Taste of Vietnam - Part 1: Ho Chi Minh City

January 08, 2015

A fabulous warm-weather cruise in Southeast Asia has always featured near the top of my holiday wish-list, and last year I seized the opportunity to join a Celebrity Cruises trip from Singapore to Hong Kong, with stops at Bangkok and three ports along the coast of Vietnam. Although I have been to Asia several times, Vietnam was a totally new destination for me, and I had the privilege of seeing some of the most interesting tourist attractions of a country that consistently surprised me and challenged my perceptions of what I was going to find! I loved Vietnam, and realize that I would really like to return there and explore in more detail. Here’s what I found.

Harbour to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Our first port of call was the industrial harbour at Phu My, since our ship was too large to dock in Saigon Port. We docked at 7am, and had to be back on board by 5pm, which does not leave a lot of time for exploring. I had looked into the possibility of arranging a private tour to save some time, but was worried that we might get back too late and miss the sailing time – the ship will leave without you if you are not back in time. In this case you would have to make your own way to the next port, at your own expense with without a passport!

When I originally booked the cruise I did not do my homework very well. I only started reading about the excursions a bit later, and when I found out that most of the ship excursions involved lengthy coach transfers I was tempted to cancel the cruise. I had really not been looking forward to the 2-hour coach trip into the city but in hindsight, it was actually a really good introduction to Vietnam, as we drove through endless little road-side villages and picturesque rice paddies. Our guide was informative and we learnt a lot about Vietnamese culture and everyday life - the two hours passed very quickly.

Fruit shop, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
A typical local Vietnamese fruit shop with several tasty tropical fruits.

Two things impressed me most; firstly, the villages were tidy and clean, (unlike those we drove through en-route to Bangkok, our previous port of call) and secondly, there is a great deal of effort being put into “greening” the environment – we were travelling along a fairly new road, and care had been taken to plant-up the centre island; I imagine it will be a riot of colour a few years from now.

Highlights of Ho Chi Minh City tour

I love cruising – it is great to be able to unpack just once and yet be in an exciting new place each day, but you do have to make some tough choices when it comes to choosing your excursions. Often you see a lot less than you had hoped to, due to a lack of time in port. This was the case with Ho Chi Minh City, as we only had one day there and a lengthy drive each way. I eventually decided that the “Highlights of Ho Chi Minh City” tour would probably be my best choice since I was a stranger to Vietnam.

Traffic, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Traffic is frenetic and it is not that easy to find the way around.

Although many of the main landmarks of the city are fairly close to each other, I am very pleased that I chose a tour rather than the “Ho Chi Minh City on your own”, as traffic is frenetic and it is not that easy to find your way around, however it would have been good to have a little free time. Our tour started in the town centre, where we were taken to see the historic Rex Hotel; I was far more impressed with the beautiful city-centre gardens than with the hotel. We then moved on to the Reunification Palace, where the Vietnam War famously ended in 1975 when North Vietnam troops drove a tank through the locked gates of this South Vietnam War Headquarters. The building is rather unimpressive for a palace, but is really worth a visit to see the command room, the maps and the underground labyrinth of rooms, including the well-protected radio control centre.

The French Influence are everywhere

Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Interesting French-inspired architecture can be seen in Post Office of Ho Chi Minh City.

I have a special interest in art and architecture, and was pleased that our tour also visited several buildings with interesting French-inspired architecture, a reminder of the period when Saigon was a French colony, prior to 1949. We briefly visited Notre Dame Cathedral, The Post Office, The Municipal Theatre or Saigon Opera House and The City Hall (which is modelled on the Paris City Hall) and is set in exquisite gardens. It would have been nice to have seen the interiors of some of these, but once again we did not have enough time.

Local buffet lunch

After a fairly boring buffet lunch in a local hotel, saved only by the fact that I tasted a Lotus salad for the first time, (delicious – a really unique flavour!) we moved on to visit a Lacquer Works factory, which was very interesting as we got to see the craftsmen at work, producing some exquisite inlaid artworks in all shapes and sizes. These also make great light-weight gifts to take home and I think the factory was very happy to have hosted us.

Chinatown

Our next and final stop was the Thein Haw Pagoda in Chinatown, one of the oldest in the city. Although this Pagoda is not the most elaborate of the many Pagodas you can visit, it must be one of the most popular and was packed with local people burning incense and going about their daily religious devotions – I enjoyed having a glimpse of daily life in Saigon.

Bird Caged, Vietnam
A young boy selling tiny birds in the street of Ho Chi Minh City.

Across the street was a man selling tiny birds from a barrow, and doing rather brisk business; as our trip progressed we found caged birds are extremely popular in Vietnam and many houses had several cages on their verandas.

Cu Chi Tunnels

There is a great deal more to see in Saigon and you may want to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, for a chilling insight into “The American War” from the Vietnam point of view; this is not the type of attraction that appeals to me, but many of the other passengers on our cruise were Vietnam War Veterans, returning to Vietnam for the first time since the end of the war, and most of them chose this excursion. I would have liked to have visited the Ben Thanh Market and experience a boat trip deep into the Mekong Delta, which requires a full day excursion, but sadly both of these will have to go back on the wish-list.

We only had about 7 hours in Saigon; I would recommend at least 3 days. Our next stop was to be the port for Da Nang and Hoi An - read all about it in Taste of Vietnam - Part 2: Da Nang and Hoi An.

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