Six months ago, I went to Vietnam for the first time. It was during the tail-end of winter when I ventured into Hanoi so it was mostly rain, fog and gray skies. A week ago, I returned to Vietnam and stayed in Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon, instead. I went there smack in the middle of the rainy season but my companions and I were lucky because it didn’t rain the whole time. Our days were mostly sunny and hot. Our afternoons were rainy but that always gave way to clear nights.
I was pretty excited to go back to Vietnam for a variety of reasons. The first being that it was the first time that I was traveling out of the country with my best friend. She almost didn’t make it, but in the end, everything worked out fine. Other reasons for my excitement would be the chance to shop for some cheap stuff, to eat Vietnamese food and to send out the first batch of postcards to my subscribers.
We booked the flight almost a year ago via one of Cebu Pacific’s promos and our hotel through Agoda.com. We had a red-eye flight and upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh (no embarkation cards, no immigration hassle), we were greeted by the airport transfer at the exit. We booked the hotel’s airport transfer to avoid the hassle of looking for taxis and getting ripped off. Everything was very efficient, even the hotel check in process. We were sleeping in our hotel rooms within 1 hour of landing.
Day 1 of our stay in HCM was the city tour. After having a big breakfast at the hotel, we asked the receptionist where we could exchange some money. We were directed to the Ben Thanh Market, which was a block from our hotel. We exchanged money at the BTJ jewelry shop across Ben Thanh with an exchange rate of 21,100 VND to 1 USD. I exchanged a hundred dollars and I was back to being a millionaire.
Armed with CityMaps2Go, we made our way to our first stop: the Saigon Opera House. We were very lucky because we got there during their “Happy Hour”. This meant that tickets for the next day’s show would get automatically upgraded! The show was called the A O Show and being a culture junkie, I was very eager to watch it. The other popular show in Vietnam is the Water Puppet Show but I already saw that in Hanoi, so I really wanted get a different look at the traditional culture. I was able to convince everyone to watch it by virtue of the discount and also through the trailer that the theater people were showing the tourists. Thus, we bought tickets for the Aah area (630,000 VND) but we’d be sitting on the Ooh area (worth 1,050,000 VND), saving a total of 420,000 VND. How cool was that?
(More on the A O Show here)
Four blocks away from the Saigon Opera House was the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. This church was established by the French colonists in the 1800s and gained fame towards the end of 2005 when the statue of Our Lady of Peace, located in the flower garden in front of the cathedral, supposedly shed tears. This was later debunked by Catholic Church officials but both the statue and the church have remained a regular tourist spot in Ho Chi Minh. This is not really surprising since the church is picturesque and the Saigon Central Post Office is right beside it.
Inside the Saigon Central Post Office are stalls that sell postcards and various souvenirs. Postcards were commonly 5,000 VND each so I bought several to send to my subscribers and friends. There were also some travel agencies there that offer various tours but we found them to be a bit too expensive.
By the time we were finished inside the Post Office, it was almost lunch time already. I learned the hard way in Hanoi that not all restaurants in Vietnam serve food all throughout the day. I was already anxious to find a place to eat so as not to miss lunch. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of cheap places to eat near the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office. So, we ended up at the U-House where we had our most expensive lunch during the whole trip.
After eating, resting and freshening up a bit, we made our way to the War Remnants Museum, four blocks away from U-House. Jam warned us that she read somewhere that we shouldn’t go there after lunch. But we did it anyway and I guess we all found out why.
The War Remnants Museum houses exhibits on the Vietnam War. Planes, helicopters and tanks used during the war were displayed on the Museum grounds. Then there were the photographs. About 70% of the photos I saw centered on the devastating effects of the war, particularly that of Agent Orange, the chemical that the US forces used to paralyze the guerrilla warfare. The initial idea was to destroy farms, hence, the food supply, but the chemicals also caused catastrophic effects. Lots of pictures were shown highlighting the deformities among the Vietnamese who were exposed to Agent Orange. It was really depressing to see all those photos of disfigured and maimed people, particularly the children. There were also lots of other photos that showed the various cruelties that are usually present in times of war. Because of that, we never made it to the third, fourth or fifth floor. It was all too much to take.
We left the War Remnants Museum and as we were making our way to the Reunification Hall, or Independence Palace, it started to rain a bit. Good thing we brought umbrellas with us so we were able to arrive there in time, about 30 minutes before closing. The Reunification Hall is another famous tourist spot in Ho Chi Minh that was related to the Vietnam War. It used to be the residence and working place of Nguyen Van Thieu, the President of the Republic of Vietnam, until the Liberation Army tanks crashed the main gate of the Palace in 1975. This event led to the forced surrender of Duong Van Minh, the then President, thus ending the Vietnam War. The insides of the Reunification Hall mostly consisted of meeting rooms and reception halls. Aside from being a tourist attraction, it now serves as a venue for government meetings, banquets, receptions and other special events.
The Reunification Hall was the last item on the city tour so we went back to the hotel to freshen up and rest for a bit before having dinner. We also arranged our Mekong River and Cu Chi Tunnel tours when we got back to the hotel. It then started raining really hard which kept us from trying out their cinemas. Later, once the skies cleared up, we ventured outside the hotel to have some dinner, Vietnamese style.
Next stop: Mekong Delta Tour and the A O Show
August 15, 2014
***All photos were taken using an iPhone 5