Travel Musings: Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City 2016 (사이공 / 호치민시 2016)

My first trip to Vietnam was via Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City. Though I'd been to SE Asia before, I wasn't sure what to expect in Vietnam but it turned out to be a fun experience that proved genuinely and pleasantly surprising in many regards. In addition to exploring this city, I would go on to have a taste of life for those on the Mekong River and also take a short trip up to the hills and greenery of central Vietnam's Dalat region (coming in a separate post).

Everything about my first time in Vietnam would also help lead me to make a return visit later to see Hanoi and Halong Bay (also coming in future posts). But for now, here's a look at my time in Saigon.

For citizens of certain countries, like the US, Vietnam requires a visa. To expedite this process, I opted for a Visa on Arrival via Vietnam Visa Pro. Despite its retro, somewhat sketchy seeming website, it was very quick, convenient, and safe. The processing fee and visa letter came out to 25 USD for a US citizen but oh so lucky for me, at that time, immigration rules for US citizens changed so that we were required to get the (then) 135 USD, 1 year visa with the 1, 3, or 6 month visas being unavailable -_- I was rather flabbergasted since I had already booked flights and accommodations initially but what can you do, right? The cherry on top was that a few months after this new rule, they reverted back to the old rule and brought back the shorter term visas. *facepalm*

Oh well, even more of an incentive to return to Vietnam (which I did). The moral of this story is that immigration rules can change at any notice so if you're coming to Vietnam and you're required a visa, be sure to keep yourself abreast of the most up-to-date information... all the way up to your departure date.

Anyways, with the above mentioned service, you should very quickly receive your visa letter (mine took just a day after I made my 25 USD payment). Also fill out the entry/exit form they provide and with it, make sure to bring with you the visa letter, passport-sized photos, and exact cash for your visa stamp. At the airport's immigration section there's an area to the side for visa processing. Those who didn't do a visa on arrival have to wait in a much longer line while those who are ready to go just needs to hand everything over to the folks, and their passport, and then sit down until they call you back up. I think I waited less than 10 minutes or so before I was called up to received my stamped passport.

Definitely worth doing the visa-on-arrival I say.

For the first half of my stay in Saigon, I did an Airbnb. My host, a lovely lady by the name of Huynh, was so kind and helpful both during and before my trip- especially for a total Vietnam newbie like myself. The multi-story building she owned and lived in with her retired husband holds various rooms and mine was the penthouse at the top with its own private bathroom. Very spacious with two beds, AC, mini fridge and everything. Perfect for a small group as well.

I arrived late in the evening and as I was settling into my room my angel host Huynh had gone out to purchase a banh mi from the neighborhood.  She shared to me that the banh mi was simple but the best in the area and she was right. Of course, her generosity may have helped make this banh mi one of the best tasting I've had in Saigon but hey, a welcome banh mi anytime in Vietnam is fine by me.

Of course, as tasty and heartwarming as the banh mi was, I wasn't going to let it stop me from taking advantage of the food scene in Saigon. Because it was late and I wasn't too up to venture out too far, I decided to check out Pho Hoa Pasteur which was not only a 5 minute walk or so from my Airbnb but also opened quite late. I read a lot of blogs and entries that listed their pho as one of the best in the district. Despite the odd hour I arrived, the multi-story restaurant was packed with people.

Interestingly, the first floor had no AC while the second floor did so of course I opted for the latter...

Their menu is extensive with a staggering list of options for drinks and eats.

I decided to avoid some of the more common pho and decided to try the tendon which was recommended by a lot of previous visitors.As a sign they're accustomed to non-locals, they have a huge picture menu on the wall with English explanations. The fact they charge either a flat 65K dong or 75K for a normal or large size for most of their noodles makes pricing simple as well.

They even have a picture sign for the different meat parts haha.

All the various herbs and sides already laid out at each table.
Such a big arrangement of garnish offerings is reflective of the southern style of pho where such add-ons, and sometimes heaps of it, is common. Whereas in the north, they like the simpler focus on the soup alone. So pho ala Saigon this surely is.

I noticed some of the herbs weren't in their freshest of state but to be fair I had arrived quite late in the evening so the herbs had probably lost some of their freshness over the course of the hot day.

My bowl of pho with a bia saigon.

Adding some sides, southern style.

Overall it was good. Nice beefy flavor mingling with my add-ons. I was surprised at how much tendon there was in it. I like a good tendon or two or three for their fun chewy texture but I realized halfway through, I wasn't a fan enough to eat a full bowl of it as I found myself missing the fleshier texture of meat and also less and less appreciative of the film of beef grease that was beginning to form on my teeth.

The soup was quite clean but almost too much? Certainly this was a very good bowl of pho that would still blow the competition of just about any pho joints in Korea but there was just this last 2% of depth that I found missing.

Nevertheless, its popularity is evident by the restaurant's packed state and also the signs that explains that any other restaurants elsewhere with their same name are fraudulent copy cats. The nerve.

Pho Hoa Pasteur
260C Pasteur, phường 8, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
+84 838297943
6AM-12AM daily

One easy landmark for finding my Airbnb was this lovely pink church called Tan Dinh Church. Its striking coral hues catches your eye even more during the day time although its immense size (it's the second largest church in Saigon) certainly helps as well. I didn't go inside (worshipers can do so on Sundays) but architecture lovers may find this 19th century church worth visiting.

Tan Dinh Church
289 Hai Ba Trung, Ward 8, District 3 | Ward 8, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City 70000, Vietnam
+84 8 3829 0093

I should like to interject here to share my story about crossing streets in Saigon. I knew Vietnam was a motorcycle-heavy country and I remember reading how there are more bikes than people but man, that first day or two really were some training days.

Even in HCM there are quite a few corners and intersections where there aren't any crosswalks for pedestrians. The first night, while I was out exploring, I would literally walk blocks of streets on detours to find crosswalks even if the place I was wanting to get to was directly across the street from me. Unless you've seen it and been there, it's hard to describe the seemingly never ending parade of bikes that are zooming by on the streets in all directions, at any time. To say it's overwhelming is an understatement and initially, I admit, I was quite terrified.

It's here one needs to learn to play the game of chicken when crossing the street. When it comes down to it, the real way to cross a street in these parts is to sort of fight for your right to cross. Obviously don't be stupid and just jolt into the street unexpectedly. But look in the direction of the oncoming traffic, meet your eye with the drivers and begin to make your first few steps across. Miraculously what one finds is that the parade of bikes will begin to maneuver itself safely around you giving you an opening to cross. Think of yourself a big whale coming through a big school of fish (except in the case of an actual whale it won't get injured if it's hit by a fish).

A look at how traffic is like in Saigon and how to cross

By my second trip to Vietnam a few months later and then Laos after that, I had developed my skills and confidence to cross streets in these parts like a pro. Be smart and safe but also have guts to basically say, I have the right to cross this street every much as you have the right to ride on it.

And this somewhat leads to another story. While I was out and about that first night, I was a bit confused on the direction momentarily and was approached by some university kid on a bike. This raises all sorts of red flags normally as I immediately became wary of my camera and possessions but as I was talking with him, I learned he was actually studying Korean as he wanted to work for a Korean company and wanted to practice some Korean. How he knew I was Korean is a mystery to me but it seems to happen frequently when I travel...

He offered to show me around a bit on his bike and he promised he wasn't some sort of scam trying to charge me anything so I decided to risk it and hopped on his bike. It turned out to be such a memorable experience as I now joined the throngs of bikes that zoomed around this historic city. He took me to a cool cafe just behind the gorgeous opera house where I gave him some advice about learning Korean and I asked him about life in Saigon.

He also then took me to the famous city center where he pointed out the various historic buildings and attractions. The immense square in the city center is bustling with activity and life, even at odd hours. It's a great way to people watch and also take in vibes of the city. Looking around you can spot the various high rise structures teeming with restaurants, cafes, and various global brands but nestled in between are these beautiful 19th/20th century structures that really reflects how dynamic the city is. The HCM City Hall itself is such a visual treat at night. One of the most beautiful city hall buildings I've seen.

Hello Mr. Ho! Though I later learned later on his last name isn't actually Ho.

Wrapping up the first night with a 333 beer from Bia Saigon.

The next day I decided to trek over to the Jade Emperor Pagoda as it seemed a nice leisurely walkable distance from my Airbnb. If possible, I always opt to walk when traveling as it really brings you right in the center of everyday aspects of the destination.

This was a bustling traditional market I happened upon.

The Jade Emperor Pagoda, also known as Chua Ngoc Hoang or Phuoc Hai Tu, is one of the most famous temples in HCMC. Dating back to 1909, the temple honors the Jade Emperor (Ngoc Hoang) who is considered the supreme deity in Taoism. Interestingly it was built by the local Chinese community so it's quite an interesting blending of cultures.

Within the arresting pink facade is the temple grounds with its fierce statues, dark and smoke-filled interior making an atmospheric setting.

Not that you'd really know by the looks of the various family with children that hang about outside and the mass of pigeons which may have outnumbered the number of actual people there. 

As it's still a very active temple, various worshipers are found throughout the day to the various deities and their respective shrines.

Don't forget the main Jade Emperor himself who overlooks the main sanctuary.

Jade Emperor Pagoda
73 Mai Thi Luu St., Dakao Ward, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
+84 838203102

For lunch, I trekked out to Saigon's (arguably) most famous food stall, the Lunch Lady herself. Her actual name is Nguyen Thi Thanh but she has fully embraced her more famous alias, the Lunch Lady. Made famous by Anthony Bourdain during a visit for "No Reservations", his praise for everything from the food to the atmosphere really catapulted this once seemingly everyday Saigon street stall into stardom.

Her specialty is noodles and rather than serving a particular kind of noodle, her noodle for the day rotates on a daily basis. There's no menu that describes the food or anything for that matter, you simply show up, she dishes out what's the day's dish, you eat, and you pay and leave.

As a street stall, this is really no-frills of any kind. Everything is out in the open and you just go. Prior and after her claim to fame, the setting and layout is still the same with the plastic chairs, utensils and dishes out in the open, etc. Dishes are also washed on site, ingredients lay out in the open, and all sorts of methodology that would never pass a restaurant inspection in the west. I've never been squeamish about these factors (as long as nothing is just blatantly hazardous) but it seems a lot of non-Asian visitors aren't aware of these facts as I read a lot of blogs from other foreigners complaining about the setting and serving practices. Just know before you go!

Some minor sides are also offered with the main dish. On my visit I had some fried rolls and some fried shrimp "chips". 

The rolls were decent enough. Seemed mostly meat and less aromatics.

These shrimp chips were much more interesting. Holding an entire shrimp inside- case and all- a fun crispy/crunchy appetizer.

As I mentioned, there's no menu or explanation for what the noodle soup of the day is so what I ate that day is still a mystery. In a light broth, came noodles and an assortment of meat- a bit of shredded chicken, beef, meatballs... maybe even pork? Encircled by some chopped scallions and given a pinch of black pepper atop this certainly is a visually-inviting bowl of soup. 

Some additional aromatics provided on the side to adjust to personal preference.

The noodle soup was surprisingly meat-heavy and they thankfully weren't cheap, fatty cuts but a variety of (mostly) leaner meat that complemented the rice noodles. The soup itself is deeper than its lighter color with notes of spices (cinnamon?) though I found it just a tad on the sweeter side.

Because there's no menu that means visitors are susceptible to some corner cuts from the establishment... though I wouldn't go as far as to call it a scam. The little loophole that is played out here is that there are actually two sizes for the noodles but for visitors the larger portion is always dished out. But the difference between the larger and the regular at 40K Dong and 30K Dong respectively comes out to about .50 cents. And really, by "large", in the US this would still be probably a small anyways so even those with a small appetite shouldn't have a problem dishing it out. I've heard also that the little side appetizers brought out beforehand (the fried rolls and shrimp cracker in my case) are also not complimentary and for locals, only given when asked. For folks like us though, they're dished out without question. Drink menu is also non existent. I had to do some charades to convey that I was asking for a lime drink and who knows how much that was.

I can't remember my final bill at the end but I recall I didn't think it was expensive at all and that I was getting the short end of the stick by any means. I mean, it couldn't have come out to more than 4USD altogether I want to say. Perhaps a dollar or two more than another street stall but a dollar or two I'd definitely dish out to try and experience what Mr. Bourdain did.

Overall though, I'm a bit hesitant to label this as a must-visit in the city. The food was flavorful, the atmosphere is certainly wonderful, and I can see why this food stall does deserve its praises. On the other hand, it certainly is a ways off from most of the main attractions of the city which means one will either have to find transportation means and the time to come here for a meal or walk quite a bit (as I did) to get to here.

I suppose if you have the time or if you happen to be in an area somewhat near this stall, it's certainly worth a visit. However, a must-visit to go out of one's busy schedule, I would say not.

Sorry, Mr. Bourdain.

Quan An the "Lunch Lady" (Nguyen Thi Thanh)
23 Hoang Sa St., District 1 | Phuong Da Kao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City 70000, Vietnam 
+84 93 388 79 22
9AM- 3PM (ish) only. So if you plan to visit, come for lunch.

Another major positive of my Airbnb's location was that it was just a block or two away from Tan Dinh Market. Apparently a form of marketplace existed in this spot since the 1870s though the modern form of the market was built in the 1920s by the French.

High quality fabric, clothes, dried goods and an assortment of other goods are offered here though visitors should expect to haggle with the shop stalls if you're planning to buy anything.

I wasn't interested in buying anything but I did love, and visit a few times, the food stalls on the eastern side of the market, along Nguyen Huu Cau street. Various stalls sell a range of delicious yet very cheap meals which you can eat there or take to go. 

A particularly fond memory I have of Saigon was one rainy evening when I stopped by for a meal. The downpour had just ended and facing the glimmering street, I enjoyed my cheap, home cooked meal, washed down with a cold beer while watching the bikes and people pass by. It's the simple joys in life I tell ya.

Along the same street there are a few snack stalls as well selling barbecue skewers, banh mi, and other tasty fares. Worth checking out if you're here for the market anyways!

Tan Dinh Market
48 Mã Lộ, Tân Định, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

Yet another attraction near my Airbnb, and probably the area's most famous restaurant was Banh Xeo 46.

Banh xeo is a type of savory, stuffed Vietnamese pancake/crepe and Banh Xeo 46 happens to be Saigon's most famous restaurant for it. Since my Airbnb was literally on the same street as this place I knew I had to squeeze in the opportunity at one place or another.

It's hard to miss this open air eatery as it's teeming with people with the army of servers buzzing by everywhere.

Though Banh Xeo is the most famous dish here, the menu is quite extensive with various meat dishes, rolls, and even seafood.

Probably because of its popularity and notoriety, prices are a bit higher than your average restaurant in the city.

Besides the lively atmosphere, another aspect that's quite fun about this place is the open kitchen. It's quite mesmerizing to watch the aunties make the banh xeo's in front of you as they churn out the dish by the panful. 

Because of the restaurant's popularity it takes a few minutes for your banh xeo to come out as they make them fresh to order. It's a sizable fellow with an enormous half moon-shaped crepe enveloping the fillings inside.

It's also accompanied by a plate of greens and leaves and sauce for wrapping.

The banh xeo here is known for their massive size and though mine was a regular, there's even a larger sized version available!

The filling includes goodies like pork belly, shrimp, fresh mung bean sprouts and more.

The idea is that you take your greens and various herbs and create a base, then tear off a piece of the banh xeo- with the fillings- and add it to your wrap along with some sauce.

Admittedly this was, and still remains, the first and yet only time I've had banh xeo so I don't really have a reference to how the dish should be. Overall the dish I had here was fine, there was an abundance of filling to somewhat justify the higher price, and I appreciated that it was made fresh to order.

By the time I had finished about half of it though, I found it being a bit greasy and increasingly turning to my beer. Then again, I'm not a big fan of the somewhat similar fried Korean jeon varieties (except bindaetteok) so that might be a matter of personal preference.

With this being my sole banh xeo experience thus far, I can't say it's the best here but I suppose if you're a banh xeo virgin like me this seems a good place to try.

Bánh Xèo 46 or Bánh xèo Đinh Công Tráng
46A Đinh Công Tráng, Tân Định, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
+84 28 3824 1110
10AM-2PM and then 4PM-9PM everyday

During my nightly beer sampling, this variety was, by far, the worst I had in HCMC. Very watery and a slight offish finish. Blegh.

On one day I did a Mekong River Cai Be - Tan Phong Island full day tour by Mekong Delta Tourism. Researching the many Mekong delta tour companies available, I was attracted to MDT for emphasizing they wanted to provide a small taste of local life as much as possible and not taking participants to shopping malls, factories, and whatnot. 

The day started off quite early with a departure time of 6:15AM. This is not only because of the time it takes to get to the departure point of Cai Be and back but also because they really do try and give you a full day. 

Though normally they pick you up from your hotel, my Airbnb fell just outside their pickup zone but I was able to hop on a cab no problem to their office in the city center. 

Our group then boarded their AC-equipped, clean, and spacious travel van to get to Cai Be which must have been only around 1.5 hours or so with a rest area break in between.

Our guide was there from the beginning explaining various aspects and points about life in Vietnam as well as answering our questions. He also balanced the time well along the way with talking and letting us get some rest in those early morning hours very well. I liked the fact also that our group was a good size at about 8 or so. It was quite nice to see the city coming to life in those early hours as shops and stalls started their day and motorbikes from all the surrounding regions of Saigon came pouring in to start their day at work.

Arriving at the port we had another quick break for restroom usage and then to the river where numerous river boats stood waiting to take the day's various tour groups out to the mighty Mekong. 

Certainly not a clean river but the life-giving Mekong has been such an important component of not only Vietnam but its neighboring countries as well.

Seated on the long wooden motor boats, we were given some fresh fruit and water to snack on as we began our cruise.

For many, on and along the Mekong, the river doesn't just give life, it is a way of life. Trade boats, fishing boats, and even residential boats all float up and down the river as folks make their everyday life here.

It's just fascinating to take in life here where things move at a more leisurely pace.

Various commodity boats, such as this fruit boat also offers fresh fruit for purchase. 

The inside of the boat must smell lovely with all the fruit about :)


The river banks is also filled with life. Homes, shops, even churches.

Uncle steering his boat with his feet. Ultimate chill level right there.

Our day wasn't spent just cruising up and down the river however. What was nice about this tour was that it made a few pit stops along the way for us to experience various aspects of life in this region. At one stop we learned how they raised bees for honey farming in the area as we sampled the honey and tea in their natural form. 

Also at this site was a giant constrictor of some kind who we were lucky enough to witness just at the tail end (literally) of finishing his whole chicken meal. And yes, those are the chicken's feet sticking out of its mouth.

At another stop we dropped by a family-owned operation where they made traditional sweets. Just outside the building was this giant mound of what looked to be sand. 

But on closer inspection they were all rice husks.

The rice was used for various purposes such as making this rice popcorn which was heated in this steaming pot and popped expertly by these stirrers. 

And look at that! Popped rice. 

Though the popped rice is fine on its own, the popular way to eat it is to create a syrup with coconut milk and create a Vietnamese version of rice crispy treats.

Here's our guide showing the traditional way to husk and cut a coconut.

We also got a quick peek at how traditional rice liquor is made. You could smell the alcohol in that room as it fermented. 

We tried a simple shot of it which was fiery yet relatively smooth. Now the ladies of our group were the only ones brave enough to go extra and by that I mean...

alcohol infused with this guy.

Not a prop. If you've traveled in SE Asia before I'm sure you've seen those liquor bottles with snakes, scorpions, and whatnot. They always claim to kick up your stamina, reinvigorate health, and whatnot.

I don't know. Maybe in an official factory of sort I'd be game to try but in what was essentially someone's house miles away from a major city, I just didn't want to risk it.

Here is a picture of the cute baby chilling in his hammock to get your mind off the above picture :)

We also got to watch some folks making a traditional Vietnamese coconut milk toffee/candy treat.

I was especially entranced watching the auntie making the traditional rice paper sheets. Yes, the same kind used for goi cuon (spring rolls). Even in Korea they sell the rolls in dried packs but I'd never seen it made fresh in front of me.

On auntie's left is the steamer, next to that where its left to dry, and the blue bucket is the wet batter mixture.

The process is simple enough: ladle and spread it out thin in the steamer. But the timing, turning, and flipping was on point for this veteran lady.

So it was these bamboo wickers that made those trademark patterns!

And left to dry.

Yum :)

Can enjoy them fried as well.

Watch her do her magic below.

All the various products were available for purchase but I appreciated the tour didn't pressure or force you to buy anything. And it wasn't some random factory but a real local business that you were supporting. 

Next we got on our boats again and arrived at a house where they had some various fresh fruits out for us to enjoy as we watched a short performance of traditional Vietnamese music and instruments. 

4 or 5 short performances were made over 15~20 minutes which was just enough to keep a non native speaker interested enough. I liked the fact that the performers were also putting in effort to their songs and performances. It was a good mid-point break for the day.

We then were guided towards a thick forested area in which we were met by these lovely aunties who took us on a short trek to one of the Mekong's many tributaries.

Eventually we came to these wooden boats on which 2-3 of us each were carefully boarded. I was assuming some of the village's younger lads would come out to ferry us (some of my Western counterparts in our group were bigger framed folks) but then these petite aunties each took the rear of the boat as they started rowing us out deeper into the forest!

To be honest, these sort of situations makes me a bit uncomfortable as I wonder if I'm not inadvertently supporting the exploitation of local groups through unethical tour groups. However, I found that our kind rowers were genuinely happy as they chatted and joked with each other and even sang a few tunes (not for us but just as a short of self-humming kind of way). My boat rower even joked to me while I was wearing my nón lá, or those traditional conical hats, that I reminded her of her husband when they first met as students.... (did I just get flirted with?)

We also made sure to give each of them a generous tip afterwards.

The canoe ride through the jungle itself was very relaxing. As opposed to the busier main Mekong River teeming with motor boats, the smaller canals we were on passed through mostly jungle with mainly the sound of wildlife surrounding us. 

Along the way you passed by small homes with evidence of everyday life- clothes hanging to dry, smoke coming out from chimneys, the sound of a dog or two barking. Of course, this was but a scratch on the surface of true river life for these locals but it was a small but fascinating glimpse into a completely different life. Of the few locals I did come across, I couldn't help but notice just how genuine content and happy everyone seemed- what a world of a difference from many metropolitan cities around the world.

After about 20 minute or so on the canal, we made out to the main Mekong River again where our river boat was awaiting us. We transferred back onto it and then made our way for a quick boat ride to Tan Phong Island.

There, we got to a beautiful resort of sorts where we had the option to either rest there at the center (with a beautiful outdoor garden, hammocks, etc) or opt for a bike ride around the island. I had no hesitation in opting for the latter as I wanted every opportunity to see and experience as much of what the area had to offer. Those opting for the bike rides hopped on the resort's bikes and began following our guide. But after only about 5-10 minutes of riding out we were hit by a major rain storm. As those who have experienced rainstorms in SE Asia knows, these are not your light drizzles but fat drops of rain that seem to pour down, sideways, and even up.

We all had ponchos but even with the ponchos you couldn't help but get soaked. A few opted to turn around but the handful who remained opted to continue on with our guide. Even with the pouring rain, riding on the main roads was quite adrenaline-rushing enough but our guide took us on locals roads which were mostly gravel and mud with big old puddles that had formed as well. Our path would also take us over short hills and makeshift wooden bridges that could be described as dodgy at best. 

Personally, I found it thrilling and exciting and by the time my soaked self got back to the resort I was feeling quite high but I could understand how that probably wouldn't have been everyone's cup of tea. There certainly were parts along the biking excursion that I was wondering how the state of medical assistance on this island would be if I had a nasty fall or accident of sort. 

But mother nature never makes herself convenient to our preferences so what more can you say? Seize the day! (Or bike). 

Luckily the resort had some towels and also some hair dryers they allowed us to use to somewhat dry ourselves. And then we moved onto our mini cooking class for our lunch.

We began by shredding our vegetables for our papaya salad or goi du du. There were four or five assistants on hand to help us out


We then moved onto making our fried rolls or cha gio as they demonstrated how to stuff and roll them up before their deep frying. We also had a mini challenge of sort to see who could make the most beautiful rolls.

I did not win. :P

Like many of these mini-cooking classes on tours, the cooking is more like prepping ingredients and the cooking itself for the dishes were done in the kitchen by the staff. But what a feast it was!

Particularly impressive was this fried fish. This is an elephant ear fish which is fried and its skin curling off.  The flesh is scraped off and can be enjoyed on its own or made into rice paper rolls with dips. This is actually a delicacy of the Mekong River so it was a treat to enjoy.

We also had a stew of sorts which was just brimming with all sorts of ingredients like greens, tomatoes, tofu, fish balls, etc. Very fragrant and aromatic.

With our bellies filled we returned to our river boat after our feast which took us back to the port and then onto our vans back to the city which we arrived at around late afternoon/early evening.

Overall, I must say I would highly recommend the tour I was on for those who can spare a day to experience the Mekong River and a taste of life on the river. Their program was a good balance of sightseeing, exploring, and activities and the pace was extremely well structured so it didn't feel too rushed or too loose. Our guide was very thorough and friendly and it was a good introduction to this way of life, just a few hours away from the bustling city of Saigon.

Mekong Delta Tourism - AG Travel
96 Hang Bac Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi (the main office is located in Hanoi)

There were quite a few nice cafes scattered about the city. Vietnam is already well known as a major coffee country so really any cafe served some strong brews.

Plenty of tasty sweets and desserts along the way to get you up when your blood sugar is low.

Was rather tired from the full day tour so for dinner I picked up some more good grub from Tan Dinh Market. Can't go wrong with it. Miss it even.

Along with some more local beer sampling....

In the middle of my trip, I took a short trip out to Dalat to get some outdoors time in (will post Dalat in a future post) and then returned back to HCMC this time staying at the superb Fusion Suites Saigon. While my Airbnb was wonderful in its own way, a major advantage of Saigon is that there are really some fantastic and affordable accommodation options which Fusion Suites Saigon is a prime example of.

Located in District 1 and close by to most of the major attractions of the city, this hotel opts for a minimalistic/modern design along with a casual, laid back atmosphere that should appeal to most adult travelers. It was a perfect and balanced way to cap off the last portion of my stay in Saigon with a relaxed feel, fantastic service, and amenities.

All the rooms here are in suites which you can opt for a regular, corner, or family suite With lofted ceilings, floor to ceiling windows, and spaciousness (even the smallest suite is an impressive 32 square meters), I was already amazed at the extremely reasonable price but on top of that they were doing a promotion when I was booking which included breakfast and a daily massage for 2 every day!

The hotel's main lobby connects with its all day dining restaurant and also adopts the wooden, open air, vaulted ceiling concepts as its rooms. Service at these mid-tier hotels in SE Asia can be a hit or a miss but I can say that service here- from check-in/check-out to restaurant workers to staff- was excellent and friendly.

The corner suite was just as the pictures were- spacious, airy, minimalistic, modern yet with a homely touch. There was plenty of table space, space to hang up clothes, huge bed, couch, tv, etc.

The huge windows all around ensured there was plenty of daylight during the day but were also curtained so you'd have privacy and darkness at night. The only downside was that directly across from the hotel was a primary school which blared music in the early morning hours while the kids arrived at school. I don't know if this is an everyday deal and I was ok since I always pack and use ear plugs anywhere I travel but you may want to see if you can get a room that doesn't face the main street.

I also want to preface that the main street the hotel faces is more of a minor side street so the good news is there's not an unreasonable amount of traffic on the street which is something you definitely should consider in a motorcycle-heavy country like Vietnam.

From the front door the small but able kitchen was connected with microwave, mini fridge, electric kettle, sink, and some utensils and equipment. There was no stove which I didn't mind since I'd hate to have such a pretty room stagnant with the scent of the previous occupants' cooking.

While the hotel clearly wanted to keep their rooms from being a kitchen and cooking-heavy one, they certainly didn't hold back on the bathroom which was just a charming thing.

The spacious bathroom's piece de resistance certainly was the enormous bathtub which perched on ledges next to the tall windows giving it a floating effect. The tub drains at the bottom which goes to the floor with its little sewer. But instead of leaving an unsightly sewer to be exposed, the hotel cleverly scattered the drainage floor with little rocks so it blends in with the decor better.

Little touches of the wooden motifs continued on in the toilet cover, sink table, etc. Warm and hot water came readily and the toiletries were surprisingly not bad. 

A fantastic and highly recommended hotel. 

The hotel's inclusive breakfast buffet service was also exceptional. Located on one of the higher floors of the hotel, and not the first floor restaurant, it's bright and spacious and its higher perspective definitely helps wake one up with the wonderful views.

I was expecting a small continental breakfast affair with standard bread, fruit, juices but this was actually a very good spread with a good variety of fresh and cooked, Western and Eastern bites and eats. 

A good balance that caters to most tastes and especially perfect for those traveling with children.

I was initially a bit torn because an included breakfast meant less opportunities to try the food out in Saigon but the food variety and quality offered here was so excellent that I had no qualms over the next few days.

In addition to the breakfast buffet, each person can choose a cooked-to-order ala carte menu item as well as fresh coffee/tea from the espresso bar.

The breakfast menu items included ham and cheese croissant, eggs benedicts with ham or smoked salmon, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs bagel sandwich, eggs to your liking, and pho (beef or chicken.

Coffee/tea included all your standards from a cafe with option for iced drinks as well.

And really, the ala carte items were absolutely delicious. They could have been offered at a brunch spot for sale and no one would have batted an eye. 

I particularly loved the eggs benedict here which came with just a generous amount of salmon, perfectly poached egg, and a still warm hollandaise sauce to bring it together. The bits of avocado and salmon eggs added just a touch of richness and I would've been happy just eating 2 or 3 of these everyday for breakfast if I could. 

The pho was also lovely. Some days you get yourself out of bed and your body is awake but your stomach quite hasn't quite come around yet which is why a bowl of warm, aromatic pho was just the thing to gently get the gastric juices flowing. Obviously just a bit tamer compared to pho on the streets, probably for the hotel guests, but even the pho here would've blown most bowls in Seoul out of competition.

Strong, stiff, coffee drinks. Everything made-to-order. Just superb.

And on top of the suite room and breakfast, I mentioned that an hour-long massage was included in the package! The hotel had in-house masseurs whom you would call to reserve in advance and then go about to get your massage. The massage rooms were private, darkened with mood music, and robes to change into. The masseurs were above average, not the best I've had, but considering it was inclusive of the incredibly low room rates, I was a happy camper.

Fusion Suites Saigon
3-5 Sương Nguyệt Ánh, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
+84 28 3925 7257

My first night back to HCMC from Dalat, I was exploring the area around the hotel when I came across this noodle stall.

They were serving the classic bun moc - a sort of mushroom and pork-based soup with noodles. So cheap and good.

I don't know the name of the stall and I couldn't find it online but it's just further west from Banh Mi Huynh Hoa on the same street.

Anddd speaking of banh mi huynh hoa, arguably one of the best known banh mi places in Saigon is Banh Mi Huynh Hoa and since my hotel was close by, I knew I had to check it out.

Tucked in a side alley, you'll probably spot it from a distance away by the line of people. There's no seating offered here and it's simply takeaway so the good news is that the line tends to move generally fast.

Offering is very simple as well at a flat 33K dong for a sandwich so it's an immensely popular stall. The workers here are flat out machines in the speed of how they can dish out the sandwiches. You have the guy on the side reheating the crunchy baguettes to the side. 

And these workers on the side who mechanically pile on the cold cuts, veggies, spread the pate, add the sauce and whatnot. 

There's no seating here so I took my 'wich to a park bench nearby to enjoy the banh mi and try and grasp what drove their huge following.

On the get-go, you can see they really pile on the ingredients. This isn't your basic banh mi from the corner but this comes stuffed with meat, with vegetables, and ample amounts of spreads like butter and pate.

With so many flavors and textures coming together, it's hard not to like this sandwich. I personally still preferred the basic versions around town for their more delicate balance of flavors but this is one value sandwich you can't really argue doesn't taste quite delicious. Think of it like the Big Mac or the Whopper of banh mi offerings.

In fact, on the last day I even went out to buy one to go and bring it with me to Seoul which I enjoyed with a previously gifted Sriracha potato chips (the latter which is most definitely American).

Banh Mi Huynh Hoa
26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
+84 28 3925 0885
Opens 2:30 - 11PM everyday 

With a hearty banh mi in my belly, it was time to explore HCMC's cultural side as I ventured over to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts.

Considered to be one of the best fine arts museum in Vietnam (second only to the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi), this museum is housed in a gorgeous 3-story colonial building that traces its beginnings to 1929.

Once the mansion of the wealthiest Saigon man at the time, the structure's striking creamy-yellow color and blending of French and Chinese architecture style makes the building itself a real work of art in itself.

Even its courtyard offers such a striking backdrop that I've heard engaged couples often take advantage of it for photo shoots.


The interior is a bit more worn compared to its facade but its ornate tiled floors and wooden doors does give it a touch of sophisticated elegance. 

The art housed within is a very wide-spanning range with sculpture, oil paintings, and mixed art reflecting a wide range of styles. Some international artists are in the mix while it's mostly a variety of Vietnamese artists that are featured. Given that Vietnam has had such an illustrious history, the artwork themes and motifs have quite an emotional resonance that gives the works here a rawness.

It's not all seriousness though and the museum very generously allows visitors to take photos (without the flash of course) which I made use of.

I was surprised at the number of pieces that's in their collection. One can't help but feel a bit inspired as you pass through to shoot with a bit of artistic flair (though that artistic flair is probably only from my perspective ^^;;)


Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts
97A Phó Đức Chính, Nguyễn Thái Bình, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
+84 28 3829 4441
8AM - 6PM everyday except Mondays

The museum is also conveniently located near the bustling Ben Thanh Market which gives the surrounding historic area a great atmosphere to it. Seeing the bikes rushing around, people playing badminton and soccer in the patch of green near the roundabout, and whatnot amidst the historic buildings really gives you one of those striking representative memories of HCMC... or at least it did for me :)

This marked a perfect time in the afternoon for a caffeine break and so I swung by the nearby L'usine. Since the original store's opening, the L'usine multi-shops have really brought about a modern chicness to the city's cafe scene. Part restaurant, cafe, and shop they've become one of the city's representative modern lifestyle brands inspiring young entrepreneurs, artists, and creative minds and a few copycats as well.

I went to the second branch of L'usine, L'usine Le Loi which is housed in an old airy structure with multiple floors. It's rather interesting because when you enter the first floor, it's their shop level so an unassuming person would probably not know there was a cafe and restaurant above unless they went up the stairs in the middle of the shop.

The cafe/ restaurant above is spacious with sleek, dark wood and white marble tables scattered about. Paintings, drawings, and photographs are hung around the walls while books and magazines are also on display.

Food, coffee, drinks are all on the menu to cater to all. Their breakfast and lunch menu looked tempting if I wasn't so full still from that massive banh mi. They also do a happy hour between 5-7PM with half prices on their wine and beer

Good, strong coffee, and a lovely bit of classy ambiance to just chill and people watch. 

L'Usine Le Loi
70B Le Loi, D.1, HCMC Café 
+84 28 3521 0703 
Shop +84 28 3521 0702
Daily 7:30 am to 10:30 pm

Had a nice enough dinner at Chi Hoa. It seems to be featured in a lot of travel guides. The multi-storied older building it's in has a nice homely touch to it and decorated in a cute way.

I did feel that the food was a bit tailored towards the many non-locals in tow as the spice and flavor factor seemed just a notch below the other food places I tried in HCMC.

A lot of aromatics, herbs, and spices seem to be minimized in the dishes which were all overall good if nothing too exceptional.

Still, it is air conditioned and its popularity means fast turnover rate which means for the less culinary adventurous, this is well suited for them.

Chi Hoa
31A Le Thanh Ton, Ben Nghe Ward, Dist. 1, HCMC
+84 (028) 3 8273155

Something I like to do when I'm exploring a cityis to take advantage of any good birds eye view of the city after spending a few days there. In that way it's quite interesting to see the city from atop after spending the last few days getting a grasp of the city's geographic, layout, neighborhoods, and attractions and seeing it in a sort of real life "map" from up top.

So I was real glad I got to visit the Social Club Rooftop Bar for a perfect day's capping of strong drinks and spectacular city views.

Perched atop the hip Hotel des Arts Saigon, the rooftop bar is actually an extension of the Social Club Restaurant which is a favorite of local well-to-dos, expats, and foreign visitors.

You can hear the house music pumping right as soon as you come out to the rooftop while patrons mingle and talk. The bar and a few candles on each table are about the only light so as not to distract from the glimmering skyline

For a hotel rooftop bar, prices for their cocktails and drinks aren't too bad. They had some interesting versions of their own and you can always make special requests (so long as they're not too backed up). 

But really, it's the views that are the star o the show here. While the skyline of HCMC may not be particularly a standout, its flat and wide layout shows just how large the city really is, beyond just District 1.

The rooftop bar isn't technically the hotel's highest floor as there's another floor above the bar, connected by stairs, that leads to a glass suspension bridge that connects the hotel and the next door Centec Tower. Its said to be the only of its kind and, though my picture doesn't do it justice, it's a long, long ways down from the middle of that clear bridge.

The Social Club Rooftop Bar also boasts the highest rooftop infinity pool in the city which is just to the right side of the main bar floor but merges naturally. It's quite a wide pool with one of those pool bars that are half submerged in water. It was winter when I was there so the relatively cooler weather did away with any potential swimmers (the bar itself was full) but I'm sure in warmer seasons it's happening. 

Those on a budget will want to take advantage of the bar's happy hour from 5-8PM everyday with up to 50% off on signature cocktails, wines, beer, etc. The added bonus of dusk is a nice freebie to the killer view.

The Social Club
76-78 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, District 3
+84 93 836 28 53

Though I only briefly passed through it, the Tao Dan Park was quite a lovely green oasis from city life despite it being literally in the middle of the city. With benches, paths, sculptures and plenty of foliage, the 10-hectacre park is nothing one needs to go out of the way for but if you're nearby you can grab some snacks or drinks and enjoy a bit of greenery. I heard it's quite a popular gathering spot for pet bird owners in the early morning if you're an early riser.

Tao Dan Park
57 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, Bến Thành, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

A top attraction for sure is the Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace. It holds a lot of symbolic meaning that differs depending on who you ask. Historically, the site itself has been more or less the seat of government for the city and region- from the 19th century until the end of the Vietnam War- and having passed through ownership by the French, Japanese, and finally the Vietnamese (both southern and northern).

Despite the actual site being the seat of government for many decades, the current palace in its structural form today is from the 1960s when the then President survived a bombing assassination attempt (by air strike no less) and had the building in its current state built.

The open air, high-ceiling style bears similarities with other structures constructed during this same period in Europe and Asia. Seoul itself has such buildings scattered around the city and there were definitely times that I momentarily felt like I was in one of those buildings.

Now, you are free to explore the palace on your own or on a guided tour as you peer into rooms like the ministers' cabinet room, the banquet chamber, and the presidential office.

You can even walk through the past president's room, guest rooms and such with even memorabilia and actual artifacts from the past carefully arranged. In the past, the president was able to enjoy amenities like his card-playing room, bar, cinema, rooftop nightclub, and helipad and compared to his life post-war and exile, it certainly must have been a different world.

Most interesting perhaps is when you venture into the basement where bright rugs plush furniture are replaced with tile floors and concrete walls. Here, underneath the palace, was where the war room, telecommunications center, bunkers, and tunnels are all found.

Amid the yellowed wartime maps and rusting radio equipment, I couldn't help but imagine how claustrophic it must have been for those who were here as the other side was getting closer to the city. A fascinating bit of history to see, especially if you are interested in the Vietnam War.

Independence Palace or Reunification Palace
135 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
+84 28 3822 3652
7:30AM - 11AM and then 1-4PM everyday

Saigon's own Notre Dame church is the city's best known of its kind. I'm sure at one point or another you'll pass by or see this church during your stay in Saigon.

At night, there are various little street vendors that set up in the sidewalks across from the church. With plastic squatting seats and mini tables you'll find things like roasted seeds, juice, and drinks all available from the many vendors and carts. 

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
01 Công Xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
+84 28 3822 0477

Not too far away from the church is another point of interest that will appeal to architecture lovers and picture takers. The colorful Saigon Central Post Office is hard to miss thanks to its striking exterior.

Inside, the very European-esque interior is another picture-worthy spot and may just momentarily convince yourself that you're not in Asia.

Interestingly, inside here is also where I bought tickets for the A O Show (more on that in a bit) which I think were cheaper than door prices but who knows. Besides the A O Show there were a lot of ticket vendors for other activities and tours inside.

Saigon Central Post Office
2 Công xã Paris Bến Nghé Quận 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
+84 28 3822 1677

Originally looking for some "artsy' street that I came across in a few sites, I failed to find the trendy Dhong Khoi street and by then was hungry, sweaty, and tired. Too exhausted to continue on I jumped in instead to one of the Mon Hue chains I had seen all around the city as it seemed standard and (most importantly) air conditioned.

The Mon Hue chain refers to the traditional royal cuisine of the Hue region and says it's about fresh and healthy eating according to its website. Not knowing at all what to expect or anything about the restaurant beforehand, I walked in and was seated upstairs.The high school-aged kids who were our servers could not have been any slower or inattentive in the restaurant where I was one of 3 groups in total.

Menu is quite extensive and long but opted for the noodle salad with barbecue pork, the hue noodles, and the steamed rice pancakes.

Noodle salad with pork was your standard affair. Good balance of smokiness from the barbecue pork, lots of nice crunchy vegetables, and aromatics.

The hue noodles is a beef broth noodle dish which comes with all the aromatic sides and fixings but is joined with quite an assortment of ingredients including beef, pork, crab cakes, and cured pig blood. I heard this is quite a famous dish in Hue cuisine and since I haven't had it before I can't compare but it was alright though the myriad of ingredients in addition to the aromatics seemed to muddle it up into a soup that stretched into all categories of flavors. I'm interested to explore this dish further when I make it up to the Hue region one day though!

I ordered the steamed rice pancakes as it was just a dish I had never seen or tried in Vietnamese cuisine before. It took a while for it to come out, probably because of the time needed to prepare the little bowls and steam them, and visually it was quite fun.

Each bowl contains rice pancakes which has the sticky consistency of a melted rice cake which is then topped with some fried and shredded shrimp, fried pork skin, scallions, and tart fish sauce. It was a fun enough dish, like a savory rice cake dish you might find in other Asian cuisine. By about the 6th or 7th bowl though I was getting a bit rice caked out.

I'm sure having it at a proper restaurant that does this dish justice is a different story but here, it was just ok.

Overall an average restaurant that one can duck into if you're short on time and options but nothing about it that's a must.

Mon Hue

When it comes to cultural shows during traveling, I'm always interested but skeptical as most of them have a diluted feel where the performers look like they'd be just about anywhere, doing just about anything, else then there performing for you and the throngs of other foreigners. So I was initially rather torn about the A O Show in Saigon.

As I mentioned, I purchased advanced tickets (on the day-of) from the Post Office as there was an official ticket booth there. The price was supposedly cheaper and included a pre-show private tour of the gorgeous Opera House theater that the production takes place in, as well as some snacks before the show.

Arriving for the tour time wasn't a problem but getting caught in a massive downpour en route to the venue was, and even with umbrellas I was pretty much soaked by the time I got there. Still, with wet clothes and wet shoes that squeaked, I marveled at the beautiful opera house, built all the way back in 1897. It survived warfare and went on to act as a temporary shelter for civilians and even the Lower House assembly for south Vietnam for a bit. I wish I took more pictures including some shots of its beautiful facade but I was so soaked that I needed some time to dry out.

The traditional snacks and drinks were a nice touch although nothing too noteworthy. Few sweets and rice cakes and tea and such.

In any case, before the show you can see on stage the A O Show's distinctive image of rods and traditional baskets. 

The A O Show itself is a bit hard to describe but I suppose if you combine some Cirque du Soleil elements with dance, acrobatics, and humor in an entirely Vietnamese setting and manner, that's the best way I could explain it.

Really it's a wondrous, and at times dizzying, production where giant baskets roll about, people leap and soar with rods and a great music score to back it up. While there's not a main plot of sorts, the show takes the audience through the different regions and time of Vietnam from sleepy villages in the countryside to bustling markets and even modern day chaotically-organized Saigon.

I was also very impressed with the cast who all seemed genuinely into their roles and actually seemed passionate about what they do. You could have the most technically amazing production with all the bells and whistles but if the hearts of the actors aren't in it, forget it!

No pictures and videos are allowed naturally of the show but if you want to watch the show's official promotional video of sorts for a peek of what I meant, take a gander:

Saigon Opera House
7 Lam Son Square, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam,_Ho_Chi_Minh_City
+84 28 6270 4450

A O Show

The show ends in the evening which meant it was naturally time for a late dinner. After contemplating the choices, I decided I wanted a good bowl of pho for the last meal there as it's really one of my favorite simple soup dishes in the world and found a recommended place not too far off.

Pho Bo Vien Thap Cam is named after its specialty beef pho and is a street side restaurant with a distinctly humble and local look.

They offer both chicken and beef varieties which you can see the meat hanging on hooks by the shop window but it's the beef variety that's particularly well known here.

Limes, chili, and herbs provided on the side with the bowls of pho. It looks very simple but both beef and chicken have a deep and rich broth that's just perfect supping while seated on the streets outside.

I wholly preferred the beef over the chicken, the latter which I found rather chewy and a bit gamy in scent. But for the pho bo, a good beefy way to cap off the trip.

Pho Bo Vien Thap Cam
7 Nguyen Thai Binh Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I remember thinking how surreal it was that I was in Vietnam for the first time as it always was a country I heard and remembered so much from childhood. Probably because of the American-Vietnamese connection, I distinctively remember hearing about Vietnam far more than even Thailand or other southeast Asian countries.

Having the opportunity to visit the historically-rich and fascinating city of Ho Chi Minh City first in my Vietnam travels proved to be a great basis for comparison in my later Vietnamese travels. On top of the attractions and great food, I most fondly remember just the many friendly and sincere individuals I came across in HCMC and I can't wait until the next time I get to eat my way through the city again!