I frantically looked for my passport in my backpack as the cab neared the Kempegowda International Airport. My friends had picked me up en route to the airport and after almost reaching the airport, I fretted if i had left my passport back home. My mind raced through the ticket prices and the leaves i had to request for this trip. Upon arrival at the airport, I got an opportunity to search for it clearly and heave a sigh of relief as I found my passport laying comfortably in the inner compartment of my backpack. Vietnam was on!
Since it was the first international destination for most of the gang, everyone were excited and also happy to get the much needed break. The time was almost half past eleven when we boarded and we all decided to conserve our energy for tomorrow and get some shut-eye. I awoke to the sound of the air-hostess who informed that the plane would be landing at Bangkok soon, where we had a transit of about 3 hours. With the Sun not up yet, Bangkok from above was a marvelous sight with all the lights twinkling.
The short stay at Don Muang airport reminded me of the railway stations back home with all chairs occupied and a 40-member long queue to go to the restroom. With no place to sit, we followed suit of other passengers and sat on the floor till we got a call for the flight to Saigon(officially, Ho Chi Minh City). This was a relatively short flight and we got there in about a couple of hours.
We got through the immigration at Tan Son Nhat International Airport relatively quick as we had an Approval Letter for Visa on Arrival. Vietnam doesn’t provide Visa on Arrival for Indian citizens but third-parties are allowed to apply and get it approved on their behalf. We chose to go with myvietnamvisa.com who mailed us the approval letter in 2 days.The airport is usually one of the best and most reliable places to convert money and we got a fare deal at one of the conversion counters. The exchange rates were around 23,000 VND for 1 USD and I finally felt like a millionaire in Vietnam holding multiple 500,000 bills in my hand.
We had a booking via Airbnb to share Ly’s home in Saigon and we took a couple of prepaid taxis from the airport. We had some trouble in communicating with the driver even though we had the address but Ly helped us out on call and guided them to her home. Ly is a superhost and I can’t thank her enough for helping us from even before we reached there – from the planning to making our stay as comfortable as possible and helping in transport bookings for future legs of the journey. Her family was also very warm to us and we had a great stay in her lovely home.
Central Post Office and Notre – Dame Cathedral:
We took a cab to find a certain store where we could do bookings of bus and trains for the rest of the journey across Vietnam. The address we had was confusing and we ended up getting dropped at some other place. Lost on the very first day! Hungry and with the rain starting to pour in, we had some street food and then walked a mile to reach district one by nightfall. The Cathedral was closed but the beautiful french architecture is hard to miss for any passerby. However, the post office was open. From the exterior, I could make it out as an colonial building but seeing the interiors can make you think otherwise. The beautiful window arches , marble floors , wooden antiques preserved from the colonial times make this the most spectacular post office I’ve seen till date. My only regret is that I could not visit these places during the daytime.
Ben Thanh Market:
It was around 7:30 pm and this place was bustling with people and street vendors. There are plenty of stalls both inside and outside the market selling a wide range of items like souvenirs, clothes, crafts, bags, shoes and a variety of electronics which make the road and footpath a sort of a bazaar. Street food joints are available along with these stalls. I left my friends behind at this place and headed with Ly, who had just arrived, to TheSinhTourish office in district one to book our transport across different cities of Vietnam.
Cu Chi Tunnels:
The next morning, we headed out to TheSinhTourish office, where we were supposed to catch the bus to Cu Chi Tunnels at 9am. We underestimated the infamous Saigon traffic and we missed the bus despite TheSinhTourish office guys calling us up and giving reminders. We boarded the next Vinasun taxi available and caught the bus at one of the next stops. The bus ride to the tunnels was smooth and the guide gave us a heads up as to what we can expect there and some guidelines.
We were led to a room with a 10 min video explaining about the Vietnam War(called American War in Vietnam) ,how the tunnels were built and under what conditions the soldiers of Viet Cong lived here fighting for around 20 years. The guide then took us to a few short tunnels and showed a number of traps that the soldiers used. I got into one the tunnels. They are narrow and absolutely pitch dark and they led to wider places underground at the end of the tunnel. Some tunnels lead as far as Saigon, which is about 50 km away. Most of them have been closed off and now only a few are made open to the tourists. They also have a few mortars, tanks and artillery captured during the war.
With a full tummy from the variety of delicacies available at Asiana Food town, we walked almost a mile to the Bitexco Financial Tower, where the Saigon Sky-deck is present. The building has a unique shape which one can easily identify. It was the tallest building in Vietnam when it was built in 2010. We paid the entrance fee of 200,000 VND per head and took the elevator to the top. The elevator was so swift in its ascent that we started to experience a slight discomfort in my ears similar to that in the case of flights. We reached the sky-deck(49th floor) in a matter of seconds.
I could see the skyline of the entire city with the curves of the Saigon river flowing through the city. We could not witness the sunset as it had been cloudy and drizzling all day and we just sat down watching the sky turn dark and the city light up with all the streetlamps, buildings, billboards and vehicles. The sight was captivating and we just didn’t feel like leaving till we felt hungry. There was a restaurant upstairs with the awesome view of the city but it was quite expensive. We skipped that and later munched on some of the juicy dragon-fruits sold on the streets below.
Artinus 3D Art Gallery:
On the final day at Saigon, we decided to try something different instead of the conventional sightseeing places. This art gallery features over a hundred 3D paintings by South Korean artists where you can pose and be a part of. It was fun to pose amidst the visually stimulating scenes. We also met some adorable kids out on a school excursion.
Our next stop was at the Independence palace which stands majestically in the center of the city. It was the seat of power of South Vietnam till the Fall of Saigon. Unluckily, the place was closed when we arrived and would take another hour to open. Hungry and tired from the heat of the afternoon sun, we admired the impressive structure from the exterior and searched for a place with vegetarian food to eat ,which was quite rare around Vietnam (We had three vegetarians in the group).
War Remnants Museum:
The museum boasts a collection of plenty of war machinery captured from the Americans during the Vietnam war. This includes military helicopters and an F-5 fighter, several light combat aircrafts, un-exploded bombs and Patton tanks amongst others. There are separate rooms with graphic images explaining the war crimes during the American War and the First Indo-China War. For a history buff like me, this was an intriguing place.
Saigon is a city that must be on everybody’s bucket list. With clean city roads filled with bustling cute scooters zooming past, historically important places and iconic landmarks, plenty of markets for the shopaholic, amazing nightlife and delicious and pocket-friendly street food, Saigon has it all. Also, our host Ly made us feel at home in her lovely place.
Check out Highlights of HCMC (Saigon) trip below.