Ho Chi Minh >> Cù Chi Tunnels
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, as some still refer to it as, is a city that never sleeps. One of the most vastly populated in Vietnam with well over 10 million people residing there. As a first taster to Vietnam, I’m overwhelmed by the number of mopeds whizzing about, the heat and humidity, the colours, and the number of skyscrapers that dominate the landscape. It’s a high-octane city, full of energy and life, with something to suit every type of traveller. From the finest of hotels for the sophisticated traveller to the cheapest of guesthouses for the backpackers and adventurers. Classy restaurants, tasty street food stalls, boutiques selling anything and everything and of course the markets. HCMC is modern but steeped in history, a fast-paced vibrant city.
As with all my blogs, I like to keep it real. Exploring the adventures I’ve had with my husband around Japan, Australia and New Zealand and capturing the true essence of our trip. This means sharing the good, the bad and the ugly.
On arriving in Ho Chi Minh City we soon learnt the hard way when the visa authorities stopped us from passing through unless we had a flight ticket to leave Vietnam. This might sound strange as usually, we would always have a return ticket. However, not unlike a lot of travellers who explore many different countries, we wanted the freedom to choose when we left and where from.
Vietnam is extremely strict on travellers, so it’s crucial you show a return ticket at passport control and a visa if needed. Check out entry requirements here: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/vietnam/entry-requirements
Leaving the airport and heading to our hotel I’m mesmerised by the sheer number of scooters which dominate the roads. Performing some kind of extreme dance; weaving in-between and around one another in such an artful manner its hard not to watch in awe. To a western brain, this seems like utter madness, way to dangerous to try but for the Vietnamese, this traffic madness is a way of life and, although I am sure there are accidents, it does seem to work. It is not uncommon to see entire families all perched on one scooter, or riders carrying anything from fridges to entire cargoes of food stock. Horns blasting, brakes screeching, the whizz of motors passing, there is never a quiet moment. I’m drawn to the excitement of it all, it’s fascinating.
Up early the next day we head out to explore the sights of Ho Chi Minh City. My first mistake, which I soon learn from, is wearing my handbag fully visible to passers-by. Crossing the road, I’m soon met by an enthusiastic Vietnamese man, who in a flash tugs the strap of my handbag quick and hard. Fortunately, luck is not on his side and I escape with all my belongings intact. Vietnam is a country growing economically but a vast majority of people still live in extreme poverty. Therefore the lure of an expensive looking handbag or mobile is very appealing, so it best to err on the side of caution and only take out what you need and be aware of your possessions.
Having made the discovery somewhere between Australia and Vietnam that my passport didn’t have the required time left on it, our first trip of the day in Ho Chi Minh City was straight to the British Embassy. On entering the embassy you have to declare all your electronic goods, come armed with several passport photos, £100 for the temporary passport and plenty of time on your hands. I soon learnt that this was not going to be a quick fix, on speaking to an embassy official we were told we would need to book our entire trip and have our itinerary and flight details to hand. Bloody hell!! We took ourselves straight back out, collected our belongings and hot-footed it straight to the nearest cafe.
We stumbled through the doors of Propaganda logged straight onto their wifi and began the arduous task of booking the remainder of our trip. Where would we visit in Vietnam? Where would we fly to, from Vietnam? And where would be our end our point? We needed sustenance to get us through all this. Grabbing the menu we ordered spring rolls and 2 Phos.
→ From Ho Chi Minh we’d take a short flight to Danang, spend a few days there before hopping on a train to Hue, jetting up to Hanoi before flying over to Thailand for a quick stopover. Finally, end our trip to India for 3 weeks before flying back to England to see my family. →
With the flights all booked the timing couldn’t have been better, our piping hot Pho’s and spring rolls arrived. For anyone who hasn’t tried Pho before, its all about the broth. A recipe different in every family and steeped in secrecy and tradition. Packed full of flavour, this traditional Vietnamese noodle soup is by far one of my favourites.
We headed back to the embassy, this time we would leave with my temporary passport. I quickly filled out the online form and paid the £100 fee. The reason for booking all your travel beforehand is that the embassy print your entire travel itinerary on the inside page, a detail that we would learn later was extremely useful. Handing everything over we had a short wait before my slim lined yellow passport was ready.
With the visa and passport fiasco out of the way, the following day’s sightseeing took on new levels. Through our hotel, we organised an excursion to Cu Chi tunnels, a trip that would take us along the Mekong river before docking at the famous Vietnamese war tunnels.
Clambering on board our boat adorned with oversized, bright orange coloured life jackets, a health hazard, rather than being there to save us in the event of our boat overturning. We sat neatly in port and starboard of the boat, the engine sputtered to life, the long rudder, unlike anything I’ve seen in boating before, sweeping through the water like butter. The Mekong River is a hub for Vietnamese culture and a major transportation route for villagers living in the Delta. It is a wonder to feast your eyes upon. Men and women, old and young, can be seen along the river, fishing in long, thin wooden boats. Balanced in a squatted position at the port of the boat, a position us Europeans can barely get into, let alone sit in, steady for hours. I could barely take my finger off the clicker of my camera, the photographic opportunities are in abundance here. What’s particularly fascinating is seeing the changing landscape along the sides of the river, from Urban to more rural farmland with flimsy looking houses neatly aligned at the very edge of the water.
We eventually pulled up to the river entrance of the Cu Chi Tunnels. An immense network of connecting tunnels, some 120km long, that underlie much of Vietnam. Built as a way of protecting and camouflaging the Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War. 100m of the tunnels are open to the public, which gives you a real sense of how it would have been for the soldiers spending days inside the tunnels, hiding from the enemy. It felt pretty claustrophobic and extremely warm. My husband, a Swede and over 6ft tall, only managed the first 10 metres before escaping to the open air along with others from our group. As well as the tunnels the public can learn about the extreme ways in which the Vietnamese would capture and maim the enemy, literally stopping them in their tracks. Hidden holes, with large spikes standing upright closing in, aimed at inflicting serious injury to those unfortunate enough to stumble into them. They’re pretty damn horrendous, I can only imagine the pain the American soldiers must have been in. One thing is for sure, the Vietnamese do not sugar coat their history in the way that the British or Americans can. The descriptions and pictures are very graphic and can be upsetting, which is worth bearing in mind if you’re sensitive or in the company of young children.
That evening we would experience another side of Vietnam that I had imagined would not exist. A close friend of ours, who we had met on a previous trip to Montenegro, had moved to Vietnam a year or so ago and was keen to introduce us to the finer ways of living in Vietnam. Our first stop for dinner was Pizza4PS, not exactly traditional Vietnamese food, which I prefer, but amazing Italian Pizza in a restaurant you might find in any European city. If you want a change or you’re just sick of Asian food then this is the place for you.
We ventured out into the warm exotic heat, peering across the street into some rather questionable ‘massage’ salons. Hailing a cab we made our way to the next surprise of the evening, a rooftop bar with views of HCMC. Chill Skybar is located in District One on the 26th-27th floor AB Tower. It boasts a string of awards; The Worlds Finest Club, Certificate of Excellence and is nominated for the World’s Luxury Resturant Awards. Chill Dining is a top-class steakhouse and seafood restaurant. The setting is something you would expect to see in Hong Kong or another rich city but not in Vietnam. The food is out of this world, all delicately prepared using high-quality ingredients sourced from local vendors and paired with the finest beef and seafood from around the world. The restaurant has floor to ceiling windows offering amazing views wherever you’re seated. A green laser beam is shone across the city from the top of the Chill Bar leaving those on the ground in no doubt about the location of this famous Club, Resturant and Lounge Experience.
Continuing our evening in district 1, we headed over to Envy Nightclub. A swanky nightclub, not unlike the clubs you would find in London. This club isn’t at all aimed at the backpacker, if you want to get in you need to be prepared to flash your cash and dress up smart. The staff will join in and party with you, a unique concept which most will love but I can imagine doesn’t go down well with all. The thing I enjoyed most was the fruit plate we had delivered to our table. A delicious selection of exotic fruits lightly dipped in dark and white chocolate. I must be getting old!
Our final day in Ho Chi Minh City, we were keen to have an authentic experience. We headed straight for the war museum, located close to our hotel in District 3. The entrance of the museum is decorated with an array of war vehicles, most of which are replicas of the aircraft, tanks etc. used during the war. I personally was not that into the vehicles, I was more interested to learn about the history of the war, which I knew little about beforehand.
In the same way, Cu Chi Tunnels does not censor neither does the War Museum. There are very graphic pictures (particularly in the Agent Orange room), and old artefacts all the way around the museum, documenting from the Vietnamese perspective. It is shocking and a real eye-opener of the repercussions of war and chemical warfare.
The all-important food stop of the day led us to Ben Thanh Street Food Market for a Vietnamese snack of Banh Mi, a baguette filled with pork and other delicious morsels. Its well up there on the list of foods you must try whilst in Vietnam. Our bellies full we took a short walk to the Cho Ben Thanh Market, a covered market where you can literally purchase anything. It’s quite overwhelming but well worth a look around if only for the experience. I personally love markets because you get the best insight into a countries culture; food, colours, smells, noise, bartering and people all in one place.
Having had enough of the heat and well and truly exhausted from our day of sightseeing and shopping we hot-footed it straight over to Saigon Soul Pool Party. The place to be seen on a Saturday afternoon. Scantily clad women, line the edge of the pool, posing for selfies in their teeny tiny bikinis or with one of the many men hoping to impress. My one intention was to get straight into the pool and cool off. The party part really wasn’t my thing nor the endless drinking but it was definitely a welcome break from the relentless heat. If you’re 20 something and love to party, this will be right up your street!
Our final night in Ho Chi Minh City was not one of Vietnamese culture but Latin. Carmen Bar, hosts live Spanish music played and sang by a selection of talented performers. The drinks are fairly expensive for Saigon, I expect because you’re paying for the whole experience. It’s fun, lively, and full of exuberance.
Follow my adventures across Asia. Next stop Danang, Vietnam ♥