By Linda Ahmad
HO CHI MINH @ SAIGON CITY
I have been eyeing to go to Saigon City @ Ho Chi Minh for quite some time already. Been compiling and updating all the information on where to go, what to do, what to see, what’s good to buy etc for the past 1 year at least – hoping that all would be ready if we have the chance to go. Alhamdulillah, all of a sudden, one day dear Hb told me that his company will be arranging a 4 days 3 nights’ fullboard trip (with Halal food of course) to Ho Chi Minh!! Since he has to handle the 2nd group, he decided not to bring the kids for this trip.
So on the afternoon of 31/1/2013, we boarded Vietnam Airlines heading to Ho Chi Minh. The journey only takes 2 hours but with a time difference of 1 hour, we arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport at 1.30 pm local time (2.30 pm Malaysian time). The immigration process was quick and easy (no embarkation cards – just queue and get your passport stamped). By the time we went out at around 2.00 pm, our guide, Simon has already arrived waiting for us. We got onto the bus and headed straight to our lunch spot for that day – D’Nyonya Restaurant. Food was good.
After lunch, we went back to the bus and headed to our next stop – the War Remnants Museum. After taking photos on the displays of tanks, planes, bombs and others on the compound, we went in to see the Museum exhibitions. The building is a three-floor building with around 8 permanent exhibits with Vietnamese & English captions. But I only managed to see a few exhibits – not all. The pictures displayed were too distressing for me. They were so gruesome, horrid, unbearable - it was just tearing my heart to see how ruthless and cruel people were during war. So with teary eyes, I asked my hb to get out and we waited for the others in the compound. We didn’t even go to see the other display on the other side – the mock up prison system – which I am sure more gruesome and horrid displays will be showcased.
Then we moved on to the next stop – Golden Dragon Water Puppet Show. It was said the first Vietnamese puppet shows way back in the 11th century weren't just for the entertainment of villagers - the shows were thought to keep the spirits entertained enough that they would not cause mischief! Frankly speaking, it’s nothing much, just a bunch of puppets over a waist-deep pool of water that are being handled by a few puppeteers behind closed curtains. The gist of the tale encircled the rural tradition of rice planting, fishing, village folklore etc. But I like very much! Although not understanding a single word, nonetheless, it was very enjoyable with the beautiful music background and catchy sound effects and local dialect by the presenters. We even had a few laughs watching it! It was good and very recommended – for all ages.
By the time we finished watching the show, the girls especially were getting very restless. The day was about to finish, but still no paperbags in hand!! But what choice do we have... we have to follow the schedule. So we were sent to the hotel for check-in. The hotel is Palace Saigon Hotel which is located quite centrally – still within walking distance to the centre of attraction in Saigon City – Ben Thanh Market. Then Simon reminded us that they will be picking us up for dinner later. So we have only less than a couple of hours in our hands – not so much, but enough for us to venture and see what’s nearby. As promised, by 7pm all of us boarded the bus and headed to Samsudin’s Restaurant for our dinner. Again, good food and great Vietnamese coffee.
Now, all of us just couldn’t wait much longer. So we asked Simon to just drop all of us at the Night Market. For your information, this night market is located just outside of Ben Thanh Market – two rows of stalls on the right and left side of Ben Thanh market. But there are a whole lot of other permanent shops around there. This night market is opened from 7 pm to midnight. Actually whatever that is being sold inside Ben Thanh market, you can get it here. If you’re lucky, you might even get it at a cheaper price.
So, before dispersing, it has been agreed to gather back at the same spot 12 midnight so we could go back to the hotel in a group as the recent story that I’ve read online about some thugs robbing a small group of tourists was quite worrying and disturbing. Then off we went on our separate ways. Since this was our first time, we just strolled and browsed through – just to have a feel and familiarize with the surroundings and took mental notes on the prices of the items that caught us fancy. Then we ventured on to the shops surrounding the market including the well-known Hjh Basiroh shop and a few others that have been mentioned by others in the many blogs, forums that I’ve came across during my months of research on Ho Chi Minh. Although it was getting quite late, many shops are still opened and they would close more or less the same time as the night market.
The atmosphere in the night market was very similar to what we have back home and it really felt it exactly as the faces that you will be seeing are Malaysians – it’s like shopping at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman’s night market! After a couple of hours, we went back to the meet-up point and waited for the others. Only 1 couple turned up – and told us that the rest might have gone back on their own. But dear hb decided to still wait for a few more minutes – just in case any of them were left behind. Quarter after 12, we headed back to the hotel, although past midnight, the traffic was still quite heavy. As Chinese New Year (or TET for Vietnam) is just around the corner, there were a lot of lights decorations along the way. They have even closed up a 4 lane road and were doing some decorating landscapes complete with ponds, a whole lot of flower area, and even a small boat! How I wish I could see all of those when it is complete – I am very sure it would be spectacular with all the fresh flowers and colourful lightings!
Day 2 started early. By 7 am local time, we gathered at the lobby for the bus. Today, we will be going to Cu Chi (pronounced as Ku Ci) Tunnel. The trip would take around half a day and the journey took around 1 hour. This is one of the area that was hit bad during the Vietnam war and in order to survive, the Viet Cong guerrillas had to dig up tunnels for communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. Now this 121 km-long complex of tunnels at Cu Chi has been preserved by the government of Vietnam and turned into a war memorial park. These well linked tunnels have contributed significantly to the victory of the Vietnamese as they were so effective and efficient.
We were being told that the tunnels are not just one layer, but three layers! One of the ends of the tunnel will take you to the Saigon River. This proved to be a very good idea as their enemies did try to drown the guerrillas by pumping in water into the tunnels but it simply flowed onto the river. Since the tunnels are well below the surface, they have made “anthills” with holes leading to the tunnels for air ventilation – looking at those “anthills”, you will not know these are manmade and not the real thing. They even figured out an effective system to diminish the smoke when cooking food - whereby the smoke will be channeled to one rather far outlet with only small wisps of smoke that will be released. This way, it will not be detected by the enemy – simply brilliant!
There are a few mock-up trap doors, booby-traps on display as well as bombs, tanks and so on. We were told that the Viet Cong guerrillas would come out of their hideout to scavenge for the bombs and other ammunitions shot by the enemy, collected them and recondition those if possible – recycle. Now, some of the tunnels have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists, while low-power lights have been installed. We were invited to walk through one of the tunnels (a shorter one) just to have an experience and made us reflect how hard life was for them back then. After the tunnel, we walked to the shooting range whereby you can try your hands on some serious assault rifles like the M16 or AK47. We tried the AK47 – mind you, here they are using real life bullets – we were told they are not the only place in the world that allows this. At the end of the tour, we were served with hot tea and boiled tapioca with crushed peanuts & sugar. All in all, the trip was both enlighting and sad. Here, it was proven that when you are pressed hard with very little option, your mind will wander very far and becomes very creative and innovative in order to survive with what little things that are available.
Then we were off to a branch of Samsuddin Restaurant located nearby. Again, good food and great iced Vietnamese coffee. Had some rest and after our Zohor prayers, we headed back to town. As per the itinerary, we would be visiting the Chinatown @ Cholon. There is a wholesale market here known as Bin Thay market. It is said that things that are sold here are cheaper than in Ben Thanh. Very much true … IF you are buying in bulk only. If on retail, it is more or less the same or even more expensive. Here, the sellers are more for locals therefore less sellers know English. We communicated via the calculators. But I have to warn.. here you have to be very firm and strong. The sellers tend to drag you into their store… literally – believe me – I have had a personal experience which actually quite frightening. Even my dear hb who is much much bigger than me was also pulled into their shop! Ending up we didn’t stay that long, only bought a few materials for clothing and managed to get one jubah using ao dai material tailored there. They will send it to the hotel once ready – but you have to pay in full upfront (we were a bit worried frankly but they did send it although a bit late than promised).
Then we were dropped off at Ben Thanh Market for more shopping. There, we met a few other members who were on the 1st Group – they even skipped the Cu Chi Tunnel trip to have more shopping time. Here, we made 2 pairs of trousers each, 1 shirt for me, a few baju kurung – all will be sent to the hotel once ready ie tomorrow afternoon. I have already made arrangement for a local tailor to come to the hotel later that night for more tailoring job for our Hari Raya costumes. So I needed to find all the materials that I would want to be given tonight. Gotten everything, we moved on to the shops nearby. Dear hb has been eyeing to make his glasses here – reading from forum and the various blogs, the cost of making glasses here is very much cheaper compared to Malaysia. So very true.. only RM225 for titanium silhouette frame with transition anti-glare glasses. Then we walked further heading towards the stadium for some sport stuff. We managed to get a couple of Yonex badminton rackets (good copies) each at a pricetag of RM15. Got a few pairs of running shoes at good prices too. So, that was it – it’s time to get back to the hotel as we will be having our dinner on a cruise tonight and we were supposed to gather at the hotel lobby at 8.00 pm.
Sharp 8.00 pm all gathered and walked to our dinner venue which is located about 10 minutes away only. This dinner cruise took around 45 mins. The food served was Chinese food and the taste was just so-so. We were greeting by soothing traditional music that followed through our dinner. Then all of a sudden, a girl appeared centrestage holding a hullahoop ring with fire lit up in a few spots. A good crowd gathered to the front to have a good look at the show. Suddenly, swoosh… she took off her outer costume - left on was a very skimpy and striking 2 piece swimming attire like. I didn’t get to see (or rather not interested to see actually) but I heard that her acrobatic moves with the ring of fire was quite good. In my mind.. good because of performance or good because of her near naked body swerving and bending about? So sorry, but I do not like this especially with kids around (Alhamdulillah mine weren’t there). Then that was over, we were getting nearer to the jetty. So it’s picture time. By then, our group members were getting restless – wanted to repeat the night market J. Actually all the while we were there, every each night we would go to the night market and I am sure almost all would do just that.
So while the rest of the gang went to the night market by cab, we went back to the hotel as I have made arrangement with the tailor, Lan. She arrived sharp on time, took my measurements, collected the materials and the sample clothings for my kids and off she went. So we made our own way to the night market – surveying for luggages & bags. But we didn’t buy any at that time as I felt that the prices offered were a bit high than what I have in my notes. Then we went to the shops nearby – saw a small North Face knapsack. The price was very reasonable and within the price in my notes, but as for luggage – there were not much choices at that shop and the shops on the same row were already started to close for the night. So we went back to the night market for a final sweepdown so to speak. Then we went back to the hotel for a night’s rest as it will be another early day tomorrow.
Day 3 – This morning, we have made arrangements with Samsudin Restaurant for some food and Vietnamese coffee to be delivered to the hotel as the food in the hotel’s restaurant is not halal. So while waiting, some of us took our breakfast and at 7 am Simon arrived to pick us up for our tour today – Trip to My Tho & Ben Tre Province via Express Trung Luong Highway. This highway is constructed elevated from the land so that the land for crop/paddy will be practically untouched by this highway. There was a toll fare to be paid for this Highway, if I remember correctly, it was around RM50 for 50 km. Along the way, our eyes will be feasted with vast green paddy fields – very similar to what we have in Kedah. But here, they harvest 4 times per year, so there were patches that have been harvested while other patches were just planted or very green. Within the patches of paddy fields, you will note tombs of relatives as if guarding the area.. hhmmmm.
After around 1.5 hours, we have reached the jetty for our cruise along Tien River heading to one of the islands. Here, there are 4 islands with the names of the Vietnam’s 4 sacred animals : Unicorn (intelligence and goodness), Tortoise (longevity and perfection), Dragon (power and nobility) and Phoenix (peace and prosperity). For this, we are heading to the Unicorn Island. Here, we were shown how the coconut candy is being processed, were given tea with honey and some tropical fruits with traditional music lulling softly. Here, you can still do a bit of shopping like the multiple tastes of coconut candy of course, honey, bee pollen and royal jelly, and the more or less the same stuff that you see in Ben Thanh/night market ie bags, traditional costumes – ao dai for kids and tshirts etc. But I note that the bags (slingbags/small knapsacks/carry-alls with patchworks) were cheaper here than in town and they have “buy 5 free 1” promotion which turned out to be more cheaper. Then we made our way to the river bank to board the small rowing boat that could accommodate 4 person/boat for a relaxing trip along the tiny canals of Ben Tre Province lined with water-coconut palms. I noted that almost all the rowers are small sized ladies – working very hard rowing the boat in and out. I understood from Simon, all that energy and hard work for a mere RM1.50 per trip! It was quite sad and made us feel very grateful with what we have. When we reached back to the jetty, I shook her hand and she was all smiles and nodded a few times. Very disheartened knowing how hard life is for them.
Back on the big boat, coconut drinks awaited us onboard. We were brought to our lunch venue – Halal Mekong Restaurant. Food was okay and we had some rest and performed our prayers and headed to the boat to be transferred back to mainland for our trip back to Saigon City. By the time we arrived Saigon City, it was already after 3 pm local time. Since the others were interested in getting some sports stuff after seeing what we have bought the day before, we asked Simon to drop us at the stadium. After everyone got what they wanted, we continued our shopping walk to the Muslim wear shop – Hoang Anh. To me, nothing much since I could not buy any readymade baju kurung, so I only got a good telekung and a chiffon tudung for me. Then we went next door – Taka Plaza. Here was much more interesting. Dear hb got a couple of golf tshirts here for a steal, I got a few more colourful silk headcovers and a few other stuff and since we don’t have a lot of time left (dinner pick up was supposed to be at 7pm), we had to leave as we needed to go to the sports shop again to pick up the badminton rackets that had to be stringed and to collect dear hb glasses as well.
Tonight was our last dinner in Ho Chi Minh and they brought us to a restaurant named Saigon Seri Penang. The food was again okay – overall I’d say the food was nothing spectacular and expensive. But pricewise it is expected as it is very hard to get halal ingredients, meat and stuff. After dinner, one last round of Ben Thanh night market. This time we had more time, but we do not have much to shop left as my shopping list was nearly complete. We only had to get the luggages for all the stuff we have bought. We came only with 1 schoolback kinda knapsack and 1 computer knapsack J. So we went to the row of shops that we’ve been before - then we found one shop – fixed price shop – selling a lot of bags, knapsacks etc.. you can find “samsonites”,”crumpler”,” northface”,”deuter” and many many more. We got ourselves 2 luggage, a few slingbags and knapsacks for the kids. Then we went back to the hotel for rest.
The last day was free and easy till noon. The bus will pick us up at 12 noon for airport transfers. So we started out early today to do some last minute shopping and more importantly to have a taste of local food. From the time we arrived till that time, all the food was more or less what we can find back home. I wanted to taste Vietnamese food – after all I was in Vietnam right!? So, we roamed around and found the place that we were looking for - The Daun Restaurant . Highly recommended! The owner is a Singaporean Muslim – very friendly and nice. The food was great, prices were reasonable to me, the restaurant is very clean with open concept kitchen with glass surrounding it so you can witness yourself the cleanliness of the kitchen. Finally, I had Pho (pronounced as Fer) – something like kueyteow with slightly sweet soup with fresh herb in it. Then we tried the local fried and fresh popiah with ricepaper wraps. Very light and nice. And of course, Vietnamese iced coffee. Note this – I am not a coffee drinker, but in Vietnam, I love it! There is no aftertaste, the smell is quite strong but very nice, slight bitterness but good. Since we could not get any back home, we can only buy the 3 in 1 sachets just in case we have cravings later J. After filling our tummies, we headed out to Taka Plaza again for more shopping. By 11 am we had to be back to the hotel as the tailor will be delivering the clothes and still some packing to do.
So by 12 noon, all gathered at the lobby waiting for the bus to pick us up for the airport. While waiting, we weighed our bags – to make sure that the weight is within the allocated weight for each person to avoid any extra charges for excess baggage. All of us took pictures with Simon. Around 1230 we boarded the bus and from there to the airport was a mere 15-20 minutes. In the bus, Simon sang a parting song for us “Sealed with a kiss” not too sure whether it was intended for anyone in the bus though ;). Reached the airport, took our luggage out of the bus, took some group photos with Simon and the bus driver as well as the conductor for remembrance. It was time to say good bye. Simon is a very very good guide, speak good English and pretty good Malay too! Feel free to contact us for his number if you wish to use his service for your trip.
The process at the airport was smooth – despite all the stories that I’ve been reading. Alhamdulillah all went well and without any problems both in Ho Chi Minh and in KLIA. It was a good trip – especially the cost of the trip was sponsored . Thank you ATS!
I somewhat missed Saigon Square as there was not enough time for us to venture out so much as we needed to follow the itinerary given. I was told that Saigon Square is also a very good shopping spot – a reason to revisit Saigon perhaps??
Okay now for some tips :
-It is better to change RM to USD in Malaysia and to change RM or USD in Ho Chi Minh. But bear in mind, RM is not a widely accepted currency in Ho Chi Minh. We did ours at a jewelry shop in front of Ben Thanh – Ha Tam which gave us that rate which was better than here in KL at that time.
-Although Saigon is quite a safe city, but hard life can make one desperate. So be careful of your belongings, be on guard at all times, wear slingbags and make sure the bag is in front of you. Wear no jewelry/gold when you are there so you would not attract any unwanted attention.
-Take only Vinasun or Mailinh cabs – if possible get them from their agents, usually they would put their agent in front of hotels. If possible get a rough idea from the hoteliers on the cab fare.
-Avoid boarding any heavy tinted cabs ; trishaws ; shoe-shining service
-Ho Chi Minh or Saigon City is also known as Motorbike city as the roads in Ho Chi Minh city is full of motorbikes (due to the high price of petrol), so crossing roads can be intimidating. But fear not, just walk smoothly don’t hesitate, they will honk their horns but rest assured they will maneuver away from you. If there is an police officer on duty by the roadside, he will assist you, no worries.
-Be watchful of what you say as most sellers know the simple Malay – like murah, mahal, cantik etc.
-Only haggle for stuff you want – after some haggling, the seller still doesn’t want to give you that price, walk away – there’s a chance that the seller would give in to the price you’ve offered, but then you have to buy it. If not you might just get an earful of Vietnamese language.
-Be friendly - make new friends during your shopping spree – so you could exchange some notes on prices of the items.
-Haggle for everything and everywhere – except for the Fixed Price shops of course. Haggle starting with at least 50% is a must! As a basic, it would be good for you to start off by looking at the prices of the items at the Fixed Price shops, so you could draft out your bargaining strategy ;). If you are interested to do some shooting at the Cu Chi Tunnel shooting range, the bullets are sold at around RM53/10 bullets (minimum). Please take note that the conversion was at RM150/1 million VND or RM3.05/USD1.
Well, this is the end of my Saigon trip tale. Saigon is now on my permanent revisit list. But when to revisit… only time will tell. But last but not least, I would like to thank the forumers at Cari Forum, the many blogs that have shared their stories that enable me to compile such a detailed notes for this and also for other trips too. I will no doubt share my own experience there – sharing is caring right!
Till the next time… Ciao!!!