(This article is also published in Rappler. See: Exloring — and missing — Saigon)
After my college graduation, I embarked on a backpack adventure by myself. The country I chose for this adventure was Vietnam since (1) I’ve read that this is a great place for backpacking, (2) I have friends there who can accommodate me, and (3) I can go to Cambodia by land and hence, add one more country to my 25 list.
I landed in Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City at around 1am on April 3. Since I was on a budget trip, I had to wait until 6am for the bus that will take me to District 1. I wasn’t able to sleep since the arrival lounge of the airport was not as comfortable as some of the airports that I’ve slept in.
The bus left the airport at exactly 6am. I went down at Ben Thanh Market where I took a motorbike to 96 Guesthouse. I paid 10 USD for one night in the city.
District 1 on Day 1
The good thing about Ho Chi Minh is that most of the tourist destinations can be located in District 1. Since I was by myself, I just walked around the different places that was on my itinerary.
After resting for a few hours in my guesthouse, I already went to my first destination – the War Remnants Museum.
This museum showed the different effects and consequences of the Vietnam War. For an entrance fee of 15,000 VND (1 USD = 20,000 VND), tourists can see the story of Vietnam – how the country was devastated by war and how it was able to stand back up as a stronger nation.
As the name suggests, the museum also has some of the weapons that the Americans used during the war. This offers great photo opportunities for tourists and Vietnamese alike.
After seeing the museum, I had lunch in Ben Thanh Market where I ate a dish similar to Pad Thai and Pancit Canton. While eating, I met a Brit who gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten in this trip. He asked me if English was my first language since, according to him, I was very articulate. I just explained that the reason for this is that we are educated in English in the Philippines.
After lunch, I bid him farewell as I went on to my next destination, the Reunification Palace. The entrance fee to the palace was 30,000 VND. The palace used to be the seat of power of the democratic South Vietnam.
After the war was won by the communists, the Vietnamese officials used this palace as the meeting place to unite the North and the South, hence, the name.
Ho Chi Minh is considered a father figure to modern day Vietnam, since he was one who led the Viet Minh independence movement and established the communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north. Hence, after the war, the city of Saigon changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City.
There is also a movie studio inside the palace where tourists can learn about the history of the war. The movie can be seen in English, Chinese, Vietnamese, French or Thai language.
I decided to take a stroll in the park in front of the palace after. There are many parks in Ho Chi Minh where people can buy a fresh coconut juice, sit down and just chill. Near the park was the Notre Dame Cathedral, a remnant of the once French colonized Vietnam.
For my last itinerary for Day 1, I went to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. It’s very much like Siam Museum in Bangkok since this museum shows the story of how Saigon started even before the French colonization. For 15,000 VND, tourists can go around and see how the ancient Vietnamese lived – their traditions, clothes and ways of living.
After a day of sightseeing, I met one of my former students in InTACT, Miko Velasco, whose family was kind enough to treat me to coffee and dinner. They were going back to Manila that night after touring around Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was really nice chatting with Filipinos who also love travelling.
I ended my first day in Ho Chi Minh with a can of Saigon beer in front of the guesthouses I’m staying in. Bui Vien street somehow turns into a beer garden at night, where many tourists spend a good time.
Back from Cambodia and Da Lat
I spent four days in Cambodia and two days in Da Lat after my first day in Ho Chi Minh. When I came back, I had two more days to spend before I go back to Manila.
Arriving from Da Lat, I stayed with my friend’s house in another district in Ho Chi Minh. For my second to the last day, I decided to go to the Bitexco Financial Skydeck, the highest building in Vietnam.
This skyscraper is top 5 in CNN’s 20 Most Iconic Buildings in the World, not just because of its height but because of what it stands for. The building imitates a blossoming Lotus flower which is symbolic for Vietnam’s economic rise.
Tourists pay 200,000 VND (10 USD) to enter the skydeck. The expensive fee is really worth it compared to the view you’ll get on top.
I decided to go shopping for souvenirs in Ben Thanh Market afterwards. Shopping can be quite deadly in Ben Thanh since Vietnamese charge double the price for tourists. The key is to haggle starting at half the price that the vendor gave. Also, be prepared to be pulled by salesladies, as what I had experienced a couple of times.
I spent the evening with my friend Jenny (who I met in Malaysia) who treated me to a nice North Vietnamese meal in Hoang Ty, near the place I’m staying in.
Jenny was kind enough to tour me around District 3 afterward. Street vendors and shops are very common in Vietnam. So we just parked our motorbike beside the road and drank fresh iced tea in one of the streets.
I ended my day by visiting a pagoda in District 3. I bought some incense for 5,000 VND and offered it to some Buddha statues since I am a fan of Buddhist philosophy.
Last Day in Saigon
For my last day in Ho Chi Minh, I took a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels via the Sinh Tourist. I paid 140,000 VND for the bus and tour guide, excluding the entrance fee to the tunnels. The tunnels were found some kilometers away from the city center and it took around 2 hours to get there.
The entrance fee was 90,000 VND. Before actually entering parts of the tunnels, the guide will show the different strategies used by the Vietnamese to counter the American forces stationed at Saigon.
Aside from booby traps, the Vietnamese also used guerilla warfare to sabotage and ambush the American troops and steal their weapons. The old tunnel entrances were really small and camouflaged. Hence, a Vietnamese soldier could easily vanish from sight if seen by any American soldier.
The tunnels were really small, only about 1 meter high. It also had different levels – 3 meters, 6 meters and 10 meters. Part of the tour is that tourists can walk the tunnel to the other side. Of course, I did not want to miss the opportunity.
The tunnels were really eerie. It’s quite dark even with the presence of artificial lights for tourists. I can only imagine how the people lived there during the war with only candles to light their way.
Given its small size, Caucasians really couldn’t fit inside. Some of my tour mates had to back out since the only way to cross the tunnel was for them to crawl. In the end, only a few of us young Asians finished the entire tunnel.
The Cu Chi tunnels park was a good way to end my Vietnam experience. It made me realize why the Americans, with their advance technology, did not and could never have won the war.
I went back to my friend’s house after the Cu Chi Tunnels. I prepared my stuff for my departure back to Manila that night.
Looking back at my trip, I was really thankful to have seen the beauty of Ho Chi Minh City and Da Lat (that’s another story). I learned the other side of the Vietnam War and I was able to appreciate the character of the Vietnamese.
Vietnam is a beautiful country. I consider it a grace that I was able to include it to my 25 country list. It surely deserves a second visit.
Cảm ơn, Viet Nam!