Monday, April 7, 2014

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Xin Chào! (Hello! in Vietnamese)

I hope you all enjoyed my first guest post from Peachtree Roadies! Now that my assistant/husband is back in town from a work trip I'm hoping to get through all of our vacation recap posts soon, so thanks again to Kelly for keeping my blog alive in the meantime. :)  If you haven’t already, be sure to check out her and Meg's blog. Kelly and Brian also just got back from vacation - they took an amazing trip to Puerto Rico and St. Croix, both of which are on our never-ending list of places to visit.

As most of you know by now, our big trip for 2014 was to Vietnam! Most people ask us why we picked this destination. As Kelly mentioned in her post, travel is all about compromise, and I couldn't agree more as that is exactly how we ended up in Vietnam. We have a map of the world with a pin in every country we’ve visited, and our pins are largely clustered in the US and Europe – so we wanted to venture out to a new continent. Bo especially is obsessed with all things Asian and has been wanting to go for years.  We originally had a southeast Asia trip on our agenda for 2013, but we postponed it when Amy and John announced they were moving back to America, which meant that was our last chance to visit them in Dubai and we didn’t want to pass that up! So I promised Bo we'd go to Asia in 2014. As for me, I really wanted to do a Contiki tour (an Australian tour company for 18-35 year olds) and we figured Asia was the best place to do it, for logistics and language barrier purposes. Bo went on one of their tours with Dudley when she graduated from college, and he really liked it. Ever since then, I've been wanting to go on one and I only have a few years left before I age out of it. Once we agreed on a Contiki tour to Asia, it was just a matter of deciding on a final destination based on their tour locations. Our top two contenders were trips to Thailand/Cambodia/Laos or Vietnam. Regardless, we decided March was the best time of year to go because it was in between monsoon seasons, and it wasn't too hot or cold in any of the locations we'd be visiting. We were actually leaning towards the Thailand trip, until one day during my flight search stalking, the price to Vietnam had dropped significantly (almost half the amount of skymiles). The Contiki tour to Vietnam was also a little cheaper, so we went for it, and booked our trip that day! Asia here we come.

Overall, our trip was incredible and far exceeded our expectations. We were both really excited going into it, mostly just to see a totally different part of the planet. Vietnam is not exactly considered a glamorous/popular tourist destination, but honestly that was part of the appeal to us. I am usually in charge of all of our logistics so I was somewhat skeptical of letting go of control and trusting someone else to do it all for us. We were also a little concerned about whether or not we’d like the people on our tour group since that could make or break a trip. All for naught – everything went really smoothly, we loved our group, and had an absolutely amazing time. And since we were with other world travelers we re-prioritized our vacation list and added about 10 more places we need to go. If only we had unlimited time and money. Dare to dream.

It took a LONG time to get there. Our first flight was 14.5 hours direct from Atlanta to Seoul, South Korea. We had about an hour layover, then another 4 hour flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. We got to our hotel late in the evening, and crashed immediately. We were exhausted but the good thing is that we slept well and adjusted to the time difference immediately. The next morning we took a 2 hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City, where our trip officially begins. The main city center area was formerly known as Saigon and is still often called that today.

So excited to finally be in Vietnam! And on my first backpacking trip. 

We finally got in to Saigon around noon and had the day to ourselves. We walked around for a bit to get our bearings and a better feel for the city. We didn't go too far because the streets were crazy! A word of warning, there is no such thing as “look both ways before you cross the street”. Everyone is moving everywhere in all different directions at all times – cars, scooters, bicyclers, and pedestrians. Total organized chaos. It took a few brave crossings before we realized most people aren’t going that fast so it’s best to keep a steady pace and just keep walking. It was scary though! Especially with everyone texting and driving…I just don’t understand how they aren't killing each other by the second. Eeek.

We got our first (of many) banh mis at BB Banh Mi & Cafe. This was definitely a touristy spot since it's featured in tour books and on Trip Advisor, which is how we found it. A banh mi is pretty simple, just a french baguette with your choice of fresh vegetables and meats. Delicious and so cheap (about $1 USD). We had so many of these over the next two weeks.

Afterward, we hung out at Allez Boo for a while to try some of the local beers, all of which were really good, (a nice surprise!) and usually less than a dollar, which brought us back to our college days. We also walked through 23/9 Park which was across the street from our hotel.

Ba Ba Ba - my favorite of all the local beers

Our first bowls of pho were at Pho Quynh and were the best we had of the entire trip. Back home in Atlanta, pho is one of Bo's favorite take-out dinners, but in Vietnam it's actually considered more of a breakfast food. We went there for breakfast our first morning and since I don't usually have a big breakfast, I didn't even need lunch that day.

The evening our tour started, we got a note at our hotel saying our tour manager wasn’t going to be there until the next day, but a local person would be downstairs to provide dinner suggestions if needed. We almost didn’t go, since Bo is a superb restaurant researcher and had several places in mind already. We decided to head down just to meet the rest of the group and then head off on our own. Turns out, we were the only two people who had signed up for our specific tour! There was a 12-day tour and a 10-day tour, which overlap starting on day 3 of our trip. So we were on our own for the first two days until everyone from the 10-day trip joined us a few days later. Private tour, sweet!

We spent the next two days on an overnight trip to the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi Tunnels, which I’ve posted about separately. Once we returned to Ho Chi Minh, the rest of our group joined the tour that night and we all went to a group dinner at Barbecue Garden. We cooked our own food on the grills at our table - Bo and I had shrimp and deer, which were pretty good. The Saigon Special beer wasn't bad but it was my least favorite of all the local beers we tried.

The next morning we had a few more hours to explore Saigon. Our first stop was the Reunification Palace. We were a little disappointed this was only a photo opp, and we didn't have time to go in. Had we known that we would have visited on our own before the tour started. Guess we'll have to go back...

Our next stop was the Notre Dame Cathedral, definitely not nearly as impressive as the one in Paris that we visited last year but pretty nonetheless.

Directly behind where I took this photo, is the building where the last US helicopter took evacuees during the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War. The original photograph (below) is taken from the other side of the building that is now blocked by a modern office building.

The Central Post Office was right across the street, so I bought a postcard and mailed it to my sister in lieu of a birthday card. Happy Belated Birthday, Leslie! :)

From there, we took a short bus ride to the War Remnants Museum. It was definitely pretty disturbing for various reasons. The use of agent orange and chemical warfare was awful and definitely wrong. They had an entire floor of the museum filled with pictures of the victims, and they were really gruesome. However the other disturbing aspect of this museum was their very different perspective on the war. They referred to it as the “US War of Aggression” or the “US Invasion” of Vietnam as a whole, ignoring the fact that they were two separate countries and the US was there supporting the South against the Viet Cong and Communism in the North. They also completely ignored the two year period from 1973 when we pulled out of Vietnam through 1975 when the war actually ended and we weren't even there. Bo loves history and has read several books about the war and Vietnam's history. Most recently prior to our trip he read Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975 and therefore he is much more knowledgeable than me about the war. Obviously each country has their own take on how they see it and they have the home field advantage, but he was pretty angered by the presentation of everything in this museum and now refers to it as "the world's most bullshit museum". It was a rather sobering way to end our time in Saigon.


  1. I'd feel the same way as Bo after leaving that museum. I've always thought that I'd never want to visit Vietnam, but you're opening my eyes... Still not sold, but getting closer.

  2. Just looking at the chaos of people driving stresses me out!! Looks like a bad game of Frogger!

    1. haha that is a great way to put it!!

  3. Excited to finally start reading your trip posts. Question...why are a lot of the people wearing masks? Was it really polluted there?


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