Ho Chi Minh City
I sample multiple coffees, noodles, and guns
all in the name of history.
Ho Chi Minh kicks off a month-long journey around Vietnam and I could not be more excited to be in this wonderful country! Saigon is a smaller city (in the way that San Francisco is a smaller city!) and easy to see in a few days time. Once the epicenter of the infamously brutal Vietnam war, HCM is a resilient city that's proud of their heritage and place in history and has quickly bounced back in a big way.
What to Do
Most of our time in HCM was spent walking the city. During our walks, we scoped out countless shops and markets, watched a dance group prepare to perform for Tet on the large promenade leading up to the Ho Chi Minh statue and city hall, and scoped out a tribal play paying tribute to rice at the Saigon Opera House. Make sure to leave a few hours in your day to explore different areas on foot- you'll have the time, and you'll always find something interesting.
We stayed in the city center across the street from the large Ben Thanh Market, an indoor market selling clothes, coffee, sundries, and home to a number of food stands. We settled into our guesthouse just in time for lunch and decided to try out one of the stands. It was February 1st, also known as Tet holiday, named after the successful Viet Cong-led Tet Offensive on lunar new year that ended the Vietnam War. Think of it like an independence day, and few shops other than the market were open. Going to the market meant crossing the infamous, massive, chaotic traffic circle outside of Ben Thanh. There are traffic lights, crosswalks, and lanes, but nobody obeys them at all. People do not even drive on the right side of street or stay off the sidewalks half the time. Crossing the street is not for the hesitant or distracted! So long as you walk steadily and confidently, you'll be perfectly fine.
The market is a well-known tourist destination and the prices are higher than average. Other than the restaurant food, one should bargain everything down around 30-40% to get a fair deal. The food here is good (I happen to love Vietnamese food) but by no means the best you'll get in the city. It was a good experience to see the market, shop around among the knock-off Under Armour shirts and floral dresses, and check out the different spices and herbs.
There are a couple different history museums but the one I was most interested in was the War Remnants Museum. This three-story collection of photographs, propaganda, and US artillery proves that history is written by the winners. The bottom floor has pictures and materials from all around the world protesting the US involvement in the war. The next two floors are a barrage of historically significant and at times disturbing photographs of what life was life during and after the war. Most focus on the barbarity of the American troops and show decapitations, soldiers burning villages, and children running screaming from napalm bombs. There's an exhibit focused on the effects of Agent Orange, a chemical which destroyed the forest and caused birth defects still seen with relative frequency as you walk down the street. Dain especially enjoyed seeing American tanks and planes from the war and the Viet Cong tiger cages and torture devices.
The two pictures below were very powerful to me; the middle one is my favorite. The caption says, "During the war, the roads were only for tanks. When fighting ended, the farmers started using them to dry out their rice crop." What a simple yet meaningful symbol to see rice, the most sacred food to the Vietnamese people and the main staple of their diet, reclaim something that signaled approaching enemies. A return to normalcy and fertility after destruction.
Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker street, is actually a really fun area and not (totally) a mess of Westerners day-drinking to EDM music. There are good bars and cheap restaurants, little alleys filled with locals cooking dinner, and lots of salons. I got a pedicure and a foot scrub and grabbed a few beers to wait out some rain. This area is also where I booked the tunnel tour as there are tour offices in abundance. Most of the people I met in HCM were staying in hostels in this area.
Seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels is a worthwhile day trip. It's about an hour drive from the city and best done with a tour group- in addition to having an English guide explain a lot of really interesting information about the tunnels and war, the roads are very narrow, bumpy, and aren't marked well. On the bus ride there, they'll turn on a black-and-white propaganda film from the 1960's showing footage from the valiant and patient Viet Cong where each person is lauded for how many Americans they killed. Hearing anyone brag about killing people made me uncomfortable, especially since these were American troops.
The tour, led by the wise-cracking and evident Western fan John Wayne, shows you how the war was fought, which is such a unique experience. The Cu Chi tunnels were first built by the northern Vietnamese during the war for independence from the French and were expanded during the Vietnam war. They used this intricate network of 250 meters of tunnels in various ways to avoid the American army and were integral to their eventual win. The tunnels had three levels: the first is shallow, well-ventilated, and can be used for up to 6 hours. Level one was used for hiding from approaching troops and air raids. The second level had some meeting rooms, hospital rooms where bullets were removed from soldiers without medicine (ouch), and kitchens. The third and deepest led to the river and was a quick escape route. The tunnels are unlit and twist and turn so that should an enemy find it, they won't be able to see far inside. The entrances and exits and so tiny- a hole in the ground 2 feet wide and 1 foot long. The markings to distinguish these exit points were changed daily. After the Americans destroyed the forest looking for these entrances, the trees around were replanted in a grid. It's obvious that they started from absolutely nothing because the landscape looks like a giant skinny orchard rather than a forest. The pictures below are of me climbing an American tank, a booby trap in the jungle, and Dain crawling through the tunnels.
Termite mounds, models of underground networks and wonders of ventilation in themselves, were used to ventilate the tunnels. Smoke from kitchens were also vented away to far off and scattered spots so enemies couldn't follow the fire. To see if enemy armies came by, the Viet Cong looked to a tiny fern that when touched slightly curls into itself for at least 6 hours- a bit of wisdom from our tour guide's mother and father. On display are a litany of spiky traps a la Indiana Jones used to ensnare enemies, each more gruesome than the last. Inside the tunnels there isn't enough room to stand; the Viet Cong crawled through, we kind of T-Rex walked through until we got to an exit point. After only 30 meters in the tunnels I had my fill- it takes determination to use them for all those years.
During the tour the heavy metal sound of firing rifles pepper the air and make the whole experience seem a little more realistic. On the grounds, there's a shooting range where you can fire the weapons used during the war. Being a *teensy* bit of a gun nut and with Dain's knowledge of war guns, we had to go for it. We bought a magazine each for an AK47 and M1 Grand. The M1 had such a serious kick so the AK seemed easy in comparison! Definitely a thrilling activity and very different from my experiences with Colt-45s.
What to Eat
Southern Vietnamese cuisine is distinct from what you'll find in central and northern parts of the country. There's more of a French influence, things tend to be sweeter, and there's a lot more fresh seafood. HCM is surrounded by fertile farmland which produce spices, fruits, veggies, and livestock in abundance.
One of the most well-known dishes from Saigon is a Banh Mi, a sandwich stuffed with meat, veggies, and bean sprouts and served on a baguette. Bahn Mi rolls differ from traditional baguettes because they use a bit of rice flour. My Bahn Mi is a small cafe specializing in many varieties of their namesake dish- I had a delicious tofu Bahn Mi with spicy garlic sauce. The shop looks out onto the Notre Dame cathedral square and the statue of Mary.
Most importantly, you'll be making time in your day for a few coffees. HCM is a huge coffee town and you'll be unable to walk down a street without seeing a couple cafes. Our guesthouse cafe specialized in Vietnamese drip coffee, which is served with an individual little filter on top of your mug siphoning out coffee drop by drop. It's concentrated like an espresso and is typically served with sweetened condensed milk to cut the bitterness and intense flavor.
On one of our fancier nights out (by fancy I mean I wore jeans and spent more than $5) we went to Di Mai. I ordered Bun Cha Gio, Ca Chem Phi Le Nuong Rieng, and shrimp crackers to snack on and for Dain to use in his soup. The Bun Cha Gio is fried veggie spring rolls served on a bed of vermicelli noodles and accompanied by bean sprouts, mint, shredded lettuce, and a vinegar-based sauce to pour on top. The harmony of textures from the crispy roll, the fresh soft noodles, and the brightness of the mint and sauce comes together deliciously. The Ca Chem, sea bass, is seasoned so flavorfully with ginger, lemongrass, chili, and dill. For the dessert, I tried Banh Cam Duong, fried sweet sesame balls with mung bean filling. To me they seemed like what hummus would be if it were made into a dessert, as the filling had that texture. It was nice but not my favorite dessert. Overall, the food here is well worth a visit, and the waitstaff are very attentive.
My meal at Banh Cuon was probably my favorite. I can't tell you where it is on a map other than it's a small shop right where the 31 Cao Thang metro stop is. Bahn Cuon is named after a north Vietnamese dish that's a thin rice pancake rolled around a meaty filling. Dain ordered it and just loved it. I had mien nua cua, a vermicelli bowl with fresh crab, crispy shallots, basil, sprouts, green onion, lime, and fresh red chili served in a hearty, very flavorful crabshell broth. Add a beer because it's 95* and humid and you're set.
- Uber from the airport. A cab into town costs 300-500,000 dong but the Uber cost 87,000. You can also use Uber car (and motorbike!) to get around, but most places were within half a mile of our place at the city center.
- Get a sim card. You can get a month-long data plan with 7g of data for $140,000 dong ($5.50). Get the sim right away at the airport or go to a Mobifone/Vinaphone/Viettel store. You'll see them for sale in a lot of little shops but many of these will be overpriced and you have no guarantee that it'll work, or a support line to call. I chose Mobifone and the process took ten minutes, and my sim worked instantly.
- Just cross the street. People run into trouble when they're timid or try to backpedal. Wait for a semi-clear patch and walk out steadily and swiftly.