After a quick and painless 45 minute flight from Phú Quốc Island we landed in Hồ Chí Minh City, or Saigon as it is still often referred to. And if we thought that the traffic on Phú Quốc was hectic, we had a high-octane lesson on true traffic mania on the drive from the airport to our apartment as we entered the city of over nine million (registered) scooters and motorbikes.
No matter how often we navigated through the traffic or just watched from our 10th floor apartment (read our accommodation review here), it never ceased to amaze us at how their system works. Many intersections without traffic signals or signs, scooters travelling the wrong way down a road or on the footpaths, constant tooting to let others know you are close or to move over. However, during our two weeks we only saw a few small nudges between scooters and one of our Uber drivers clipped the back of a scooter without any consequence. I don’t think these type of incidents even register to either party as warranting a reaction as they are such common place and often happen at low speeds.
One reason we were excited to visit Hồ Chí Minh was because Logan’s uncle is currently living there and catching up with family along our world adventure is always loads of fun. Our first catch up was on the 6th of February, which happened to be our nine month travel anniversary and Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s national day which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Mark and his partner Ruby were amazing hosts with Ruby preparing an outstanding feast. The boys were won over by her delicious spring rolls, prawns and clams and were full before the remaining dishes were even brought out.Later in the week we were invited for lunch and we knew we should pace ourselves but yet again Ruby continued to bring out delicious dish after delicious dish. This time there were more spring rolls, potato and prawn croquettes, salmon and asparagus with passionfruit sauce, noodles with calamari and coconut jellies. Just too good!!
Sightseeing Around the City
The centre of Saigon is a wonderful place to wander around and discover some of the amazing buildings and culture. We started at the Hồ Chí Minh statue, situated at one end of the Nguyễn Huệ walking street, which then extends right down to the mighty Saigon River. When standing face-to-face with this formidable figure in Vietnamese history you have the stunning City Hall as a backdrop. Built in a beautiful French colonial style in the early 1900s, it is now the headquarters of the People’s Committee.All within a few blocks of each other you can also see the Opera House, the statue of Our Lady of Peace, Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office and much, much more. A very interesting introduction to the centre of Hồ Chí Minh City.
Bến Thành Market
In the central city and destroyed by fire in 1870, it was rebuilt to become Saigon’s largest market and one of the earliest surviving structures. In 1912 the market was moved to a new building and has remained in the same location ever since with only one building renovation in 1985.
Our first visit to Bến Thành Market was mid-morning and the stall holders were much more in-your-face than we have experienced anywhere else so far. You didn’t even have to show an interest in their wares to have them calling out and pushing products into your view, so trying to negotiate on an item you wanted was even more of a struggle. We did manage to buy the boys new hats and pick up a small (and not too heavy) bottle of perfume for me before heading towards the food area for lunch. As we had multiple menus thrust at us and stallholders shouting over one another to get our business, we managed to find a spot to satisfy the whole family.
Củ Chi Tunnels
The Củ Chi Tunnels located around 75kms northwest of Hồ Chí Minh are a vast network of underground tunnels that were started in the late 1940’s and are part of a much larger network that underlie much of the country.
Not very usual for us, but on this occasion we decided to visit this site with a tour group and booked a ‘half-day in small group’ package with Vietnam Adventure Tours for a total cost of $76 USD/$109 NZD.
We arrived in plenty of time for our 8.10am departure but spent 20-30 minutes driving around the surrounding streets picking up other passengers and then with an unexpected stop at the Lamphat Company Handicapped Handicrafts facility and gift shop it was nearly 11am before we actually reached the location to start our tour of the tunnels. We followed our guide through the main “attractions” – map of the tunnel network and 3D model of the different levels and areas of the tunnel system, camouflaged trap door, traps for the American dogs, an abandoned tank, varies booby traps and a 15-20 minute stop at the shooting range for those in our group who wanted to purchase some bullets and shot an AK-47 or M-16.We then came to part of the tunnel complex that we could go down into, and while the tunnel has been made wider and taller to accommodate tourists, it was still a pretty small space. There is some low-level lighting through the tunnels but by about 25 metres in, Lincoln (who was leading our family) was ready to exit, so we took the first ladder out and walked above ground to the main tunnel exit.We sat down to some jasmine tea and tapioca (one of the main sources of food for the Viet Cong) and then finished the tour with a strange propaganda video, which we could only stand watching for about 10 minutes.
Overall it’s a bit of a tourist trap but it was interesting to learn more about this amazing tunnel system and our guide was a Vietnamese man in his late 60s who fought in the war and also spent some time in America, so he had some interesting stories and points of view to add to our experience.
Tết/Vietnamese New Year
Being in this amazing city during their biggest celebration of the year was very special; the decorations, flowers and lighting were just outstanding. Tết would cover the second week of our stay and during the first week we heard numerous times how the city would be deserted and nothing would be open. While we did notice a distinct difference on the roads and most shops closed for New Year’s Day, the city wasn’t quite as abandoned as we had been expecting.
After seeing the build up we decided to head into the city centre, back to Nguyễn Huệ walking street, for New Year’s Eve and to see how the locals celebrate the Lunar New Year. Many were out in their beautiful traditional outfits, áo dài, and taking numerous photos amongst the decorations. We managed to get some photos, watch a small lion dance performance, have dinner and have another look around once the sun went down and all the lights were in full force.
We headed back to our apartment around 9pm and watched some movies to keep awake until the fireworks. Luckily we could access the roof of our 18 floor building and so we headed there just before midnight to watch one of the six fireworks displays happening around the city. From here we had a stunning view out towards the Saigon River and watched the 15 minute display which was a special moment for our family.
Logan’s uncle had told us about one Tết tradition of giving the young and elderly some “lucky money” (Li Xi). According to traditional beliefs, the money in red envelopes, usually in nominal quantity, bears a symbolic meaning while the red colour of the envelopes symbolizes good luck and is a symbol to ward off evil spirits. In keeping with this tradition whilst visiting Vietnam we gave the boys there very own ‘Li Xi’.
Watch our little vid to show some of our highlights of Tết 2018 – Year of the Dog.
We had a pretty low-key stay overall in Hồ Chí Minh City, Logan had a few visits to the dentist to get some long overdue treatment and I had laser eye surgery so I no longer need to deal with using contact lenses or wearing glasses. So consultations, appointments and a little recovery time were also factored into our stay here. But before leaving, we had one last catch up with Mark and Ruby and invited them over to our apartment to try to return some of their generous hospitality. It was a pretty simple meal as we had limited cooking utensils, but nonetheless we had another great day with a few drinks and much laughter. Lincoln and Braxton were also very lucky to receive some more Li Xi from Mark and Ruby.Next up we were off to the beachside city of Nha Trang, we opted for another sleeper train and the boys were very excited for this trip. Compared to our previous overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai we had our own private cabin for the seven hour journey and (supposedly) ‘soft sleeper’ beds.
Average Daily Spend – $115.93 NZD* ($56.57 under budget per day)
* Our dental treatments and eye surgery were not included in our average daily spend but are included in our overall spend as they were budgeted for separately.