Why, amongst so many places in the whole of Asia, did I choose Saigon? It’s a good question. Well, first of all, I had watched a program hosted by a local Sarawakian named Anding on Malaysian national television station TV1, and he stated that Vietnam people lived like my people, the Dayak. Second, I have always been keen to see Vietnam’s Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh) and the Mui Ne Beach. Third, I had never been there, and Vietnam was in my to-conquer list this year, together with Bali.
But let me tell you about myself. Since I was a small kid, I used to dream traveling to other places and meeting other people. I did not want to simply visit places, I wished to learn about people’s cultures, eat their food, live like them. So with this in mind, I make an effort to travel from place to place with every single penny I have. I believe life is not about living it only but living it to the fullest, fulfilling my dream however hard the task is. There is a quote I agree with that says: “Travel while you are still young, do not worry about money. Experience is more valuable than money”.
This is the reason why, from the very moment I finished my studies and started my career, every single day I think on how I can plan trips to the best and most affordable places. And I did so. No, I did not travel the whole world, but I visited places I had never imagined in my life I would travel to. I started with my own country, then I traveled to Thailand; these are small achievements, I realize, yet they are big enough for me to help me keep dreaming, keep reassuring myself there will be more trips to come.
Back to Vietnam, at the end of last month my friend and I flew to Saigon with the plan to spend at least 4 days there with a limited budget of 2,000 Malaysian Ringgit (about 560 US$), which I considered more than enough. We flew Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur, arriving at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport at 1pm in the afternoon.The driver of the 152 Bus gave me clear directions to my guest house, so after 30 minutes bus journey and 15 minutes walk, I made it to Mai Guesthouse. I immediately found out that Vietnamese people are very friendly and do not hesitate to help when someone needs.
After taking possession of our room, we went out to buy a map of the city and to rent a bike. Motorbike rental is inexpensive in Saigon at only 100,000 Dongs per day (about 5 US$). Then, with the help of local people and of the useful map, we managed to find our way to most of the places we had planned to visit:
One of the main attractions of this extraordinary city is the Notre Dame Basilica. This impressive church is the oldest and most beautiful cathedral in town, built between 1863 and 1880 by the French in the colonial era, and the building includes two impressive bell towers. It is believed that the material to build the cathedral was brought in directly from Paris! Together with its lovely gardens, the statue of the Virgin Mary and the nearby Paris Square, this must be one of the best places in Saigon for photo-shooting, and it is popular with newly-wedded couples. I did take some great pictures there, don’t miss this opportunity!
Located in District 1, with an area of 15 hectares Independence Palace, aka Reunification Palace, is a must visit spot reachable through the Nam Ky Khoi Nghia and Le Duan street three-way intersection. This huge palace was built by the French in the colonial times in 1868, when it was named Dinh Norodom after the then king of Cambodia. The stones used to build the palace came from Bien Hoa and are squared in shape with a side measuring 50cm; inside each stone are gold, silver and copper coins bearing the carved image of King Napoleon III.
Reunification Palace is considered to be one of the most beautiful villas in Southeast Asia with its extensive gardens, all kinds of trees, and a living room capable of accommodating 800 people. This historical building is believed to have witnessed several important events within its existence, including the 1954 Geneva agreement and the 1962 bombing incident by two Vietname Air Force dissident pilots that completely destroyed it in an attempt to assassinate the first president of South Vietnam and his family members. Ngo Dinh Diem government decided to build it back, renaming it Independence Palace. The palace is open to public on Wednesdays 7,30 to 11am and 1 to 4,30pm. Check the official website http://www.dinhdoclap.gov.vn/index-en.html
The Ho Chi Minh City Hall was originally built as hotel in the early 20th century. It is located in the middle of town and right next to the famous Rex Hotel. Its external architecture looked excellent, but upon my attempt to visit the place I was told by the guard that it was not open to public. Disappointing indeed, but I still advise you to have a good look at it from the outside.
Other than the places mentioned above, there are a few more attractions you can visit, like the Mekong Delta, the Cu Chi Tunnel, the Saigon Sky Deck and the War Remnant Museum.
For us, going on vacation means visiting but also trying the local cuisine! And with that intention in mind, we stopped at a famous Vietnamese Noodles Restaurant to try Pho. Pho is a dish of beef noodles consisting of salty broth, fresh rice noodles, a sprinkling of herbs and beef. It’s yummy, nicely presented, cheap, tasty and widely available in the whole country: don’t miss out! Trung Nguyen is Vietnam’s traditional coffee, described as tourists’ most sought-after pleasure when visiting the country. I did try it and to be honest, it tastes totally different from what I am used to: more dense, so ideal to be served with milk and cheese cakes.
The last thing I wish to share with you is the thrill of riding a motorbike in a town where the motorbike is the main mean of transport. Anywhere you go, there are thousands of these two-wheels, and they look like the perfect transportation to visit this amazing city.
What you have just read here about Saigon happened in a single day. Don’t miss my other articles on Saigon shopping and nightlife. So long!