“Hello from Ho Chi Minh!”
Sun.Star Davao, May 28, 2016
In a bustling city with a sea of motorbikes, following traffic rules seems quite a challenge in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
“The green traffic light means go; the yellow light signals drive faster; and the red light signifies move slowly but do check, if there is a policeman”, our tour guide Steven laughingly quipped this joke. This half-meant “tip” though became handy as the family navigated our way through the busy streets of HCMC for four days.
Still commonly referred to as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh is the largest city in Vietnam and the most populous metropolitan area in the country with more than 10 million people.
Arriving at Tan Son Nhat International Airport at midnight, we promptly exchanged our U.S. dollars to the local currency, Dong, where we became instant millionaires, by Vietnamese standards anyway. You see, 1,000,000 Vietnamese dong is approximately equivalent to our PhP 2,096.70. Initially, the multiple figures confused the mathematically-challenged me but my hubby Gary suggested that I apply estimation instead. Mentally take away the three 0s and multiply the remaining digits by 2 to get the peso equivalent. Easy as pie!
After riding our rented Innova to the cozy Paradise Saigon Boutique Hotel, we immediately proceeded to our room where we comfortably snoozed for a few hours. The hotel’s impressive breakfast buffet spread instantly awakened us and our appetites as it gloriously offered a variety of international dishes and local favorites such as pho and bun bo hue, two popular versions of Vietnamese noodle soup.
Postcards from Vietnam
Invigorated by the filling meal, we headed off to the Saigon Central Post Office, a Gothic, Rennaisance and French-designed post office in downtown Ho Chi Minh which was built during the late 19th century when the country was once part of French Indochina. My children had a novel experience writing postcards addressed to themselves (Teehee!) and mailing them personally in this historic post office.
Right across the post office is the picture perfect Notre Dame Cathedral dubbed as the “one remaining stronghold of Catholicism” in largely dominated Buddhist Vietnam. Constructed during the French colonial rule, it is believed to be the smaller replica of the original Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The War Remnants Museum was next on our list where we sadly witnessed the horrific stories of the Vietnam War as documented through various exhibits. It may not have been the best place to bring our daughters (Take for example, the Agent Orange exhibit) because of its distressing history but as parents, we believe that exposing them to the ill effects of war would somehow shape them to become peace advocates, in their own little way.
The sweltering heat throughout the day drained our energies much so that we headed back to the hotel for a quick respite before our dinner at the must-try Propaganda Vietnamese Bistro where the menu boasted of a hip and modern take on otherwise traditional Vietnamese dishes.
For starters, we munched on Fresh Rolls with Pulled Pork, Pork Floss, Pickles and Dill with Coriander Sauce as well as the Water Spinach and BBQ Beef Salad with Vietnamese Wild Pepper and Fried Shallots. The four of us ordered our individual entrees but still ended up picking on each other’s lip-smacking BBQ Honey Pork Chop with Pandan Leaf Broken Rice; Propaganda Roasted Chicken; Vietnamese Mackerel with Tomato Sauce and Crispy Rice Cake; and BBQ Pork with Rice Noodles, Fried Spring Rolls and Peanuts.
Catch me if you can
We woke up extra early the next day to explore Cu Chi Tunnel and Mekong Delta. Normally, other tourists visit these sites separately through half-day tours. But, we decided to book a whole day private tour via Mekong Lighthouse Travel which proved to be a memorable experience for the family.
Steven, our friendly and funny tour guide, is no stranger to the Philippines. In fact, he was familiar with our showbiz personalities and counted Marian Rivera as his favorite Filipino star. We learned that a handful of our local teleseryes were dubbed in Vietnamese and had an avid following on primetime TV. Very interesting!
After a short shopping stop at a lacquerware factory, we drove to Cu Chi Tunnel, deemed as one of the greatest testaments of the Vietnamese’s tenacious spirit during the American War in the 1960s. Its legendary network of tunnels hidden several storeys deep, had numerous trapdoors, living areas, storage facilities, weapon factories, field hospitals, command centers and kitchens.
The tunnels played a pivotal role in enabling communication as well as coordination between the Viet Cong-controlled enclaves which were isolated due to the South Vietnamese and American land and air operations. We bravely went inside one of the tunnels and heaved a sigh of relief when we were able to fit into the narrow space. With heads and knees down, we managed to make small steps, traversing from points A to B. I can just imagine how the Viet Congs sacrificed their comfort for years just to elude capture from the American soldiers!
Meanwhile, a late but sumptuous lunch awaited us at our Mekong Delta tour in the afternoon. We feasted on deep fried catfish deliciously wrapped in rice paper with glass noodles and fresh vegetables paired with other Vietnamese specialties. This was followed by a tour at a coconut candy factory and bee farm where we drank comforting honey tea. Before boarding our hand-rowed sampan, charming Vietnamese ladies sweetly serenaded us with their folk songs and prepared an enticing spread of assorted tropical fruits.
That night, we hunted for our family’s well-loved food blogger Mark Wiens’ banh mi recommendation at Huynh Hoa; thankfully, just a brief walk from our hotel. The quintessential Vietnamese-French sandwich’s ingredients included cold cuts, pate, jalapeno, mayonnaise, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrot, daikon, and who could ever miss, the crusty baguette. Combine all these together and you have heaven in a bite!
The next day, we devoted our morning to an art appreciation activity at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum succeeded by another kind of art ladies absolutely love---bargain shopping at Saigon Square!
It was my hubby’s turn to get excited in the afternoon as we stepped into the Reunification Palace.The iconic presidential palace symbolized the end of the war when Viet Congs determinedly crashed through the gates with their powerful tanks. Gary’s college pre-thesis was about the Vietnam War so his commentary, as we explored the palace, rivaled that of a seasoned tour guide’s expertise.
Only a few meters away from the palace, we traipsed off to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater to enjoy the entertaining Vietnamese water puppet show. After the performance, we leisurely strolled around the picturesque Tao Dan Park and got awestruck with the fitness-conscious Vietnamese who jogged, brisk walked, danced Zumba, and diligently used the public exercise machines scattered around the expansive park.
Of course, no visit to Vietnam would be complete without savoring their famed crabs. For this foodie mission, we trooped to Hai Lua Food Countryside situated at Ben Thanh Market. The food was tasty and the service, speedy. Thumbs up to their efficient waitresses who meticulously cracked the savory garlic crabs and peeled the grilled shrimps for our dinner that all we had to do was dig in....oh, this is life!
On our final day, we did some pasalubong shopping at Ben Thanh Market and practiced our tour guide Steven’s advice to always haggle for the best price. Some shops also had fixed prices which felt reassuring.
In the evening, we watched the amazing AO show at the 117-year old Saigon Opera House. Featuring jaw-dropping acrobatics with the aid of sturdy bamboos and accompanied by upbeat Vietnamese folk music, the one-hour show was a stunning spectacle.
We capped our Ho Chi Minh adventure at Cheesecake Ngon with their heavenly melt-in-your-mouth Chocolate, Matcha, Oreo and Blueberry Cheesecakes.
Thanks to advanced planning and helpful tips from friends Maggy Buenaventura, Jeffrey Alvarez and Julie Chua, our D.I.Y. Ho Chi Minh family escapade was a sweet success!
For your day tour needs at HCMC, Mom-About-Town highly recommends Mekong Lighthouse Travel at e-mail address: email@example.com; tel. (+84) 985799994; look for Ms. Ly Ngoc Tuyen; and Phan Van Chuong (a.k.a. Steven) at e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org; mobile: (+84) 919994149.
E-mail the author at email@example.com. Visit www.momabouttowndavao.blogspot.com.