24 April 2016

Saigon I: Xin Chào, Saigon!

I left London around noon on Friday and, after a layover in Hong Kong just long enough to grab a decent macchiato from the Illy Cafe and soak in some of those moody, mountainous views, I arrived in Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City; I've been calling it Saigon, as most of the locals seem to) at around 10.30 am local time on Saturday. I hadn't flown Cathay Pacific before and I was really impressed: the seat was very comfy, the food was great and the service was great. Plus, they made the connection super-easy by displaying the gate numbers and transfer information for connecting flights on the in-seat monitors.

It only took about 10 minutes to pass through Vietnam immigration as until the end of June 2016, British citizens don't need a visa for trips of up to 15 days. My suitcase was, as usual, one of the last off the plane but even so, I was at my hotel in District 1 by 11.30. One of the biggest attractions for visitors to Saigon is the Cù Chi tunnels site — an extensive network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong to hide and run operations during the Vietnam War — and as it takes about half a day, including the journey to Cù Chi, I thought I might as well stave off the jet lag and do the tour on Saturday, leaving myself a full day to explore the city centre on Sunday. I dropped off my bags, had a quick shower and ran out for an iced coffee before heading off to meet my tour group.

Dozens of companies run tours to the tunnels and, of course, you pay a lot more for a private and small-group tours. As I'd already splurged a little on other tours and as I figured that the tunnels were the tunnels whichever group you joined, I went on a "large-group" tour, which cost 270,000 VND (about £9), including transportation, guide and entrance fee. There were 18 of us in our group, which wasn't too huge anyway. The drive to Cù Chi took about two hours with the traffic and a stop at a factory where we could watch people making lacquered boxes and trays (and buy them, of course, if we wished). Our cheerful guide kept us entertained and informed along the way with his countdown of his top three reasons why America lost the Vietnam War.

At the site itself, we watched a 15-minute historical video, which was as one-sided as you might expect — but then isn't most historical analysis one-sided? It was interesting, in any case, to hear a different side of the story even to that taught in British schools. Then we got to explore, climbing into one of the camouflaged tunnels and examining the various horrific traps that would have been set (if you've ever played Prince of Persia, you'll know what I'm talking about; eek).

Finally, it was time for the part we'd all been waiting for: crawling through a 100-metre stretch of the tunnel. Even though these tunnels have been enlarged and even though I am pretty small, parts of the tunnel were a rather tight fit, especially as I was trying to clutch onto my camera and mind my head. It was quite hard work getting to the end — I could hardly believe it had only been 100 metres and it gave me a new appreciation for what the soldiers must have had to endure.

Then, it was time to head back to the city — another 90 minute journey in the evening traffic. Although it takes a good six hours in total, if you have the time to spare while in Saigon, visiting the tunnels is a fascinating and educational experience, albeit a touristy one, and £9 seemed like a good deal to me.

We were dropped off in Saigon near the Bến Thành Market and, in the absence of my trusty Lonely Planet, I resorted to my pre-created Google Map for a dinner option. I had had a breakfast on each plane but no lunch and was getting rather hungry. I decided to go to a restaurant several people had recommended called Secret Garden. It's tucked away down an unassuming alleyway off Pasteur Street. You climb four flights of stairs and finally reach the gorgeous, leafy, lantern-filled rooftop. It certainly lived up to its name! I splurged on some spring rolls, a beef and pepper stir fry, rice and a pineapple juice, which cost about 220,000 VND (£7). Secret Garden is a really lovely spot and the food was great too.

Still trying to ward off the jet lag, I went for a wander around District 1. I'd heard horror stories about the difficulty of crossing roads but I didn't have too many problems — maybe it's my foolhardy London ways. I happened upon Nguyen Hue Street, a tree-lined, pedestrianised avenue that runs from the city hall down to the river. On a Saturday night, the street was buzzing with life: there was live music, dancing fountains, break-dancing and plenty more besides. It was nice not to have to watch out for the ubiquitous motorbikes, but almost everyone seemed to have a hoverboard and/or a selfie stick, so I still had to keep an eye out. I always love people-watching in city squares, especially those where people of all ages gather and socialise.

My final stop of the day was to the Bitexco Financial Tower. You can pay 220,000 VND (£7) to ascend to the observation deck but for the same price, I enjoyed a mojito at the cafe on the 50th floor. There's also a fancier bar one floor up but having come straight from the tunnels, I didn't think I was suitably attired. The view was great and I think I'll try to visit the observation deck at sunset one day.

It was then just a 20-minute stroll back to my hotel, further improving my Saigon geography and motorbike-dodging skills. By the time I got back, I was feeling suitably warm and grubby — nothing that a quick shower couldn't fix. I've only been here for 12 hours, but I'm already rather liking Vietnam.


  1. Anonymous06:59

    Should we expect an in-depth discussion of coffee in Vietnam? Is it true that they drink a lot of robusta? Also I heard (but can't confirm on the internet at the moment) that they there is a third variety (not arabica or robusta) that is unique to Vietnam? Also, are you planning to visit Uncle Ho's mausoleum?

  2. Anonymous15:07

    Hi Bex,

    The tunnels sound interesting, but if you struggled to fit into them, then I don't think I stand any chance! Also, I'm slightly claustrophobic, so should I ever make it to Vietnam, I might give that one a miss!

    The rest of your first day (you packed a lot in!) sounded excellent :-)


    1. Hi Brian,

      No, the tunnels themselves aren't for the claustrophobic but the site itself is both interesting and sobering. It was, unfortunately, a bit of a squeeze for my itinerary too — I'd have liked an extra day in Saigon to explore some of the speciality coffee shops I'd located outside district 1.

      Thanks for stopping by!