Well, I’m back after my sojourn and adventuring in Vietnam, Cambodia and my home, the Philippines. It’s been a blast but gave way to a lot of laziness. It’s going to take a while to get me back on track. Below is how much of my itinerary I was able to accomplish and contact numbers of hotels and restaurants. The crossed out ones were those I’ve done.
Cu Chi Tunnels USD10
(takes most of the day)
Mui Ne Sand Dunes- Bau Trang – 5 hours travel/1 Day Tour
Le Fenetre Soleil- 2nd flr, corner of Le Thanh Ton and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia (watch out for decrepit staircase)
Benh Thanh Market
Notre Dame Cathedral
Diamond/Zen Plaza- expensive shopping malls
I Realized I should have a detailed plan on my first day. So what happened was without a plan, I naturally wasted my first day to sheer napping in the hotel and aimless wandering up and down the backpacker’s street in Pham Ngu Lao District 1, Saigon.
So my advice to you future travelers is to have a detailed to-do list for just that first day. Here’s a sample of what I might have done:
- Pack for Saigon
- Leave City Backpacker’s Hostel via Subway from Singapore- don’t forget MRT card!
- Go to Green Line Tanah Merah
- Switch to Changi Airport
- Go to Terminal 1 for Jetstar
- Arrive in Saigon
- Money Exchange at airport (no commission)
- Buy a Vietnamese Sim card (in this case, Mobi fone) with help from hotel
- Get in touch with Marjorie (my friend who works in HCM City) and Mr Chinh
- Plan get-together- write in calendar
- Look for good travel agent and money exchange center in backpacker’s street
- Book tour to Cu Chi, Mui Ne,- Mr Chinh will take me to Notre Dame and Reunification Palace and other places on B Secondary Places. Write in calendar
- Walk around backpacker’s street and look for Le Fenetre Soleil.
As you can see, I made sure that most of the places in A were crossed out. B and C don’t matter that much. Many things can happen that will make major changes in your planned itinerary. Doesn’t matter. Just make the best decision (ensure most places in A, unless they’ve come into contact with a bomb, are covered) and go with the flow.
The Cu Chi Tunnels actually just took half a day and it was a good thing I didn’t book for the War Museum/Reunification Palace because they just dropped us off there after the 2 hour ride back to the city. But better bring a map when you go there because the Independent/Reunification Palace is a couple of blocks from the War Museum. You can get a free and better map at the Saigon Tourist Office across from Rex Hotel (any taxi driver knows where Rex Hotel is) rather than buying those along the streets.
I thought Mui Ne was nearby when it turned out to be a 5 hours bus ride from Saigon –the same amount of time it takes to go to Phnom Penh, Cambodia! And there was a whole bunch of stuff to look at besides the Sand Dunes and yes, they were all included in the package. It was a good thing I was staying longer in Vietnam. Mui Ne was worth it but you wouldn’t want to stay there for long after seeing the Sand Dunes. It’s a resort place so unless you’re a beach type of person don’t waste your time here.
Most of the places in B were visited thanks to Mr Chinh, the xe-om driver my friend recommended to me. He’s really sweet and will take you to places with bargains. Could also speak English though I could only understand 2% of what he said. He said and I’m paraphrasing some: Don’t buy shoes in Vietnam because they easy break! Buy shoes in Thailand!
There were often constant blackouts in Saigon and Mui Ne. God knows why. So plenty of that time, I was cooped up in the hotel because I heard there was a lot of stealing going on in Saigon though not that much in the backpacker’s street, but still…. Just to be safe. It’s a bit scary walking by yourself (especially if you’re a petite female like me) at night clouded in the stealthy blackout darkness. Just the other day, a Japanese tourist got nabbed at the park with all his important docs and wallet.
I found a better café than Le Fenetre Soleil called Highlands Coffee which served all these great drinks including the famous Vietnamese Coffee. It was so strong that when I first tried it I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. Mostly it was due to the fact that I never drank much coffee myself.
Places at Letter C were crossed out thanks to pals Helen and Marjorie (thanks guys!) who took me on a surprise trip all over District 1 on my first night in Saigon (heard from them that Vung Tau wasn’t that great so didn’t bother going there). They also introduced me to some of the best places to eat where I finally sampled the famous Vietnamese Hot Pot – Lao Ye. Below I’ve pasted addresses of the hotels and restaurants that I liked.
175/21 Pham Ngu Lao St.
District 1, HCM City
Great clean rooms with private bathroom, A/C, TV, fridge and even your own wastebasket at USD26 per night. Also with elevator and free internet at the first floor (most HCM hostels offer free internet but boy, but careful with inserting any flashdrives or your card reader as most of them got serious issues with virus as I’ve learned.). No need to put some deposit. Instead they’ll keep your passport for you.
There were cheaper hotels than this but I just loved the staff. They were very accommodating and really friendly. Always greet you with a big smile on their faces.
The hotel is also located in a quiet enough area but can be tough to look for as it’s in a small street between De Tham and the long Nguyen Thai Hoc st along Bui Vien road. Just call the staff and they’ll arrange to pick you up from the airport for US$12. The official taxis from the airport cost the same.
Hung Long Co., Ltd/ Exim Bank
86 Mac Thi Buoi St
District 1, HCM City
Tel: 84.8.8. 297 887
Best rates in Saigon. Most foreigner go here but it’s a 5-10 minute ride by moto from the backpacker’s street but worth it. At first glance it looks like a clothes shop but walk closer and you’ll see a counter with the usual money exchange board. It’s next to an ATM and across from Sun Wah Tower. Or just show the address to any moto driver and they’ll know. Saigon’s streets are not that hard to navigate and their street numbers are in order unlike Cambodia.
Be careful on accepting any old money from other money exchange. Only accept the new money –the pretty smooth one with the small plastic sheet at the left (denominations start from 10,000 dong. The smaller ones won’t have the plastic sheet). My friend got some old money and wasn’t able to exchange it back again. No shops won’t accept it either.
4 Nguyen Thiep St, District 1, HCMC
tel: 848. 8220496
One of the best Vietnamese restaurants I’ve tried. Really delicious but slightly more expensive than the cheap local restaurants. It’s worth it, I tell you. Customer service is excellent. They can also speak good English.
Across from it is the ubiquitous Pho24. More affordable than Lemongrass. Also excellent Vietnamese restaurants serving the popular Vietnamese dish of Pho noodles. Drop by here to get a business card. At the back they would list all of their branches in Saigon.
105 Truong Dinh
Q3 TP Ho Chin Minh
Telephone: 930 4296
This is the Vietnamese hot pot. Not to be missed. They’ve got both grill and hot pot. Lots of locals dine here if you’re looking for a genuine Saigon dining experience. You can hardly see a foreigner. Bring a friend along as hot pot usually has big portions. The staff doesn’t speak English but are willing to assist you. Just thinking about this place makes my mouth water again.
If you’ve got any other questions, about Vietnam: feel free to comment or email me at ksirine.yu [at] gmail
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