A country I’ve always wanted to visit is Viet Nam, and now I finally had the opportunity to explore a bit of south Viet Nam during a four day trip to Ho Chi Minh. With the help and guidance from my local Vietnamese friend Bonnie, I learned a lot about the city and Vietnamese culture.
What you need to know about Viet Nam
Although Viet Nam is a united and peaceful country, there still is an undercurrent of tension between the north side and the south, since the Viet Nam war. It was a deeply divisive war that split many families and causes a lot of tragedy. If you are more interested in the war, I can highly recommend the recent 10 episode documentary from PBS – probably the best documentary I’ve seen in any category. Since the war time, there has been some confusion about the name of the biggest city in the south: Ho Chi Minh city. It’s also frequently referred to as Sai Gon, and I was a bit unsure what name to use. The city’s official name is Ho Chi Minh and it was renamed from Sai Gon to Ho Chi Minh after the war. However, a majority of southerners still call the city Sai Gon, and most of the shops and signs in the city still show the old name.
The currency of the country is called Dong, and it suffers from a horrible case of inflation. 12 USD / 10 EUR is about 287 000 Dong. Luckily, that will get you A LOT in Viet Nam!
Transportation is easy in Sai Gon. There are a lot of taxis here that take you cheaply wherever you need to go. They use taximeters so no need to haggle for a price before getting in. Uber and Grab also have services here. There is a subway system being built by a Japanese company, but it’s been delayed for many years (probably due to corruption). My friend Bonnie said that there is a joke in Sai Gon that goes like this: “A young kid asks his father when the subway project is finished, and the father replies that it will be ready in two years. Time passes and the kid grows up to have children of his own. One day, his son asks him when the subway will be finished. -In two years! He replies.”.
A taxi from the airport to the city takes 15-20 minutes.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh
I arrived on a Wednesday evening, the day before Viet Nam’s national 5-day holiday called Tet. It occurs at the same date as the Chinese lunar new year but the celebrations and traditions are a bit different. My original plan was to exit the airport wearing a Singaporean red military beret, but I chickened out when I saw the airport guards with automatic weapons. I didn’t know the culture well enough and I wasn’t gonna take the risk of offending a guard.
Rolling into the city can be a different and fun experience for a westerner. Most of the streets are decorated with the national flag and the communist party flag alternating on light posts every 50 meters. The city is absolutely chalk full of small shops, food stalls, and imported chain restaurants – a mix of communism and capitalism. I also saw a lot of chain restaurants I’ve never seen before, such as “Mom’s touch”, “Texas Chicken”, and “Louisiana Chicken”.
I had chosen a central hotel called Sun Flower hotel. It was a cheap, clean and good option if one wanted to explore the central areas of Ho Chi Minh. Check in was easy and quick, the hotel had a safe, AC, free WiFi and breakfast.
Food was definitely on my mind, so Bonnie suggested we go for the “nr 1 pho restaurant” in Sai Gon. Pho is a typical Vietnamese dish made of broth, noodles, veggies and different meats. The shop turned out to be closed due to the holiday, so we went to the location of the “nr 2 best pho restaurant in Sai Gon”. It was also closed, so we tried nr 3. Closed. We decided to take a street food stall with plastic chairs near the central ben thanh market.
Ben thanh market reminded me of a miniature version of Khaosan road in Bangkok. Most big Asian cities that I’ve visited have at least one area with street food where you sit outside on plastic chairs and eat cheap good food off of plastic plates with plastic chopsticks or cutlery (no knives though – in Asia, the spoon and fork are king). It was delicious! I can recommend going to the ben thanh market for souvenirs and replica items, but be prepared to haggle. As Bonnie said: “It’s a foreigner’s market. No Vietnamese shop there”.
The first day of Tet had arrived and we proceeded to a square type of area that had flowers, entertainment and a statue of the country’s national hero (at least for the north people): Ho Chi Minh.
The national traditional uniform of Viet Nam is called an Ao Dai, and it’s worn by both men and women during holiday. Bonnie had been kind enough to arrange one for me prior to my arrival, so naturally we wore them! I must say that I find the Ao Dai to be a very beautiful garment, and I was definitely wearing it with a lot of pride.
Many Vietnamese came up to me for photo requests, and were delighted to find a foreigner wearing their traditional dress. I felt like a real dep trai (handsome guy)! That’s one thing that I’ve come to like about Vietnamese – they are very friendly. This also has a back side, which I’ll come to later..
After walking around a bit, taking photos, meeting the Vietnamese Iron man and Spider man, we headed to a cafe. I had been recommended to try the famous Vietnamese egg yolk coffee. I was a bit skeptical at first, but it turned out to be surprisingly good! I had imagined that they simply would dump a sweaty old yolk into a cup of black coffee, but the actual beverage was more like a cappuccino with a layer of egg yolk and something that probably was condensed milk. Anyway, it was very good!
For lunch, we grabbed a cab and went to the Chinatown area to try the national version of pho. It was MUCH better than the street stall version from the previous night! Walking around in an Ao Dai in 35 degrees heat was quite tiresome and hot, so the food, air condition and water was just what we needed. After a while, we left the place to find an ATM for me.
As we were walking on the sidewalk, some guy on a scooter rode up behind Bonnie and tried to snatch her purse and take off. Luckily, he didn’t succeed, but it was a surprising and somewhat shocking moment that for the first time showed me the dark part of Viet Nam. The crime rate here is high, and robberies are not uncommon. I’ve never been in a fight, but if that guy on the scooter would have stopped or fallen off, I admit that I probably would have tried to beat him up. I was so pissed off from the experience. I mean, come on. How pathetic isn’t that? It’s a national holiday, and the guy tries to rob a young woman from his own country wearing the nations traditional dress. I can’t think of a more fitting description of a coward low-life scumbag loser. As we were continuing to walk, I was secretly hoping that he would get run over by a truck.
I would advise tourists to take precaution and not wear any expensive jewelry like watches. Don’t have your cellphone in your hand, because somebody could come up in a crowded place and grab it. One of my class mates here in Singapore almost had her phone stolen like that when she visited Viet Nam just a week before me. Keep your valuables safely stored! It wasn’t the only time during the trip I was exposed to street theft, which I’ll get back to later.
We spent the afternoon at a lovely place called district 7. It has a scenic walk along the river, with restaurants, lights and a water wheel among other things. It also had a nice park (where it was forbidden to pick the poisonous pumpkins), a bridge with cool lights – and three of the ugliest dog statues I’ve ever seen. We couldn’t decide if they looked like dogs, cats, rats or bears. It was a nice and relaxing evening! Lots of families were in the area and I was just in heaven looking at all the beautiful Ao Dai’s that were being worn. Managed to use my new Tamron 18-400 mm lens to snap a few pics of Viet kids posing like the next glamour model by the water wheel.
The rest rooms were not that good though. It’s the first rest room I’ve ever visited where somebody had taken a shit in a urinal. Thank god I didn’t have to watch the actual performance, only the result. It was bad enough..
Dinner was had at a restaurant that served the north style dish called bun cha! It was delicious. In the back of my mind though, I couldn’t completely shake the memory of that street thug loser who tried to rob my friend. I had my camera strapped around me and paid close attention to my surroundings the entire time.
The first destination was to visit the Ho Chi Minh national pagoda. It’s a very popular and traditional activity for Vietnamese during the holiday. Most people go here to give praise to the Buddha and god of money (which the Chinese also have).
The outfit for the day was of course – Ao Dai! I was very happy for every opportunity to wear it. Everywhere I went while dressed in Vietnamese traditional garment, I would get a positive reaction. Lots of people giving me smiles, thumbs up, coming to shake my hand and being very friendly. The pagoda was no exception to this. I felt like the prince of Sai Gon or a celebrity – just like the time me and my friend walked around Mall of Dubai dressed in traditional Arabic men’s robe with headgear.
After the pagoda, I wanted another egg yolk coffee, so we headed back to the same place as yesterday. It turned out to be closed, so we went in to a nearby cafe that I think was part of a hotel. We ordered tea, coffee, and water. Bonnie was almost white to the face when she saw the price list, and she told me that they probably had printed out new menus with a price increase with about 500% only because of the holiday. That “meal” turned out to be the most expensive purchase during my trip, with the total bill landing at about 15 USD – which is just slightly more than a cafe in Singapore or Sweden would charge for the equivalent order.
For the rest of the day, Bonnie had invited me to catch a bus to the province of Tay Ninh outside of Sai Gon to experience the Vietnamese countryside and see how her parents live and work. For a guy like me who loves nature and adventure – it was an offer too good to pass up! I gladly accepted. So we headed back to the hotel to get my stuff. On the way back to the hotel, we passed through a series of smaller alleys where shops sold communistic propaganda items such as Vietcong hats and hammer & sickle flags. At a particular spot where it was too narrow for two people to walk, I met a young Vietnamese guy dressed as a hip-hop rap artist. He was wearing 80’s sunglasses, a hugely over sized Dallas cowboys game jersey, and a black baseball cap turned backwards. He greeted my by saying: “- Yo wassup’ man!” I was totally unexpecting to hear him use American street slang, so out of pure instinct I replied: “- Chuc mung nam moi!” which means happy new year in Vietnamese. Perhaps he also was surprised to hear something like that from me. Bonnie didn’t recognize his sentence, and later told me she thought he was speaking Korean 🙂
After waiting in the blistering sun for about 45 min for a bus that should arrive every 15 min, we decided to take a cab to the big bus station to get a smaller shuttle bus instead. It would also go faster. The shuttle bus to Tay Ninh took about 45 minutes, and the driver really put the pedal to the metal. He was driving like a madman, but he got us there safely. According to Bonnie, most shuttle bus drivers drive like that since they get more commission if they get to the destination faster. Traffic in Ho Chi Minh can be totally crazy. For a westerner coming to Asia for the first time, traffic here just seems like a huge chaotic mess. In Europe, people tend to drive in a much more ordered fashion and (for the most part) obey all traffic rues. Not here. Drivers seem so be honking constantly for no apparent reason. The notion of lanes is pretty much non existent, and it’s not uncommon to see 3 or even 4 people on one scooter. Several times I also saw people on scooters taking selfies and texting.
We arrived at her parents house, and I met her parents and brother. They didn’t speak English, but I managed to get them laughing by using the little Vietnamese I know. If there is one thing that I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that a big smile and friendly body language can get you very far. It’s a universal language that anybody can relate too.
I was asked if I wanted to see her Dad’s rice field, which I definitely wanted! So me, Bonnie and her brother took a pair of scooters and headed out. At first I was a bit nervous to be riding a scooter in the crazy Vietnamese traffic – especially since I hadn’t driven a two wheel motored vehicle since selling my Kawasaki Ninja sports motorcycle a few years ago. I reminded myself that I in fact did have a license to drive a motorcycle, and a scooter is much easier to drive. It was a piece of cake, and the country side traffic was much less intense than in the city. We took a right turn onto a dusty road with no asphalt and after a while, we ended up at the rice fields.
Bonnie’s dad owns three hectares of rice that he grows for the government. He visits the field every day to check on the conditions. There is a big canal of water supplying all of the farmers crops, and the field was completely soaked in water with only the leaves of the rice plants sticking up. There were also longan fruit trees there. Her family also has chickens, pigs, and a garden with loads of home grown organic fruits and veggies.
We went back to Bonnie’s parents house to have dinner. Her family follows the Caodaism religion where a calendar orders vegan food for about 10 days every month. This particular day was a vegan food day, and I didn’t mind. I have always loved veggies, and I enjoyed the meal very much. After dinner, we relaxed a bit in front of the TV as her dad bossed over the remote from his comfy position in a low hanging hammock. His choice of show was a channel showing informational films about forestry machines and heavy duty equipment – a real farmer!
Bonnie asked me if I wanted to try some locally made chameleon wine. As a bartender and bar manager with 16 years of experience, I’m not one to turn down the chance to try an exotic spirit like that! She fetched a huge glass bottle that must have been at least 20 liters large. It had been sitting in the same location, unopened for 5 years, so we dusted it off and removed the plastic tape from the lid. Inside the bottle was strong rice wine, herbs, and the bodies of about 50 chameleon lizards. Bonnie warned me that it would smell strange, but I didn’t think it was too bad. I had a small glass and it went down easily! Tasted quite good. I’d describe it as reminiscent of Jaegermeister. Definitely worth the experience. This local traditional spirit is said to be very healthy, and especially beneficial to men’s libido (where that idea came from, however, one can only speculate lol). Many Vietnamese men believe that the most powerful way to raise a man’s lust is a small shot glass of snake blood, or any shot glass of alcohol with a beating snake heart swallowed whole. It’s said to be better than viagra, and according to an episode from Gordon’s Great Escape where Gordon Ramsay travels to Viet Nam to cook, a popular saying is that a shot glass with a beating snake heart will make any man capable of “five times one night”. So did it work? Yes. 30 minutes later I had a massive boner 😉 (joke). Bonnie told me that she would pack a small bottle of chameleon wine for me to bring back to Singapore, and she also asked me if I wanted to bring 60 kilos of rice with me, ha ha. So funny.
Night time soon rolled around and it was time for bed. I was kindly given a large double bed with mosquito net and a fan. Bonnie explained that because of the heat, they slept without mattresses, and used large fleece blankets to soften the contact between the wooden bed and the body. I found it to be very comfortable and it felt good to my back to rest on a harder than usual surface like that. But I had difficulty falling asleep. There was a lot of traffic noise coming from the road outside. Cars and scooters drove by and the random honking bothered me. Just when I was about to fall asleep, the family dog thought it was a good idea to start a bark and howl contest with the other neighborhood dogs. It went on for what seemed like ages.. The next day, I asked Bonnie if the dog always did that, and she said: “- Oh, yes. He has a lot of friends!”. It was probably about 24:00 or 01:00 before I fell asleep.
The night before ended with dog barks, and the early morning started at 05:00 sharp, courtesy of the family rooster. I drowsily asked Bonnie if he always begun at 05, and she said: “- Oh no, he had a long sleep. Normally he starts at 03:00”. Well, thanks rooster.
Today’s itinerary started with visiting Cao Dai Holy See city, so we put on our Ao Dais and headed out with the scooters. The holy city was a 30 minutes drive, and going down the country side road in the early morning sun made me miss my motorcycle so much. The feeling of freedom that a motorcycle gives the rider is almost indescribable, and I made a mental promise to myself to buy one as soon as I get my degree.
We arrived at the holy city and walked around to take some pictures of the nice Caodaist buildings. The color theme seemed to be yellow, blue and red.
“- Just like the Vietcong flag”, I pointed out to Bonnie. She had never thought about it, but after she realized it was true, slapped me jokingly on the shoulder. I think she wasn’t too happy about her religion having the same color as the Vietcong, but it was probably a coincidence. The Caodaist religion also had a lot of symbols of the “all seeing eye”, which I remarked reminded me of the Illuminati. Bonnie had another explanation for the symbol.
We went to a stunning garden to look at some nice plants and landscaping, while her brother took a rest in the shade playing with his phone. We also entered the temple, which a monk claimed to be build entirely by bamboo. I took a close look at the pillars, and they were painted to look like light blue marble, but it was clearly not marble. Perhaps it really was 100% bamboo. The temple was beautiful, with lots of colorful carvings, dragons, golden chairs, etc. A monk offered to take our photo while giving praise.
The next stop was driving to a mountain to visit an old pagoda that had been built half way up. It took about 15 minutes to reach the place, and it was totally crowded. Many Vietnamese like to visit this mountain during Tet! We bought tickets to take a cable car up, after first buying a cone shaped straw hat to protect us from the scorching south Vietnamese sun. I was shocked to see so many people walking around jeans, long sleeve sweaters, and even warm jackets! I felt like the most naked person on the whole mountain with my shorts and t-shirt. The explanation for this is that many Asians, including Vietnamese, try to avoid the sun to stay as white as possible. Vietnamese have a saying about tan skin that goes ” Đen như Miên “, and means “black like Cambodian”. Like it or not – it’s the beauty norm here. Fair skin is considered more beautiful than tan skin, which ironically is the opposite in the west. There we do anything to get a nice tan, and we jokingly say that a very white person looks frail and unhealthy.
Getting to the top of that mountain was a tall order. The burning sun, 35 degrees, and thousands of steps later, we got there and all of us were panting and sweaty. I really wasn’t envious of the thickly clad Vietnamese who skipped the cable car and made the long, warm walk all the way up. They were sweating like pigs, and some of them carrying children. The most impressive were the workers who carried HUGE blocks of ice or packs of tamarind on their shoulders all the way up. It must have weighed at least 50 kgs. The looked like they were in agony. Their faces were running with sweat, their steps were slow and deliberate, but they got the job done (and all of them had long sleeve jackets and trousers). Bonnie asked me if I would be able to carry a block of ice all the way up like that, and despite being a former elite level athlete and fitness competitor, I highly doubted it. They made the Himalayan mount everest Sherpas look like childs play. After walking down from the mountain, I was tired AF and my quads were burning with lactic acid. At one point during the descent, a large crowd had gathered to watch an argument which seemed to potentially explode at any moment. Bonnie said that a lady accused some guy of picking her pocket. Not even Tay Ninh province, which was far from the bustling commotion of Sai Gon, was free from low life theft. Sad.
We left with our scooters to go back to Bonnie’s parents house and have lunch. I was a bit sunburned from riding in the scooter and wearing only t-shirt, and I pointed to my red arm and told Bonnie’s mom: “Đen như Miên”.
Lunch was a delicious mix of veggies, meat stew, rice, and the Vietnamese national holiday food called banh tet. It’s a rice based dish that is filled with beans and pork, and wrapped tight in a banana leaf and boiled for 8 hours. Lovely! Bonnie’s mom even gave me a huge banh tet to take back to Singapore to share with friends. I was also given some chameleon wine, packs of green tea, Vietnamese coffee, and home made sweets with tamarind and banana. I was so thankful and amazed by the hospitality and kindness that her family showed me.
We caught a shuttle bus back to Sai gon, to have a relaxing evening with some seafood at ben thanh street market, before my early morning departure back to Singapore. It had really been an amazing trip full great memories, moments and unexpected delights that I’ll keep for the rest of my life. It left me wanting more of Vietnam, and it’s a place I’m definitely planning on coming back to visit!