Travelling Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh

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The MacInnes family – apart from Campbell – take on Cambodia and Vietnam for a family holiday that will sure to bring a lot of laughs, a lot of arguments and a lot of drinking. This Vietnam trip was with tour group Intrepid.

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Rise and shine! Ho Chi Minh time! Rise and shine was 2am for me and at that stage, I couldn’t be bothered going back to sleep so, awesome. As part of the Intrepid tour, it was an early morning flight from Hoi An – well Da Nang airport.

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So after a short flight, we landed in Ho Chi Minh, the biggest city we had travelled to so far and unlike Hanoi, it was a city, like Melbourne, and it was busy.

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Ho Chi Minh is broken up into districts, which are very big in size. All up there are 24 districts, nine centrally and 4 suburban districts, read more about them here. Known as Saigon the city is 10-12 million years old and started out 3km2 when the French came and now is 200km2, that is a lot of development!

In Vietnam the biggest contributor to the GDP is exporting clothes, after that it is tourism. Ho Chi Minh alone has already had 30 million tourists visit and I’m sure by the end it has grown since writing this! Their tourism industry is good, however, their geography not so good, well for this travel company anyway (look at where it says the Sydney Opera House is)!

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Our first stop in Ho Chi Minh was the War Museum. Wow, was that an eye-opener. I strongly recommend you go, but I warn you it is sad, upsetting and distributing. The top level was the history on how the war began, the middle shows the impacts from the war and the below is how it ended. So start from the top and work down.

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Level two is hands down the most confronting of them all, be prepared and I do not recommend taking children there. If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War, I have been recommended the series Vietnam War by Ken Burns.

Some key takeaways? During the Vietnam War, $676US billion was spent, this is double what was spent in WWI. The Vietnam War also lasted 15 years longer than both WWI and WWII where three million were killed and two million were injured with 14.3 million tons of bombs that were used!

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After the war, the country was left with 800,000 bombs and 6.1 million ha of land contaminated. As for agent orange? Well, 4.8 million were exposed, 3 million became its victim, including 4th generations. But anyway, back to Ho Chi Minh.

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If you want to see the main monuments of Ho Chi Minh, they are all located in a similar area including The Post Office, Notre-Dame Basilica, the Opera House and People’s Committee Hall are just a few blocks towards the river. All beautiful buildings signify the French influence in Ho Chi Minh.

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Also just around the corner from the Post Office is Book Street. The little stalls are so cute even if you don’t purchase anything, take a look.

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If you want to take in some more history of Ho Chi Minh, head to the Independence Palace or once know as the Reunification Palace. Home to the South Vietnamese President during the war, it was the site where the Vietnam War ended during the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.

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When travelling Ho Chi Minh, be prepared for traffic or just walk. It took us a while to get around but before heading to the hotel we stopped right near Bến Thành Market for lunch at Pho 2000.

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Now this place is busy! We were told this was the restaurant Bill Clinton and the First Daughter ate at. His photo is on the wall and under our table was the options he ordered as well the Miss Chelsea’s order. Diane, a member of the tour, and I were sitting next to each other when we realised the red tablecloth, this was the actual table and we were sitting in the exact seats! I was sitting where Miss Chelsea was and Diane where Bill Clinton sat, well just call us royalty from now on thanks.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t go for Miss Chelsea’s vegetarian option and opted for the seafood pho. It was delicious and was the gift that kept on giving every time I thought I had finished the seafood I found more! The spring rolls with noddles was also a hit with everyone as well. But don’t put soy sauce in your pho, the waitress will yell at you.

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Next stop, our hotel. Parkview was, you guessed it, right across from the park. But it was no ordinary park, this park leads to the backpacker’s area, which was crazy! The streets filled with food vendors, cars, motorbikes, people with snakes around their necks – yes, chairs and tables from restaurants and bar promotors, let alone the people just walking to find somewhere to party, it was insane!

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Ho Chi Minh is also good if you want to splurge and have a bit of a shop. They have big shopping centres like Vincom and Pakerson or they have a huge market Bến Thành,  as well as with shops along the streets. This is easily your best place to shop if you haven’t had the chance!

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Night one in Ho Chi Minh and it was time to find some food and some drinks. A few of us went over the road to a food market, much like a hawker hall or huge indoor food market or food court called Asiana Food Town, this place was brilliant.

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They had many different food outlets selling any type of Asian cuisine along with Indian, Italian and desserts or drinks.

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My choice was the Cantonese Kitchen for the mixed pork, chicken and duck in a clay pot and as a side salmon sushi. Both were delicious, but the clay pot was a highlight! If you’re looking for somewhere to eat and are staying in district one, check this place out!

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Next stop, time for a drink. A few of us from the group headed off to Air 360, a bar with 360-degree views of the city. Some were dressed a little fancier than us but we didn’t have a problem getting in, maybe for guys wear a collared shirt, just in case. But wow, the views were amazing, the pictures really do speak for themselves. We also found some more trip friends up there enjoying the view, shout out to the lovely British couple who took a group picture or 10 for us.

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Add this place to your list for the best views of Ho Chi Minh and the cocktails weren’t too badly priced! Oh, and they have a pool two floors up so if you can work out how to get up there, do that too and report back to me telling me how.

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What I don’t recommend? Eating in the backpacker’s area, it is so busy and crowded you can’t talk when you eat because you can’t hear what you’re saying and the food isn’t that great. We did also see a legit “booze cruise”, two opened air jeeps, two groups of guys hanging out the sides drinking and driving up the backpacker’s area. One attempted to throw a drink to the other, yeah fail.

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Day two in Ho Chi Minh was spent on the Mekong Delta or ‘nine dragons’. It is around 2 hours away from the city but it is definitely something you need to experience. The Mekong River is in total 4000km long, starting at the top of China, it runs through Thailand, Cambodia – which I experienced here – and finishes in Vietnam.

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In Vietnam alone, 20 million people live along the Mekong, which is nearly all of Australia’s population but it is a great area for growing fruit and vegetables as the mud in the water is a great fertiliser.

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Over many years, people have lived on the Mekong, many different animals have lived in the river, including crocodiles, which are now farmed to make handbags so we were told. To scare off the big creatures believed to live in the Mekong, villagers painted eyes on the front of their boats to scare them away. To this day the eyes still remain.

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Before getting on our two eyed boat we walked through the brick factory. Bricks are made from the clay found at the bottom of the river and are used to make houses in the local area. The kilns used to make the bricks were massive and people stack them by hand, around 100,000 bricks per cook and fill the door with bricks by hand as well. Incredible work!

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Our boat ride down the Mekong Delta was peaceful as we took in the sites of coconut trees and boats passing by. One thing we learnt in Vietnam is nothing goes to waste, the coconut tree is used for many reasons and all had a purpose, also they eat nearly everything with most of the animal eaten as well. Each part of meat has a different method of cooking, fish sauce is essential but different sauces are used in different ways.

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Anyway back to the boat, docked at a very unstable jetty we stopped at a place making coconut candy and anything you can think of that coconut is used for. Did you know coconut oil can be a clear mascara? Well yep apparently. The peanut coconut candy was the best, but I had to buy durian flavour for my housemate, Jenna who had her first durian experience before I left and hated every minute of it – sorry Jenna!

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A nice morning tea of fresh fruit, Vietnamese mangoes are my favourite, and it was off in our ‘tuk-tuk’ to our lunch destination. I say tuk-tuk in quotation marks because it wasn’t really your traditional tuk-tuk but more of a motorbike with a trailer on the back. Make sure you put that helmet on though or cope some serious palm leaves to the head, also duck for those too.

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After stopping for a motorbike or two to get past or a school kid on his bike who nearly went off the path and into the bushland, we made it to lunch. Again lunch was at a homestyle restaurant that caters for tourists.

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For lunch we had a whole fish from the Mekong used for spring rolls, fried rice, fresh prawns, Vietnamese fresh salad and a pawn soup, I didn’t love this meal as much as the others. The highlight was definitely the fresh prawns in lime juice with salt and pepper (new seafood hack), but the rest was hit and miss.

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Next adventure, a walk through the bushland to see how the Mekong villagers live. As Nhi said they are laid back people and their lifestyle definitely suggests that. We even witnessed an exposed water pipe that was tied to trees and went up and over pathways. Anyway, that’s fine, water access is water access I guess.

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To get back to our bigger boat we all got rides on Vietnamese gondolas. The lady rowing ours was a speed demon and raced all the other boats to reach our destination in the first place! It was a really cool experience to paddle down the Mekong in our Vietnamese bamboo hats provided by the boat and witness the other boats rowing past or even people who lived on their boats.

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Waiting for us in our monster two eyed little cruiser boat was coconut water served in a coconut, Dad wasn’t too impressed with his but it was a little refreshing drink before heading back on the bus for the journey home, which I napped the whole way, waking only to rearrange my stiff and bent neck.

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Last night in Ho Chi Minh on our tour, so what do you do? A nice dinner of course! If you are looking to eat somewhere nice but also want to support the locals go to KOTO, a hospitality school and restaurant opened by an Australian to give those with no education or income a chance to free schooling in the hospitality industry.

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The motto at KOTO, know one, teach one. The food was delicious and the service amazing.

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As part of our meal, we shared duck wontons, glass noodle chicken salad, fresh rice paper rolls, stir-fried squid, braised pork belly with vegetables and rice. One of the highlight meals on the trip.

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Next stop, bars. A lot had early morning starts or flights, including me, but some of us went for a drink or two in the backpacker’s area.

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It wasn’t as busy as the Friday night in town but Vietnam won an important soccer match so fans were riding around the streets celebrating their win! It was crazy, but awesome to see. After one drink in the area, we headed to another rooftop, Chill Bar.

 

We were told this was the place celebrities went and the dress code was pretty strict, but we risked it anyway. For 300,000VND you got a drink on entry and access to the bar, oh why not, when in Ho Chi Minh!

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We headed up and got a lot more than we expected. Not only did the bar play incredible music but once the rain had cleared and we could go outside, they had performers on the bars and then famous Vietnamese popstar MIN performed for everyone. I was extremely confused but happy I got to experience all this!

 

The music at Chill Bar is great, the atmosphere is awesome and the views spectacular.  Maybe dress to impress just to be sure you get in. After looking at the time around 12:30am it was time for bed before a very early start, I always do this to myself.

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Rise and shine at 5:30am to be checked out and at the Post Office for the Cu Chi Tunnels tour! A few of our tour members were on the tour but we still had to say goodbye to most, which was really sad! I met some really great people on the trip and had a lot of fun with them learning and experiencing Vietnam, especially that train!

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Another bus trip and another very nappy gal heading for the Cu Chi tunnels. Our tour guide Tan was fantastic and gave a great history lesson on the Vietnam War and the Vietcom before we arrived. It was too bad I was so nappy but I did hear some of it. So here goes. Cu Chi is not really named after anything in particular but is the nickname of a tree that was destroyed in the war due to the chemicals used.

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During the Vietnam war, nine million Vietnamese died and 59,000 American’s but the government of Vietnam only found 58,000. However, the Vietnam War was more than just 20 years for the Vietnamese. They have had 120 years of being in war. It was the French first who invaded and took over Vietnam, you will notice this in a lot from the buildings and even a strong presence of baguettes, hence known as Banh Mi.

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Then it was the US, following that war with Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime and then the Chinese, but many other countries tried to take over in this time including the Japanese, watch Vietnam War to learn more about this. So the poor Vietnamese didn’t catch a break for a very very long time.

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Along the way, we stopped at a Viet Cong (VC) house to see how they live now. Tan explained a lot now walk with a hunch in their back after being crouched for so long and the women may look young but in fact, dye their hair to stay looking youthful. The house we went to makes and sells rice paper to markets. We watch a Vietnamese lady make the paper and once dried cut it to size. But as we know there is no waste in this culture and the leftovers are fed to her pigs, we even fed them.

 

The Chu Chi tunnels were lived in by the Vietcom who lived in these tunnels for 20 years, can you actually imagine! They ate only tapioca for 20 years and around 16,000 people lived in these tunnels over those 20 years. Our tour leaders parents met and married in these tunnels, babies were even born in them!

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The tunnels were 50cm width and 80cm height and went 12m deep, now they are only 6m and tourists can go around 3m in total. The VC recycled everything during the war, they wore GI (American soldiers) clothes they found and parachutes were even used to make tent hunts for the VC to use as resting areas before going back into the tunnels at night. These really need to be seen to be believed.

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We looked at some of the old tunnel holes and how small they were, I just fit in the first one. Tan got in and took a photo inside one to show us the scorpions that lived in them – don’t stress the ones for tourists have been cleared. He even showed us the air holes and how they used bamboo slightly tilted to get air into the tunnels. Another fact learnt the girl seen in the famous photo taken by Nick Ut, the ‘napalm girl’ even lived in the tunnels. You can read more about her story here.

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Okay, so it was time to enter the tunnels. Tan said most won’t last more than 60m in length and in my case he was right, I lasted 20m and these are even widened for tourists. Being a little claustrophobic I was pretty happy that I even went in. You can get out every 20m but I definitely couldn’t last any longer, so dark, so hot and so small. I actually can’t believe people lived in those for 20 years!

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Some of our group went the whole 100m where you get to a point of having to slide through the tunnels, brave brave people. We just met them at the different locations as they continued through. We saw the meeting room, the dining room and the hottest place there, the kitchen. Wow, it was hot and they cooked in there for 12 hours a day!

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The tunnels are definitely worth having a look at. We learnt a lot more about the Vietnam War and saw an insight into how the VC lived. Crazy times and something we all need to learn more about.

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Once we got back into Ho Chi Minh the rain came down, hard and fast! A typhoon set in so we headed back to the Asian Food Market for market shopping and food before heading to the airport. Next stop Nha Trang!

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Ho Chi Minh is a huge city, we didn’t even scrap the surface but we got a quick glimpse at the highlights! Recommendations? Definitely the sky bars, the market – although we only saw it from a fair due to lack of time, the landmarks including the Post Office and Norte Dame, the backpacker’s area, the Mekong Delta tour and the Cu Chi Tunnels!

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