After our well deserved resting week on Phu Quoc Island, it is now time to ride through the country, from the South to the North. So let’s introduce you our trip in the South, from Ho Chi Minh City, up to Da Lat, our biggest crush. Boarding for the flight blog-packers!
What to do in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC not YMCA)?
Starting point of our journey, we have 4 days to visit the city and its main sites of interest. There is no need for a long stay in the economic capital of the country, unless your goal is to squat the backpackers area and drink cheap Bia (beer) Saigon Red or Green.
The discovery of colonial history
If you are lovers of architecture,
like us, you can walk around the city looking for the old colonial buildings. We did it on our first day under a blazing sun, which is perhaps not the best idea… The city hall, at the top of the square where stands a statue of Ho Chi Minh worths the look, just like the Cathedral of Saigon and the former central post office just next door. It should be noted that between the two, there is a McDonald’s… We loved the Central Post Office with its old maps painted on the walls, its old wooden telephone boxes and the very early 20th century atmosphere. The Cathedral of Saigon is an interesting stop, especially when you know that it was entirely built with materials imported from France. We can imagine the logistics at the time!
Passage to the War Museum
Certainly, this is not the most fun part of the trip, especially when we see the atrocities of the war. This museum tells the conflict with the USA without frills and via many photos that speak for themselves. The tour starts at the end of the war in Indochina, and after the signing of the Geneva accords which give independence to the Vietnam. The USA, despite their signing, decide to monitor the Vietnamese situation, on a background of cold war with the Soviet bloc. They do not enter immediately in a direct conflict, but then we discover the escalation of violence and the “pretext” found by the Americans to officially declare war to the Vietnam.
This museum is very interesting because it reveals the crimes committed, massacres of entire villages, the use of napalm, the dropping of the orange agent (a chemical weapon that is still causing havoc in the country). Without victimizing itself, Vietnam tells its recent history and advocates peace in the world. We came out a little jangled, but we highly recommend this visit to those who would like to learn more about the history of the country.
A downpour (the biggest rain since December…), prevented us from enjoying the gardens at the exit to see helicopters and other war gears of the Museum. So, we have no picture except this one…
On the other hand, we share with you the famous cliché of Nick Ut, who has toured the world at the time of the war. It is exhibited in one of the floors of the Museum and would be part of the 100 most significant photos of history according to Time magazine.
Fortunately, there not only the war, but still… We spent an afternoon in the corridors and rooms of the Palace of reunification, an another ‘must see’ of Ho Chi Minh City. It is the home of the former president of the South of Vietnam during the time of the North/South conflict. We learn more about what was going on in this Palace, diplomatic meetings that could be held on-site, etc. The tour ends on the roof of the Palace where you can see the points of impact of 2 bombs which had partially destroyed the building. The descent takes you to the bunker of the head of the Government, 2 meters below ground, where all the secret communication equipment was left untouched. An another very interesting historical visit which we highly appreciated, as it was really hot out and we were cool inside!
Stroll through the markets
If you have the chance to stay in Ho Chi Minh City during a weekend, a temporary market is installed Saturday and Sunday in the Pham Ngu Lao backpackers area. The Saigon Central Market is ideal for a gourmet break and enjoy local dishes at a small price. You stroll between the booths, taste a Banh Xeo on a stand, test the skewers of fried squid on another, etc. Small tables allow you to relax between visits. During our visit, we could enjoy school parades singing with their bands! If you go to this market, you are challenged to taste the crocodile! We tried it, and eventually it’s just a big chicken that has a little taste of tide… 😉
During our stay, we also discovered the Ben Thanh market. It reminded us the Hanoi market, smaller. It’s heaven to find counterfeit goods at low price (same same), but also all kind of souvenirs and trinkets which proudly enthroned on your chimney once you return. We went there more to test the food stalls. We advise you not to eat next to the fruit stands, if you do not want to vomit your meal. Indeed, the Durian, a famous fruit with peaks, emits a stinking smell when it is cut. Mr was holding his breath every time we were next to a fruit stand.
Digression: we recommend you to eat at the restaurant Pho 2000, located right next to Ben Thanh market. A friend had advised us and we were not disappointed. Former US President Bill Clinton had lunch in the restaurant in 2000. The staff is very proud and so decided to exhibit photographs of its passage on the walls of this large canteen which doesn’t look a restaurant from the outside. The table on which the President had lunch has a special treatment with a red tablecloth and his menu has been put under glass. We can say now, we ate at the table of a US President! 😉
A melting pot of religions
We have used our 4 days to visit several places of worship scattered throughout the city. We already spoke about the Saigon Cathedral, a church in brick. If you go inside, you will see a chapel completely covered with plates saying “Thank you” in french.
The Emperor of Jade pagoda is a pretty magical place, out of time. You arrive in a large yard filled with birds. Normal, since a small Granny sells some small birds at the entrance. Locked in a tiny cage, she offers a dozen in a bag, as if buying Nutella churros in a fun fair. Once the gateway of the temple passed, you release them. They arise in the huge tree that sits in the center of the Buddhist complex. Other small ladies throw seeds at pigeons. Can’t tell you how many there are, but you could almost make a remake of “the birds”, of Hitchock.
The temple is surreal. Smells of incense jump on you as soon as you pass the first door (allergic to abstain). They create a sort of mist that amplifies the mystical side of the temple. The wood frames are beautiful, because very finely carved. We could almost get lost in this little complex because of the many doors, passages and small rooms.
There are other Buddhist temples to see in Ho Chi Minh City, but we have set our last choice on a Hindu temple: the temple of Mariamman. From what we could read, this temple reminds South India with its sculptures of Hindu gods and bright colors. Nestled between the buildings, we loved this little unexpected discovery.
After 4 days in Ho Chi Minh City, sweating every time we crossed the streets and a few encounters with an english digital nomad family and an expatriate french podcaster, we left in the direction of An Binh and Can Tho in the heart of the Mekong delta. The rest of the adventure on the River, then to Mui Ne and Da Lat, will be told in a next article, otherwise you will get bored. One thing is sure, we promise you beautiful landscapes, meeting, sunrise… the beautiful life!
Practical information about our stay in Ho Chi Minh City:
- We stayed in District 3, to the youth hostel Toi’s Travel Home, booked via Booking for 39€ for 4 nights
- There is a shuttle from the airport that joins the Backpackers district: bus 109 for 20,000 VND (<1€) per person (the large backpacks are considered a person)
- Tip: go by yourself to the bus station at the exit of the city to book your trips. Travel agencies offering trips take a commission and the journey is not better.