The crazy people and I went to Ho Chi Minh City. It was the 100th year Anniversary of St. Paul University Manila and, as a gift, they sent their employees on a tour to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
Since my mother had been an employee for over 15 years now, she got the trip for free. So the rest of us decided to join in on the tour. Though I would rather DIY it, I have to say that this tour was pretty much convenient; we were picked up and deposited to our hotel everyday. Plus we have a tour guide.
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It is found in the southern portion and was formerly known as Saigon, though a lot of people still call it that. It has undergone several name changes, the most recent being from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh in 1975. Ho Chi Minh is the name of their North Vietnamese leader who established the communist-ruled Demoratic Republic of Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh city is a commercial and industrial center that attracts numerous tourists due to its different structures , parks, and other attractions. The thing is, based on experience, walking the streets of Ho Chi Minh is an adventure in itself. There’s just so much to see. Also, its very interesting to watch the organized chaos that is Saigon traffic (from afar).
Day 1, March 21
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City mid-afternoon and went straight to the Sisters of St. Paul Convent where the sisters generously welcomed us with refreshments. And boy, do we need those refreshments. It’s just so humid.
After that welcome, we toured around their convent and went into their museum.
From the convent, we went straight to Le Duy Hotel to check-in and freshen up. Then it is off to dinner to Co Ngu Restaurant in Le Quy Don street, District 3. They basically fed us mountains of grass, but I love the fish soup.
After dinner, we went back to the hotel, and since it was still a bit early, my sister, my cousin, and I decided to walk around and look for refreshments or something. We ended up at Ben Thanh Night Market, where we flexed our haggling muscles. After a couple of purchases (read: scarves), we walked back and stumbled upon a very bright, very inviting Baskin @ Robbins. Of course, we had to go in. They got ice cream, I got a milkshake. And may I just say, the chocolate milkshake was a gift from God.
Day 2, March 22
We woke up bright and early for breakfast the next day. Breakfast at Le Duy was okay. Nothing exceptional but good enough as fuel for the day. After breakfast, we piled back to our respective buses and set off to visit the Cu Chi battlegrounds. This is actually the part of the trip that I was excited about.
Cu Chi Binh Chanh is a rural district about 4 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City. It is the home of the famed Cu Chi tunnels, a vast underground community of tunnels and chambers under the city.
The tunnels were first dug up during the French occupation but was later expanded during the Vietnam war. The tunnels at Cu Chi are part of a rather large network of tunnels under most of the country. It was used as base of operations, transport system, and even home by the Vietnamese during the war.
When we arrived, we were first treated to a short video about the Vietnam War before we toured around the forest. Phrases like “American Killer Hero” and “like the murdering animals they are” were used. The video showed some of those they considered heroes during the Vietnam war. Like that 12 year old girl who became a high-ranking rebel military official at that age after killing numerous American soldiers at that age.
After that sad and kinda disturbing video, we followed our tour guide around the forest as he pointed out the various and very unnoticeable entrances to the underground tunnels. And to prove to us that these are working entrances and that they fit there, one of the guys dressed as Vietnamese soldiers went in. Some of these entrances are very small, by the way. Like, as wide as my foot.
We also saw the different traps that they used back them. They really made use of what they had, oftentimes utilizing the terrain. The traps were scary. No other word to describe them. Really very scary and well hidden as evident in the names of the traps, which is where they were placed.
There were also life-sized dioramas of how they lived during the war. And also some real-life samples of the products they make like Rice paper.
Then came the part I have been waiting for: going down and crawling through the tunnels. In our family, only me and my father decided to crawl down. Boo for the others.
It was a short crawl, sure, but still, it’s exciting. Something happened that I didn’t expect though: I got claustrophobic. Wonderful. We went down the first level, then to the second level. About two feet from the entrance and I suddenly found it difficult to breathe. It took me about 5 seconds to decide to push through. I mean, if a five-year-old kid is excited to crawl through the tunnel, no way in hell am I going to chicken out.
The tunnels are cool, but very, very small. I have to squat-walk the whole way. It was also very dark, though I really have no problems with dark. It is very small. I repeat, it is very small. That experience was very interesting, and very different, and I am just amazed at how the Vietnamese Guerrilla were able to use these tunnels for years. They practically lived there.
Now that that’s done, we left and had lunch at Ben Nay Restaurant, just a few minutes drive from the Cu Chi battlegrounds. It has an outdoor area and it is beside a river or some sort of fishing ground. Same fare as the night before, mostly veggies and soup.
We then went back to Ho Chi Minh City to visit the War Remnants Museum. It is a museum with fighter jets outside and lots of memorial pictures of what happened during and after the war.
My family and some of our companions chose not to go inside the museum because it’s too depressing. I forced myself to go because, well, there is a reason the museum is built. And that is so the war, and the heroes, and most especially the victims, are not forgotten. It was built so that we would know. So, no matter how depressing, no matter how heart-breaking, as someone who constantly searches for knowledge, I think I owe it to myself to know. A little history lesson, yes. I think it’s more like a reminder of what people can do to each other that makes you wonder if humanity and morality are just meaningless concepts to some people.
After that run at the museum, we went to the markets again. We also had coffee and bahn mi because it has been suggested as a must try. And it is. Iced coffee and bahn mi are available almost everywhere. The first time we tried it was in a sidestreet store near the Behn Than market.
For dinner we went to Co Do Hue restaurant. Again, mountains of leaves but the Pho was just delicious.
After dinner, my father, my sister, and I decided to walk around. We decided to stop for some iced coffee, and did a quick convenience store run.
Ho Chi Minh at night is just bustling. So many motorcyles, so many people eating or drinking on the sidestreets. We walked through a park where a lot of people are hanging out. We came across a Caucasian guy fighting with a Vietnamese guy in the street over something (we so wanted to find out but there’s so many people around already that we can’t get near). Bustling, I tell you.
Since we can’t get near the fight to find out what it’s about, we just decided to call it a night and went back to the hotel.
Day 3, March 23
My sister, my cousin, and I decided to skip the hotel breakfast and to make like Vietnamese and have breakfast in those sidestreet carts. Best decision we made, food-wise. Best meal we ever had there.
After breakfast, we are off to the Lac Canh Dai Nam Hein park. It is a large amusement park in Binh Duong just outside of Ho Chi Minch City. It boasts of several attractions though we only went to the the temple and had close encounters with the animals at the zoo.
We had lunch at Dai Nam Van Hein Restaurant, which is also inside the park. From the park, we went back to Ho Chi Minh City, did a little more shopping in Ben Thanh Market, drank more coffee, then went back to the hotel to freshen up for our Saigon River Cruise Dinner.
There were singers and even a fire dancer during the cruise but I was a bit more interested in the view and the fresh air in the upper deck. After dinner, we went back to the hotel to pack our stuff for the early flight back to Manila the following day.
Some notes about Ho Chi Minh City:
1. Ho Chi Minh City is best explored by foot. Never mind the crazy motorists, or the almost-suicidal crossing of the street, Ho Chi Minh’s streets are alive anytime of the day and night. The best food and drinks are found in the streets. The best buys are also found in the streets. And the most interesting people are found wandering around in the streets.
2. Their bread, the one they use for Bahn Mi, is one of the most delicious I have tasted. Crunchy crust and soft white center. You can buy them in the market, in a stall that sells mostly bread.
3. Iced coffee (with milk) is also the best I tasted. Just to be clear, I am not a coffee drinker. But I drank iced coffee twice a day the whole time we were there. I drank more coffee in the three days I was there than in the past two years.
4. Haggle. Haggle. Haggle. Plus that they accept Philippine Peso (some) and U.S. Dollar (most) but has to be the exact amount of the cost of what you’re buying because they don’t have the currencies on hand for change.
5. Be calm in crossing the street even when in your head you’re screaming, “oh my God, I’m gonna die!” Seriously, though, crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh is downright scary. Our tour guide’s tip? Don’t run or rush. Just walk in a steady pace and (pray that) the motorists would be the one to avoid you.
6. Le Duy hotel is in Nguyen Thi Nghia street, Ben Than Ward, District 1. You can visit their website for information.
7. For travel arrangements, you can either do it on your own or engage the services of travel agencies. Meego Travel Services has a Saigon package. You can visit their website here: www.meegotravel.com
8. As with anywhere else, respect the people and culture, minimize human damage, follow rules, and don’t litter
It was a great trip, all in all. Will I come back, and walk the streets of Saigon again? I definitely would.