25 April 2016

Saigon II: Exploring Ho Chi Minh City

My hectic day on Saturday meant that I slept perfectly on Saturday night, only waking to the sound of my alarm. I left my hotel before 8 am, hoping that it might be a little cooler and it was — but only by a degree or two. First on my to-do list was coffee. Before my arrival, I had identified a few speciality/third-wave coffee bars in the city, including The Workshop, which is located just off Nguyen Hue, a 20-minute stroll from my hotel. I say 'stroll' but really I mean dawdle (in the heat) and dash (when crossing the road). The Workshop was lovely, in any case. I'll blog in more detail about my coffee experiences throughout the country at the end of my trip, but I enjoyed a Vietnamese variety from Da Lat, brewed through the Aeropress and followed by a cold brew chaser. The cafe itself is on the top floor and is a cool, beautifully decorated space.

Many of Saigon's sights are located within the central District 1 and although the extreme heat and extreme traffic don't make walking especially pleasant, it is a relatively convenient way of getting around. From Nguyen Hue, I wandered down to the river — the waterfront isn't the most scenic but there are some small parks and it was nice to get away from the traffic briefly. After stopping to look at the statue of Mongol-vanquisher Tran Hung Dao, I walked back up Dhong Khoi Street, which has a number of nice restaurants and fancy shops and hotels.

I stopped briefly at the Saigon Post Office, with its buttercup-yellow exteriors and grand, arched interiors. Just opposite is the 19th century Notre-Dame cathedral where mass was taking place.

A few blocks to the south-west is the Reunification Palace, which was home to the President of South Vietnam and also marks the spot where the Vietnam War ended on 30 April 1975. The park just opposite is also called 30 April park and 30 April is also a holiday in Saigon, although I won't be around to see the festivities. The palace itself costs 30,000 VND (about £1) to get in and it takes just under an hour to tour the various rooms. The vice president's office didn't seem any less grand than the president's to me, but what would I know? I think the visit might have been more rewarding with a guide but it was so hot and the large groups I saw inside didn't seem to be having more fun.

The War Remnants Museum is one block to the north-west. The entrance fee is 15,000 VND and it was both a fascinating and sobering experience. My GCSE history syllabus stopped at the end of the Korean War and so my only knowledge of the Vietnam War has come through culture: films, TV shows and books. But even then, the references have only been passing—I've never seen Platoon or Apocalypse Now, for instance. The museum's displays convey some of the war's horrors, including the deaths of civilians and the cross-generational impacts of Agent Orange, in visual and often graphic form. There is some stunning photography in the museum and a room dedicated to the reporters and photographers who covered the war, including some who lost their lives. The War Remnants Museum doesn't make for a comfortable experience but it should be on every visitor's list.

I had already identified a place for lunch but because it was back on Dhong Khoi Street, I had to retrace my steps a little. L'Usine was worth it, though: a stylish all-day eatery on the first floor of a Dhong Khoi building. Their breakfast menu is supposed to be particularly good but I was so hot that I just ordered a Vietnamese salad. I say 'just' when really, it was a huge bowl of delicious veggies with caramelised pork and a tasty dressing. I also had a latte, which had excellent latte art but which wasn't quite as good as at The Workshop. With a soda and tax, lunch cost me about 290,000 VND (about £9), which I didn't think was too bad. L'Usine also has a lifestyle boutique selling everything from stylish homewares and clothes, to Marou chocolate and Old Saigon Monopoly. There's now another branch of L'Usine near Ben Thanh Market.

I was so close to another of my pre-identified coffee shops, Klasik Coffee Roasters, that I decided to stop by for another coffee. Espresso tonic and nitro cold brew were on the menu, along with a huge array of coffee varieties that can be served as a Chemex, siphon or V60. They had run out of the Ethiopian coffee I wanted, so I tried a Kenyan instead, brewed expertly through the Chemex.

It was then a rather hot walk in the afternoon sun to the Museum of Vietnamese History, which costs 15,000 VND (£1) to get in. The museum is quite small and has a huge number of historical artefacts, but there isn't very much historical information and it wasn't especially engaging. Again, perhaps a guide might have been a better option but again, the group I was stuck behind didn't seem to be having a great time.

It took another 20 minutes — including the diversion I had to make when there was no way of crossing the two-line highway I encountered; at least not in a dress and flipflops — to reach the Jade Emperor Pagoda. This is supposed to be one of Saigon's most impressive temples but I'm not sure it was worth the long trek in the heat. I think seeing so many of Japan's impressive temples has ruined me forever! It took about an hour to walk back to my hotel, including a stop in the shade in a leafy park and a brief visit to the huge, frenetic bargaining hall that is Ben Thanh Market.

My evening's entertainment was a street-food tour on the back of a motorbike with XO Tours. I did "The Foodie" and would highly recommend it. I'll do a separate post once the company has emailed some of the photos and videos they took, but we tried so many different foods, almost all of them delicious, and visited many districts of Saigon beyond district 1. It's expensive ($72) but well worth the money. This photo is of my favourite dish of the night: scallops with peanuts and herbs. There were a few more exotic dishes on the menu too, though, and it was a really fun night.


  1. Anonymous12:33

    have you tried any local-style coffee?

    1. Yep, quite a lot. It's probably better with milk and sugar but I don't take either. At least it's cheap and cold!

  2. Anonymous20:26

    You seem to be doing a good job with the coffee!