Indochina Adventure: Ho Chi Min City

About 1:00AM the airplane landed on the soil of the only country that never gived up in the powers of United States of America. On the 27th of May my foot stepped on a foreign soil – Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam. This city is part of my six month in the making Indochina Adventure.

My heart was beating fast. The looks of the immigration officer whom I suppose to hand my passport for stamping looks so serious. There were a lot of things and questions running on my head (What will I do if he rejected my entry? Where am I going to stay until 6AM?) while on queue.

Thank God every thing was alright. Everything was smooth.

With my one green backpack, a belt bag and a camera on my hand I strolled the airport to take pictures. There airport is like (at least at the arrival area) NAIA 3, simple but with a little touch of some greenery inside. I was planning to stay and sleep at the airport until 6:00AM before I go to my hotel. Unfortunately according to the guard or airport police, we had to go outside because they are closing the airport (Really?). So I went out and stay outside the airport sitting on the bench thinking what to do.

The Road to the Guesthouse

I almost memorize the map of Ho Chi Min, at least along the Pa Ngu Lao radius before I get in the airplane because of the research and almost everyday Google Earth visit. In that reason I know that the hostel is not that far from the airport. So when I saw a motorcycle gesturing me to get his service I grabbed it and gave the address of the guesthouse. He charged me 150,000 dong (Php300.00, fair enough its 2AM!) going to the guesthouse from the airport.

When we reach our destination, he was charging me 200,000 dong! I said to him that 150,000 dong is too expensive already. I gave the 150,000 dong then I went ahead inside the guesthouse.
The guesthouse was Halo Guesthouse located at De Tham St. near Pa Ngu Lao St. the backpacker’s haven in Ho Chi Min.          
Chu Chi Tunnel, Ben Than Market and City Walk
I woke up at 6:00 AM. That means I only had 3 hours of sleep! I had my Pho breakfast by 7:00AM then waited for the bus to arrive at 8:00AM. The breakfast was free from the hotel.

Free Pho for breakfast.
The tour guide giving instruction.

It took us 2 hours to reach Chu Chi district that is surrounded by well patterned rubber trees. The 2 hours includes the stop over at “Handicapped Handicraft Shop” where we bought some snack. But the main purpose was for us to buy a handicraft items made by the Vietnamese victims of USA’s Agent Orange. Agent Orange is a Biological Weapon used by the Americans to drive out the Vietcong. Later on you will see the victims’ pictures taken at the war remnants museum.

After 20-30 minutes stop over the bus pulled off with fruit shake or handicraft good on our hand. I didn’t but any handicraft because it’s expensive. Well for a cause of course.

Chu Chi Tunnel
The tour guide collected the entrance fee in the tunnel while we were on the bus. According to him it will only take a second for him to settle everything whereas it will take hours if we do it individually. The tour guide sells a mosquito repellant because, again, according to him the mosquitoes in the jungle love the blood of the tourist. It only cost 30,000 dong (Php60.00) versus 35,000 dong in the city. Let me give you a tip, you don’t need it there… haha.

Before proceeding with the tour we watched a 15 to 20 minutes video that tackles the Vietnam’s side story of the “Vietnam Civil War” as the tour guide calls it. The video was old and uses Vietnamese tongue of English and I could not understand it clearly.

The tour was about 1 hour. It showcased Vietcong’s ingenuity during the war against the Americans. The tour highlighted the life of the people fighting and hiding in the tunnel. While we were on the bus on our way to the tunnel, the tour guide asked us two questions to ponder while we travel. He asked us:

(1) The Vietcong’s dig the tunnel by hands. Where did they put the soil so that the   
      Americans would not be able to think that they were digging a tunnel? 
(2) Where did the Vietcong put there poop when they were hiding in the tunnel?

A lot of answers popped up but we were all wrong. He did tell the answer and I am not going tell you. It is for you to know that when you visit the tunnel.

The tour ended with an inspirational message of the tour guide. He told us to be happy and keep smiling even in times of hardship as the Vietnamese do.

Ben Than Market

Later that day after the Chu Chi tunnel, I walked towards the Ben Than Market in which, I’ve heard, you can haggle up to the half of the price. Yes it is indeed! Even though you don’t haggle the price seems cheap as compared to Manila prices. I bought a NorthFace bag for 200,000 dong (Php430.00). I am not surprise that it is cheap because most of the goods are not imported thus most goods are made in Vietnam.

 City Walk
Vietnam is a pretty clean city. Although it has skyscrapers, Ho Chi Min cannot ace Manila in terms of building and infrastructure. I did a long walk in the city uptown urban area to see the tall buildings and try to go up to see the city. I was heading Bitexco Financial Tower – the highest tower in the city for a view of the city but to my disappointment it is expensive for my budget - 100,000 dong.  

 Wandering in Saigon (Ho Chi Min)
My last day in Ho Chi Min was full packed with walking. Without a map I wandered the heart of Ho Chi Min City with a memorized map on my head. My first stop was the Reunification Palace. I spend about 30 minutes walking from the guesthouse to the palace. While on my way I was really pissed off with a lot of motorcycle driver asking me to hire them for a tour. It’s easy to say no to them. What pisses me off was, they were following me and continue their talking even if I said no. That happened to me many times in every corner of Ho Chi Min! Another thing that I didn’t like was the coconut juice vendor trying to talk to you and sell his product aggressively.

Reunification Palace
As I continued, I walked towards the palace and bought an admission ticket. I didn’t join a free tour inside the palace. I just wandered inside the palace taking pictures of every room with other tourist from all over the globe. The palace has 5 floors including the basement. 

The most fascinating floor was the basement where the war room was located. There you can see an old radio, a 20th century mobile phone and a lot more. The tour inside the palace was indeed historical and informative. When I was done with the tour I found an English video room near the exit door. When I saw that the room has air condition, I entered and watched a 30 minutes video of the Vietnam’s civil war.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office and Diamond Plaza
Walking straight away from the gate of the Reunification Palace, you will see the big mud-colored structure that stands more or less 140 years. The Notre Dame Cathedral was built by the French when they were still occupying the country. The colonial church is closed to the public but seeing the church in my own eyes really awed me. I am a fan of colonial church structure. Although I am not a Roman Catholic, whenever I travel I see to it to find out if there are good colonial church around.

At the side of the Cathedral lies the Gothic style Central Post Office. The structure was also built during the French era in the city. The architect of the post office was the same person who designed the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris. The post office is still functioning as it was built and it is also open to travelers. The management put up souvenir shops and currency exchange inside the building maybe because most of the people when I visited are travelers.

At the back of the Cathedral is the Diamond Plaza. The building was a mix luxury shopping complex, cinema, restaurant, coffee shop and a hospital with 22 story office spaces. I didn’t dwell so much inside the building/plaza/mall because I said in my mind we have a lot of this in Manila (yabang!!! hehe)

War Remnants Museum
I won’t recommend walking from Notre Dame Cathedral to the war Remnants Museum like what I did. I did this not to escape from paying a motorcycle but to savor the city view (not the pollution).From Notre Dame to War Remnant Museum I walked for about 700 meters. The Museum was still closed by the time I arrived. So, I decided to have some cold bean snack at the side street. The sales lady was nice trying to speak good English to me when I asked them for a certain place in the city.

After paying the entrance fee I entered the museum and took pictures of the old military tank and helicopters. I first entered a place at the side outside the main building. The room is where they show how the GI’s tortured Vietnamese men and woman to give information about the Vietcong. You will also see there the prison the Americans used during the war.                  

Seeing the museums collection gave me a sad feeling. “I am not supposed to feel bad on this travel” said one traveler. The collection inside the main building pictures the hardship and martyrdom of Vietnamese people during the (civil) war. The museum also showcases the Vietnamese and American children who were victims of Agent Orange. These children are the daughters and sons of Vietnamese and Americans soldiers who were exposed directly to the chemicals brought about by Agent Orange Campaign of the Americans.

The ruins of the war are not really on the museum. The ruins are in the heart and minds of every Vietnamese people suffered during the war. The museum stands there to commemorate the martyrdom of the Vietnamese people and to show the evils that the war had done not just to the Vietnamese but also to whole mankind.

The fact and opinion that I stated here are all based on what I have heard from the Vietnamese and from what I saw in their depicted pictures.          

Last Night
I never met any Filipinos or anybody in Ho Chi Min (I met one Filipina traveling solo on my way to Cambodia) therefore I spend my last night alone! That wasn’t a problem to me. I just sit in Crazy Buffalo looking at the street. Just a bottle of Saigon Beer and some soothing music, the night was perfect!

On the way Cambodia!

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This is the travel blog of Jherson Jaya - banker by profession, adventurer by passion. Everything written here were based on his experiences. The lust of seeing new places thrilled him to explore both the explored and unexplored world. Old and new architecture fanatic; lover of food, both exotic and indulgence; and founds peace in long bus and train rides - thats how he describe his way of traveling.    

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