Chillin in Ho Chi Minh City – Part One

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s former capital and one of the funnest cities in Southeast Asia! 

A backpacker’s paradise, Ho Chi Minh City has everything a traveler is looking for – interesting history, amazing nightlife, vibrant culture, good shopping and of course, it’s cheap!

For all my travel blog posts on Vietnam: Click Here

For part two of my visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Click Here

Ho Chi Minh City
The French-inspired Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon. Vietnam’s most-populous city of several names (most use both, I did/still do)  is quickly shifting towards the future, however its vibrant culture and old-school attitude is still felt by its residents and travelers alike. I’ve touched on the Vietnam War bit of the coastal country’s troubled history in my post about the fear-inducing Cu Chi Tunnels, so I’ll focus more on the city itself and what there is to do around town in this post and the next in a two-part series.

Ho Chi Minh City
Bui Vien Street, a backpackers’ paradise
Ho Chi Minh City
Chances are, your hostel will located down one of these many packed corridors in Ho Chi Minh City

For starters, if you arrive in town from neighboring Cambodia (like most backpackers) or via the airport, you’ll need to make your way towards Bui Vien Street/Pham Ngu Lao Street. The central hub of all hostels, trips, bars, restaurants (and amazing street food) and things-to-do-in-town, Bui Vien is the place to get sorted. I stayed at the Galaxy Hotel & Capsule for around $10 USD/night which is pretty standard in Saigon. Most hostels call themselves hotels since they offer single private rooms (as basic as you can imagine, but private nonetheless) in addition to the regular dorm-style accommodations most opt for due to cheapness.

Ho Chi Minh City
Like ebony and ivory, Vietnam is a mix of communism and capitalism in perfect harmony

As readers of this blog are certainly aware by now, my favorite thing to do once I arrive in a new city is to scope out the surroundings by taking a nice long walk, camera in hand. The strangeness of Vietnam’s communism-meets-capitalism is quick stark and offers such a weird contrast for the recent arrival. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the famous two-tailed mermaid, a symbol of American luxury coffee literally located next to sickle and hammer flag. Bui Vien is the place where the far east meets west.

Ho Chi Minh City
A pair of western gals stroll in front of Vietnam’s famous propaganda

I could write volumes on the oddness of seeing American consumerism occupying the same stretch of street as Vietnam’s staunch political belief systems. One last example – Popeye’s Fried Chicken located 3 minutes walking from the Independence Palace. But I digress… and will leave it for the next post. After taking in the local area I grabbed some shuteye for the next day. I planned on hitting up some local parks and sights and then meeting a colleague of mine for drinks a bit later that night. One of the advantages of living and working in Yangon, Myanmar, is that you make connections all around Southeast Asia and with a good nights’ sleep I wanted to make the most of the famous Vietnamese nightlife… but first, the Tao Dan Park.

Ho Chi Minh City
The sidewalks of Saigon have a lot to say for proper city planning. Loving that shade.

The Tao Dan Park is located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. The park is made up of old stupas, a Buddhist Temple or two and plenty of leisure space for children to run around and adults to partake in some strange Tai Chi – like dance moves. The large park also has artwork on display and is incredibly well kept for a big city spot of nature.

Ho Chi Minh City
A tribute to the famous Viet Cong dual-way sandal

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City
Stone carvings are among the artwork on display at the park

Ho Chi Minh City

The last place I’ll cover in this post is the absolutely-brilliant Notre Dame Basilica Cathedral Saigon. Designed by the French architect Jules Bourard and opened in 1880 (1880!) the massive church dominates the downtown landscape and maintains its presence amongst the modern buildings of the “new Saigon.”

Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception

Ho Chi Minh City
Our Lady and the Cathedral

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

I’m gonna do something a little bit different in describing the Basilica – just list facts… and what facts are these:

  1. All the building materials were imported from France. The bricks outside the cathedral are from Toulouse and have retained their red color without the use of coated conrete.
  2. There are 56 glass squares supplied by the Lorin firm of Chartres province in France.
  3. The cathedral foundation was designed to bear ten times the weight of the cathedral itself.
  4. Tiles have been carved with the words Guichard Carvin, Marseille St André France (perhaps stating the locality where the tiles were produced). Some tiles are carved with the words “Wang-Tai Saigon”. Many tiles have since been made in Ho Chi Minh City to replace the tiles that were damaged by the war.
  5. In October 2005, it was claimed that the Virgin Mary statue out front started to “shed tears.” This was never confirmed by the Catholic Church yet it still drew crowds the world over.
  6. In 1960, Pope John XXIII erected Roman Catholic dioceses in Vietnam and assigned archbishops to Hanoi, Huế and Saigon. The cathedral was titled Saigon Chief Cathedral. In 1962, Pope John XXIII anointed the Saigon Chief Cathedral, and conferred it the status of a basilica. From this time, this cathedral was called Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica.

Ho Chi Minh City

That’s your lot for now, I’ll be back soon with Part 2  of Ho Chi Minh City. Cheers!

For all my travel blog posts on Vietnam: Click Here

For part two of my visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Click Here

Claustrophobic Cu Chi Tunnels of Ho Chi Minh City

Cu Chi Tunnels

Have you ever been terrified on  your travels? I have, and the Cu Chi Tunnels are as frightening as they are incredible.

Vietnam’s (and neighboring Laos) natural beauty is engulfing; yet a legacy of war remains prominent when visiting the Pacific-rim country and the Cu Chi Tunnels are a prime example of that.

For all my travel blog posts on Vietnam: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from the Cu Chi Tunnels: Click Here

Cu Chi Tunnels
A path cleared for the tour through the thick jungle of Southern Vietnam

Vietnam is one of those countries that, no matter how much culture, heritage or even change that has taken place, it still bears the scarred reputation as being the focal point of one of the worst theaters of war to have existed on Earth. Napalm, gasses of all kinds, bombs of all sizes and more all did terrible damage to a gorgeous country that is now rebounding in a big way. One of the main remnants of the war that is now a must-see tourist (or backpacker!) destination is the Cu Chi Tunnels of what was known then as Saigon but nowadays, Ho Chi Minh City.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Tiny entrances and exits – this is why the Viet Cong was so deadly and effective

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels are located about an hour and a half outside the city, especially if you sign up for a bus tour near the Bui Vien/Pham Ngu Lao backpackers’ area like I did. Southeast Asia is known for the possible scam or two and our trip was no different as the bus conveniently stopped near a workshop to try and get travelers to purchase locally-made goods from “victims” of Agent Orange. I do recommend taking a bus from the city instead of trying to drive it via rented car (lots of traffic) or motorbike (quite dangerous roads) and I won’t spend too much time on this but as a travel blog with travel tips, I will say a few things to watch out for: firstly it’s great to always contribute to the local economy when visiting a much-poorer country like Vietnam, however with the inflated prices at the shop you could easily purchase similar goods for a fraction of the price in the city markets and with the prices listed, there is more “value” in this little market than at an entire Gucci or Versace store – no joke. So that’s one thing, another is that they book you for a half-day trip and spend an hour at a place like this wasting your precious travel time. So after 15 to 20 minutes I started rallying the bus and telling the guide that it was time to head out as no one was going to buy anything. Do this and your sorted. One last tip – never leave your bags or any valuables on the bus even if you pop off to grab a quick soda.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels
While the goods are handmade, those making it may or may not have been affected by chemical agents left over from the war

And now to the tunnels! The Cu Chi Tunnels were dug by the Communist Viet Cong forces and at one time spanned “tens of thousands of miles.” Whether or not that number is entirely accurate they do span for miles and miles.  In terms of engineering, they really are a marvel – dug mostly by hoe in the post-monsoon rainy season, the tunnels have air vents, booby traps, living quarters, hospitals and more! The small, narrow tunnels were easier for the smaller Vietnamese to navigate vs. the larger American, British and Australian forces, however life was incredibly difficult underground and living in these tunnels meant dealing with rampant malaria and disease, poisonous centipedes and scorpions, even vermin and rodents infested the cramped quarters.  They were highly effective nonetheless and were the launching point of the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Cu Chi Tunnels
The 90-meter long stretch of tunnel was made larger, wider and reinforced for tourists
Cu Chi Tunnels
The original tunnel is truly frightening
Cu Chi Tunnels
Successfully made it through! Had to suck in the gut, obviously

After a guide explains to you the basic history, runs you through some of the terrifying booby traps and tactics used by the Viet Cong vs. the foreign forces, brave visitors can try their hand at crawling through an enlarged version of the tunnels. The 90-meter long stretch has several exits for the claustrophobic and larger travelers as they get progressively smaller towards the end. About halfway through I seriously reconsidered why I thought this was a good idea. I think the look on my face above shows how absolutely thrilled I was to get out of there. Honestly looking up through the exit sent chills down my spine. What if I don’t fit through? I’m getting clammy thinking about it, but check out my size 10.5’s (American, like 45? in European) next to the exit below.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Too small…
Cu Chi Tunnels
… and way too tight!

A half-day trip is all you need at the Cu Chi Tunnels although I do recommend  reading up on the history of the place beforehand. At the conclusion of the tour we stopped by the gun range where you can shoot old rifles and even some Jeep-mounted machine guns. The prices are a bit steep and it’ll set you back around $20 USD to get down onto the field. I passed as having grown up around veterans who have had to actually shoot guns in Vietnam for real, it is thankfully something I’ve never had to do and really not a vibe I want to get in to. But if you have some extra dough it does go back into keeping the grounds meticulous and they really are.

Cu Chi Tunnels
The path towards the shooting range at Cu Chi
Cu Chi Tunnels
Booby traps made the tunnels impassible for invading soldiers

As you can see, the photos here are less quality than my normal pics as I was shooting entirely from the GoPro on a rainy day. I’ll be back with more from Vietnam soon!

For all my travel blog posts on Vietnam: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from the Cu Chi Tunnels: Click Here

Cu Chi Tunnels
A captured American tank during the “War of American Aggression”

Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels
The Vietnamese used fake ant hills as disguised air vents