Our first trip to Vietnam
31.10.2012 - 03.11.2012
The trip to Vietnam was somewhat unplanned, as in it wasn't our top go to destination. I have always wanted to go and experience the country, however it wasn't at the top of my list. That changed when Tiger airways offered buy 1, get 1 free flights to Ho Chi Minh City. These type of deals don't happen in the U.S., so it was hard to pass up. We ended up with two round trip tickets from SG to HCM for around S$250 and decided to make a long weekend out of it. We arrived on Halloween night and checked into our hotel, Grand Hotel Saigon. The hotel was very nice and the service was excellent. I would rate the hotel around 4 stars and the location was very convenient. After dropping off our bags, we headed over to Bobby Chinn Saigon for dinner. I've seen a few of his cooking shows on TV and decided to check out his restaurant. We had made prior reservations and took a taxi from our hotel to the restaurant. The hotel concierge spoke english and was able to always translate our desired location to the taxi driver. The hotels seem to have a contract with Vinasun taxi's, as these are the only taxi's that were allowed to pick up passengers. We arrived at Bobby Chinn Saigon for dinner, and the restaurant was very nice, the service was excellent, and the food was great, especially the soft shell crab quesadillas.
After dinner we headed over to the Caravelle Hotel for a Halloween party at the rooftop bar. Halloween isn't widely celebrated in Vietnam, but this bar was full of primarily expats. There was a salsa band (very strange for Vietnam) dressed in costume playing music in Spanish. This was probably one of the stranger experiences of our trip. The bar was decked out in Halloween decorations and there a lot of people dressed in costume, much to our surprise. We had brought small masks to wear just in case nobody else was dressed up we could easily hide these in Theresa's purse. We enjoyed a few cocktails at the Caravelle before heading over to the Rex hotel rooftop bar for a few more drinks. This bar was significantly less crowded (as in one other table), we had a beer here before heading back to our hotel. It was nice to visit, as the Rex was an important landmark during the war (5 o'clock follies).
The following morning we had a trip booked to the Cu Chi Tunnels through Saigon River Express. They picked us up at the hotel at around 7:00am and we headed to the dock where we boarded a boat along with around 10 other people, mostly from the UK and Australia and headed up the Saigon River to our destination. The weather was awesome and taking a boat to the tunnel was much better than sitting in a tour bus through Saigon traffic. Breakfast and fruit snacks was provided by the tour operator and we made it to the tunnels after about a 1.5 hour boat ride. We were one of the first groups at the tunnels which was great, and so much less crowded. To put this in perspective, there were 0 tour buses when we arrived around 8:45. Upon leaving around 11:30, there was probably 50 parked in the lot. We arrived at the tunnels and was forced to watch a propoganda video about the war, where they crown all of the heroes for killing the "American Devils" and fighting the "American Puppet Government." It was interesting at best. We were then taken for a tour of the various tunnels, and visited many of the booby traps of the war, which I have to say were very innovative. Our tour guide was great and was able to explain many of the features of the area, along with how and why the tunnels were so successful. There is even a section of tunnel that tourists get to crawl through that was widened from its original width for convenience. After the tour it was off to the firing range to shoot some Vietnam era weapons. This was one of the coolest parts of the tour, although it is somewhat expensive. They offer a variety of weapons to fire and we decided on the AK-47 and the Carbine. Theresa had never shot a gun in her life up until this point, so we figured the machine guns weren't the best option. They charge buy the bullet, although you must buy in clips of ten. I can't remember the price, but I think it was around US$10 per clip, which breaks down to about a dollar a bullet. They encourage you to hit a target at the end of the firing range, but I'm convinced the barrel is crooked or we were shooting blanks because I did not even come close. Our tour guide also mentioned that only 1 time in 5 years has she seen a tourist hit the target (definitely rigged as they offer a "prize" if you do). After this, our tour operator offered an excellent lunch before departing back to our hotel. I would definitely recommend Saigon River Express for any trip to the tunnels based on our experience.
Once we arrived back at the hotel, it was off to Reunification Palace. We had to visit just because of the significance of the buildings role in the war. Although if you ask the taxi driver, you must tell him "Independence Palace," as it is known by the locals (similar to the "American War," not the Vietnam War). Once we arrived we were offered a free 1 hour tour, which was excellent and much more informative then if we would have walked around on our own. After the palace, it was off to the War Remnants Museum. I had read about this prior to visiting, and somewhat knew what to expect. It is very heavily 1 sided and portrays the Americans in the most negative light possible. The museum itself is very graphic and spares no words when describing American actions during the war. At the same time, it is the type of history that you could not get in the U.S., as it spares no details.
After this it was time for dinner, so we headed over to Pho 24, the McDonald's of Vietnam (there is no McDonald's, but plenty of Pho shops). Later that evening, it was off to Chill Skybar, located on the 24th floor of AB Tower. This was definitely the best bar we went to in Saigon and the views were awesome. The place was super nice, with a 360 degree bar located out on the deck. We could have stayed there and drank all night, except for the price of the drinks. Its nice to leave Singapore and go to a bar, because 99% of the time the drinks will always be cheaper. Not here however. Cocktails were around US $20 each, but I suppose you're paying for the elegance and the views. After a few drinks, it was back to the hotel for a nightcap at Grand Cafe, our hotel's rooftop bar.
Friday morning I headed off on a motorcycle taxi to purchase some tickets to the Water Puppet Show for that evening. Motorcycles in Vietnam are CRAZY. They are everywhere, the street, the sidewalk, the grass, and they come from every direction regardless of what side of the street you are on. It is one insane traffic flow. I had to get the experience of riding on a motorcycle on Vietnam. After negotiating a rate of 20,000 dong (US $2) for a round trip, we headed of to buy my tickets. Here is where I screwed up. My "taxi driver" followed me to purchase my tickets for the evening at a rate of 150,000 dong apiece. Once he seen me pay this in cash, the rate quickly went up to 150,000 dong for the trip. After about 5 minutes of arguing with him, I was determined to walk back to the hotel or take my chances flagging a taxi on the street. After this he relented and we settled on 50,000 dong for the trip, which would of probably been about the price of a taxi from the hotel. Oh well, it was definitely worth the experience. After this we headed over to Ben Thanh Market for some shopping. This was somewhat disappointing and full of people hassling you and grabbing your clothes trying to get you to buy something. We were quickly out of there and headed over to the War Surplus Market, which was even more disappointing and not worth the walk over, as it was full of fake memorabilia and otherwise junk. We then grabbed a taxi to the Vietnamese Medicine museum which was somewhat interesting, before heading back to the hotel.
That night it was off to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. This was a neat experience and the show lasted about an hour. I would definitely recommend making a trip here, as it was fairly entertaining. Now it was time for some local nightlife. First stop was Apocalypse Now, which seemed to be a mixture of about 75% Vietnamese and 25% foreigners. After a few drinks here, we made a stop at a club around the corner (can't remember the name). We seemed to be the only foreigners in the building and this was definitely a club for high rollers, as it was tailored mainly for bottle service, but we escaped with only having to order a beer. After leaving here, we passed a small door with a sign that was obviously a bar, but there was a crazy number of security outside. We decided to go inside and have a look. Once we got inside, this place was like a warehouse and they were having a dance competition on stage, and there must have been 1,000 people here. It was insanely packed. Luckily we were offered a table, as we were again the only foreigners in the building it seemed. It was a very unique experience and I feel we got a glimpse into some of the local Vietnamese nightlife. We stayed here for about an hour or two just taking in the atmosphere and having a few beers, before heading back to the hotel for the evening.
The next morning, we set out to buy some local artwork from Vietnam, as we always try to bring back something from the region. We had passed an Art Gallery a few days before and headed back to check out some of the work. We went to Tara & Kys Art Gallery on Dong Du Street which had a wide variety of original contemporary art depicting many aspects of the Vietnamese culture. We purchased an original screen print along with a water color painting of Halong bay. By this time it was off to the airport to catch our flight back to Singapore. Altogether this was an awesome trip and would recommend Ho Chi Minh City to anybody as a unique experience and full of many opportunities to take in the local culture. I would love to come back to Vietnam, next time setting our sights on Hanoi.