I’m taking this opportunity, while I have a working and in-possession computer (that story will come at a later date), to do some real-time blogging. You see, writing about travels, whilst good for a spot of reminiscing, is rather tricky a good year after the fact. So we’ll head back to Central America at a later date.
Not content with staying in Melbourne for too long, I booked a little getaway to Vietnam, thanks in the most part to some ridiculously cheap flights. For all my travels, I’ve actually never been to mainland Asia. Bali, yes, more times than I can count, and Japan twice. But I think I’ve always gone further afield due to the ease of travelling to Asia from Australia so kind of just put if off for more distant pastures.
Saying that, I was exceptionally excited at the prospect of hot, humid weather (and getting out of Melbourne’s winter), cheap food, hectic cities and pristine beaches.
Arriving to the sticky air and frenetic whizzing of motorbikes, I was dropped off at Della Boutique Hostel, in the lower part of District 1. And I must say that what it lacks in hostel atmosphere, it sure makes up for in incredible dorm rooms, complete with L shaped sofas and private balconies overlooking the city.
Buzzing with new city excitement, I was up and ready to explore before 8am, most likely at the prospect of my first bowl of soupy Vietnamese breakfast noodles. Wanting to join the locals (and stand out like a sore thumb), I spied a bowl of noodles that had my name written all over them and promptly pulled up a mini plastic stool on the footpath.
For my introductory meal I had chosen (I later found out) Bun Moc, a light, chilled noodle soup, seeped in mushroom and pork broth, topped with slices of cha lua (pork meatloaf), crispy pork meatballs, fried shallots and coriander (as well as some standard miscellaneous floaties), all for the tasty sum of $1. If this is street food in Vietnam, just fry me up and call me chopped liver! No breakfast in Vietnam can be complete without a Ca Phe Sua Da, or Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. I don’t even normally have sugar in my coffee, but this is diabetes-inducing caffeinated heaven.
Full of noodles and sugar, I set off to Ho Chi Minh’s most famous sights – City Hall, Notre Dame, Central Post Office, the War Remnants Museum, City Park and Ben Thanh Market. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that I spent much of last year wandering around churches and historical buildings, but these type of places don’t hold as much interest to me anymore. I much prefer just wandering the streets and taking time out in the parks and waterfronts. So fair to say my historical tour was an expedient one at that.
But the one that did surprisingly profoundly affect me was the War Remnants Museum. Growing up in 90s Australia, the Vietnam War wasn’t a topic that was ever broached in history class, even though our parents generation were of conscription age. It’s always been an America-centric war, despite the Allies involvement and the anti-war protests that happened on home soil. Wandering through the rooms, filled with imagery of the devastating effects of the bombs, napalm and agent orange, propaganda posters from countries around the world and the actual weapons used in combat, it was a gut-wrenching example of a war that got completely out of hand and an abuse of power against a mainly innocent civilian population. In the gardens of the museum, you’ll also seen actual helicopters, tanks and fighter jets used by the United States, as well as a replica of the cells prisoners of war were held in. Heavy, and at times confronting, but a really important stop on your HCM trail, especially if you’re into history like me.
Needing a change of scenery, I headed to Ben Thanh Market, through Central Park – complete with outdoor exercise equipment (which I later attempted to work out on) and a seemingly endless amount of dance troops rehearsing in the gardens. After visiting the likes of San Pedro marketing in Cusco, Peru on a daily basis, Ben Thanh is decidedly underwhelming. Don’t expect to find anything interesting or unique here, it’s a centralised tourist trap, and hang on to your valuables, but it’s still worth checking out, even just for the lunch stands in the centre.
Speaking of lunch, I’d come across an amazing list of must-eat street foods via Legal Nomads, which is acting as my checklist for my time in Vietnam. With my heart set on trying Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio, in the deep west of District 1, I set off in the complete opposite direction and ended up in Little Japan to the east. Known as the business district, it was just like stepping back into the the streets of Tokyo, complete with ramen bars and my favourite convenience store Family Mart! Well worth checking out if you’re in need of a (slight) cuisine change.
Delayed but not disheartened, I flip flopped far west to the other end of District 1, giving myself some epic blisters in the process, to Chi Thong on Co Giang road. And holy moly it did NOT disappoint. I ordered the Bun Thit Nuong (sans Cha Gio – spring rolls – this was an accident btw, did totes want the spring rolls), which are presented to you in all their glory as fine vermicelli noodles are draped in grilled pork meat fashioned into sausages, topped with peanuts and herbs, atop which you drizzle a sweet fish and chilli marinade. Bliss in a bowl.
After traipsing a good 15kms around the city, the indulgent in me decided a dinner-time massage would ease my weary body. Vietnamese massage is a mix of your traditional Thai or Balinese massage, with some swedish thrown in for good measure. There’s a bit of stretching and twisting also involved, so if you’re not feeling limber beforehand, you surely will after. A word to the wise, a tip is expected on top of whatever the going rate it, so take enough cash to cover that (and have enough money left over for dinner…unlike me).
I had planned on heading to the Street Food Market (it’s a hall, not a type of cuisine) for dinner, but my earlier miscalculations hadn’t left me much to spend, so I settled for rice paper rolls. But do check it out – it’s located in one of the streets off the back of Ben Thahn Market and has vast array of street food from all around the world. Walking home, there’s also a pop-up restaurant that sets up to the east of the market, which had some incredible looking seafood barbecue going on. Drool.
Hectic, hot and with all the hallmarks of a big city, HCM is a wonderfully in-your-face introduction to this amazing country.
Stay: Della Boutique Hostel
Do: City Hall
Central Post Office
War Remnants Museum
Ben Thahn Market
(I’d actually recommend doing a walking tour to cover the above, as well as get some great insights to Vietnam’s diverse history)
Eat: Everything! But use the Local Nomads guide as your bible