I am obsessed with Viet Nam
Travel Day: Cambodia to VietNam by bus.
Day 31: May 12, written in hindsight.
Because I did a land boarder crossing from Phnom Penh, logically HCMC (Saigon) was the first stop in my month log expenditure in Vietnam. I rode a Giant Ibis bus from Phnom Penh to HCMC, it took between 7 hours. Easy, just long. The ride itself is about 5 hours with a stop to use the restroom and grab lunch. We stopped at the Duty Free place right before the border crossing. My bus used the Bavet border post.
I applied for an e-visa 48 hours before my arrival date and had my visa within 24 hours. The border crossing was pretty easy- it wasn’t organized too well but our driver made sure the proper documents were given to the proper people. Upon first giving the driver my passport he requested money- this is a scam– I read about this happening to Americans and Europeans prior to getting on the bus. I told him I did not owe anything as I already had my visa. I showed him my E-visa. He requested money again and I denied it. He moved on.
For my e-visa, I used the official site- click here.
Arriving to HCMC, VietNam
By the time I arrived to HCMC- Ho Chi Minh City, it was dark. I walked to my hostel, not far from the bus drop off- Like Hostel. I truly loved the employees here! The rooms were average and the location wasn’t bad- it was in a quiet alley tucked into the main town which I definitely liked.
I was starving and ready to eat after my long day of travel- bring snacks! I didn’t really know where to go and by the time I was all settled into my space it was pretty late. I walked down the street to an ATM, or 2. The first one was not working. Then I just looked for a place nearby to eat, most of the places were closed, or closing.
There was one on the end of my alley that had a few people sitting. I stopped here. The menu was like one you’d find at The Cheesecake Factory- it was a book. Unfortunatley nothing looked appetizing and so I made a simple order- a salad and tea. Then I met another traveler. He was from Amsterdam, at least that’s where he currently calls home. We shared a few stories over a couple of beers. Ready to call it a night, I went back to my room.
Day 32: May 13. I spent my first day doing a 4-hour city tour with a university student- Hunter. I found this tour option through OneTrip;
linked here. I highly, HIGHLY, recommend them! – I use OneTrip many more times in Vietnam. The tour is free, I chose to do a motorbike tour however, so I left a large tip to cover gas and my guides time.
Free tours are the best way to spend your first day in a new city- these are sometimes prearranged meet-ups and othertimes scheduled day of. Make sure you always tip the guide fairly!
He took me first to breakfast-he asked about allergies and restrictions, then ordered my food. It was a local dish- AMAZING, I could eat it daily!
Then we went to ‘The White House’ or Independence Palace. We did not go inside, he said I could choose to do this separately as it cost money and will take up majority of our alotted time. I decided to not visit the inside as he explained it quite well and there were crowds of people I was not ready to face. We followed this up with Notre Dame and the Central Station.
This Notre Dame is just like the one in Paris, afterall southern Vietnam was originally run by France. I was not able to go inside, so I cannot compare the art and glass windows, etc. There was construction going on to the structure of the building and no one was allowed to enter. I was able to go into Central Station. This is now a full-service post office. There is a man here who knows so many languages and has the longest tenure working for the post office. He used to translate messages and letters for people. He still comes everyday to meet people and take pictures.
After these two stops we went for coffee down an alley. The owner/barista really wanted to show me how she makes the coffee; Perhaps because I kept complimenting her on the taste. This would wrap up the tour. Hunter dropped me back off to my hostel. After I was dropped off, I befriended a local and we went out for lunch nearby- Banh Mi. My first of many in Vietnam.
I discovered Banh Mi in Seattle, I was quite happy with it there, albeit it was definitely Americanized. My new local friend was an employee of my hostel. Her and I talked daily but this was the only meal we shared. She helped me skip the line- she told me to wait by the side of the building and she would order. As I leaned against the outside wall, the line formed down the street. She spoke vietnamese to the shop keeper and we had our sandwiches in no time; we skipped the line!
We walked a block further down the street and stopped for a smoothie to pair with it. She had only ordered one sandwich, so I split this in half- it was plenty. Then I shared my smoothie as well. I was not super satisfied with the Banh Mi, although I think it was just my american taste buds- again, the line was long and speaks for the masses!
The place was called Huynh Hoa Sandwich Shop. I did enjoy my smoothie, however and would return again. The smoothie place was called Banana’s juice shop. I really wish I had the name of the coffee place from before- I try to mark my GoogleMaps to remember places I have been, especially if I want to return to them. I didn’t get the food place from the morning either.
Vietnam: War Remnants Museum
After lunch, I decided to go to the War remnants museum to learn about ‘The American War’. Of course I DID learn about the Vietnam war in school growing up and a little from my grandpa, too. He was a colonel in the Army and never liked to talk about the wars.
The museum here taught me so much more than I ever knew. Not only did it give me new alternative perspective, but there was an entire room of pictures, too- this ‘room’ was more like 3,000 sqft at the least. I included one here of a US soldier carrying remnants of a corpse. I also learned about something called Orange Agent (There is a smaller room dedicated to this, across from the big room). This is what really pissed me off.
Orange Agent was a gas used in the war- it was a weapon. Pictures of how the gases affected people covered the walls… This gas had a VERY long term multiplying affect. This is the first generation to not be bearing children with birth defects relating to the gases of the war that ended in 1975. There was even a point in time where the government banned certain people from reproducing because of their genetics. So sad. I know it’s definitely NOT something we were taught in The United States. Orange Agent is entirely different than Napalm– I do remember seeing the iconic photo titled ‘Napalm Girl’, also not something shared in school; but it is widely recognized in The United States. I didn’t take photos in this room- but there were tons of visuals.
Cu Chi Tunnels solo tour
Day 33: May 14.
The next day I visited the Cu Chi tunnels of Ben Duoc. I really wanted to see the ‘locals’ tunnels in Ben Duoc versus the more commonly visited ones the tours frequented. I had researched this when I was in Phnom Penh, every option I had come across only showed prices for two. I couldn’t find solo traveler options- and the price was quite high. I’d mentioned this to Hunter and he said they actually have this tour on OneTrip and I can choose the motorbike option and it would be for a solo travelers price. I looked it up; It included much more than just the tunnels- I booked!
My tour guide for this trip was Jeffy. We first stopped for coffee and breakfast. I had fruits I’ve never heard and I tried jackfruit for the first time, too. Jackfruit tastes like candy. On the way to the tunnels we made 2 stops. One was to a rice noodle farm and the other a rubber plantation.
Rice noodle farm
The rice noodle farm was small. We went to a single-family ran operation. I was able to watch the entire process. This family makes noodles to sell to food stands and for themselves; they’re not a mass producer. The visit was very informative.
Initially the rice soaks until it becomes like a paste almost.
Then it is laid onto a conveyor belt that perfectly chops the rice paper onto about 5ft sheets to go on their bamboo ‘tray’.
The farmer will stack a bunch of these on a trailer attached to his motorbike and then take them to a field to dry in the sun; about 2 hours.
After the rice is somewhat dried it will be brought back to the home.
They brush oil over the sheet, peel them off the 5 ft tray, and then cut them into about 1.5 ft long squares. This family used coconut oil, mass produced operations will coat them with less expenive oils.
The sheets are then compiled and sliced into noodles and dried fully to use for cooking in the future.
There were lots of dragonflies here. Before we had devices to predict the forecast and gained easy access to this information the farmers would rely on them. They would forecast rain. Dragonflies fly lower just before rainfall because the humidity is too dense for their wings. Farmers would notice this and could grab the drying sheets of bamboo with rice paper before it was too late, so to not ruin the crop.
The rubber plantation was just a really quick stop. I had no idea rubber was something that grew naturally. I didn’t know it oozed out of a tree! Most rubber in today’s world is produced in factories. It turns out the men working in these fields were exposed to cancerous toxins. Although, they were advised to wear masks and protective devices, most of them did not. Nevertheless, it would only lead to a slower exposure to the deadly pollution. We found a few cows roaming in the rubber forest. Jeffy also attempted to take action shots of me jumping in the air- his idea. The pictures were not anything worth showing off, I couldn’t time it right.
Cu Chi Tunnels, Ben Duoc, VietNam
Final stop: Cu Chi Tunnels.
OK, we may have made a pitstop in a rice field to talk with some kids who were playing and to discover ‘shy’ grass, but then… Then, we made it. This turned out to be even more informative than the museum. There have been some modifications made to the tunnels- to make visits easier. For instance, they added electricity for light. Even with the new lighting installed the tunnels ARE DARK.
During the war there was no light in them and the Viet Cong soliders didn’t use oil lanterns too often either because it would take away the oxygen. They just kind of knew the system, the same way I know my house in the dark. They’ve also made the tunnels a bit larger although, at 5ft 3in, I was still hunched over. There are still original tunnels in Ben Duoc and you can see them as they connect to those you walk through (but they’re off limits- for safety reasons). However, the ones I was in are not much larger than the originals I saw branching off.
I learned so much about how smart and resourceful the vietnamese were. They were very clever. For starters, they built a huge tunnel structure with booby traps and ways to keep them from flooding; the tunnels were made up of 3 levels. They strategically placed the kitchen far from the chimney escape, which was full of cotton, to filter the smoke and confuse the american enemies. They’d cook everything in the early morning to trick the US soldiers into thinking it was morning fog.
They also handmade their sandals so that the back would be bigger- where the heel sits, and the front narrow. This was to create footprints headed in the opposite direction than the actual vietnamese soldier’s travel route. Oh! And they would recycle weapons.
They used American landmines and bombs that hadn’t detonated and would make their own explosives with the dynamite. And again, they had just tons of booby traps. They definitely were smart and studied the Americans to be able to a anticipate a reaction therefore combating the americans defense mechanism. So much info. I never thought of myself as a history buff but it was all so interesting.
On the way back
On the way back we stopped for a late lunch. We went to a family owned local restaurant not far from the tunnels. We were the only ones there. The family was happy to have us and served us a very large meal- neither of us could finish it all. We also napped here. Essentially we were at a families house who made a patio sitting area with tables and allowed access to their bathroom. There were hammocks off to the side of where the tables were- all undercover.
A storm was already fast approaching. We each laid in our hammocks here as we waited for the rain to stop. I was just nodding off when Jeffy said it was time to go. I had packed a rain jacket for this trip- so I put that on. We were driving pretty quickly on wet roads and I witnessed a beautiful sunset off in the distance. Trying to beat the traffic, we didn’t make any stops for pictures. We needed to make up the time it took for the storm to pass; we made great time but still hit traffic. We stopped at the boarder of HCMC and had a cup of coffee. I couldn’t locate the place on Google maps, but it’s called Coffee Mo-Ro and is across from Ann Coffee Tea.
Bui Vien street, Ho Chi Minh City
Later that night I went on a walk to find a place for a massage and a late night meal. I’d heard of Bui Vien Street from my friend, Nate, in Siem Reap. I decided to head there and wander until I came across both of those things. The massage was not what I’d expected. I needed a foot/leg massage and opted for a less expensive neighbor of a highly advertised one. The massage was great, I just couldn’t relax. The girl doing the massage was on the phone and would constantly have to get up and do something. I did get the full hour I’d requested- just lots of distraction and a couple breaks.
After the massage I found a kebob place. It was the best I’d ever had. It is not Gotcha Kabob, it is the one right next door, it is called Kebob Station- across from Namaste. They have excellent reviews online, not too expensive, and delicious!! I ordered the Fatboy- it was more than filling. It was so good, I went back the next day, too.
Last day, Ho Chi Minh, VietNam
Day 34: May 15th
My last day in HCMC would only be a half day. I was catching a bus north to Da Nang for my next stop. I ended up meeting some new travelers in the lobby after my Kabob dinner the night before. One girl specifically was there with a messed up foot. We started talking and she seemed like she needed a friend. She became injured not long before- she had been in Thailand when it happened. It put quite a damper on her trip. I offered to show her some of the nearby places in walking distance. Silly me, she would be taking a Grab bike wherever she went, Duh! Regardless, she agreed. I invited her to meet me at Notre Dame to wander the nearby cute alley-like walking street full of bookstores and a few cafes. I really liked it when Hunter took me there. That time I had been looking for a book, this time I was looking for coffee and something light to eat.
We met up… and she was full of negativity. Honestly, it was too much for me to deal with. I guess it was obvious when I kept offering her optimistic solutions. Maybe she just wanted to vent, but I didn’t want that energy. She left and I ended up staying a little later and having a great authentic meal in an unmarked outdoor cafe. I’m not sure if it has a name. It is on the left at the very end of the walking street if you are walking away from Notre/ Grand Central (same side as Notre,same street, opposite end).
I made my way back to the hostel much later, after wandering through the park nearby- the big one with all the benches and statues. I had to catch an overnight train later- I left the hostel around 17:00. Then I took the train to Da Nang to get to Hoi An. I’m currently in Hoi An now and tonight was Buddhas birthday, a full moon and lantern festival. I keep extending my days here. Hoi An might be my favorite place yet, in all of my travels.
Spoiler Alert: It has been 6+ months since I wrote this, 2 trips later… and Hoi An is my favorite place in my favorite country yet! Vietnam is my favorite country- away from home. It might be my favorite country ever, but my family is in the US. Click here to jump to my post on Hoi An.