Where We Be
|Vietnam's largest city serves up a potent mix of world-class cuisine with local street food,
wide boulevards with ultra-narrow alleys, and capitalist luxuries with communist memorials
|Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC, is the
beating heart of modern-day capitalist Vietnam.
It's telling that right at the center of the city is
Ho Chi Minh Square, with its namesake statue of
Uncle Ho bracketed by some of the world's most
exclusive luxury shops: Gucci, Ralph Lauren,
Cartier, Burberry. We imagine the communist
leader must be rolling over in his grave!
Vietnam's largest city is home to some 9 million
people. It's chaotic, frenetic, crowded, and fun.
Part of what makes it fun is the wide boulevards
and historic French colonial buildings at the
city's core, combined with an extraordinary
variety of restaurants, coffee shops, and street
food. District 1 is where most of the action is for
tourists, especially the Western Quarter near
Pham Ngu Lao Street. Don't miss the raucous
pub scene on nearby Bui Vien Street, where
backpackers gather nightly to drink 60 cent
Saigon Beer while hanging out on tatami mats.
|We stayed at Hotel Ngoc Linh ($22 per night), located in the relatively quiet alley shown above, but just
a block away from all the craziness and traffic on Pham Ngu Lao -- one of Vietnam's busiest streets
|We visited during a holiday weekend
when the city was less busy than usual
|23-9 Park is a thin park that stretches the length of Pham Ngu Lao. It offers an easy
way to walk from the backpacker area of the city to places like Ben Thanh market.
|Locals play badminton and other games in the park. These men are
playing a version of hacky-sack with a ball -- and they're really good!
|Dining on international cuisine is one of the pleasures of Saigon. At Ichiban Sushi (currently #1 on TripAdvisor for HCMC),
we had some truly delicious award-winning Van Rolls (the owner is Mr. Van) -- some of the best sushi we've ever had.
|Our favorite place to hang out at night was just a block away from our hotel.
This is Bui Vien Street, and it's filled with both fine restaurants and pubs galore.
|A shared love of travel makes conversation easy. We ended up chatting
and drinking until 1 am. The place was still going strong when we left.
|The price for a Saigon Beer is just 12,000 dong (60 cents). It's easy to make friends here from all around the world.
On this particular evening we got to know two best buddies from Mexico and a young woman from Santiago, Chile.
|As in Hanoi, the pub scene is raucous and fun, filled with a mix of backpackers and locals. The main
difference is that here you sit on tatami mats on the sidewalk in front of various beer establishments.
|We saw most of the key city sights in a single day. First up was Notre Dame Cathedral (built
in the late 1800s), which looks like it could have been transplanted straight from France.
|Right next door is the Central Post Office, an architectural gem with domed ceilings, old telephone
booths, and gift shops. There's even a place for sitting down and writing postcards and letters.
|Next up was Ho Chi Minh Square with its statue of Ho Chi Minh and City Hall in the background. To either side of the
statue are some of the city's finest hotels and luxury shops like Ralph Lauren, Gucci, and Cartier. Quite the juxtaposition!
|This whole square is upscale and beautiful. City Hall sits at one end, with fountains
and gardens stretching off in the other direction towards the financial district.
|Just a block away is the Saigon Opera House, founded in 1994, which hosts ballets,
symphonies, operas, and performances. (It’s also home to the popular A&O Show.)
|These stylized signs are commonplace in Vietnam. Something
about progress or labor day or world peace, perhaps?
|Our last stop for the day was Independence Palace, the former home of the President of South Vietnam
during the war. Also known as Norodom Palace or Reunification Palace, it's an important city landmark.
|When a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the wrought-iron gates of Independence
Palace on April 30, 1975, it signaled the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War
|This is the view looking out from the top floor of the palace. Straight ahead you can see
the front gate, and to the left one of the Russian T-54 tanks used to capture the palace.
|On the fourth-floor rooftop is an old UH-1 helicopter used by the U.S. to evacuate staff just
before the palace was overrun (the scene depicted in the Broadway play "Miss Saigon")
|The palace contains meeting rooms galore, some of them decked
out quite splendidly with 60's and 70's furniture and fine paintings
|Many of the rooms are still used today for receptions of foreign dignitaries
|A sizeable bomb shelter in the basement is filled with old telecom equipment,
bulky typewriters, a war room with maps, and ancient radio transmitters
|We're standing at the northeastern end of 23-9 Park. Most of the
key tourist sights are north of here but still within walking distance.
|After visiting their comfortable digs (they were "test driving" a new luxury service called Compass Living for two months),
we walked to this coffee shop and had iced coffee. You pour the hot coffee out of these funky little urns over the ice.
|We got together more than once with this terrific couple. Their names are Billy & Akaisha Kaderli and they're well known in the early retirement
community (see their website retireearlylifestyle.com). They forged a path to early retirement and travel before it was the "in" thing to do,
retiring in 1991 at the age of 38. They were inspirational to us, so we were glad when we learned they were in Saigon the same time as us.
|We visited the War Remnants Museum on a separate day. It's one of the
top attractions in the city and the entry price is only 15,000 dong (75 cents).
|Outside the museum is an open-air collection of Vietnam
War era aircraft, tanks, howitzers, helicopters, and more
|The artillery and armor collection is pretty impressive
|This wasn't an easy museum to visit as it focuses on atrocities from the Vietnam War, primarily from the Vietnamese perspective.
There are rooms on aggressive war crimes, agent orange, and imprisonment conditions. The “Requiem” room was of particular interest
to us with its collection of war documentary photos taken by 134 photojournalists from 11 nationalities who were killed during the war.
|We met again that same evening at this little spot that transforms from a motorcycle parking lot during the day to a
restaurant each evening! Billy & Akaisha ordered all the food and we had quite the feast, sharing six different dishes.
|This is Pham Ngu Lao at night. As you can see,
it's plenty busy even on a holiday weekend!
|We did a lot of walking in Saigon both day and night. This is a high-
octane city so you can always count on plenty of cars and people here.
|We got together one more time to try imitation weasel coffee. With real weasel coffee (chon), the coffee bean is ingested by the weasel, egested, then
washed, dried, and roasted. Supposedly it has extra complexity and flavor! It sounds crazy but people pay like $30 per cup for it. This imitation version
(Legendee) is "only" $7 per cup but worth a one-time splurge. It was strong but smooth with a chocolaty aftertaste. (“That’s not chocolate!” Billy joked.)
|Pho is Vietnam's national dish. Robin and I sat down at this unassuming Vietnamese joint called Pho Quynh and had the best pho
of our trip. It tastes a bit like chicken noodle soup but with rice noodles and a slight kick. It's served with lime wedges, bean
sprouts, Thai basil, chili peppers, and fish sauce. Robin’s was similar but with half-cooked beef and a beefier broth.
|We took this photo from the airplane as we departed Vietnam.
It gives a sense of just how big the city of Saigon is.
|We also booked an afternoon tour to Cu Chi Tunnels (190,000 dong / $9.50 each), where some of the fiercest fighting of the war
took place. Our guide showed us these cunning jungle traps with spikes as well as some of the unexploded ordnance in the area.
|Underground tunnels were used by the Viet Cong to escape detection. Because
of the hidden tunnels they could pop up behind the Americans and ambush them.
|Mannequins of Viet Cong soldiers
illustrate what life was like during the war
|The Viet Cong made the tunnels too narrow for Americans to fit through. Dug down to three tiers, the tunnels were incredibly cramped -- they've
since been widened for foreign tourists! We got the chance to crawl through a section of tunnel, and I can tell you, we only made it halfway before
calling it quits. We had to walk bent in half, then crawl through the dank, ever-narrowing tunnels. When they turned pitch black we said enough!
|Notre Dame & Central Post Office
|Food & Drink With Friends
|The financial district is just ahead. The white skyscraper with
the circular observation deck is the Bitexco Financial Tower.
|A firing range (quite loud!) lets you try your hand
at firing an AK-47 and other weaponry -- for a price