Ho Chi Minh

I spent my first two days in Ho Chi Minh getting myself sorted including a much needed haircut (city has a Toni & Guy salon, very reasonable prices in Asia) and some eyebrow management.  The first thing you notice about the city is the insanity of the traffic.  I’ve never seen more chaotic, and frankly terrible driving in my life.  This extended to all of Vietnam, but Ho Chi Minh was the worst by far.  I would not even contemplate taking a scooter out in this city and I’m getting pretty decent with scooters by now.  I thought Bangkok was chaotic but Saigon is six times worse.  It’s so bad that it detracts from the city given that crossing the street is such a nightmare.  Without fail someone is always in the wrong lane of traffic.  And the preferred method for taking a left hand turn is to just go into the opposing lane of traffic and eventually weave your way into the correct lane.  It is seriously horrendous driving.  I often heard tourists remark that despite the chaos, it apparently works, but I saw a number of collisions in the month I was in Vietnam and my travel doctor made a point of telling me about the high mortality rates for motorcyclists and cyclists in the country—he did not caution me about any of my other intended destinations.  To put things in perspective, the world average of annual traffic mortality per 100K people is 17.5, Vietnam’s rate is 24.5.  By contrast, Canada’s rate is 6.  I would highly advise against touching a scooter in Saigon, and if you rent a scooter in smaller cities expect people to do the stupidest conceivable thing possible all the time.  I drove in half a dozen cities with that expectation, and not a minute went by where someone didn’t do something asinine.  Forget about people looking before merging into oncoming traffic, the rule seems to be that whoever is ahead, or whoever honks their horn first has the right-of-way.  It is absolute insanity.

I spent my first evening sorting out my intended destinations for Vietnam.  I sorted that out a bar called Voodoo which was not supposed to be a hostess bar as per the reviews that I read, but pretty much was a hostess bar.  For those of you not familiar with the hostess bar concept, these are bars where lonely dudes sit back and have overpriced drinks while paying for pretty women to sit and talk to them.  I had zero interest in talking to anyone, to be frank I just heard that this place had a killer burger (confirmed) and I was just looking for a quiet place to sort out my trip.  It wasn’t really a hostess bar in so far as the drinks were not too expensive and the hostesses didn’t literally charge you by the hour for sitting with you, but there was some subtle yet sustained pressure to buy them an overpriced drink.  In the end some conversation was unavoidable, and I was actually quite impressed that they were able to provide very good advice on good cities to check out in Vietnam.  In less than an hour they helped me finalize my decisions and even plan out a rough itinerary.

Some photos of my initial night time exploration of the city:

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The following day I went to a travel agent and sorted out the bus, train, and plane tickets for my month in the country.  Factor in another 3 hours booking hotels online and I was pretty much set for my travel arrangements by that evening.

Incidentally, it was at this point that I went through my third pair of shoes since I started my travels.  Admittedly, it’s hard for a shoe to last if you wear it every single day for weeks, but I was rather disappointed with the durability of my Clarks boots given that they are relatively expensive.  In the end I settled on a pair of Dr. Martens for what I hope to be my final pair of boots in this year of travel.  Ho Chi Minh has several full Dr. Martens stores, and I would frankly recommend that you start your trip with Docs if you are going on a long journey even though they are very heavy.  I’ve had a pair of Docs back home for over a decade, so I’m confident that I could have saved myself $500 CAD in shoe expenses by just starting with the Docs.

In the evening I went to a neat little art space called San Art a 15 minute ride away from District 1.  It’s a space where they have artist workshops, a small amount of wall space for photography exhibits and a nice library of art books.  They encourage you to just hang out and check out their library collection as long as you’d like.  It was a nice quiet space in an interesting neighbourhood:

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For dinner that night I decided on an outdoor Vietnamese BBQ place.  Photos from that night:

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Can you get a sense of the chaos here?

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The following morning I booked a tour to check out the Cu Chi tunnels about an hour away from downtown Saigon.  The site consists of a 121 km stretch of underground tunnels maintained by the Vietnamese government  for historical purposes that were used by the Viet Cong during their war with the United States.  These are but a small fragment of the tunnels that were used by the Viet Cong during the war to hide from the Americans.  The extensive network of tunnels not only allowed the Viet Cong easy supply and troop transport routes throughout much of the country, they also had hospitals, kitchens and quarters for troops.  They were very smart about ventilating the tunnels, obscuring the kitchen exhaust pipes and hiding the entrances to the tunnels, a task made easier by the fact that the tunnel entrances are tiny.

This first shot will give you a sense of the size of some of the specialized rooms integrated into the tunnel system.  The roof is a modern addition, all rooms would have been entirely underground:

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This will give you a sense of how tiny the entrances were.  They have widened the entrances in the tunnels accessible to tourists but they’ve kept a few of the original entrances in tact.  They are so narrow that most westerners have to lift their arms above their heads to make it inside.  When you put the cover back on and scatter some leaves on top, the entrances are impossible to spot.

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Contrast this to the entrances for tourists:

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Notwithstanding the broader entrance, going through the tunnels is very challenging.  They have exits every ten meters, and out of our group of 20, only 1 person made it farther than 30 metres.  The tunnels are less than a meter tall, quite narrow and very muddy.  I have no idea how Viet Cong troops managed to travel for dozens of kilometres along these tunnels, much less transport weapons and ammunition.

An example of booby traps made by the Viet Cong:

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When you are onsite, the relative sparseness of the vegetation is notable—you will not see trees much thicker than a human arm.  The reason for this is that due to napalm and agent orange bombing runs by the Americans the vegetation in the area was wiped out for almost 20 years.  It wasn’t until 1985 that anything grew in the area once again.

Food was always scarce during the war.  One of the more popular snacks at the time was a really tasty yet simple dish: tapioca root dipped in crushed peanuts and sugar:

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For those of you who like to shoot guns, there is a shooting range at the tunnels were you can shoot all manner of large guns.  Not exactly cheap, however, you’ll be spending about $40 CAD for 10 rounds.  Our tour guide recommended against picking an AK-47 because many of the rounds are apparently left-over from the Vietnam war, i.e. dangerous.  I’m not a gun enthusiast so I wasn’t up for blowing my daily budget on 3 seconds of shooting.

That day was my war day, after the tunnels I got dropped off downtown and visited the War Remnants Museum in the late afternoon.  If you ignore the propaganda bits, it’s actually a decent museum.  They’ve preserved some of the cells that were used by the French to punish and torture Vietnamese dissidents, and they have a lot of photographs documenting the horrendous human effects of the American use of Agent Orange during the war.  Not for the light-hearted, but well presented (again, aside from the propaganda bits):

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This is the type of plane used by Americans to deploy cluster bombs:

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Some shots of the nearby Independence Palace—the former Presidential Palace for the south Vietnamese government:

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Next I ventured over a few blocks to the Saigon Central Post Office.  I loved the building, probably the highlight of my day, unfortunately the pictures do not do the place justice:

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Notre-Dame Basilica across the road:

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One of the known highlights of Vietnam is the Bia Hoi.  Bia Hoi bars typically brew their own light beer, serving it fresh, with no preservatives, ice cold and crazy cheap.  Even in the most expensive district in Saigon, you can get a glass of fresh beer for 58 cents, and in Hanoi I saw plenty of places selling it for 28 cents a glass.  But the real point of going to these bars is the atmosphere; they crowd you into these tiny little tables with plastic tables and chairs, and every couple of minutes someone will raise their glass, and yell out “Mot, Hai, Ba, YOOOO!!” (one, two, three, cheers!) and everyone will join along.  The food in some of these places can also be incredibly cheap and delicious.  Since they only make money through volume, you may have a hard time finding a seat if you are travelling alone.  The first bar I went to, even though it was almost empty at the time, refused to seat me because presumably they wanted to seat four people at the table.  The place across the street did accommodate me, but in a table hidden way off in a corner.  As soon as the seating filled up they kicked me out of my table and seated me with the closest western people with an open seat at their table.  Ultimately not a bad thing, I met a really nice couple from the U.S. that way:

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We closed out the night eating a killer lamb kebab at Gotcha in District 1, $5 CAD including a big bottle of green Saigon:

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The following day I took a bus down to Chinatown to check out Bihn Tay Market.  The buses in Saigon are clean, cheap and a very efficient way to get around. The bus pretty much took me from the door of my hotel to within 100 metres of the market.  You pay into the basket at the front of the bus next to the driver.  But the taxis are also good, always metered, and relatively inexpensive.  This was actually my only bus ride in my five days there.  No point in taking Uber, it’s a tad cheaper, but the drivers were equally useless as in Bangkok in finding me and my destination. I only took Uber when I was low on cash and couldn’t find an ATM.

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I absolutely loved Cho Bihn Tay.  I didn’t actually try to buy anything, but a tour guide subsequently told me that it’s a wholesale market, so they generally will not sell single pieces.   This would probably explain why I didn’t see any tourists around.    The market is huge and for my tastes extremely picturesque.  Even though it was boiling hot inside, I spent the better part of an hour wandering the aisles taking pictures:

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I spent the remainder of the afternoon walking the streets and checking out the various, mostly Taoist, temples in Cholon, as Chinatown is known in Saigon (districts 5 & 6).

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Three shots near my hotel that night:

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The following day I rested up for most of the morning and afternoon in anticipation of an epic night of eating.  I had booked a 5 hour eating tour for the evening with a neat little company called XO Tours.  The tour isn’t exactly cheap, it set me back around $75 USD, but you essentially get your own guide for the night.  The way it works is that a woman in a traditional Vietnamese attire picks you up at your hotel on her scooter, and she drives you around the city for the evening with a group of others. The “Foodie Tour” takes you to three restaurants specializing in street food, and they also take you to a total of 6 districts around the city.  It’s a fantastic way to see the city at night and the food was excellent.  The prices obviously include as much food and drinks as you’d like, and the tour guides were super friendly and informative.  I had a blast.

We started at a restaurant that specializes in a dish called Bun Bo Hue.  As the name would suggest, the dish is from the Vietnamese city of Hue.  On a quick glance it looks like Pho, but couldn’t be more different.  The noodle is a thicker rice noodle, approximating the diameter of bucatini, but without the hole in the centre.  The defining feature of the broth is lemongrass, but it also made with beef bones, beef shank and fermented shrimp sauce.  The broth is then served with thin slices of marinated beef, oxtail and in my case slices of pork leg. The garnishes served on the side are numerous including cilantro sprigs, green onions, sliced banana blossom, mint, basil, Vietnamese coriander and red cabbage.  You then squeeze in some lime juice and add fish sauce and chilli paste to suit your fancy.  This was my favourite dish of the night and one of my favourites in the country as a whole.  Ironically, when I sought out the dish in Hue proper, I was unable to find a restaurant that matched the one I had on the food tour:

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A shot with my super friendly scooter lady, Yen Nhi Le Nguyen:

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We passed through a night market near Chinatown on the way to our next food stop:

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The next place was a Vietnamese BBQ restaurant.  We started off with some BBQ goat slices served with mint leaf, basil leaves, and fish leaves (they have a slightly fishy taste).  You wrap the pork slice in one of the leaves and dip it in one of two sauces, fermented tofu with salt, and a chilli rock salt with lime sauce.  We had a side of okra with the meat:

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We next had some grilled prawn that you’re supposed to dip into the rock salt chilli lime sauce:

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We were next served frog both with and without skin:

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After the BBQ restaurant we ventured out to District 7 which is quite the contrast from the rest of Saigon.  It is the most expensive neighbourhood in Saigon, even more so than District 1, and it reminded me a lot of English Bay in Vancouver for some reason.  No chaos whatsoever and broad quiet streets:

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Some videos I shot from the back of the scooter:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/162814571

XO Tour – Riding through Saigon at Night from Andres Hannah-Suarez on Vimeo.

 

https://player.vimeo.com/video/162814574

XO Tour – Riding through Saigon at Night from Andres Hannah-Suarez on Vimeo.

 

https://player.vimeo.com/video/162814576

XO Tour – Riding through Saigon at Night from Andres Hannah-Suarez on Vimeo.

 

Our final stop for the night was a seafood restaurant in District 4, the poorest district in the city.  We started with quail dipped in a tamarind sauce:

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Our next dish was some fresh crab dipped into a chilli and salt sauce, sprinkled with kumquat juice.  In Vietnam, sour little kumquats are used interchangeably with lime:

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We were next given scallops grilled in their shell, with a bit of spring onion and crushed peanuts:

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My next dish was a bit of an adventure.  I’ve seen it served in Canada, but not in the way it is done in Saigon and I’ve never actually tried it.  The dish was duck embryo, here served in a tamarind sauce with crushed peanuts.  The dish is known as Hot Vit Lon.  I actually had never realised that the egg with the duck embryo is so large—I was expecting something the size of a chicken egg and instead got something closer to 3/4 of the size of a tennis ball.  I also always imagined that the duck embryo was mostly liquid, but nope it has soft feathers, bones, and a beak (all easily chewable), but most importantly it definitely looks like a tiny duck.  You eat the large yolk first and then the embryo.  I rather enjoyed the yolk, but then just ate the embryo as quickly as possible.  I’m ashamed to say that I came pretty close to throwing up in the middle of the restaurant—and it was purely psychological, I pretty much swallowed the thing whole so I didn’t get grossed out by the bones.

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The last savoury food of the night was a dish of steamed clams with lemongrass and basil:

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For dessert we had something I enjoyed tremendously.  What they do is open a coconut along the top and pour in a seaweed based gelatine powder called agar-agar.  They then place the coconut into a refrigerator to allow the gelatine to form.  Once the cream and coconut water has settled into a gelatine, they cut out the surrounding meat and serve out slices of the gelatine inside, still nice and cool.  The result is a delicious dessert that is not too sweet and is very refreshing in the Saigon heat:

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That was my final night in Ho Chi Minh.  The following morning I departed to the mountain town of Da Lat bright and early.  I’ll leave you with some final pictures with the lovely Yen:

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