lunch break. It was a small place I guess focus on tourists – as the food was nothing special. But we were then finally on our way to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I heard a lot about it, and was wondering how it compares to the Vin Moc tunnels (obviously both had completely different use – the Cu Chi tunnels had a clear military use, while the Vinh Moc tunnels were there to protect the villages from the US bombs.

This part of the trip surely didn’t disappoint. We followed our guide, who still was great explaining everything, along a little path, saw some of the traps used by the Vietcong, and also were shown the entrances to the tunnels. They were made wider for tourists, but one of the entrances still looked quite small. A Vietnamese showed the group how it worked, and a few tried to get into the opening. I decided not to do it – the thought of being stuck in an entrance in front of everyone was not pleasant…

After seeing several areas highlighting what tools were used, more traps, and even an US tank that was hit by a mine (I couldn’t resist and crawled into the inside of the tank) we arrived at one of the attraction of the tunnels. No, not the tunnel of course, but the shooting range. If you ever wanted to fire a gun, here is your chance. From pistols to rifles or a massive heavy machine gun, everything was possible. The minimum buy were 10 shots, so cost started from 300,000 Dong I think. I was slightly tempted, but decided like the rest of our group against it. Instead it was time for the real highlight – walking through the tunnel. We were advised that there are several exits if you feel a bit claustrophobic, and one guide was leading our way. Our own guide didn’t enter the tunnel though He told us later that he went in once with a writer of the Rough Guide, but had to get out after less than a minute. Hearing some of the stories he told us I am sure it has nothing to do with the tight space.

The only problem is that we didn’t get any torches. So I would recommend bringing a little torch with you. And wear cloth that can get dirty – as the tunnels aren’t really big. After a larger entrance I walked slightly ducked, but then was on my hands as the ceiling got lower and lower. If you are afraid of the darkness or small spaces – stay out. It was fascinating to walk / crawl through the tunnel – I still find it hard to imagine how people stayed in these tunnels for days (they were much smaller than the Vinh Moc tunnels). Oh – and it was hot inside. As I was I kind enough to slow down to wait for the people behind me (a mother with her two younger kids behind me gave up at the second exit), so the rest of the group was slightly behind – and in this case it was better not to leave anyone behind!!!

Being outside in the warm and humid air was actually refreshing, and thankfully there were a few sinks on the path to clean your face, hands and even your legs. Before exiting the complex we watched then a movie about the war and the tunnels – rather interesting (though it still had quite a bit propaganda material in it).

We were back in HCMC around 6pm. Overall it was a nice tour. The Cao Dai temple was something I have never seen before, so it was a worthwhile stop (besides the inappropriate behaviour of some tourists). The Cu Chi tunnels were also a fascinating  sigh. Personally I preferred the Vinh Moc tunnels, but it was good to compare the two different set up. So a day trip to see both could be recommended.

Looking forward to a shower I got a slight surprise when I was back at my hostel. I extended my stay at the hostel in the morning, but when I came into my dorm, there was no electricity. Apparently there was an electrical fault, and I had to change rooms. This was actually not the problem. The problem was that I picked up my laundry and telling my room number at the reception, and they didn’t bother to tell me then. Then I had the pleasure to pack my bags etc. without any light in the room – and not help from their staff (adding I was tired and dirty from the trip didn’t improve my mood anyway). As I knew that most people from my room left the morning I was slightly suspicious about changing rooms. But then I thought I might be a bit cynical. Two days later I realised I wasn’t. At least I met some nice people in my new dorm room – I had to see something positive!!!

For dinner I walked back to the Pub Street and just headed to one of the eating places where I was able to get a seat outside – sharing a table with a guy who just finished his last meal before heading home. It was nice to have a chat – and my fried frog was actually very nice as well. I had a few beer after the meal (getting some good offers walking past a few bars), and had another nice relaxing evening.

The 3rd January was supposed to be my last day in HCMC, before heading to the Mekong Delta. Trying to decide what to do I was told by Vi, a girl from my dorm room, to visit the Fine Art Museum. As it was a rather hot day, and the museum was not too far away, I thankfully took her advice and headed to the museum after breakfast. The museum is located on the other side of the Tuan Than market, just across the massive roundabout. The museum is actually very nice place to visit. Entrance fee is only 10,000 Dong, and for that little price you have access to a very nice collection of Vietnamese art in a beautiful colonial building. The sections are separated by time (i.e. prior to the French occupation, after the US war etc.) with some very nice paintings spread over three floors. In a separate building was an exhibition of current Vietnamese artists, showing their paintings you could buy. There are also some little galleries on the back of the museum, with some very interesting paintings. A woman from Malaysia I met on the bus told me that Vietnamese paintings become more popular word-wide, and seeing some of the paintings I can actually understand it. There were actually a few paintings I could imagine seeing in my flat. So overall it is a nice place to visit during a hot day – as it was refreshingly cool inside.

For the rest of the day I walked a bit around, visiting the XQ store in HCMC (quite large that one, over three floors with more stunning silk pictures), headed to a restaurant, which I left after not being served after 15 minutes (while other tables were) and ended up in a very nice looking restaurant, where I got a decent meal (I definitely got much better food at the little food places and street stalls). And this time I managed to get to Notre Dame when it was open. A wedding took actually place, and I was lucky enough to hear a great choir singing. The soprano was terrific, and the great acoustic of the church gave me goose bumps listening to them. Oh, and Notre Dame is not just beautiful from the outside, the inside is very nice as well. On the left side is a little section with messages written on the stone. This should not be missed.

On my way back I passed the church next to the hostel, and as a service was ongoing I went in. I think as I came in with a camera bag some of the people thought I wanted to take pictures, but were slightly surprised when I sat down, and listened to the Vietnamese service. I was again surprised how busy the churches were– I think most parishes in Germany would be delighted with these attendances. I actually thought it was a nice experience.

Earlier the day I spoke to Tuan again, and that evening he picked me up. As I cancelled the other day for the China Town trip, we headed there that evening. Being on the back of the bike was again an experience, and soon we were in China town with its colourful shops and markets. Tuan stopped a few times so I can take some pictures (with some of the shop owners posing…), so I could do some touristy bits.

It was actually interesting, and as soon Thuy joined us we headed to one of the Chinese restaurants for dinner. Once again I was the only foreigner (I really got used to that) and let them order for me. A delicious plate of dumplings, meat and vegetable was served – and when I mentioned that I had pig ear in a Chinese restaurant I suddenly had a little plate of it as well in front of me. Oh, the food really was good. After this great dinner the two of them drove me a bit around HCMC by night – until we ended up near the large canal running through HCMC (which I didn’t see before). We just sat down for a coffee and fresh coconut). It was nice and relaxing to sit outside, hearing Vietnamese around me (it was definitely not the touristy part of town) and talking to Tuan and Thuy. I mentioned that I was planning to head off to the Mekong Delta the next day – but they offered to show me around the following day as both of them were off on Sundays. I was happy to accept that offer – and staying one more in HCMC wasn’t really a bad thing.

Thinking we would head back to the hostel I was wrong once again. After the coffee they took me for dinner #2 (keeping the Tolkien topic – I started to feel like a hobbit with all the food) at Oc Dao. As usual I didn’t get involved in ordering (well – I couldn’t even read the menu!!!), and suddenly a number of plates with various kind of mussels were in front of us (well – it is apparently well known for mussels). And it was good. I never had mussels filled with chillies, but even that was good. I would go as far saying these were some of the best mussels I had. But I have to say that this time I wasn’t the only foreigner. There were 4 more – but as they spoke Vietnamese I guess they were no tourists….

Without having no more place for a 3rd dinner Thuy left us and Tuan drove me back into town – with some detours to show me some places that offered a great view of HCMC by night. The view I got from one of the bridges was just stunning, and seeing the colourful roads leading into town (I am not sure if they were still leftovers from the Christmas decoration) was nice as well. It was another great evening, as I was able to see some of the non touristy bits in the evening. So I was happy to delay my departure by a day.

As agreed I was picked up in the morning by Tuan and Thuy, and following the theme of the previous days we headed to a local eating place called Tay Ho for breakfast, as they wanted to introduce me to some new dishes: Banh Cuon, Cha, Banh Dau and Nem (Pork Steamed Rice Paper Rolls, Pork Bologna, Bean Cake and Fermented Pork Roll). Some of the texture was a bit unusual, especially the rice paper rolls, but it was still very nice. Not sure I would have gotten to that place (which was packed with locals) by myself, or trying these dishes…

Following breakfast we headed to a café Tuan spends lots of time, and I met some of his colleagues there while having another ice coffee. It was strange when his friend showed me pictures from his stay in Germany the year before. Where was he? Of course he was in Cologne, and the picture was taken from my favourite Christmas market at Heumarkt – and I had nearly an identical picture on my phone. It was crazy.

After breakfast and the coffee break Tuanh and Thuy took me a bit outside of HCMC. We arrived in an area close to the river. It was a lovely area with some beautiful roads, and soon we turned into a paved path, that passed fields and streamed. I was wondering where we were heading, and soon enough we turned into place called Thu Nga 2. It is kind of a retreat for people from HCMC who just want to escape the city for a day or two. The main area was a little lake with several wooden platforms above, where you can sit down, have a meal, enjoying the peaceful surroundings, and even do some fishing there. You wouldn’t catch any large fish there, only small ones, but the people clearly enjoyed it – especially the kids. We had a nice lunch there (fish obviously, and some frog as a side dish)), and it was a nice way to relax without feeling the heat, and having a chat. I really could see why this is a popular way to escape the heat of the day of HCMC during the weekend.

After we stayed for a couple of hours it was time to return to the city. But as usual Tuan didn’t take me the same way back – he wanted to show me a bit more around. So we headed to the river, and instead via a bridge we took a little ferry to cross it. For a change it was safety first on board – and I had a tiny swim raft – in case I fell into the river.
I enjoyed seeing more of the non-touristy bits of the outskirts of HCMC. People were waving at me, I saw a few markets, and we included a few stops as well. One stop was at a beautiful temple – Nam Thien Nhat Tru Tu. As usual it was pleasant to walk around and enjoying the lovely buildings and colours of the temple. Another stop was at a cemetery, where I saw a large group of kids doing some exercise (I assume they belonged to the youth part of the political party – but wouldn’t bet on it now!!!), but also enjoyed the just stretching my legs to walk around the area. Soon enough we were back on the main road to District 1, which included a ride through a tunnel underneath the river. I really tried to hold my breath as long as possible – it was not the most pleasant smell thanks to the amount of traffic going through…

Overall it was a lovely day to see more of the other sights of HCMC not many tourists see – and it is what I really like. Being slightly tired I returned to the hostel, and behold, as everyone in my dorm has left and I just extended my stay by a day I was advised that there was another electrical fault in my dorm room and that I had to change rooms – again. When the reception told me I started at them in disbelief – and I could only respond in my typical polite way: “You must be fucking kidding me, right? You are not doing it again!!”. The facial expression of the guy at reception changed immediately –  he was probably not aware they tried the same excuse a few days earlier, and surprisingly everything was ok 10 minutes later. It became clear that they tried to move people around to utilise rooms, and lie to their customers in the process – which is just unacceptable. The front office of the hostel is just a shamble – and ruins the good impression the facilities made.

For my last evening I was picked up again by Tuan and Thuy, and we headed to a place they told me serve great duck dishes. So back on the bike we were off. I really had no idea where we were this time, I just enjoyed the ride. We soon arrived at Quyen Ky Mi Gia, where I got a duck soup with noodles, followed by a dish I never had before – a red bean desert. Everything was very nice and tasty. Well, I think my two hosts were more concerned than I was when a mouse ran past us. Maybe less concerned, more embarrassed. No idea why, as I know that you can spot rats and mice everywhere in SEA. As long they don’t bite me I am not worried.

Following the dinner we headed to a square in the centre of the city to have a coffee. Sitting next to the street, watching the people and speaking with Tuan and Thuy I realised what a great coffee culture Vietnam has. While Hanoi has a lot of beer places, I have seen more cafes than bars (well, except of the tourist area), and that the Vietnamese take their time with coffee, and how everyone is relaxed. Tuan also explained to me that if you would connect several important landmarks in HCMC you would see the shape of a dragon, and that the square would be the tail. Well – I think it was great to spend my last night with my new found friends in such place. It was a great end for a great stay in a great city. And the following morning I was on my way out to explore the next part of Vietnam – the Mekong Delta.

Before arriving I wasn’t sure what I would expect from HCMC. I heard about how busy the city is, that it is not as nice as Hanoi and its Old Quarter, that the traffic is insane. This might all be true (well, the traffic part is correct for sure – travelling through HCMC on the back of a bike is just amazing!!!), but surprisingly I enjoyed every single moment there. The main reason was that I was able to spend a lot of time with three lovely locals, who really looked after me and tried their best to show me some non-touristy bits, introduced me to some new food, and just provided an absolute great time in HCMC. Without them I would have spend less time in HCMC for sure. They made the stay so special. New Year’s Eve was another night I will hardly forget, it was crazy, and again spending time with great people I met prior to HCMC and in HCMC was just amazing. So overall – I had an absolute amazing time in HCMC. Thankfully I was able to see my found friends again during my trip…

Accommodation:
he Vietnam Inn Saigon was the only hostel I stayed during my trip. The facilities were spot on. Everything was clean, the beds were comfortable, breakfast included in the price of 172,000 Dong and it has a roof top bar (you even get 2 free beer every night. From that perspective it was fantastic. However, the staff at reception ruins the good impression. They lie to you to make you change rooms if it is convenient for them. Even if I only extend my stay the same day, I am not happy to change rooms. It is inconvenient. If you realise they then lie to your face – well, it pisses me off. They also try to overcharge you for trips. And it is the only place where they refused to call me a taxi, and told me to get one outside (thankfully the door staff outside is great and cannot do enough for you). I don’t expect 5* service for that price, but lying and cheating is a big no, whatever price you pay. So if you can avoid the reception, and stick to your ground when they tell you to change rooms, it is a good place. Oh – and you can use their storage room when you head off for a while, and return later. I was able to leave some stuff behind for 2 weeks…so kudos for that service


Recommendation
:
from the usual tourist bits my order of recommendation would be the following: 1) The War Remnants Museum is a very sobering place, but for me a must-see place in HCMC. 2) The Reunification place. 3) Notre Dame. If you have time and interested in arts, a visit to the Fine Arts museum is also worthwhile. But don’t forget to just walk around, and try to experience the buzzing atmosphere and the crazy traffic. For a trip outside of HCMC I think the Cu Chi tunnels and Cao Dai temple are good options, as they offer something different to the sights within HCMC.
Also I would highly recommend trying the street food in HCMC. The BBQ places you can find all over District 1 are great value for money, and sitting outside and watching people is a good evening activity.

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