Saturday, September 18, 2010

Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh

Next up: Vietnam! Ho Chi Minh - formerly also known as Saigon.
During the Vietnam War, it was the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam and the American Headquarters, however it was taken over by the North communist and renamed " Ho Chi Minh".

Taking the national day holidays and the weekends before that, we made our way to the largest city of Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh.

We kept our money, thinking if we change it in Ho Chi Min , it would be of better rate. But goodness, we were wrong. The rates were even lower there ( this rates were compared at Changi Airport and Ho Chi Minh airport ) - The rates out in the market place were better.

With our luggages and being unfamiliar to the place, we decide to use the airport service to get a special cab for the 5 of us. It was 15 USD for the cab where you pay the counter and they will give you a receipt and their cab drivers speak relatively good English. ( about $21 singapore dollars - 157,126 Vietnamese Dong)

However if you are on a budget I saw people queuing for a bus No. 152 just outside, near the coffee cafe. For 3,000 dong per person (40 cents singapore) plus a fee for bags which varies randomly. It will drop you off on the west side of the Pham Ngu Lao area, or at the bus terminal on the south side of the Ben Thanh Market roundabout. The bus is however only available until 6pm. The fee for bags range from an additional 3,000 dong for a smaller bag to 14,000 for two large bags.

We had pre-booked a hotel called " Tan Hai Long 1" . They had no. 1,2,3,4 - all in different parts of the city and of course, at different prices. We got ours near the famous Ben Thanh Market. Very central location. Well-worth the money we paid.

Greeting us along the roads in Ho Chi Minh were the numerous number of scooters that were zooming by where drivers have to be on a constant watch otherwise might lead to an accident. The sight of 4 people on the small bike, were common. Also along the streets were that of peddlers selling balloons and fruits and coconut drinks.

We put down our bags and quickly changed into comfortable shoes and attire for the long walk around the city. Some people especially with kids and old people tend to book the city tour from the hotels. Since we were still young and willing to risk the possibility of getting lost, we got a map from the hotel and a card in case we got lost and needed a taxi - then I brought along my lonely planet that I borrowed from the library - all in good hands, we made our way on the streets.

Reading from the guidebook, the famous beef noodles. We stopped by the famous Pho2000 - where a picture of Bill Clinton also eating here was shown. And it was yummy.

Psychological effect ? - felt the beef was fresher and the soup base natural ( no aginomoto). We ate lots of that for the remaining days we were there.

They also have the dry one where they put their sauce - I loved the dry one!

With a full stomach, we made our way to the famous destinations in Ho Chi Minh itself.
1. Chợ Bến Thành aka Ben Thanh Market
A large market selling everything and anything but relatively planned and clean. There are 4 entrances - each entrance leading to a certain commodity such as poultry, flowers and fruits , food ( to eat on the spot) , snacks ( to bring back such as coffee, sweets , dried food etc) and lastly consumer goods (such as clothes, T-shirts, surf shorts, jeans, bags, belts, shoes and souvenirs). Most items are not price-marked, and vendors always quote a 50-100% higher price to tourists, so bargaining hard will save you money.

And for Ben Thanh, there was even a layout plan. Quite organized.

2. Reunification Palace

Open daily 7:30-11:00am then they close for lunch and then open again at 1-4pm. One has to buy the tickets at the entance of 15,000 dong ( $2.10 singapore)per person.
This would be interesting for people who really want to know the history of Vietnam.

At the entrance stands a few Vietnamese girls in the traditional costumes - they are the tour guides which is held at certain slots - its free. You would have to approach them and they will guide you to either join the current group of the same speaking language or advise you to wait till the next tour which is about an hour away.

Formerly the South Vietnam's Presidential Palace, the tour guide will lead you to an impressively restored recreation and meeting and study room. Outside the room, there was also a photo gallery that explains the indepence of Vietnam and the people involved. Marking the end of the tour would be the basement underground which was full of vintage radios and office equipment, which was explained that all were left exactly as it was found when the North took over. ( except now they have installed a small ventilation system - thank God for that, it was so stuffy and hot down there).
After all the explanations, the tour guide ends the tour by giving you the choice to go back into civilization or to go to an air-condition room to watch a propaganda film recounting how the South Vietnamese supporters and American imperialists succumbed to Ho Chi Minh's indomitable revolutionary forces, upon which point the South Vietnamese supporters were forgiven and peace was restored.

3. Post Office

We took our rest in the splendid famous post office with ancient phone booths that you see on black and white TV Screens and a central booth that sells the stamps and postcards for you to do your posting. In the post office, were also tour booths for the famous cuchi tours and the mekong delta. The prices are similar however the only difference in the package was where the meeting point was. The good thing about booking with you hotels is that the bus will come and pick you up from where you are - and such early morning - I'd rather have that. The post office was a very comfortable place to rest in - away from the hot sun that were hounding us that day.

4. Saigon Square
After dinner, we explored more shopping opportunities. Saigon square was a twin of Ben Thanh but with air-con. In it, were alot of local middle-class Vietnamese shop and initially, I was thinking since there were so many of them, this could be a good place to get my shopping new clothes. However after a while of haggling, I realise that the prices that they offer the locals and us tourists were different and because they know we will haggle, they either give us exorbitant prices then lower them, or they give us a price and when we ask for lower, they just take it back and ignore us. Didn't like the place at all. Very unfriendly and uncomfortable and pricely place to shop in. But the clothes are definately nicer than the ones out either in the markets or the streets.

5. Night Market (just outside of Ben Thanh Market)
Ending our day was to go for the famous night market. Here you can enjoy many kinds of different food and drink.

6. The Notre-Dame Cathedral
The interesting stories associated with it is that its building materials are all imported from France and that the statue in it was reported to have 'shed' tears.

Midway while walking through the above destinations, we stopped by the lonely planet recommended - wrap roll - which we personally felt was a tourist destination. The food was alright and is a ok place to try all different kinds of wrap roll. We tried to find one off the street, but was not able to find any.

And after the long day of walk around Ho Chi Minh, we settled for another bowl of beef noodles but at the other famous Pho - Pho24. The taste here was a bit less 'salty' - so it depends on personal taste which one you prefer.

Mekong Delta - boat tours are available with an almost infinite mix of itineraries. They can be short overnight trips, leisurely meanders over several nights, or end in a boat + bus to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, which will have you spending a night in a cheap hotel in Chau Doc before making the trip over the border (cross-border package prices may include visa support, which should cost 360,000 - 530,000VND). If doing a two or three day Mekong Tour (which is exceptionally worth while), expect to be shuffled between tour companies along the way. - I give the 1 day mekong river 4* out of 10* ( maybe it would be better if I had taken the 2 days or 3 days tour - heard from others that it is better.

Medong Delta first stop : Honey Bees farm - we went there, given the opportunity to take photos with the bees, then sit down to drink the honey that produced and at the same time, taste some local chips and view some reptiles concotion that they had.

Mekong Delta 3rd Stop - the coconut candy making - the best place of the day, where you get to eat the warm coconut sweets just when its out of the pot. So yummy. Oh my. It just melts in your mouth :)And to see how coconut candy is made is relatively interesting.

Mekong Delta 4th Stop : Fruit farm - they would sit you down, lay 2 plates of fruits in front of you , then the performers with the Vietnamese instruments and the singer will sit in the center and perform one song. After the perfomance, the interesting thing was they would collect donations by pushing a chair with a small basket row by row. After the first row, they would play another song. Then push to the second row, they would play another song. (it sounds like Chinese opera, with the high voice and the er hu)

Mekong Delta last stop : Rowing - put into a 4 person space raft with a rower in front, he/she will row down a small river ( imagine 30 rafts on the same small river and its 2 way so meaning the other side rafts are coming back with the empty rafts to pick the next group of tourists ) , which was so packed, and there was no scenary, no explanation. Was a little disappointed. Sat before the similar kind in India where you can see the morning sun, the local life in the villages and all - this was " I dont know what it was." But with the vietnamese local in front rowing the raft, it was a good photo to take.

Before the Cuchi tunnel, the guide also brought us to a handicap association where handicaps are taught the skills of art - really amazed me. Loved it.It was amazing how they used egg shells and then break it then stick it on the art piece creating the natural effect. Another also used painted layers of different colors then using a knife carved out a tiger - the colors made the tiger look like it was jumping out. Lovely.

Cuchi tunnel day-trips are tirelessly flogged by travel agencies around Pham Ngu Lao, and can be done as a half-day trip, or as a full-day with a stop at Tay Ninh to see the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion. Tours, including admission, should cost 70,000 - 110,000VND, and are available every day of the week. Cu Chi tunnels are about an hour & a half drive out of HCMC centre. It's worth taking the trips to see these amazing structures so cleverly carved underground and used during wartime for survival. These should be included in the book 1001 things to do before you die, if not already in there. - I give the Cuchi tour a 9* out of 10*.

1: you buy the tickets by your own

2: The tour guide will lead you to a 'propaganda' show that indicates the Vietnamese suffering under the Americians rule.

3: Then after leads you to a spot where you wonder what is it about. Then suddenly he says that you might be stepping on a hidden opening. And he lifts off a patch and there appears a whole that will fit in a person. And everyone can try. Quite an interesting experience as it allows you to experience and imagine how it feels to be living underground.

The most interesting part which I loved was that they introduced you to the self-made weapon methods which they have used in the past. Really ingenious how each construction was made. Each position of the spikes were meant to injure the enemy fatally, not chance spared for living at all.

Next, they introduced us to the firing range where you could purchase bullets from the store there then go to the shooting range to do some shooting. The sound is really loud and it is an experience of a lifetime for some.
Following that we did a crawl in the famous tunnel. A really small tunnel. I cant imagine having to hide in the tunnel for long. If you are claustrophobic, you can choose to walk overhead and meet your friends at the end of the tunnel. If you still want to try, no fear, for every 100 or 200 meters there will be an opening for you to 'escape' if you decide not to continue. At times, all fours are needed or some slides on your butt is needed. A nice experience.

They end it off with resting at a table with war time food such as tapioca and sugar cane. Interesting. For Cuchi, I think the money is quite well-spent.

The photos are taken from the courtesy of the friends that accompanied me on this trip :)

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