Xin chào (pronounced s(h)in chow) – hello – from Vietnam. We are so excited to spend the next month in Vietnam and Cambodia, two countries we have never been to before (bringing us to 70 (S) and 71 (M) countries visited). Our visit will take us from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon) in the south to the terraced mountains of Sa Pa in the north with many (many) stops in between.

My reply to some recent advice regarding Vietnam “Don’t let your travel agent over schedule you” was: “Hmmm… I’m our travel agent and I’ve got us scheduled to the hilt.” Not surprising considering two of my mottos: ‘No wasted days.’ And ‘We can sleep when we’re dead!

Vietnam is about the same length as New Zealand (1000 miles +/-), but with a population of 93 million (compared to NZ’s 4.5 million). Since it abandoned ‘command economics‘ (a system where the government, rather than the free market, determines what goods should be produced, how much should be produced and the price at which the goods are offered for sale. The command economy is a key feature of any communist society.) and launched doi moi, a market-driven policy of fiscal reform, Vietnam is a nation on the rise, one of Southeast Asia’s ‘Little Tiger’ economies. And with a reputation as a peaceful haven compared to, for example, Bali or Thailand where terror attacks have tarnished the peacefulness, over 7 million tourists visit annually.

Although an estimated 5 million Vietnamese lost their lives in the war with the US, and over 100,000 people have been killed by left-behind land mines and bombs SINCE the end of the war in 1975, we’ve experienced no animosity; in fact, just the opposite – a warm and welcome reception from everyone we’ve met.

We flew from Auckland through Hong Kong to arrive in Saigon. This bustling city brings in about 40% of Vietnam’s revenue from international travelers. Though travelers often stick to the politically correct Ho Chi Minh City (since 1976, the name of the vast metropolis that encompasses Saigon), the easier, more graceful name, Saigon, is not forbidden, and in fact, is used by the locals all the time. According to Nat Geo Traveler guide “Communist officials routinely use the name. The river remains the Saigon. Buses still flash ‘Saigon’ as their destination… The three-letter airport code is SGN. So… go ahead and say it.” So we are.

The French colonized Vietnam in the 1800’s and adopted Saigon as the name of their colonial capital. They influenced everything from wide boulevards lined with kapok and tamarind trees, to the ‘Notre Dame’ cathedral, the opera house, the post office by Gustave Eiffel, palaces and villas, and of course, the food. Saigon came to be known as the Pearl of the Orient, or the Paris of the East, in the 1870’s.

Saigon’s a crazy, frenzied urban cacophony of more than 10 million people (locals say there are closer to 15 million) and at least, it seems, that many motorbikes, so it doesn’t exactly invoke those genteel images now, but troi oi! (oh my!) it is an amazing sight to see, nonetheless.

First….an introduction to the city:

Saigon is a city with a mix of the old and new. This pic shows off the new.

This is a pic of Saigon from perhaps 15 years ago. Much more old than new.

A street vendor tries to unload his goods on Mark.

‘Just like’ Paris, Saigon has its own Notre Dame….

…and Opera House.

Built between 1886 and 1891 by renowned architect Gustave Eiffel, the Post Office’s vaulted roof and arched windows are reminiscent of early European railway stations. 

We thought that this was one of the most beautiful and well-preserved older buildings. Originally completed in the early 1900s as the Hôtel de Ville de Saïgon,  It was renamed after 1975 as Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee. The statue in front of the building is of Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho.

Women show off their colorful Ao Dai dresses in front of Uncle Ho.

The ubiquitous scooter. During the 1980s, scooters replaced bicycles in Saigon. We estimated that the scooters outnumber the cars by 100 to 1! The city would be in total gridlock if these were all cars.

Heels and scooters – a common sight in the morning/evening commuter traffic.

Scooters are the standard form of transportation for just about everybody.

A typical scooter parking lot.

With our very helpful Private Vietnam Tour Guide, Kevin, we experienced Saigon:

We visited the War Remnants Museum. Very poignant and moving experience. On a lighter note, no Mark….you can’t sit in the Huey.

The top of the elevator shaft above the 6th floor of the former American CIA building. Very famous for the photograph in the bottom of the pic.

A much better view from the top of the former CIA building. Shauna is at the corner of the roof – 6 floors down with no rail. The picture taker’s house was pounding!

As we are about to enter a local market, Shauna poses with our Private Vietnam Tour Guide – Kevin. He took us to places we never would have gone without him. He was extremely helpful to us.

The local markets offered a variety of fresh food….

…including rays…..

…..and frogs.

A first for Shauna: an eyebrow trim with a razor blade. Cost: 50 cents USD. Hold verrrry still.

There were stalls dedicated to helmets…..

…..and scooter springs…..

There were specialized markets for flowers….

The products at these markets were priced very inexpensively. This vase of 5 or 6 dozen beautiful roses was $50 USD, and was only that high because of International Women’s Day.

It’s what’s for lunch: fish noodle soup – a traditional Vietnamese lunch at the very local Bun Rieu on the sidewalk next to Ben Thanh market. The brownish cube on the end of the chopsticks is pork blood. Tasty.

Short stools – also traditional in authentic Saigon hole-in-the-walls. Locals like to go to places with tiny stools because places with higher stools or – gasp – chairs are thought to be too expensive.

Next, we made a visit to the Củ Chi tunnels.   According to Wikipedia, “The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort.”

For more information, see Wiki.

A diagram helps visualize the underground network of the Cu Chi tunnels.

Shauna making her way into one of the actual entrances into the Cu Chi tunnel network.

The entrances were only about 18 to 20 inches wide.

The Vietcong placed a camouflaged wooden “roof” over the entrances to the tunnels.

In a jungle like this, placing the entrances some short distance away from the trails would make them very difficult to discover.

This is what one of the tunnels looks like. The Cu Chi tunnels alone ran for 75 miles; the entire network was much larger.

This gives you a perspective on the diameter of the tunnel. Shauna could only get into the tunnel using a leopard (military) crawl.

These are “tourist steps” going down to a second level. Tunnels often went 3 levels down… 10 feet deep, 20 feet deep and 40 feet deep. 

Uh…….someone is not sure about this.

Shauna down in a “tourist-sized” tunnel with Mark peering from the back. One of us went back and one kept on going for about 100 meters.

Bamboo air vents would be camouflaged at the surface with simulated termite mounds.

An example of a booby trap used by the Vietcong.

A simulated kitchen in the tunnel system. Some of these were near the surface, but most were completely underground. 

Shauna in a B-52 bomb crater. This thing was at least 30 feet across and 10 to 12 feet deep.

“Standard” female and male uniforms of the Vietcong.

On the way back to Saigon, we visited a cricket farm.  Crickets are a delicacy in Vietnam.  (At least this is what they tell us tourists…) You will hear more about eating crickets in the coming years.  For example, see this link.

Yum…..look inviting? Uh…..no.

A plate of sauteed crickets (heads on, but with the insides removed) costs about $15 in a restaurant.. very expensive by Vietnam standards.

She’ll try anything once.

Actually we did try cooked cricket dipped in light soy sauce, the preferred way to eat them, in a rice paper spring roll.

Shauna tried her hand at rolling a spring roll. Result – not so good. Too many crickets showing just inside the rice paper…. much better to hide them in the lettuce. Mark thought it looked like a bunch of crickets shmooshing their little faces up against the rice paper.

Finally, we did an “Evening Scooter Foodie Tour”.  Saigon is a non-sleeping city. It becomes more and more splendid and elegant with the twinkle of the street lights and the swarms of friends going to and fro in the city. Experiencing the buzz of Saigon’s nightlife on the back of a scooter with these enthusiastic young university students was a highlight of our time in Saigon.

Two of our three street food tour guides – Vy and Andy.

Some back seat driving going on?

This is what it looks like from the back of a scooter if all of the scooters are going the same way.

This is what it looks like from the back of a scooter if all of the scooters are NOT going the same way.

Our guides – Gene, Vy and Andy. They are all aged 21/22 university students who do this a couple of nights a week – partly to make spending money (and eat for free) and partly to improve their English. They were fun, passionate, informative and thoroughly entertaining. 

We ate local seafood specialties at a large open-air fish restaurant that only locals (and foodie tour guests) frequent.

Shauna’s favorite food of the night – squid balls in a butter-based fish sauce.

We stayed at the historic Rex Hotel, originally opened as a French garage in 1927. We enjoyed the rooftop restaurant and bar, and the food artistry.

We ended the night at an outdoor coffee & dessert cafe that probably had ten different levels/seating areas. One of the most unique and gorgeous coffee establishments we have ever been to. A memorable night indeed.