We had considered doing a walking tour but instead decided to tour on our own. The free hotel shuttles didn’t start until 10 am but the places we were visiting opened at 7:30 am. So, we would take a taxi.
Breakfast at the hotel started at 7 am. It is served by the river; the food is brought down from the kitchen in the hotel. They serve a fantastic breakfast here. There is plenty of variety, both Asian and western. There is also someone that cooks eggs to order. We enjoyed breakfast al fresco. Fish were jumping, large chunks of some type of water plant would drift by, and every time a boat passed, we would bob up and down because the breakfast area was on a raft.
The front desk called Vinasun to order a taxi for us; it arrived a minute or two later. The driver did a great job navigating through the myriad motorbikes carrying people on their way to work. Our first stop of the day was Independence Palace (also known as Reunification Palace) which is where the communists arrived in 1975 and took over. On the way, we passed by Notre Dame Cathedral which is being renovated right now and is closed to the public.
There was a large group of young people in matching outfits in front of the palace. I am not sure exactly why, but we did see them posing for pictures later on. The entry fee was only 40,000 Dong (about $1.75). Though we arrived early, there were already plenty of people there. Lots of tour groups, including some school groups (and this was on a Sunday). However, it wasn’t too crowded. Definitely a good idea to arrive early. There are plaques (fortunately with an English translation) that explain the history of each of the rooms visited. It is an interesting building with a distinctive 60’s flair. And, it is still used today for official meetings. As you can see from the interior pictures, this place is pretty groovy!
As I mentioned earlier in my post, Vietnam does not participate in T-Mobile’s international data plan so we had downloaded maps for off-line use for navigation. Clayton wanted to master the use of these maps so instead of using the paper map we had with us, or asking people for help, we followed the directions on his phone to our next stop: the War Remnants Museum. Let’s just say that we didn’t necessarily get there in the most efficient manner, but we did get there!
If you are “of a certain age” and are American, you remember the Vietnam War. My husband is a Vietnam-era veteran. He enlisted rather than being drafted. I am a few years younger and so didn’t have to watch my friends go to war. The war ended in 1975; I graduated high school in 1976.
This was a heart-wrenching place to visit. Of course, the “American War” as it’s known here, was all about American war crimes according to the communist government. We were the aggressors; they were the innocent victims. However you feel about that perspective, seeing pictures and reading about what happened to the Vietnamese people was really awful. There was a room called the war atrocities room that had photo displays of the men, women and children (non-military) that had been tortured and killed by our troops.
Even more difficult was the Agent Orange room. I had no idea that dioxins’ effects lasted for multiple generations. There was photo after photo of people of all ages that had been damaged from their (or their parents/grandparents/great-grandparents) exposure to the toxin. I shed a few tears in this room.
For some strange reason, I kept getting approached by students (they looked to be middle-school age) to have my picture taken. I am in multiple selfies and photos! I really don’t understand why; there were plenty of other Americans around that they could’ve asked, but maybe I have some weird teacher-aura that made them feel comfortable asking me. They were absolutely adorable and very happy and excited when I agreed to pose with them.
After viewing the displays we headed outside to where the remnants of war are displayed: tanks, howitzers, jets, and so on. There was a small coffee shop on the grounds as well so we stopped to relax and plan our next stop (free wifi).
We decided to head to Cho Ben Thanh, a large market that was a little over a mile from where we were. We walked through the market. Lots of interesting organ meat for sale right by the entrance! Other than that, it was a typical market with all types of trinkets for sale. This marked is definitely oriented to the tourist trade. It was very large and overwhelming. We headed out for out next stop.
My name is Heather, and I am a massage addict. As I type, it has been 3 hours since my last massage…It’s funny; my husband had never had a massage before this trip. Now we are averaging one every other day! While I was busy searching for sightseeing places when we first arrived, he was busy searching for a good place for a massage. So, after wandering through the market we headed out to locate the massage place he had found. Using off-line maps isn’t nearly as user friendly as the on-line versions, so we ended up stopping in a Starbucks to use their wifi. The shops here give you a wifi code when you purchase something so we bought some cold water in order to log in. We found out that we were on the right road and so continued on until we found the place.
We opted for the 90-minute hot stone massage. Pure bliss! Loved every minute of it. No doubt we will be finding a place for a massage in Hanoi as well.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant we had passed on the way to get massages. I had never tried Pho before and so figured this was an opportune time and place to try! It was really delicious. There are tons of Pho places near where we live so I may have to give some of them a try when we return home.
After lunch we grabbed a Vinasun cab back to our hotel. Later in the day we took the hotel’s shuttle boat back in to town. One thing that is very noticeable is that there are no pleasure craft on the river. The only other boats were “working” boats, boats that were hauling loads of various items. And, there were very few of those. Unlike Bangkok where there are numerous types of boats that to transport people up and down the river, there is only one company here that does so, and it just started service in November.
The trip to town was much more enjoyable by boat than by taxi (no traffic!). We were dropped off at Mong Bridge which was a little bit of a walk away from where we wanted to go. But, the sun had gone down and the temperature was only in the upper 80’s so it wasn’t too difficult.
One thing I should mention about visiting here is how difficult it is to cross the road. Cars and motorbikes ignore crosswalk signals so you just go across lanes of traffic and pray that vehicles will go around you. Smaller roads are relatively easy to cross but major roads are scary! I have read that Hanoi is really difficult in terms of pedestrians crossing through herds of scooters. I am curious to see how much worse it is there; I can’t imagine it could be much more so. I will know in a couple of days! The scooters here even drive down the sidewalk; I got hit by one when I stopped to look at my phone.
We found a café for dinner that had a nice view of the street so we could do some people watching. After dinner we visited a Circle K mini-mart to pick up some snacks for our upcoming train trip to Hanoi. We will be on the train for a day and a half and so want to be prepared. The streets were lit up; I believe in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the war. After meandering around for a bit we found a cab to take us back to our hotel. We could’ve taken the shuttle back but didn’t want to have to walk back to the shuttle stop. The cab only costs $5-$6 which is a small amount of money for an air conditioned vehicle that will negotiate the crazy traffic and deliver you right to your doorstep.
The next day we figured we would just wander around town a bit and see if we could find a few famous landmarks as we walked. We had another lovely breakfast by the river and then took the shuttle van into town. The traffic was obscene, but that seems to be the case no matter what time of day or night it is. Besides the many cars on the road, there are herds of motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic. Most of the drivers wear helmets; most also wear facemasks which I assume are protection against fumes. We have noticed that it is very hazy here; probably due to pollution.
We were dropped off at Bach Dang pier which is close to many of the places we planned on walking to. We found the Opera House, Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon. After a coffee/people-watching break we found a nice park to relax in. A gardener was planting flowers. I found poinsettias planted; I have never seen them anywhere except in pots at Christmas. Pretty cool to see them as part of a garden.
As we sat on the park bench a man came up to Clayton and wanted to clean his white tennis shoes. We both kept telling him no but he didn’t listen. He grabbed a toothbrush and dipped it in some white shoe polish and tried to start cleaning. Clayton wouldn’t let him so he eventually moved on. We took that as a signal that it was time for us to move on as well!
We ended up back at Independence Palace. There were lots of tourists today; a HAL ship was in port and so bus-loads of cruisers had been dropped off in town. Most seemed pretty dazed and confused as is the case for anyone when you are in a new place for only a day. We decided to grab lunch. The restaurant we chose was playing Christmas music. Odd.
We grabbed a cab to head back to the hotel to do some laundry and get organized for our next adventure: the long train ride from Saigon to Hanoi!
We loved our hotel/apartment here (Saigon Domaine Luxury Residences); we would absolutely stay here again. The price is reasonable and the apartments are beautiful and spacious. It was our first glimpse of Vietnam. We will be heading to Hanoi next.