Kicking Off Our Vietnam Tour In Ho Chi Minh City

Our rough plan for Vietnam is to work our way up from the south to the north over the course of twenty six days and cross into China by bus at the Lao Cai border crossing after visiting Sa Pa. Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh City where we planned to stay for five days, mostly so we could apply for a Chinese visa. To get into China, we need to get a visa which takes four days to process once the application has been accepted. Even without Jess’s passport snafu, acquiring the visa in the US ahead of time would have been a bit tricky given our bike trip, and since getting our Bolivian visa in Argentina was relatively straightforward, we figured doing this in Vietnam would be fine. Having a little extra time in Ho Chi Minh City would also give us a better feel for life there.

Landing in Ho Chi Minh City

We landed in Ho Chi Minh City from Singapore on Sunday morning. Since we had applied for, and received, e-visas for Vietnam ahead of time, the entry process was very straightforward. We handed the immigration officials the printout of the visa authorization, and we were through with permission to stay for 30 days. At the airport we got Vietnamese đong from the ATM, bought a Vietnamese coffee to get smaller bills, and crossed the street to find the bus. For đ20,000 ($0.86) per person, there is a local bus that runs from the airport to the local bus station (TĐH xe buýt Sài Gòn on Google Maps) in District 1, which was a five minute walk from our hostel on Phạm Ngũ Lão. 

This five minute walk should have been pretty easy, but first we had to cross the main road between the bus station and our street. We had thought the mopeds in Bali were crazy, but we quickly realized we had not seen anything yet. There are mopeds everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City, all driving at different speeds, most of them fast, some going the wrong direction, and it looks like complete chaos! There are traffic lights, but they only indicate when vehicles are not supposed to go (with a red cross). If there is no red cross, it is fair game. And even if there is a red cross, you have to watch out for mopeds making right turns or mopeds in a hurry who are going to zip through the intersection between the cars and mopeds going perpendicularly, all while honking loudly so they make it through. Since mopeds, unlike cars, can ride six abreast in a single lane, crossing the street becomes a rather harrowing experience. It was so intimidating, Eric actually Googled “how to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh City”. This search returned the following tips. Tip 1: follow a local. Tip 2: if there is no local, find an opening and walk slowly and surely through it without any changes in speed. We employed both tips regularly, and they totally work. The mopeds find their space in front of or behind you, and you get to the other side. Sometimes they insist on going behind you when you think they would be better off going in front, and then it feels a bit like they are driving straight at you, but hitting you would slow them down.

Rush hour in Ho Chi Minh City

We could not check in at the hostel until 1:30pm, so we spent most of the morning chatting with Adam from New Zealand who had coincidentally been in our row on our flight from Singapore and was staying at the same hostel. We went out to find lunch and got our first bánh mí (traditional Vietnamese sandwich) from Bánh mí Anh Phán for đ20,000 ($0.86) each. It was one of the best bánh mís we got in Ho Chi Minh City. Sandwich in hand, we wandered down the nearby “backpacker street”, Bùi Viện, which is a self-described “walking street”. Between sidewalk cafes, parked mopeds, and street vendors, there really is no usable sidewalk. We weaved between obstacles, jumping into the road when there was no other way around, all the while dodging mopeds zipping by. For a “walking street”, there seemed to be a lot of vehicles and not much room for pedestrians. Even where there are actual sidewalks, it is not uncommon for scooters to drive on them, purportedly to find a parking spot. In one case, as we were standing on the corner trying to cross the street, a moped driver stopped near us and started speaking in Vietnamese and gesturing. We thought he was trying to sell us a moped ride like so many we had turned down, so we kept saying, “no, thank you.” Eventually we figured out he wanted to use the ramp onto the sidewalk, and we were standing in the way. Oops! Shortly after our stroll down Bùi Viện, it started to rain and poured for most of the afternoon, so we spent the rest of the day in the hostel recovering from our early wake up call. 

Bùi Viện Walking Street

On Monday our mission was the Chinese visa. Jess had read that it was a good idea to get there early, but we did not appreciate the intensity with which we needed to get up early. The consulate opens at 8:30, so we got up at 7:30, ate a leisurely breakfast, and walked to the consulate. On our way we were struggling to find anything that looked like an opening on a busy street we wanted to cross when a coconut seller came by and helped us cross. On the other side he gave Eric his carrying bar to see how heavy it was and then sold us a coconut for đ50,000 ($2.15) which was almost certainly the tourist price, but we figured he deserved a tip for getting us safely across the street.

Eric’s new job!

We arrived at the embassy just after 9:00, which was a bit later than we had intended (see previous description about crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City – it takes longer to get around than you would expect!) and stood in line. Somewhat confusingly there were two lines, one on each side of the entrance, and it was not clear what the difference was. Jess asked a man in a green uniform who confirmed we were in the correct line. A few minutes later we overhead a guy in line ten people ahead of us mention that he had been there since 6:30am. Jess went to ask him where exactly he had been since 6:30am and learned the line had been very long at that hour, stretching down the block, so he had, in fact, made progress in the three hours he had been waiting. Notably, though, he had been waiting two and a half hours longer than we had but was only 10 people ahead, so it was not clear there was much point in getting there earlier. His visa was already approved; he was just waiting to collect his passport again. At 10:30 he finally made it to the front of our line only to cross the courtyard to the line on the other side!! Now we understood why there were two lines. A guard in green then came over and told the rest of us standing there, in Vietnamese, that we should leave and come back tomorrow. Luckily there was a helpful woman standing behind us who translated for us. We decided to wait until 11am when the visa section of the consulate officially closed just to be sure.

Waiting in line

We were starting to imagine that we could spend most of our mornings in Ho Chi Minh City standing in this line, and if we were ever approved, we would have to come back and stand in it again to pick up our passports. If we did not manage to get through the line to pick up the visa on Friday, we would have to extend our stay in Ho Chi Minh City over the weekend and spend more time waiting in line the following week. Since there is so much to see in Vietnam, we started thinking seriously about abandoning China and going to Laos or Cambodia instead. The guard came back again at 11:00 and told everyone to go home and come back tomorrow. We left and went off to see some Ho Chi Minh City sights. 

We had saved some locations of places to visit on Google Maps, so we plotted out a route home that would hit most of them. The first point we passed was Turtle Lake which is the center of a large roundabout. Apparently this is a place usually filled with people and street vendors, but there were hardly any people there when we walked by. It also is usually filled with water and has fountains, but it looks like it has been drained leaving behind a strange maze of concrete. Then we went to see the post office which was built in the late 19th century when the French controlled Vietnam. It is a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance, and French architectural styles and is one of a handful of iconic buildings in Ho Chi Minh City. Across from the post office, we saw Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Vietnam, which was also built by the French in the mid- to late 19th century with all materials imported from France. Notre Dame is currently undergoing a long restoration project, so it is closed to tourists until 2020. Afterwards, we walked past the People’s Committee, which is another iconic building in Ho Chi Minh City in the French architectural style. It was built in the beginning of the 20th Century as the Hotel de Ville Saigon and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee in 1975. It is now the city hall. 

The names Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon are used pretty interchangeably here these days. The airport code is SGN for Saigon, and most of our bus tickets referred to Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City, but people and businesses refer to both without any apparent political intent. While the changing of the name in 1975 to Ho Chi Minh City after North Vietnam’s Communist hero Ho Chi Minh was obviously political at the time, it seems people are not too fussed about it now. 

We stopped into a few art galleries where we were shown different types of art, including traditional Vietnamese lacquer painting, and egg shell painting. There were lots of very beautiful pieces. Vietnamese art has a lot of French influence which gives it a very interesting style. We also visited a gallery that does hand embroidery art on silk screens. The work is delicate and intricate and has beautiful, vibrant colors.

We also wandered through the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. For đ30,000 ($1.29) per person we got access to all three buildings of the museum. The museum is one of two major art museums in Vietnam, but only a few of the rooms are air conditioned, so most of the art is housed in hot, humid conditions. There is a varied collection of art from historical pieces dating to the 7th century to more modern post 1975 works. Apparently there are now even a few pieces of Saigon art from the pre-1975 era which were previously forbidden. Unfortunately, the museum does not have very many signs, so the historical context of the work is not very clear. After walking around three floors of the first building looking at modern art pre- and post-1975, we were tired and ready to move on.

We walked to the Ben Thanh market which has been described as a very touristy market by a lot of blogs we have read, but nothing quite prepared us for what we saw. The market is filled with stalls selling clothing and trinkets with stall owners shouting at you to buy things as you walk past. Another tourist walking next to us was literally chased through the market by someone yelling at her about a purchase she had clearly decided not to make. We escaped as quickly as we could. On the other side of the market, Eric was intrigued by some packaged loose leaf tea he saw, but it quickly became clear the woman selling it would say anything she thought we wanted to hear if she could make a sale. Eric was specifically looking for loose-leaf tea we could drink at night, and we did not really believe her claims that jasmine tea was caffeine free. We later came across a fancy-looking tea shop in a different area where the tea was, not surprisingly, way cheaper and looked way better. Unfortunately, the woman in this shop told us there is no tea that is good for drinking at night time since all tea has caffeine, so we did not buy any.

Afterwards, we walked to the Bitexco building to see the view from the top. Jess had read there are two ways to enjoy the view over the city. One is to visit the Saigon Skydeck observation deck on the 49th floor of the building for đ200,000 ($8.60) per person. The other is to go to the bar on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco building and enjoy a drink in the cafe. We got two Vietnamese coffees for đ265,000 ($11.60), logged into the WiFi, and strategized about how we were going to spend the rest of our time in Ho Chi Minh City while we enjoyed the view.

View from 52nd floor of Banelco Tower

Neither of us thought standing in line again the next day sounded fun, so we agreed to abandon the Chinese visa plan for now and try again when we got to Hanoi towards the end of the month. We thought we would keep the Laos and Cambodia plan as a backup, although further research had shown we would need visas for both places. Also, awkwardly we had booked a flight from Beijing to Tokyo for our visa application, so we would have to figure out how to fly from Laos or Cambodia to Beijing, which did not look particularly cheap or easy. If we wanted to take advantage of China’s 144-hour visa-free policy in Beijing, we had to avoid a stop in another Chinese city, but all the cheapest flights from Laos and Cambodia connected through Kunming. The only way to get directly to Beijing for a reasonable price would be to fly from Bangkok, and that was starting to sound like a production. Hopefully the Hanoi plan would just work.

Having already seen most of the main attractions in Ho Chi Minh City, we turned our attention to planning some day trips. We had seen a lot of offers for tours to the Củ Chi tunnels and to the Mekong Delta, sometimes both in one day, and thought both sounded cool. We could not really imagine how it was possible to do both in one day since they are each roughly 36 miles from Ho Chi Minh City in opposite directions. We were also pretty sure we did not want to do a group tour if we could avoid it since those are not really our thing. Luckily our research indicated we could do both on our own, so we planned a day trip to Củ Chi for Tuesday, and a trip to the Mekong Delta as our next excursion after Ho Chi Minh City. See more about those adventures in future posts.

Next week we are heading to Nha Trang to do a PADI Open Water Diver certification. We opted for the e-learning version of the course in which we do all of the classroom learning on our own time, so we can focus on the practical portions when we get to Nha Trang. As a result, we now have lots of homework. We spent most of Wednesday reading and watching videos.

Studying hard

We did escape from our hostel in the afternoon to investigate egg coffee. We had seen a few coffee shops advertising egg coffee, but we had not tried it yet. On Google Maps, Eric found a very highly reviewed place called Little HaNoi Egg Coffee (Góc Hà Nội) just a few blocks from our hostel, so we went on a mission to find it. We were walking down the main backpacker street, Bùi Viện, looking for it and passed at least two places offering egg coffee. Even though we were standing across the street from where it should be, we could not see it. We were just about to give up and go to one of the other more obvious places when Jess noticed a sign for it in a tiny alley wedged between two other shops.

The very narrow alley to Little HaNoi Egg Coffee

Little HaNoi Egg Coffee is an amazing place! At the end of the tiny alley, it is a very small shop with a set of small, steep stairs that lead to two small floors with seating. Besides egg coffee, the place also serves food and offers a few combo specials that include egg coffee. We each had special avocado toast, which was an open-faced sandwich with avocado, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, plus egg coffee for đ120,000 ($5.16) per person. The egg coffee itself is this delightfully thick layer of sweet custard on top of traditional coffee. It was delicious!

Thick and creamy egg coffee

A few nights before while trying to find a shortcut home we had accidentally stumbled on an amazing warren of alleys behind the main streets. We had previously been walking in this huge circle around the block to get home, and it seemed crazy that there was not a more efficient way. Google Maps did not show a shorter connection, but we decided to walk down one of the small side streets and see where we ended up. We quickly found ourselves in a crazy maze of narrow, zig-zag paths between people’s houses, massage places, and local restaurants. Of course, people on mopeds and bicycles were zipping through these tiny alleys too. This is where real life in this part of Ho Chi Minh City happens. Sometimes an alley path leads to a dead end, but sometimes the dead end is an illusion that looks like you are going to walk right into someone’s living room, but there is a 90 degree turn at the end that leads on. After this accidental discovery, we had fun intentionally exploring the alleys. One evening when we were investigating a new path, we came across a Chinese guy who was looking for his hostel. He had somehow found his way into the alleys but could now no longer see streets on his map and could not figure out how to get out. We had passed his hostel in another alley on our way to dinner, so we led him out of one alley, around the block, and into the alley where his hostel was. He gave us a hug!

One of many alleys we explored

On Thursday we planned to visit a water park to cool off and then go to the War Remnants Museum to complete our stay in Ho Chi Minh City. We had figured out how to take the bus to the water park, but just before we got on the bus we noticed it looked like it might rain. We decided to go to the War Remnants Museum first and go to the water park afterwards if the weather cleared. We walked to the museum and paid the đ40,000 ($1.72) entrance fee per person. The museum highlights the impact of the Vietnam war with a variety of exhibits which detail international anti-war protests, on-going effects of Agent Orange usage, efforts to disarm and remove un-exploded landmines which still kill and injure people from time to time, and the photographs of international war correspondents who often died covering the war. It is a sobering museum with many exhibits that are difficult to look at.

Just as we finished at the War Remnants Museum, a very heavy rain started. Despite experiencing rain almost every day, we had somehow left the hostel without our ponchos, so we hid in the museum until the rain slowed and then walked home as quickly as we could in the rain. The rain did not look like it was going to stop anytime soon, so we abandoned the water park plan and instead went back to Little Hanoi Egg Coffee for more egg coffee and a snack.

Afterwards since it was still raining, we decided to try our first Vietnamese massage. Eric had found a place not too far from our hostel called Rocky Spa which had pretty good reviews. We opted for a traditional Vietnamese massage, which in this case came with hot stones and a cucumber face mask – a first for both of us. We were each given a pair of gym shorts to put on before the massage as this massage also incorporated some of the stretching elements of Thai massage that we love. After the massage we were brought back downstairs for tea and candied ginger. It was far and away the best massage we have had and at đ330,000 ($14.19) per person was worth every penny.

We went to a final meal at a restaurant with no obvious name we had passed many times over the course of the last five days. Every time we walked by there seemed to be a lot of people eating so we thought we would try it. The food was good, and cheap enough that we got three entrees.

That evening we went to bed early as we had to get up early the next morning to catch our bus to the Mekong Delta.

Where we stayed:

  • Phan Anh Hostel – basic hostel near the backpacker area with dorms and private rooms with breakfast included

Where we ate:

  • Công Ty Cổ Phần Phat Rooster – good Vietnamese food with locally brewed craft beer – 28/2 Đỗ Quang Đẩu, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1
  • Shanti Indian Cuisine – delicious Indian restaurant with halal meat – 371c Phạm Ngũ Lão, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1
  • Little HaNoi Egg Coffee (Góc Hà Nội) – awesome egg coffee and food combos – 165 Bùi Viện, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1
  • Zeus Greek Souvlaki – Greek restaurant with good fruit smoothies – 164 Cống Quỳnh, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1
  • Bánh mì Anh Phán – highly rated local Bánh mì shop – 145 Cống Quỳnh, Phường Nguyễn Cư Trinh, Quận 1
  • Local no name spot on the corner of Phạm Ngũ Lão and Hem 373 Phạm Ngũ Lão – good, cheap local food right next door to Shanti
  • Nhà hàng Đèn Lồng – home cooked Vietnamese food – 130 Nguyễn Trãi, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1

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