I remember during my first travel in my life. It was a solo and overseas travel in Bangkok, Thailand. I did a lot of impractical mistakes in traveling. I was alone, amateur and scared so I booked my hotel near the airport which is far from the city center and visitor’s sites. I used overpriced taxis. I didn’t invest in mobile data and rely on people for directions which end up unsuccessful since English is not that widely spoken in Southeast Asia. I didn’t do much of research that resulted to disappointment because I thought that this travel was unproductive. I didn’t see a lot of tourist’s sites and I didn’t learn much about their culture. As time passes I learned more practical ways to enjoy traveling without breaking the bank and would engage me more to the culture of the place I am traveling. Traveling for three years now and lived overseas for six months I learned that there are places that are meant for beginners and places for experienced travellers. Countries which English is widely spoken and have organized mode of transportation can be very convenient to travel however, these countries can also be more expensive to travel. So, when my friend and I did our backpacking in Southeast Asia and we started in Ho Chi Minh, I noticed that this city can also be good option for first time travelers.
Ho Chi Minh city formerly known as Saigon is a city in the south of Vietnam named after their late Prime Minister and National Hero, Gen. Ho Chi Minh. This bustling city doesn’t only offer sky scrapers that lights up the city at night but it is also rich in historical and cultural sites and home of flavorful Vietnamese delicacies. During our stay here I noticed how convenient it is to travel Ho Chi Minh. Although English is not widely spoken here, people are helpful when it comes to directions. Bus routes on the GPS are accurate and updated. So if you are a beginner in traveling who wants to have a mix of traditional and modern city and still have the taste of being a traveller then Ho Chi Minh is for you.
Starting in the airport, which is gladly near the city with a well-organized taxi system. You can approach any of the booths offering taxi to your hotel with a fixed price of VND 210, 000 ($10). If you have Uber or Grab Taxi app, there’s no problem because they are also just around.
WHERE TO STAY?
I suggest you stay in Bui Vien, District 1 where most of the backpackers stay. It is 30 minutes away from the airport by taxi. One advantage of staying here is it is near the visitor’s sites, has lots of cheap restaurants and street food with lively bars and clubs that makes the walking street alive at night. There are a lot of affordable budget hotel rooms and dormitory rooms plus tour agencies, money changers are everywhere in this area. We also spotted a cellphone shop here that sells sim card and registers your sim for affordable mobile data plan that only cost VND 110,000 (PHP 220) unlike other stores that sell tourist sim card for VND 200,000- 450,000 (PHP 400- 900).
TIP: Get a Mobifone sim card for VND 40,000 (PHP 80) load for VND 70,000 (PHP 140) and register by typing M70 send it to 999. You get 1.6 GB mobile data plan for 1 month.
PLACES TO VISIT:
We started our travel by doing a historic city tour. From our hostel and equipped with a GPS we walked going to Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City Hall, and Independence Palace. We visited them in order since they are next to each other.
NOTRE-DAME CATHEDRAL BASILICA OF SAIGON
An iconic landmark of the city located downtown and built by the French colonizers. The orange cathedral is open daily from 5:30 am to 5 pm. However with its undergoing renovation that will last until 2019, visitors are not allowed to enter for safety purposes.
HO CHI MINH CENTRAL POST OFFICE
Another French built architecture just beside the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is the Central Post Office. Although it is a functioning office with busy workers stamping and sorting loads of mails, we were still able to stroll around the area and get mesmerized with the architecture. On the left and right wings of the entrance there are stores selling souvenir items, postcards and lacquerware.
HO CHI MINH CITY HALL
Just few feet away from the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, we found ourselves in Ho Chi Minh City Hall. A sunny cream-and-yellow hue European inspired building built in 1902 to 1908. It was formerly known as Hotel de Ville but when the Communist took over before 1975 it was renamed to its present name. This place is gorgeous by day and stunning at night because of the lights surrounding the building. Unfortunately since it is a government office, it is close to public.
Originally the home and command center of Government General. In 1954 the Saigon government took over the place and renamed it to its current name. The palace witnessed series of historical events especially with the political life of their previous presidents. It also undergone massive renovations due to its bombing incident in 1962 and an army tank crashed on its gate in 1975. Now, it is functioning as a museum which features combination of Western and Eastern architecture.
Entrance Fee: VND 30, 000 (PHP 60)
WAR REMNANT MUSEUM
Before I step in this museum I thought it was just another museum showing the colorful history of Vietnam. However, as I was looking around reading the caption of every picture I came across with, I learned that this place is dedicated to the saddest history of Vietnam, The Vietnam War. Photographs and military equipment are on display in this museum. Documentary videos are played to show what happened during the long bloody war and its result. Outside the museum military tanks, helicopters, aircraft fighters and rocket launchers are well preserved. One thing that I found very heartbreaking is the part of the museum where they showed photos and videos of people especially children who suffered from “Agent Orange”. It is a chemical attack done by the Americans during the war.
Entrance Fee: VND 15,000 (PHP 30)
Although there are no live turtles present in this park people call it Turtle Lake because long time ago there was a turtle statue in this man- made lake. However when a group of people bombed this area the turtle statue was destroyed. At night this park lights up with colorful fountain and street food vendors start to pop. I would say this place is popular among locals enjoying the view of the fountain and gorging with street food after their long day at work or school. It is not touristy because when we were there, I only saw two foreigners beside us trying out some street food.
BINH TAY MARKET
More local food? Head on to District 5 where Binh Tay Market is located. It is in the heart of China Town where you can find cheap goods. However early this year the French architecture building was under repair for its preservation. The stalls are extended outside the building where visitors can still buy souvenirs and taste unique Vietnamese delicacies.
JADE EMPEROR PAGODA
The only temple that we visited in this city. To my observation it is a place where most locals visit to say their prayers. There are not much foreigners visiting this temple. There is no entrance fee and their dress code is not that strict here but I suggest you to dress modestly since you are entering a sacred place.
MEKONG RIVER DAY TOUR
The lifeblood of Southeast Asia passing through six countries, from China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The mud-brown river also played a big role in the history of trading and diverse cultures between these countries.
We booked our day tour via agency near our hotel in District 1. Different agencies may vary in prices from $9-35 per person. We were lucky to get a deal with $11 which includes a day tour with free lunch. The tour starts at 8:30 am hotel pick up then travel for an hour and half going to My Tho, the gateway to Mekong Delta. We took a glimpse of Vinh Trang Temple then we took a boat going to different villages where we tried their pure honey, ate tropical fruits, paddle boats and ride horses. We also went to this coconut village where we learned the process of extracting coconut oil and how they make different products out of it.
EXPENSES: For 4 full day- tour for 1 pax
Taxi from airport to hotel: VND 210,000 (Php 440)
Motorbike from Turtle Lake to hotel: VND 50,000 (PHP 100)
Bus from Bui Vien District 1 to Binh Tay Market: VND 5,000 (PHP 10)
Bus from Binh Tay Market to Jade Emperor Pagoda: VND 5,000 (PHP 10)
Bus from Jade Emperor Pagoda to Bui Vien District 1: VND 6,000 (PHP 12)
ACCOMMODATION (Giang Hotel): VND 450,000 (PHP 900)
FOOD (Vietnamese food sold on the street stalls, eateries and convenient store food): VND 1, 000,000 (PHP 2,000)
Independence Palace: VND 30, 000 (PHP 60)
War Remnant Museum: VND 15,000 (PHP 30)
MEKONG RIVER DAY TOUR: $11 (PHP 550)
TOTAL: PHP 4,112
NOTE: plane ticket not included since we returned in the Philippines from Bali, Indonesia but we flew to Ho Chi Minh from Manila via Cebu Pacific for PHP 2599 with no check in baggage.