Note: I have updated the blog following another trip to Hanoi in 2015, with a new section on Tam Coc.
The first thing you realise when you reach Ho Chi Minh is you must be suicidal.
Motorbikes whizz at you from every direction. How do you cross the road and keep body and soul intact? Like little schoolkids, you will find yourself clinging to the hand of whoever is standing next to you.
Crazy traffic aside, you will find Vietnam to be a good place to visit with great food, some nice architectural buildings, beautiful scenery and fantastic shopping. Most people on limited time will choose to go to 3 main places in Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and Halong Bay.
If you have even more limited time, say 5 days, you won’t be able to do all 3. Hanoi is the capital but HCM is the commercial centre of Vietnam. So the sights and shopping are very different in both cities.
Ho Chi Minh is quite far from Hanoi and Halong Bay. So if you are into cruising in Halong Bay, then HCM is out. If you are a shopaholic, let me put it this way, if you want to buy crafts and clothes, go to HCM. If you want imitation paintings of the great masters, go to Hanoi. If you are a fan of HCM, the man, go to Hanoi.
Ho Chi Minh (HCM)
HCM is formerly known as Saigon, a bustling city that is the commercial centre of Vietnam and also its biggest. There are pagodas, architectural places of interest and shopping to fill your days. At night, you can go for the water puppet show. If you are averse to being splashed, avoid the front rows.
The most popular attraction for most, I suspect is the Ben Thanh market, which is the Vietnamese equivalent of the Chatuchak market in Bangkok. All sorts of crafts, dresses and materials can be found here. You will probably want to go early to avoid the crowds but the downside is the stall owners may not sell cheap, however hard you bargain. They are very superstitious and believe that the price given to the first customer will set the tone for the rest of the day. You may think that you are getting a good deal because, well, markets are supposed to be cheap with low overheads right? But I have found that the shops just outside Ben Thanh give better prices without all the tiresome haggling and crowd. For the ladies, there are many boutiques scattered around HCM where you can even get your clothes made to measure at good prices.
For a day of sight-seeing, you can start at the Reunification Palace. This is a large building in a 60s time warp. It was apparently left untouched from the days before Saigon fell to the North. There don’t seem to be enough exhibits to fill up the huge building but it is a good place to while away an hour or so and relive the 60s and 70s. There’s mommy’s (or grandma’s depending on your age) circular retro sofa, vintage circular dial phone, radio and office equipment. There is also a replica of the tank which crashed through the gate at the end of the war and a helicopter.
From the Reunification Place, you can walk to the Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the City Hall, which are all architectural attractions. Along the way you may be surprised by the number of Vietnamese camping out on the square between the Reunification Palace and the Notre Dame Cathedral. Crowds of Vietnamese just sat there, drinking and eating nuts. I was quite bemused by this scene until surprise, surprise, I witnessed the same in front of the KLCC in Kuala Lumpur on a public holiday with the Vietnamese migrant workforce.
If you are into pagodas and temples, then the Jade Emperor Pagoda and Thien Hau Pagoda are worth a visit. The War Remnants Museum exhibits, well, war stuff. If you are into artefacts of war, then you will likely wish to visit the Cu Chi tunnels which are recommended without fail by travel agents as a great day trip.
Hanoi and Halong Bay
Hanoi is less frenetic than HCM but crossing the road is still a high risk activity. Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam with monuments and colonial architecture. I would recommend staying in a boutique hotel in the Old Quarter which will let you wander around this interesting part of Hanoi at your leisure.
The main sights in Hanoi are the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Presidential Palace, Hoan Kiem Lake, Temple of Literature, Museum of Ethnology, Old Quarter, St Joseph Cathedral, the French Quarter and the Citadel.
The Hoa Lo prison aka Hanoi Hilton is a must visit, if just to read the spin and photos of American POWs enjoying their stay, playing games and preparing Christmas dinner.
Some of the sites are not open on Mondays.
From Hanoi, you can make a trip to Halong Bay, a world heritage site. Halong Bay is beautiful with many limestone islets rising from the sea, presenting an ethereal sight at sunset. A leisurely cruise around the bay is definitely worth the trip. You can find many tour companies in Hanoi offering Halong Bay tours. The tours typically include the bus trip and overnight stay(s) on a Junk. There are many grades of tours. What you pay will determine the quality of your Junk and the food you get. Although the price includes food, it typically does not include drinks. Be warned that the tour may be cancelled due to bad weather.
When you reach the Halong Bay pier, be prepared for the mayhem that will greet you. A traffic jam of junks, people and pollution will have you wondering what horror tourist trap you have landed yourself in. Once you are safely on board your Junk and are sailing on the Bay, the calm will settle. I suspect this won’t last though as Halong Bay gets more congested with tourists.
Hanoi is famous for paintings. There are many studios in the Old Quarter with local artists churning out imitations of the Great Masters and other popular artists. Get a Van Gogh sunflower to hang in your living room. You can also buy original artwork from talented local artists.
Shoes and bags seem to be the other main shopping fare on offer in Hanoi but don’t expect them to be of good quality. Dong Xuan is a wholesale market but the vendors may tell you “no size” if you look like a casual shopper and unless you are a die-hard shopper, avoid the place if you are not into squeezing amongst people and bales of merchandise while sweating buckets. You are better off buying souvenirs and crafts in HCM than Hanoi.
Tam Coc is about 2 hours’ drive from Hanoi. You can join a tour (Sinh Cafe seems to offer the cheapest deal) or rent your own car and driver. The key attractions are the boat ride on the river to see the caves and then the bicycle ride around the countryside. You have to pay for the entrance fee and the boat (around VND120,000 for the entrance fee per person and another VND150,000 for 2 people on a boat). Bicycle rental is around USD7 for as many hours as you like. The bicycle ride is still a good way to whiz around the countryside but development has been a-calling and it is getting more removed from idyllic picture painted by some blogs. There are also many eating places now. The verdict on Tam Coc? The boat ride is pleasant enough but unless the lotuses are blooming or the paddy fields are ready for harvesting, Tam Coc trip is an overpriced side trip.
Vietnam is famous for its pho (pronounced fur and means noodle soup) and spring rolls. While the Vietnamese cuisine has maintained its originality, the French have undoubtedly left their mark on the Vietnamese food scene. They have taught the locals the secrets of baking and Vietnamese baguettes, rolls and pastries are the best in South East Asia. Other popular local food include porridge, barbequed meat with vermicelli and chicken rice. Their chicken rice is served with sticky rice, instead of the normal plain rice.
There are many small eateries and stalls dotted everywhere. The locals sit on tiny low stools and tuck in by the roadside at all hours of the day. The tourist will probably find the stools too small and the surrounding too exotic to join in.
After a hard day’s sightseeing and shopping (before and during as well), a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee goes down really well. The hot version is too thick for my liking. If you wish to buy some Vietnamese coffee beans or powder to take home, one section of Ben Thanh sells all sorts of beans and powder. You will be given a basic Vietnamese drip coffee-making set for free with your purchase.
Taxis are reasonable and easy to hail. Choose those which use meters. I wouldn’t recommend driving by yourself as the traffic is not for the faint-hearted. Low cost airline, Jetstar serves the Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi route.
If there are a few of you in a group, it may pay to book a vehicle and driver. This is of course, preferable to joining a standard group tour. On my end, I would like to share my experience with Hanoi Tansport Company. They confirmed that “all our drivers speak good English” but the one assigned to us spoke none. And though we booked for a full day (8 hours) usage in Hanoi city, when we reached the 3rd stop after 2 hours, the manager called to insist on extra payment if we wanted to continue to other places. It was a most unpleasant and expensive experience. Just hop into a taxi as the sights are not too far from each other.