For Holy Week this year, I flew to the bustling city of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.
Few days before this trip, I was not in the best mood but this trip helped turn my mood around. Traveling really has its wonderful benefits! Read on to find out what occurred during this trip. 🙂
Flight to Ho Chi Minh
I took an early morning flight on Holy Thursday. I always prefer that so I can make the most of the day. This was my first trip with my new passport so that made me excited! I exchanged SGD to some Vietnam Dong (VND) & some USD at Changi. They use both in Vietnam. For an easier gauging, VND 100,000 is around USD 4.50. It’s a bit overwhelming to think you have “millions” afterwards. Haha
My ETA was 8:40 AM (GMT+7). I booked a taxi going to my hostel from the airport. Apparently they have a promo rate in the morning! I just paid VND 180,000 instead of the usual VND 240,000. They say that you should only take a Vinasun or Mailinh taxi, but the one I rode was neither of those. That’s probably applicable only when you hail a taxi from outside the airport.
A little history of Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh, which means “enlightened one”, was named after the first president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Ho played a major role for Vietnam’s independence from France and is one of the most famous Communists around the world. The city, also known as Saigon, is the country’s economic center.
My place was in District 1, and I had a little difficulty finding it. As I alighted my cab, the Thai Binh market welcomed me. The colorful vegetables and fruits instantly caught my eye. I think local markets show how vibrant a country’s culture and economy are. Soon after looking so lost, an old lady helped me locate my hostel. How helpful!
A quick authentic bite
I arrived earlier than their usual check-in time so I just left my heavy bag at the front desk for the mean time and grabbed my lunch. I walked towards Bến Thành Market, which is a 15-minute walk from backpackers area on Phạm Ngũ Lão street. Clearly, the main mode of transportation here is by motorbikes. You will see tons of them everywhere!
I dined at Phở 24. I had my first, and an authentic one at that, phở (pronounced “fur”) ever. I decided to order a beef one, with spring rolls, leche flan and a drink, costing me VND 84,000. I would say it was worth it! Rest of their menu below.
I needed to go back to the hostel by 1 PM as it’s time for me to do my first tour. The half day tour to the Củ Chi tunnels is worth VND 131,000. That doesn’t include the entrance fee which is another VND 110,000. A guy fetched us from our hostel and led us to the bus station along Phạm Ngũ Lão street also. Our bus was late for 30 minutes or more, and it takes around one and a half hours going to the tunnels located in the northern part.
A quick stop at a handicraft store
Before going to the tunnels, we passed by a handicrafts store first. Upon entering, you will see locals doing their artworks. The place has a vast number of beautiful handicrafts inside, and the proceeds, some of them, if not all, go to Agent Orange victims. (You will find out what AO means later.)
The Cu Chi Tunnel Complex
Our tour guide was Sergeant Billy Franco Rivera (I hope I got this right!) a.k.a. “Mr. Bean”, a half-Vietnamese & half-Filipino war veteran. He was full of stories, and kept reiterating that his stories are based from first-hand experience, and not based on books. He also said that he’s the mentor of 700 other tour guides in HCM. How lucky were we? During his early years, he lived in New York with his father for a while where he became a U.S. Navy Officer, then returned to Vietnam and didn’t leave ever again.
Before reaching our next destination, he collected our payment for the entrance. I would have little chats with him here and there. He complimented my look when I said I’m a Filipino too. 😆 He said that he has some family in Quezon City, Philippines that he would visit from time to time.
That’s our tour guide! According to him, the whole place wasn’t like that during wartime. They just planted eucalyptus and other trees later on when they redeveloped it. Basically the whole place has a lot of replicas of traps, as well as other war memorabilia.
The Củ Chi tunnels form a complex underground tunnel system. They were used as hiding spots by the Viet Cong soldiers. They are very narrow to prevent the Westerners from entering easily. Some of them were widened a little bit as the place became a popular tourist attraction.
The ground is made of clay so as they they kept on bombing the place, the surface kept on hardening because of the heat, making the underground tunnels a safer place for the VC’s to stay at.
Afterwards, we went to the firing range. You can try different kinds of guns, but you have to buy the bullets. I didn’t go for it because it was too loud!
Now onto the highlight of the day! Before going through the bunkers, we were informed that there’s an exit every 30 meters. Being the claustrophobic that I am, I exited as soon as I saw the first one. 😆 I think tourists are allowed up to a hundred or two meters. It was really narrow and low, might even require you to be on all fours if you’re really tall. Also, I wore a white shirt which wasn’t the best decision!
It was almost 7 PM when we headed back to the city. Mr. Franco revealed he wrote a book called “Three Moons in Vietnam”, and it’s not published in Vietnam but somewhere else. Would love to read more of his insightful stories! Before we parted, I, together with other tourists, gave him tip/donation for being a great, funny, passionate and informative guide. I couldn’t help but ask for a pic with him too!
Dinner at Le Crespo
After the tour wrapped up, I had dinner with some Pinoys that I met. We went to Le Crespo, an Italian pizza restaurant that had a really cool vibe. To our surprise, the manager and other staff were Filipinos too!
It’s always nice to meet fellas abroad. Makes you feel at home where ever you are in the world.
That’s a wrap for day 1 in Saigon!