- Accommodation: Hong Han Hotel ($10/night per person for a room with 2 twin beds, private bathroom & A/C). Great location in the heart of Pham Ngu Kao, the backpackers area of the city. This area is like a smaller Khao San Road, but you can still find all the western amenities you need like ATMs, 7 Eleven or Circle K, laundry, travel agencies etc. Hong Han was very clean, comfortable, spacious and an excellent value. There were two people who worked at the front desk, Anh and Anh. One was a girl and one was a boy, but they had the same name (a bit confusing at first!) Breakfast was also included in the morning (eggs & bread). We ended up spending an extra night in Saigon and unfortunately Hong Han was fully booked, but they were extremely helpful in finding us another place to stay nearby, even carrying our packs over there for us. The new hotel was called Blue River Hotel and it was equally as nice and comfortable ($18/night for a double with private bathroom & A/C). It was located off the main road in a nice, quiet alley with a lot of other hotels on it as well.
We got to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) around 5:00pm (it was a 3.5-4 hour trip from Can Tho to HCMC) and then we took a taxi to our hotel in Pham Ngu Kao, the backpacker area of the city. We stayed at the Hong Han Hotel, which is really nice and in a good location. I was pleasantly surprised by HCMC, mostly because I had such low expectations going into it. I heard terrible things from other travelers – that it’s really dirty, crowded, hot, poor, and charmless – but that wasn’t the case at all. It seemed relatively prosperous and I didn’t see many slums (granted, I’m sure they’re there, but it’s nothing like India, for instance). The streets were relatively clean (for Asia) and there were a lot of parks. While the backpacker area is tacky and crowded, I found it to be a nice change of pace for a couple of days. We also happened to have great weather when we were there. It was sunny and warm, but not stifling hot. I can definitely see how unenjoyable it would be to visit during the monsoon season when certain streets are flooded with dirty rain water though. In general I’m not a huge fan of Southeast Asian cities, but it is important to see how local people live and to get a feel for the culture.
One thing I kept wondering about was if “Ho Chi Minh City” will ever catch on. It seemed like every local still refers to the city as Saigon. I’d imagine it’s pretty hard to change the name of a city, but I guess many countries, including India, are trying to shed their colonial city names too (i.e. Bombay is now Mumbai).
One of the first things you’ll notice about Saigon is the plethora of motorbikes. It must have the most motorbikes per person than any other city in the world. The streets seem like complete chaos, but people somehow manage to swerve around one another without getting hit – no small feat! Given the lack of driving rules, you can imagine how difficult it was to cross the street as a pedestrian. There are hardly any traffic lights (and even if there are people rarely abide by them) so we had to be extremely cautious. Your instinct is to make a run for it, but you’re actually supposed to cross slowly, giving the drivers enough time to see you and swerve around you. It seems very counterintuitive to go slowly, especially when it looks like there’s 20 motorbikes seconds away from running you over, but we found that that was truly the best method.
Our first night in Saigon we ate at Pho Quynh, a really cheap pho restaurant near the hotel. I liked my chicken pho a lot, but Rosie’s beef pho looked a little sketchy. Our total bill was less than $5 with beers! I’m glad I finally got to try the signature Vietnamese dish. Upon arriving back at the hotel we checked our email and tried several times to get on facebook, thinking there was something wrong with the internet. But then we remembered reading something about the Vietnamese government restricting access to Facebook in certain parts of the country. However, unlike China, Vietnam doesn’t have the resources to enforce this so it’s pretty easy to get around the blockade just by downloading a VPN application.
The next day we walked around Saigon, just taking in the sights. We went to the Reunification Palace, which used to serve as the President of South Vietnam’s residence before the war. The place is a total time warp – nothing has been changed since the Northern forces broke through the gates in 1975. Next we went to the War Remnants Museum. It was pretty strange to be an American walking through the exhibits. While there was definitely some misleading propaganda going on, overall I was shocked and horrified by the things we did during the war, in particular the use of agent orange. Even today people are still being born with birth defects in certain parts of the country.
That night we went to a Vietnamese restaurant called 117, just around the corner from the hotel. Anh from Hong Han recommended it to us for its authentic Vietnamese food. The place was filled with all locals, which is always a good sign. I didn’t understand anything on the menu so I just pointed to something and hoped for the best. It turned out that I ordered “pork cakes.” All of the sudden there was tons of food on the table and it looked like I was supposed to make some sort of a roll with all the ingredients. The waitress saw me struggling to figure out what to do so she graciously offered to help me by making the rolls. Since she spent so much time making them I felt obligated to eat them all, even though I really disliked the way they tasted. I’m not a big fan of pork to begin with, and this pork looked even less appetizing. Needless to say I was not feeling very well later that night. Rosie, however, enjoyed her dish so I’m sure I just ordered the wrong thing.
In the morning we switched to the Blue River Hotel. If you’re on Pham Ngu Lao, turn on Do Quang Dou and make the first left onto a small alley – Blue River is towards the end. You can also reach the alley from the main road, Bui Vien. The girl at the front desk was really nice and spoke good English. We took it easy for the rest of the day and just walked around the Dong Khoi area of the city, which is where the post office, Notre Dame cathedral, and all the upscale hotels are located. I was not expecting Saigon to have an area of the city with designer stores and fancy hotels. It seems like there is a lot of new wealth and there is a lot of construction going on. In the afternoon I decided to head back because I wasn’t feeling well, but Rosie went to check out a good banh xeo place she read about. The name of the restaurant was also called Banh Xeo, apparently it’s common for a restaurant here to only specialize in a single dish, in this instance banh xeo. For dinner that night we went to Café Zoom, recommended in Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, because I was craving some western food after I overdosed on beef pancakes. I think we both ordered pasta but they had a large menu with many western dishes. The food was nothing special, but it satisfied my craving!
While we were in Saigon we needed to plan the next few days in Vietnam before we would be meeting up with my mom in Hanoi. Originally I thought we would work our way north to see Na Trang, Hue, Hoi An etc and then eventually end up in Hanoi. However, after adding Phu Quoc and the Mekong Delta to our itinerary we didn’t have time to make it up the coast in order to meet my mom when she arrived. And like I’ve said before, I was not trying to see the entire country; that’s unrealistic given how much time we had. I’d rather pick a few places and spend some meaningful time in each spot instead of trying to squeeze in everything just for the sake of saying you went there. My philosophy is that if you really like a place then you’ll come back in the future and explore some more! You don’t have to cram everything into one trip.
Anyways, so after doing a lot of research we decided to skip the middle of the country and head north for Sapa, which is literally right on the Chinese border. Since we were tight on time we decided to book a one-way ticket from HCMC to Hanoi and then go straight from the airport to the train station to board the overnight train to Sapa. So in the morning we headed to the airport around 11am to catch our 1:30pm flight to Hanoi. The taxi to the airport was about $5-$7. It took us about 30 minutes to get to the airport from the hotel. We flew Jetstar Pacific and I think the flights were about $80/person. It took about 2 hours to get from HCMH to Hanoi.