Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Ho Chi Minh City- Accommodation, Food, Shopping and Transportation

Ho Chi Minh City is a metropolis with population exceeds 10 millions. Most of the attractions are located around District 1 in the city. To be more specific, the old French Colonial buildings are scattered around Ho Chi Minh City Hall at Nguyen Hue Road. It is the place where modern sky scrapers erect as well. As the mass-transportation system is still developing, it is always better for us to stay at a spot which we in vicinity of shopping complexes, eateries, and the heritage area.

We have two choices- Somewhere nearby Pham Ngu Lao Road or Nguyen Hue Road. After a deep consideration, we chose to stay at Saigon Pink 3 Hotel. The hotel located at Ho Tung Mau Street- a block away from Nguyen Hue Road. The hotel is located on the same street with Bitexco Tower, which by foot, 10 minutes to the city hall, another 15 minutes to Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, 10 minutes to Saigon Square and Ben Thanh Market, and it is surrounded with local and international eateries.

Saigon Pink 3 Hotel is a small hotel at the middle of shop lots. The room was small, but with enough amenity for a comfortable stay- coffee making facilities, LCD flat screen with international programs, safe box, air-conditioner, fan, and water heater in bathroom. The room service was punctual and the staff were friendly. Anyway, we found only two of them could speak fluency English. The issue of communication was the only downside of the hotel. Frankly, with the room rate offered, the service given was beyond our expectation. 

Saigon Pink 3 Hotel from the roadside. As the name suggested, there were Pink 1 and Pink 2 as well. So, we brought the name card of the hotel with address stated in Vietnamese language, just in case we need to return to the hotel by taxi.

The staircase (upper left) leads to the lobby of the hotel (upper right). The room was nicely decorated with wooden furniture (lower row). The fan was useful in extreme hot weather.

The hotel was located along a quiet street, in a neighbourhood with plenty eateries and convenient shops.

Nguyen Hue Road is a block away from the hotel.

No doubt, both Phan Ngu Lao and Nguyen Hue areas are strategic, but for us, Nguyen Hue Road and the area in vicinity are the better one. Next, we would like to share about the food.

No doubt beef noodle or pho is the must try food in Ho Chi Minh City (as in many other places in Vietnam).  Then comes banh mi- the Vietnamese wheat bread, or sandwich is something special available in the city. The bread was introduced by French during colonial period, and now is becoming one of the most widely found food in Ho Chi Minh City. The bread is light and airy, with crunchy crust. It is always filled with mixture of meat, fish, egg, and vegetable. Other traditional Vietnamese food can be found in Ho Chi Minh City as well.

We took our first breakfast in Ho Chi Minh City at Bun Bo Hue 44 not far away from our hotel (upper left). The shop was operated by local, with mostly local customers (upper right). The pho was nice (lower right), and served with free flow of raw vegetable.  The taste was more spicy, and a bit more sour than the pho we tried in Hanoi. The price for a portion was VND55,000, approximately MYR8 (USD2). Not cheap, but worth a try.

After a few days strolling around, we found cheaper pho- the roadside stall a few steps away from our hotel (upper left). The price for the noodle with fried chicken was VND25,000 (upper right), and pho with pork was VND30,000 each (lower row). The taste, very nice, with much cheaper price.

Just like other places in Vietnam, people in Ho Chi Minh City like to dine beside the road with their small chairs and tables.

Choose the noodle, choose the way of cooking (dry or soup, and the meat), and find a place to sit. Well, the best way to choose the dish- look around the bowls in front of the customers, find one we wish to have, and point it to the cook. 

We were not big fan of baguette. But banh mi was something that so special in HCMC that we had no choice but to take a try. Our took our first banh mi at Hoppy, an eatery on the same street with Bun Bo Hue 44 (upper left). The shop was fully air-conditioned, so it was a nice place for a meal in hot afternoon. The banh mi was cheap, with special discount at VND29,000 (lower right), but the drinks were quite expensive.

We bought banh mi at the roadside stalls like this one as well. Cheaper price (VND15,000). Tasted just like any other banh mi we could find in the city.

Ben Thanh Market is one of the best place for us to get local Vietnamese food. There was a problem with that place- very hot in the afternoon.

The food stalls in Ben Thanh Market were clean.

We tried several traditional Vietnamese dishes in Ben Thanh Market, including beef pho (upper left), fried chicken rice (upper right), shrimp and pork spring roll (lower right), and shredded pork spring roll. The prices were between VND40,000 - VND65,000 per dish. Reasonable as the portion was big. Pho and chicken rice tasted average, while the spring rolls were good.

Vincom Center was a good place for food. We went there everyday, looking for food, souvenirs, and to escape from extreme heat outside. The food court and eateries were located at the lowest level of the mall (upper left). Again, beef pho (upper right) and spring rolls (lower right). We tried the Japanese BBQ buffet as well. The food over there were a little bit more expensive than Ben Thanh, with average taste. The price for Japanese buffet was around VND300,000 per person.

Mon Hue could be a good place to "sweep" many Vietnamese traditional dishes in one round, only if they had English-speaking staff (upper left). We had a bad experience there- delayed order, wrong order, wrong food served, and at last, wrong bill, all might caused by ineffective communication. We tried the spring roll (upper right), the pork rice with pickled shrimp (lower right), and the steamed rice pancake with fish. Portion was small, but the taste was good.

We bought food and beverages from convenient shops as well. The price was a bit expensive, but conveniently available!

Freshly brewed Vietnam coffee was available in the convenient shop. The price- VND15,000. The taste was surprisingly good.

We visited Nguyen Trung Coffee House for a sip of Vietnam coffee. The taste was just like old time.

Ho Chi Minh City is not a great place for shopping. You might disagree with us. But no doubt, if compared to other shopping heavens in SEA countries, things in HCMC were more expensive, even for the fake or rejected international branded products. Some local branded products were reasonable in pricing, but not widely available. 

We visited Saigon Square, Ben Thanh Market, Vincom Center, Bitexco Tower, Parkson, Diamond Plaza, and a few shopping streets around District 1. The cheapest souvenirs were hunted along Le Loi Street, while bargained clothes were purchased from Ben Thanh Market. The famous dried fruits were available at Ben Thanh and Vincom Center.

Bargaining in Saigon Square was hard. For street shops and Ben Thanh Market, we could get discounts up to 60%. But it was highly depending on our luck. Vincom Center, Parkson, Bitexco and Diamond Plaza offered fixed price items only. So unless we could endure the hot weather and walk down the streets, or else hunting for bargained items would be very difficult.

Saigon Square is a small mall, with stalls selling food, clothes, coffee powder, bags, watches, and souvenirs under one roof. Be aware that most of the branded products which are sold with extremely high prices, are suspected fake (from our point of view). Bargaining was difficult. The only good thing about the mall- it was fully air-conditioned. The mall from the outside (upper left), the entrance (upper right), and stalls inside the mall (lower right). There were some stalls selling local food like dried fruits and coffee powder. But we would advise to buy these products from Ben Thanh Market just at the other side of Le Loi Street.

Ben Thanh Market was the best place for shopping local products and souvenirs, of course only if we could visit it before the blazing sun turned the market into a big hot oven. Anyway, bargaining was easier than Saigon Square- 10% off for food and up to 60% off for clothes. We would recommend dried fruits- mango, lotus seed, and coconut were good.

Souvenir shops are scattered around the streets (upper row). We need to survey the price one by one. Bargain was hard, unless we bought in a bulk. Le Loi Street was a good place to hunt for souvenirs (lower right). Stalls selling souvenirs were available along the street.

The best air-conditioned shopping mall in HCMC- Vincom Center. We bought some dried fruits as souvenir at Vincom Center. Diamond Plaza and Bitexco were a bit too small for shopping.

We would like to share about our experience with taxi in Ho Chi Minh City.  We took taxi a few times in HCMC. To us, taxi was the most convenient transportation available, when walking was not a choice. We read many articles and reports regarding taxi scams, as highlighted in Scam Free Ride. So, the best way to avoid the scam is to take the taxi from two companies only- MaiLinh (green colour) or Vinasun (white colour). The taxi from these two companies were strictly run on meter, taxi drivers were polite and professional as well.

The taxi from the airport to District 1 was fixed around VND170,000. We had a night ride on arrival, so we paid extra VND20,000 at the taxi counter. From hotel to airport, we paid VND140,000. Within District 1, the fare was not more than VND40,000.

Both our travel mates took their chance to travel by bus from airport to district 1. According to them, the bus service was punctual. The bus was clean with and air conditioned.

"Green Taxi" in HCMC.

Ho Chi Minh City is a beautiful and clean city. With the development is still blooming, we expect to see more sky-scrapers and shopping centers in near future. The city was easy to navigate with travel map. The lack of public transportation like LRT, makes taxi the most convenient choice for the moment. Staying in District 1 is great as most of the tourist's attraction are there. For food, the price is a bit high, but, we can always go for the cheaper choices- street food. HCMC is definitely not our shopping heaven. Still, our choice for shopping- Ben Thanh Market and Vincom Center. 

This is our last post on our trip to Ho Chi Minh City. More about our experiences in Ho Chi Minh City and other places in Vietnam are available:

Danang, City of Hue, Hoi An, & My Son
Hanoi & Halong Bay

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Stroll Around Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC Trip Day 3)

We went around Ho Chi Minh City on the first day, and Cu Chi Tunnels on the second. Third day, we planned to visit museums and shopping around the city. We took our breakfast at the roadside stall. Then, we took a taxi to Museum of Vietnamese History (or Vietnam History Museum). The taxi took 10 minutes to reach the museum (in fact, it was within the walking range from our hotel).

From the websites, we learned that the museum highlights the collections from Champa, Cambodia, and artifacts all around Vietnam, and we wished to find some stoneworks that complemented our visit to My Son temples. All our excitement frozen to find the museum was closed on Monday. What? Yes, it was CLOSED ON MONDAY, we didn't realize it until we were standing in front of the ticketing counter. The good thing was, we could save the money for shopping. Anyway, the admission was VND 15,000.

Completed in 1932, the museum building blended both colonial and local architecture.

We found this unique building opposite of the museum. By the way, the city zoo and botanical garden are located next to the museum. 
Museum opening hours 8 - 11 am, 1:30 - 4:40 pm, closed on Monday.
Back to the city center, we went to Ben Thanh Market again. It was not too warm in the morning.

We really like the dried fruits, especially the dried mango. Besides, we bought a few other dried fruits, and some socks. Bargaining? Yes, please read more about shopping in Ho Chi Minh City in our next post.

We stroll around the city for a while, before we decided to visit the City Museum. The museum is located a block away from the Independence Palace (next to the City Hall). The building was named Gia Long Palace and Municipal Museum of Ho Chi Minh.  

Built in 1890, the building was designed by French architect Alfred Foulhoux as a museum, but soon taken as French Governor's Residence. The lesson behind- we shouldn't build a museum more beutiful than the palace. The building was then becoming the residence of the governor of Japan, back to French, then the South Vietnam. At last, the Vietnam Government under communist ruler, turned Gia Long Palace back as museum, 100 years after it was built. The museum is opened 8:00 am - 5:00 pm, daily. The entrance fee was VND 15,000 per person. We need to pay extra for our camera. We stayed in the museum for 1 hour.

Municipal Museum of Ho Chi Minh City.

The museum exhibits custumes of different ethnics in HCMC, musical instruments, currency, photos, and many more. Most importantly, it has some collections of the artifacts from Thang Long Imperial Citadel. At least, our sorrow of not able to enter the top-of-our-list museum remedied, a bit.

Photo galleries, certificates, and other items related to the achievement of city were displayed.
The museum is a beautiful structure with nice compound.

Walking out of the museum, we continued our trip to Diamond Plaza, then to Vincom Center (yes, again), and took a sumptuous buffet lunch at the Japanese restaurant there (upper right). At night, we dined at Bitexco (upper left). Of course, signature Vietnam Coffee- Nguyen Trung couldn't escape from us (lower row).

At night, we strolled around Nguyen Hue Road again, before went back to hotel. We had an early flight back to Malaysia the next day. We will share more about our accommodation, transportation, food, and shopping in Ho Chi Minh City in our next post. Stay with us!

Danang, City of Hue, Hoi An, & My Son
Hanoi & Halong Bay

Friday, September 30, 2016

Cu Chi Tunnel, a Must Visit Site Near Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC Trip Day 2)

We strolled around Ho Chi Minh City and visited some heritage sites around the city in our first day. Second day, we decided to visit Cu Chi Tunnel, located 45 km away from Ho Chi Minh City. The tunnel in fact was the main reason for us to visit the city. We booked a half day tour through our hotel with VND 220k per person- transportation and English speaking tour guide included, without lunch and entrance fee. The entrance fee was VND 110,000 (approximately MYR 18 or USD 4.50), opening hours were from 7 am till 5 pm. 

Cu Chi is a district in Ho Chi Minh City. During Vietnam War, there were only several villages scattered around the area. However, the area had became the major battle field, due to the discovery of more than 200 km of underground tunnels used by People's Liberation Armed Force and Vietcom to fight against the South Vietnamese and US armies. 

Storage of ammunition, food, hospitals, meeting room, command centers, dining area and other war-related facilites were built underground, far from the reach of enemy, yet near to the heart of the enemy- 45 km from Ho Chi Minh City. The tunnels connected the nearby villages, Saigon River, border of Cambodia, and greater network of the nationwide tunnels. The tunnels, with the entrances well blended with the surrounding, were excellent for guerrilla warfare. As retaliation, US army dropped millions tonnes of bombs onto the area. Ironically, these modern weapons failed to defeat the hand-dug tunnels. Cu Chi area is still considered as the most bombed, shelled, gassed, and defoliated area in the world. 

The bus picked us from our hotel at 8:50 am.
The bus stopped at handicraft center supported by Vietnam government (upper row), by hiring handicapped workers to produce high quality of handicrafts. We stopped there for 20 minutes, listened to the explanation (lower right) and demonstration on how the handicraft was made.

 Incomplete handicraft. The white colour part of this picture was made by either seashells or egg shells.

We reached Cu Chi at around 11 am. The tunnels were built nearby Saigon River (upper left). We could see from the nearby restaurant (upper right). The parking area was full with tourist buses (lower right). After a short briefing, we took a few minutes walk to the visitor information center, to buy tickets with VND 110,000 per person.

There was a small exhibition area at the tourist center with the "remnants" of the weapons used in Cu Chi area- napalms, rocket launchers, grenades, rifles etc.

Our tour guide was humourous, informative, and multitasking. He helped to check our tickets at the entrance (upper left), guided us through the tunnels site (upper right), and explained the history of the tunnels to us all by himself (lower left). Then, we watched a video about Chu Chi for 20 minutes. Our tour guide explaination was excellent, but the video was boring and hard to follow.  

We were brought to the field after the video session, to walk on the most bombed, gassed, and defoliated land on earth. We walked around the forest to see the tunnels’ entrances and ventilation system, traps, weapon workshop, shoes making, and clothes making workshop.

A crater caused by bombing of B-52 aircraft. These type of craters can be seen all around the area.

Bobby trap were used mainly to cause serious injury rather than killing the US soldiers (upper row). The reason was, if you killed one, only one was down. If you seriously wounded one, it took another two to take care of the disabled one. The first tunnel entrance shown to us was narrow. The park staff demonstrated his skill to go into the tunnel.

Then, more tunnels' entrance were revealed (upper left). Narrow and hard to be seen. The ventilation holes are well blended into the environment (upper right), which may look like an ant hill. Disposed US tanks (upper right) and models of the local fighters were shown along the walkway.

Weapon worshop extracted the gun powder from the unexploded US bombs, and used it to made anti-tank explosive and grenades. Well, we learned a lesson of creativity, as well as the power of recycle.

20 minutes wandering in the forest, we were led to the resting point in the park (upper left). The shooting range was located next to the resting area (upper right), with the bullets could be bought at the office, with a minimum purchase of 10 bullets per time (lower right). There was a shop selling souvenirs and drinks at the resting point. Washroom is available there as well.

Then, it's the time to visit the tunnel- to the best of our estimation 100 - 150 meters long. We went through the full distance, not very hard for us. There were several exits at certain distance, so we could get out of the tunnel whenever we felt uncomfortable. At the end of the tunnel, free tapioca were given to the winners. Well, what's what the Vietnamese ate the most when they were in the jungle.

The entrance was about 5 feet tall, we need to bend a bit to get inside.

A small staircase in the room led us into a 2 feet tall tunnel.

The tunnel seems small at the beginning, and made us feel uncomfortable. We got used to it a minute later, and we could move very fast in the tunnel afterward.

At some of the point, we needed to lay and crawl (yes either face down or face up) over the tunnel, while at some of the point, we couldn't see the person in front of us. But worry not, what we need to do is following the light.

There is a meeting room at the end of the first tunnel. Most of our members left at this point. But a few of our group members decided to continue to complete the second part of the tunnel, and we succeeded. 

Underground kitchen with the "chimney" channeling the smokes far away from the kitchen. Tapioca was served from the kitchen nearby the exit of the tunnel.

Cu Chi is really a must visit site nearby Ho Chi Minh City. Our tour guide told us that visiting the souvenir center was a policy set by their government. We don't really know how true it is. However, we were sent out of the center with a smile, even without buying anything there (but we did donate some money to support their work). 

We had no problem walking on the ground, but moving in tunnels was different. Hand bag, camera bag, backpack, and even big bulky camera could be a burden in the tunnel. Well, keep these items with our tour guide would be a good idea, or even better, not bringing them to Cu Chi.

Some information stated that Cu Chi is infested with mosquitoes, centipedes, and other vicious insects. We prepared insects repellent and some medicines, just in case. Lucky enough, we didn't have the chance to apply them. Cu Chi was extremely warm during our visit. Water was hard to find, so bringing some water to keep ourselves hydrated is important. Our trip was full with activities, and we didn't really have time to sit down in the canteen there to have a meal for the whole trip. We brought some sandwich and snacks, and with that, we skipped our lunch.

We travelled back from Cu Chi at around 1:20 pm and reached Ho Chi Minh City at around 3:10 pm. We took a rest till 5 pm before strolled around Nguyen Hue and food around the area. We visited Vincom Center again and took some traditional Vietnamese food there as well. Bought some souvenirs at Vincom Center and returned to hotel at around 9 pm.

We had a few options for day 3- museums, Bien Thanh Market, and water puppet show, were some of them. Follow us.

Danang, City of Hue, Hoi An, & My Son
Hanoi & Halong Bay