Vietnam

Memories of Vietnam I: HCM

Oh my, I just realized I never wrote about our trip to Vietnam! It’s been almost 2 months since then, so I’d better get uploading some pictures and info before I forget ^^

Overall we had a great time and ate a lot of delicious cheap food. This trip was much more chill than our usual rush and run trips, since we had 10 days to visit 3 cities. Everything from food and accommodation to tours can be found at a very cheap price, so we booked 2 tours to visit the Cuchi tunnels and the Mekong delta. Stress-free trip 🙂

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Cruising a small stream at the Mekong Delta area

We flew to HCM with Vietjet Air (a low cost), and didn’t like it. It was a cheap flight, and I used to not mind low-cost services… but I really don’t want to fly with them anymore. To start with, all the flights had some delay (none was longer than 3h but still). Then, whatever food or drink you buy from their menu, you need to pay an extra $1 (per item) if it’s not a local flight. OK, prices were still cheaper than average. But “la gota que colmo el vaso” (or the straw that broke the camel’s back in English) was that we decided to buy food on the plane because our 5h flight was at 11am, but by the time the hostess arrived to our seats, ALL THE FOOD was sold out. If you have a flight in the afternoon lunch time, why don’t you have extra servings?


Anyway 🙂 This is not supposed to be a review of the flight, but of Vietnam. So let’s get started about what really matters: what to do and eat in Ho Chi Minh!

WHAT TO DO IN HCM

Cu Chi Tunnels 

The tunnels were definitely one of the main highlights of the trip. This area is where the Vietnamese guerrillas dug tight tunnels to hide from the American soldiers and launch surprise attacks on them. Without getting deep int history, one could say these tunnels were a key for the Vietcon victory.

We booked a full day tour that first went to the Cao Dai temple and then to the Cu Chi Tunnels. To visit the tunnels, it’s best to book a tour (they can go as inexpensive as $5 for a half day tour with transportation), since tourists are not allowed to enter and wander by themselves (if you do go alone, a guard will be escorting you). In addition, I believe that the stories that our guide told us helped us understand what everything was much better.

At some point while wandering though the forest, the guide stopped and asked our group to try find the entrance to the tunnel. It was hard. I saw nothing that looked like an entrance to a tunnel! He then swept some leaves off the floor where he was standing to expose a small wooden tablet. There it was. Such a small piece covering a very tight entrance to the tunnels. “Who wants to go first?” he asked. The first volunteer was a thin woman, similar in size to me. I remember I doubted whether she’d be able to fit, and she did.

The key to fit in the small hole is to enter with your arms lifted up while holding the entrance tablet and once inside, bend your knees to a squatting position. In the end, even the tall guys managed to enter. It was really fun!

Later we also entered an actual tunnel, where we had to walk on our knees and where the humidity was quite overwhelming. Some people couldn’t enter (it is not recommended for claustrophobics), but there are exits every few meters for you to abandon the task if it’s too much for you.

Our guide explained how sometimes some of the entrances would be fake, more like traps for the enemy. It was a bit gruesome but understandable in a time of war, and really interesting to see. At the end of the tour, we had to sit down and watch a propagandistic video about the war. It was a very expensive war for both sides: 3.5 million Vietnamese died in the war (1.5 were soldiers, the rest were civilians) and many many more were affected by bombs and gas poisoning.

Cao Dai Temple

We hadn’t planned to get here, but our 1-day tour included it and we had heard it was another interesting sight. Cao Dai is a Vietnamese religion that combines teachings from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and even some Catholicism and Hinduism. It is a young religion founded in the 1920s by the Jade Emperor (or God, for them). The temple we visited was the biggest and only official temple (1933~1945).

There are no monks or nuns, just followers with different ranks base on seniority and knowledge of the religion. The higher ranks have usually followed Cao Dai for more than 40 years and they are the ones sitting on the front rows near the altar. Another thing you notice soon is that men and women sit on different sides of the room.

There are 4 ceremonies everyday: midnight, 6am, afternoon, and 6pm. We managed to arrive right on time for the afternoon one, since the temple is very far from HCM and it took about 3h to get there.

Cao Dai’s symbol is the eye of the Jade emperor. People wear different colors: yellow represent Buddhism, blue is for Taoism, red goes for Confucianism and white is the Human color. Most followers were wearing white.

While the whole experience felt very touristy and the trip felt too long just to reach a religious ceremony, it was great to learn about this, and if you’re interested in local cultures, it should definitely be in your list.

Mekong Delta cruise

On a different day we booked a tour to visit the Mekong Delta. I had read many mixed reviews and was a bit reticent, but the tour was $10 (we have a distant relative contact). We wanted to experience a calm ride along a small stream, rather than seeing a touristy market. The tour was designed so we would get to ride 3 different types and sizes of boat.

We first arrived to My Tho and took a big ship to tour us around the main islands: Dragon, Phoenix, Unicorn, and Turtle. We would then change to a medium motorized boat to visit a coconut candy shop at the end of a stream. Coconut candy is a typical souvenir from Vietnam, and here we could see some 5 people making and packaging them.

Later we went for lunch at a resort where we had a very special Mekong style fried fish. This had to be paid separately but it was really good looking and tasty! We had some free time to chill on the hammocks or walk around.

After this, we went to take a trip on a small rowing boat. These boats sit up to 4 people and are rowed by 2 local Vietnamese. In our case, it was 2 middle-aged ladies who could speak some English. Well, I don’t think they could actually speak English, but they had memorized some sentences like “there my house, have 2 babies, very poor”. The guide had previously warned us of the situation of these people and how we should definitely tip them $1~$5. You definitely want to do it after seeing them sweat to take you through the busy streams.

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Finally, we visited a small bee farm that sold honey and other snacks. We had a sample drink that was delicious and we also ate fruits while listening to some Vietnamese traditional music and songs.

The tour felt quite touristy, since in every stop you could buy something or tip money. It also didn’t follow a clear narrative, nothing had to do with the previous activity. But anyway, it was a very chill day with a lot of boat riding and eating, and it is a way to see the Mekong Delta when you don’t have much time to spend there.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Back in HCM most of the sightseeing is concentrated in the same area, so even 1 day would be enough to get a glance of the city.

One of the landmarks is the Cathedral. It looks really good from the outside, although the inside wasn’t impressive at all for an European. Actually, inside you can only stay at the very back of the Cathedral. It is not possible to enter to stand in front of the Altar or give a prayer.

Right in front of the Church is also another landmark: the Post Office. This is a famous building because it has been preserved from the French Colonialism time.

War Remnants Museum

A 15min walk away from the center you can find this polemic museum that exhibits a wide array of pictures from the war and its consequences. The entrance fee is practically free and there are so many visitors looking at the atrocious pictures.

A warning: this place is not for the soft people. I started by looking at each picture and the descriptions, and a while later I somehow started to hate Americans, since the overall story is that Americans are pure evil. A few minutes later I came across an area with pictures from the Agent Orange and had to leave the exhibit area and sit down outside.

A walk in the city centre

Last but not least, take a walk along the most busy and expensive street of Ho Chi Minh: Dong Khoi. Here you will see some upscale shops, the main hotels, and the Saigon Opera House.

It was really busy on the night we went (December 30th), but it is much calmer in the daytime, where one can truly appreciate the distinctive architecture of HCM.

Chinatown

Vietnam has an important amount of Chinese heritage, so we went to visit the Chinatown in District 5. We mainly just ate and ate again with our distant relative.

 

WHAT TO EAT IN HCM

I tried Vietnamese food before in Canada, the US and Korea. While I liked what I ate, I never considered Vietnamese food to be on my top list. However, this trip may have changed that conception forever. The amount of freshness and citric flavors made me fall for their cuisine.

A big surprise for me was Bun bo Hue. This is one of Victor’s favorite dishes, and in the US (and in Hue, where the dish comes from), it is spicy. We ordered it in several occasions and turns out that, at least in HCM, it is not spicy but well spiced. Really rich in flavor.

Banh Mi was another favorite, although this one I could see it coming. Banh Mi are sandwiches in French style baguettes. They can come with different things inside, although most of the times it has meat or cured meats. It is a street food, and therefore very cheap. The cheapest we had was 17,000 Vietnamese dong ($0,80), and I witnessed how Vietnamese people are often charged less than the normal price.

Pho is probably the most famous Vietnamese dish, but we didn’t find a good one until the very last day of our stay. There are different styles of Pho, some are richer in flavor than others, but all come with their lime, which I loved.

Spring Rolls are the other popular Vietnamese dish. You can have them either fried or fresh, but I love the fresh ones much better because they are way healthier. They usually come with shrimp and herbs.

Breakfast noodles are similar to Pho in the sense that they are also noodles in soup with some meat or shrimp, but the flavor is quite different. I’m not quite sure what the name would be, as it was our relative that took us for breakfast before our tour.

Chicken with rice sounds like it could be eaten anywhere, but you would be surprised if I told you I really miss eating a simple dish with just some rice and plain chicken, slightly seasoned. I’ll talk more about this on another post, since chicken with rice is an actual signature dish in another city we visited.

Sorry I forgot the name of this dish, but its basically slices of cooked pork that you wrap in a special rice paper (it was salty) together with herbs and sauces.

Foreign food (if you’re living in Korea like us): not because it’s better than in Korea (although in this case it was), but because it is more affordable. On January 1st most restaurants were closed but we were lucky to find a Spanish restaurant open for business. Victor had his first “huevos rotos” and “croquetas” 🙂 They were great!

Vietnamese Coffee is quite popular, although I didn’t like it that much. They usually use condensed milk instead of fresh milk, so the texture is thicker and the flavor much sweeter. As with many other foods, you can have it on the streets for dirty cheap, or in a nice setting (a cafe in this case).

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