We arrived in HCMC after laying low in Phnom Penh for a couple days. In Phnom Penh Gregor was recovering from food poisoning so I did some sight-seeing by myself visiting S-21 Prison (The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum of Khmer Rouge infamy) which was shocking and interesting. So much of history in this part of the world is pretty recent so it hits home even harder. I was glad to have seen S-21 but what they did to people there I can’t even fathom. Only 12 people survived out of the up to 20,000 people imprisoned there. One of the survivors was there signing books, amazing.
In general we were not enamored with Phnom Penh. It was the dirtiest city I have ever been to, which makes it really difficult to enjoy, and the sights as they were didn’t really make up for it. All we were really doing was using it a rest stop before heading into Vietnam anyway, so no big loss.
From Phnom Penh we got a bus through to Saigon (officially called Ho Chi Minh City for the past 40 years, though everyone there still uses the old name). The border was a bit of a process involving switching buses and working through a few different queues but really wasn’t bad, having gotten an e-visa ahead of time. It’s a little harder for US citizens to get a Vietnam visa, but only in that visa on arrival isn’t available at the crossings. They have just started doing electronic visas so we fortunately didn’t have through a multi-day process at the embassy in Phnom Penh. Sadly though this meant we couldn’t use our intended path of entry via boat down the Mekong River as it’s not supported by the e-visa program.
On to Ho Chi Minh! We immediately decided that we love this place. First thing’s first, the food is amazing. All the Vietnamese staples you know plus tons more we’ve never seen before. Soups are so good and run $2-3. We also found these chicken kebab wraps for $2 and we shared one every day we were there – better than any I’ve found in the states, for sure. The city feels quite clean despite it being one of the more polluted and we were quite comfortable wandering around between lush parks and tree-lined boulevards (punctuated by red hammer-and-sickle flags, of course). The residents have been quite friendly, cabs are reasonable, and the architecture is a fun blend including French colonial buildings and some impressive modern towers.
What else do we like about this Ho Chi Minh?
#1- No tuk tuks. What a relief after Thailand and Cambodia to not be heckled every ten seconds while out walking! With that said,
- Holy scooters batman! They are like schooling fish and are everywhere. Think this is a one way street? It is! Unless you’re a scooter. Think this is a sidewalk? It is! Unless you’re a scooter. Think that is a red light? It is! Well, you get the picture.
- Crossing the street. Pick a car coming at you at less than 40k/hr and start walking. Do not stop, do not run. Traffic will flow around you. Very close to you, but around you. Or it has so far, anyway. Oh, and make sure you’re looking all ways all the time because as I mentioned, scooters going on the sidewalk the wrong way on a one way street are the norm.
#2- Rooftop bars, rooftop pools, coffee shops etc. They really know how to use their space here. Very fancy rooftop bars. Most have happy hour 6-9PM so you can go enjoy some rooftop scenery and pay $3-4 for a drink instead of whatever they charge you late at night. We went to Chill. Rooftop bars are not really our scene, but it was fun. No flip-flops allowed, fyi.
#3- It is pretty clean, especially compared to Cambodia.
In between eating adventures we took in a few of Saigon’s sights: the Independence Palace, the Museum of Vietnamese History, and the War Remnants Museum. Independence Palace is a pretty swank place that has been more or less preserved as it was 40 years ago when NVA tanks rolled in and ended the war. It was way more interesting than expected, brought to life by uniquely decorated and functional rooms with period maps and equipment. The Vietnamese History museum is modestly sized but worth the visit to get some cultural context.
The War Remnants Museum primarily focuses on the Vietnam War (called the American War here). It’s a rather imbalanced look at the history of the war and the atrocities committed by the French and Americans, with clear propaganda-fueled underpinnings. That said it’s not as if the horrific things the museum highlighted didn’t occur, it simply omits any acts perpetrated by the North Vietnamese. It’s a very sobering visit with a lot of hard truths about the horrors suffered by the civilians of this country.
Saigon has a surprisingly good craft beer scene, with several different popular breweries making some really good stuff. I don’t expect to find this level of beer elsewhere in the country, as cheap lager of course reigns supreme everywhere here in Southeast Asia, but it was good to get a few glasses of brew that has flavors beyond “cold” and “watery”.
We liked Saigon so much that we decided to stay an extra day and splurge on a nice hotel and dinner. What a great idea! We booked with points (Gregor’s idea) and got a 5-star hotel with a rooftop pool, afternoon tea, and breakfast buffet for under $120. Best Westerns cost more than that in the US! It was gorgeous and the bed was really comfy. Dinner was incredible, we had a real bottle of wine and some modern takes on Vietnamese dishes so we had a great evening.
On our last beach getaway in Thailand we decided we should be at a beach roughly every 3 weeks or so, therefore we are now off to Mui Ne on the Vietnamese coast a 5 hour bus ride from Saigon. See ya!
Specifics: we stayed at Ngoc Phan Guesthouse – good value and location, very friendly hosts. There’s great food everywhere, but one of our favorite places was the Ben Thanh Street Food Market a block north of the main market building (very good food of all types and plenty of cold beer). If you’re over by the history museum, Nguyen Trung Ngan is an alley with a busy food scene (but not always – Friday was good, we went back Sunday and everything was closed. So maybe only during the week). If you like coffee be sure to check out the apartment building on Nguyen Hue (midpoint, north side).