I had spent 10 days in Myanmar, only one week in Laos and then two weeks in Cambodia, but I had only set aside a few days to explore Ho Chi Minh City, also known fondly as Saigon. It was my second visit to Vietnam, having been to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay back in 2013, but I desperately wanted to see ‘the Pearl of the Orient’ before I left Asia for good.
Having wangled a bus journey from Cambodia and rearranged some flights, I managed to squeeze a few days in HCM City into my Southeast Asian tour. Here is my travel diary from my very short dip into Vietnam and Saigon:
Day 1 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
This is the last one! The last long-haul bus journey across Southeast Asia! The trip from Phnom Penh to Saigon took around seven hours, including a few hours of faff at the borders. I do love a good bit of Southeast Asian faff.
You know, getting on and off the bus several million times, collecting up passports, then passing around passports, getting things stamped and checked and inspected. A good bit of queuing for no reason. All that stuff. Until I was finally through all the checkpoints and into Vietnam.
Once in Saigon, I was surprised to see how different the city was to Phnom Penh, despite the distance, and to Hanoi, the capital, which I had visited a few years ago. The traffic was still typical of most of Southeast Asia – a game with no rules – but the streets were cleaner and prettier. The city was more developed.
I thought I’d hit the cafe jackpot in Luang Prabang, but I’ve never seen so many cafes in my life as I have in HCM City. I decided that Saigon must be my spiritual home.
After dodging the pushy tuk-tuk drivers that were insisting my hostel was very far from where the bus stopped, I went in to a travel agents to exchange some US dollars and Cambodian kip into Vietnamese dong (note: I am a millionaire in dong and I never tire of saying that).
The women working in the travel agency rolled their eyes and reassured me that actually my hostel was a five minute walk, directly opposite the travel centre via a quick walk through a park.
Once settled into Saigon Friends Hostel, I walked around town and found my way to a place called Secret Garden for dinner. It really was quite a secret, hidden on the third floor of a grubby apartment building. I ate a coconut, shrimp and bacon salad while the sun went down and fairylights came on.
Yes, this was exactly why I said I didn’t want to miss Saigon on my backpacking trip. So I could eat all the Vietnamese food.
Day 2 – Museum Day, Saigon
I started my day with a delicious iced coffee (yes, Saigon, you have your priorities straight), before spending the day museum-hopping.
First, was the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, which was housed in an old colonial building and told the story of the city through time. However, remembering my visit to Hanoi, I was a little wary of how history, especially recent history, is depicted in Vietnamese museums. So, I took in everything I saw with a pinch of salt.
Next was the Reunification Palace, also known as the Independence Palace. This building is fascinating. Once a French colonial building, it was partly destroyed by bombs and re-built in the 1970s to be a Presidential Palace. The architecture won awards and the interior was very fashion-forward design for the time.
However, when tanks smashed through the gates and the palace was taken over, along with the rest of South Vietnam, the palace was no longer needed. Instead, the building has been preserved as it was in the 1970s, complete with aging decor. It makes for a strange experience to wander around the rooms, which feel like they have been trapped in time.
For lunch, I grabbed some cold vermicelli with pork and fried spring rolls (my favourite Vietnamese dish) before heading over to the War Remnants Museum.
Needless to say, the War Remnants Museum is up there with Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields as a place that is very difficult, but very important to visit. The collections of photographs, many of them in vivid colour, really emphasise how this war actually wasn’t that long ago.
Particularly touching was the ‘Requiem’ exhibit, which focused on war photography and journalism of the era. What was most horrifying and will stay forever in my mind was the information about Agent Orange. Walking around Saigon, the effects of Agent Orange are still very much visible in the local people who live there.
I ended my Saigon day with a visit to the Saigon Central Post Office and Notre-Dame Basilica in a part of town that nearly convinced me that I was back in Europe. The post office is old and quaint, still set up as it was over a hundred years ago when it first opened.
Of course, any trip to a Southeast Asian country isn’t complete without a power cut, so as I ate my dinner in a local cafe with a local cat, the lights were once again gone.
Day 3 – The ‘Mekong Delta’?
I had heard such great things about the beauty of the Mekong Delta that I was eager to see it for myself. And so I booked a tour through my hostel. However, I’ve never said this of any tour or trip I’ve taken on my Southeast Asia trip or any trip I’ve ever taken, but this was a huge mistake.
The tour was led by a patronising tour guide who simply reeled off facts from a script, had no sense of humour or irony, dismissed questions and seemed as fake as the tour itself.
The highlights included:
- The service station rest stop, where we were told we should take souvenir photos.
- A newly-built Buddhist temple used only by tourists on bus tours.
- Photo opportunities with a snake (a nice nod to animal cruelty).
- A five-minute boat ride (including a constant demand for tips from the rowers).
- A five-minute horse and carriage ride with a horse that could barely support it’s own weight, let alone four girls and a carriage.
- An awful lunch on an awful island that resembled a creepy abandoned theme park.
- A super-awkward rendition of ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ sang by so-called traditional Vietnamese singers, who looked the definition of miserable.
The whole day was a nightmare that just kept giving, which left me irritated that I had both wasted my money and wasted one of my few days in Saigon. Oh and to top it off, did I mention we didn’t actually see any of the Mekong Delta?
I returned to my hostel defeated. However, I did manage to cheer myself up with a steaming bowl of pho with pork from a street food vendor for an astonishing 15d (that’s a bargain US$0.75).
A Few Days in Saigon
I had visited Vietnam before and so I didn’t plan to spend much time in the country on my Southeast Asian backpacking trip. Despite my misadventure with the Mekong Delta tour, I’m very glad that I didn’t miss Saigon (has that pun got old yet?) as I loved the city just as much as I expected to. Maybe even a little bit more.
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