In the summer of 2015, I decided to take a chance and set off for my first backpacking trip to Vietnam. I spent 13 days exploring Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta, a small part of Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa. Join me in this 2 part series which will document my time in Vietnam in a photo journey!
HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is the largest and most populated city in Vietnam. It is a popular tourist destination in South East Asia, known for being affordable and as a good place to get some R&R. I like to describe it as a mini-Bangkok; great food, pretty good shopping but without the chaos that Bangkok has (for now!). You will also be impressed by the architecture here which was influenced by the French colonial era but still retaining some unique Vietnamese traits. Most of the attractions are within walking distance of each other. I only spent a day in Ho Chi Minh and managed to visit all the local attractions such as the Post Office, Cathedral, War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace. It cost me SGD 73/ USD 52 for a one way ticket from Singapore with a budget airline.
The Saigon Central Post Office was constructed back in the late 19th Century with Gothic, Renaissance and French influences and is now a tourist attraction. Similar to some of the other attractions in HCM, it is quite small in scale. There is not much to explore inside but makes for a good photo taking opportunity.
I like the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica (Cathedral) quite a bit more than the Saigon Central Post Office. While I don’t particularly have an affinity for architecture (I’m more of a nature and wildlife kinda guy), I felt that it was beautifully designed and constructed. There is even an urban legend that in 2005, the Virgin Mary statue had shed tears and it caused quite a commotion around the church. My friend (who is Christian) managed to attend a church service there. While he said it was great, I’m not sure if he even understood anything.
If you ever visit Ho Chi Minh, the War Remnants Museum is a must go. Other then the many replicas of army vehicles and weapons outside, there are a lot of articles and exhibits inside, each telling their own story. A note of warning, this is not for children. Some of the exhibits can be very graphic, portraying the many horrors of the Vietnam War. The stance of the museum is pretty one-sided and anti-American. But to me, the most important thing to remember is that in war, the innocents are the ones who suffer the most. I managed to learn a lot from my time there.
The grounds of the Independence Palace are massive and there are many rooms and exhibitions to explore. Each room has it’s own unique setting and there will be articles outside depicting it’s story. It is also the site of the end of the Vietnam War which occurred when a North Vietnam army tank bulldozed through the gates of the palace. I can’t blame them. I’d surrender too if a tank busted through my house.
Overall: If you are a fan of history and architecture, Ho Chi Minh is a great place to visit. Saigon is also a cheap destination, with many hostels to choose from and local street fare for you to try. It can be a great place for some R&R and spend a few days just to eat, drink, shop and relax. However there are not too many attractions and you wouldn’t need more than two days to visit everything. In fact, I managed to see all the above in just a day.
TRAVERSING THE MIGHTY MEKONG
The Mekong is a transboundary river in Southeast Asia which runs through countries such as China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong Delta, also known as the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam is one of the most important sources of livelihood for the Vietnamese people. It is vital for both it’s role in agriculture and aquaculture. Life along the river is very different from that in the big city. Many live simply and some villages are remote; inaccessible by roads and can only be reached through rivers and canals. While the Mekong boasts one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world (second only to the Amazon river), the Mekong Delta of Vietnam is densely populated and extensively farmed. Thus, there is not much in terms of wildlife there.
To get to the Mekong Delta, I took a cab to Mien Tay Bus station in HCM and then took a bus. The bus ride was 3 hours long and cost about 120,000 Dong/SGD 8/USD 5.50. I then took a cab from Can Tho bus bay (located in a town) to a hotel near the Mekong Riverside. A local guide came up to us in the hotel and offered my friend and I a guided tour of the river. As we did not go through an agency, it only cost us 40 USD for two when it would usually cost 40 USD per person. It was a full day tour and we visited two floating markets, a noodle factory and a fruit plantation.
Overall: The Mekong Delta is a delightful place to visit. While the noodle factory and fruit plantations were not very interesting and just part of the package, the experience of gliding past the villages of the Mekong and witnessing first-hand how the people lived was very eye-opening. From eating fresh fruits bought from the floating markets to seeing children brushing their teeth with water from the river, it was a very surreal experience and made me reflect on my own lifestyle choices.
EXPLORING HANOI’S OLD QUARTER
Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital is located in the North. One of the most visited place there is the Hoan Kiem District, more famously known as the Old Quarter. Here, the streets are filled with the hustle and bustle of thousands of people zipping by on scooters and peddlers hawking their wares. In the morning, take a walk around the calm and serene Hoan Kiem Lake where you’ll be joining numerous locals performing their morning exercises. Then, stop by one of the many street hawkers to grab a bite for lunch and try out Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. In the evening, head up to Hanoi’s famous beer street where hundreds of people sit on plastic stools in the open, sipping on cheap Bia Hoi (freshly brewed local beer).
The flight to Hanoi cost about SGD 100/ USD 70 and took 2 hours. As my aim of traveling up North was to visit the very beautiful Sapa and Halong Bay (the next part in the Backpacking Vietnam series!), I used Hanoi as a base to organize and book my trips there. Most of my two days in Hanoi was spent trying out the local foods, avoiding scooters and just taking in all the sights and sounds (mostly trying out the very cheap street foods – a budget backpacker’s dream!)
Overall: Hanoi gave off a similar vibe as Ho Chi Minh but on a much larger and chaotic scale. There is much more to explore here and some of my favorite times were spent enjoying a meal by the roadside and people-watching. While there are not as much in terms of attractions, it offers you the more authentic Vietnamese experience. You would also have to stop here before you can get to Sapa or Halong Bay as most tourist agencies are located here. So do stop by for a few days and soak in the local atmosphere!
For the next part in the Backpacking Vietnam series, we will visit the beautiful rock formations of Halong Bay and trek majestic Sapa!