Day 1, Saigon: Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City & Eat, Eat & Eat
It was in year 2010. My second trip to Ho Chi Minh City after 5 years and a memorable one for me and my travel companions. The year of the trip is not important, but the adventures that we experienced would probably give travellers some ideas when planning travels in southern Vietnam.
Read our adventure stories...
At 12:30 pm Saigon local time, the Tiger Airways jet landed at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Ho Chi Minh City. I was with my sister, Joanne, and her husband, Chavez. Another two of my friends were to join us the following day.
We exchanged some Vietnamese dongs at the arrival hall of the airport where the rates were surprisingly better than money changers in the city. Then we headed to the bus bay where two SaigonBus No. 152 were waiting. The public bus service operated between the international airport, the domestic airport nearby and the bus station opposite Ben Thanh Market (or Chợ Bến Thành) for only 3.000 dongs (or VND). It was the most convenient and cheapest option as the bus station was very near Phạm Ngũ Lão, the backpacker's area in Saigon.
Update 2018: SaigonBus 152 is now dressed in green and cost 5.000 dongs per trip.
Traffic on the roads were smooth despite the large number of motorcycles. In Vietnam, big vehicles would always give way to smaller vehicles and travel slower to avoid accidents — locals explained that it was like an unwritten rule that blames would usually be put on bigger vehicle drivers regardless of reasons.
We should have alighted from the bus at the bus station at Ben Thanh Market but decided to stay on-board for another stop, hoping to get nearer to our accommodation on Bui Vien Street. But it turned out to be a mistake. After the stop at the bus station, it took us further away than expected and we had a longer walk to Bui Vien Street in Phạm Ngũ Lão.
After checking into Nhat Thao Guest House (35/4 Bui Vien) and deposited our baggage in our rooms, we hit the street immediately to have lunch. Cherry, a cheerful and friendly staff at the guest house, had recommended two cafes where we could have phở bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup). We went to the nearest one, called Pao Cafe at 158 Bui Vien Street, as we were really famished.
At Pao Cafe, we had a nice chat with the waiter who conversed with us in Mandarin. We also ordered phở bo each, a dish of beef with onions and also a special spring roll dish where we had to make our own spring rolls. The ingredients were prawn and minced meat omelette, vegetable and some herbs rolled in rice paper and dipped in Vietnamese sauce (made from fish sauce, sugar, lime, chili padi and garlic).
Phở bo is a must-try when in Vietnam.
We had pampered ourselves with a great first meal!
It started raining heavily outside and we took our time to appreciate the Vietnamese cuisine. There was a tour desk in Pao Cafe operated by Innoviet Travel Company (www.innoviet.com), which specialised in eco-tours off the beaten path in Vietnam. Mai, the girl at the desk, introduced some unique adventure tour packages to us which we took into considerations for planning our activities on the trip. However, we did not book any package as my friends had yet to join us.
After the rain stopped, we strolled around Phạm Ngũ Lão and noted the various shops, money changers (gold shops), restaurants, etc, around the area which we might require services later. We also noted the architectures of typical buildings in the city, probably the whole of Vietnam too.
We stumbled on a stall selling trứng vịt lộn (fertilized duck egg with near-developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten from the shell). It was not my first encounter, since I had tried a chick version in Siem Reap, and I "encouraged" Joanne and Chavez to try one. After some struggling moments, they conquered their fears and finished it.
Warning: We had a little episode at the stall. The stall owner had shown us a Vietnamese note of 5.000 dong for one egg and 10.000 dong for a small plate of cockles when we were ordering the food. However, after we finished eating and about to pay for the food, she informed us that the egg was 10.000 dong by showing us another Vietnamese note and the clams were 20.000 dong. I heard that such things do happen in Vietnam but never expected it on my first day here. Anyway, we paid the 30.000 dong as it was not a very big amount. The stall owner could have just be honest about the price as tourists are usually expected to pay slightly higher than locals in Indochina. Not letting such a small incident upset us, we made it a challenge among ourselves to "outwit" any future encounters. We encountered none thereafter as we made sure to pay upfront.
We strolled further until we reached Chợ Bến Thành, or Ben Thanh Market, in a light drizzle. At 7:00 pm, the tourist market was already closed for the day. However, the night markets on both sides of Ben Thanh Market looked busy, especially the food stalls under the tentage. There was this stall, named "Hai Lúa Food Countryside", that attracted our attentions.
Several ladies in traditional conical hats surrounding a pit of fire and there were some big fishes (red groupers) being grilled on the wire mesh.
We decided to have our dinner there and ordered the barbeque fish. Needless to say, it was tasty, especially with the local Vietnamese sauce!
It was still drizzling after dinner, so we strolled back to Bui Vien Street. I remembered that I had a beer session by the roadside 5 years ago and dragged my sister and brother-in-law to seek out a street-side vendor. It was the World Cup season and most of the beer stalls and shops were full of tourists and locals, cheering at every goals. We stopped at a small provision shop, which had few tables and chairs outside, and ordered the local Green Saigon and Red Saigon beers in bottles. The shop had no television, so it was a lot quieter. We sat outside the shop, drank the bottled beers and observed the activities along Bui Vien Street.
An hour before midnight, we retired back to our guest house. I had to be at the airport early the next morning to fetch my friends.