Thursday, 19 December 2013

Vietnam: Unfolding a new journey in the old Saigon

Going back about 2 months in time, during October, in the lovely city of the old Saigon, now more commonly known as Ho Chi Minh City.
Notre Dame Cathedral

The background
A brief background about this beautiful city of Ho Chi Minh. Being the largest city in Vietnam, it was often mistaken to be the capital of the country – The capital of Vietnam is Hanoi.

The weather
Similar to Singapore, there are only 2 types of weather, either it is raining or not. Being lucky, as we always have been looking at the brighter side, the weather was constantly warm but humid during our stay in the rainy season.

The booking
Usually I would have booked separately my flights and hotel to get the best deals. However, as this trip is quite last minute and it was only a short weekend trip, I decided to save the trouble and went booking flight+hotel deal on Expedia.

I would say that the deal we have bought for me and my girlfriend was rather worth it. Read: The flight/ The hotel

The flight
The deal we got on Expedia requires us to transit at KL Malaysia. It was a huge joke when we almost missed our flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). The Airasia flight to Malaysia was delayed due to weather. I have been on delayed flights many times in my life. Read post on Mexico and Japan. However, I was rather astonished by the ineffective communication in the infamous KL international airport.

So my friend and I went to check in at the Singapore airport at the stipulated time for check in. On our itinerary booked from Expedia, our flights clearly stated Malaysia Airlines with the usual flight number and stuff. So as we approach the Malaysia airlines counter, the lady was very nice to let us know that we are actually flying Airasia despite what was being written on our Expedia itinerary.

To anyone who usually flies transiting airlines would have known that connecting flights allow the passengers to obtain our boarding passes at our first check in counter. However, as we are unaware that we are actually flying different airlines, we have to obtain our boarding pass to HCMC at KL. And that’s when the second horror happened.

When we reached KL after a delay due to bad weather, a lady was waiting at our arrival in view that we are going to miss our connecting flight. That was supposed to be great news. The lady shuffled us to the transit counter only to find that there were no tickets prepared for us at the counter. Then we ran, yes, we ran to the boarding gate upon told by the transit counter staff that they have made special arrangement for us despite the absence of the tickets. After which, it was a smooth flight to the lovely HCMC with several lovely in flight meals.

The hotel
As far as the famous Ben Thanh Market goes, we stayed about 3 streets away, along Pham Ngu Lao Street in Liberty 3 hotel in District 1. Despite being a 3 star hotel, the hotel is cosy and near several famous sightseeing attractions.
Our hotel view overseeing a motorcycle park.

Taking a cab/taxi
The taxis were really cheap in HCMC. However, to note that there are some, really just a handful of cab drivers who overcharges by tweaking the meter. We have unfortunately encountered one of those and the ride costs us about 7 times our normal fare. It was crazy times. A ride from Pham Ngu Lao Street to Ben Thanh Market usually costs us about USD4 and the taxi charged us USD40 for the same distance.

Websites online usually recommend Vinasun Taxi and I agree. Stick to them as much as possible. So a trick that my friend and I picked up through this journey is that getting a Vinasun taxi is rather easy so long you know how. Here’s the trick, go to any establishment, hotels, cafes, offices, any establishments. A Vinasun representative usually don in white shirt with their signature green cab will be there to assist you get a Vinasun cab. They are more reliable than if you were to flag down one yourself. They usually take down the car plate number and your destination.

Café Haven
Starting our journey from Singapore to Vietnam with transit horror, we arrived in the beautiful city of HCM at near evening time. Ho Chi Minh City is a city stopped in time. Unlike Singapore, a modern and urbanized country, Ho Chi Minh brings you back in time. In the time that was not yet long gone. In this city of transit, there are only a few attractions that all the websites around the world would have mentioned including Cu Chi Tunnels and live rifle firing. (  So, in my own style I will shed a different light on HCMC altogether. Beside the infamous Notre Dame Cathedral which you can read about almost everywhere, a more curious place for visiting that I recommend would be the post office. Yes, you read it right, the post office.
The ATMs on one side and Telephone booth on the other. 

Having been to other Cathedral centuries old, the Notre Dame did not excite me. But when we chance upon the post office, it was an eye opener.

Unique in her own taste, HCMC District 1 has a whole spectrum of cafes and boutique restaurants that is different in every other way. I am a frequent café hopper even in my own country. Hence, being in HCMC with such great variety of cafes proves an insightful trip.

1.       Good Morning VN Café

“Excuse me, I asked for an iced coffee.” As politely as I can, that was the first sentence I uttered upon receiving my drink. I am not sure for elsewhere, but in my hometown, a glass like that usually speaks of a warm beverage. As much as I could have embarrassed myself, the waitress gently gestured that my drink is indeed “iced”.

Located right at our doorstep, this franchise café is awesome. They provide free wifi and the beverages are all rather affordable ranging from about USD6 to USD12.

2.        Au Parc Café

Having visited the Reunification Palace 3 times only to be rejected again due to wrong timing, wrong dress code, my friend and I finally gave up the visit for this café. Located about 5min walk from the Palace and the Notre Dame Cathedral, this Colonial French inspired café resides in a shop house overlooking a garden shared amongst the cathedral and palace.

As a fan of Earl Grey, I tried the Earl Grey Crème Brulee that melts at the slightest touch in your mouth. Despite being a little sweeter than it should, this Crème Brulee still have me thinking about it back home.

3.       Trung Nguyen Coffee

I had this Vietnam Drip coffee in the morning and I had to tell them to add “just a little” milk. Or else the entire coffee will turn out to be a sugar rush like I had the previous evening at Highland coffee.

This coffee is the fusion between modern and traditional. Brewed in a traditional way, the taste of the coffee was nothing traditional. It was way too fine a coffee.

Came across this website recommending some of the cafes in HCMC, looks amazing!

Food for thought
Apart from these cafes I have shortlisted, these are some good value restaurant worth visiting anytime of the day!

1.       Boat House (District 2)
We took a taxi there and it costs us around USD9. The scenery at the boat house was breathtaking. It is situated right inside a private estate and oversees a river. The pace was slow and very attractive especially for city dwellers like us. Despite that the food was nothing exciting, the view and the ambiance did the job.

Mex-Tex Enchiladas (ime encanta la comida mexicana!)

2.       SH Garden
Recommended by a close friend of ours, it sits right in the middle of the shopping area in District 1. The food is so amazing especially this tofu that seemed nothing like it. The staff was very attentive and friendly who whip us an almost new dish for us as I am allergic to prawns. The view that overlooks the shopping district was so enticing it made me feel like back in Japan again if not for the warm weather.

The lovely hosts prepared these in squid instead of the menu prescribed prawn fillings. 

Definitely a place I would not want to miss if I ever visit HCMC again.

3.       Rex Hotel

Hotel Resident resting area

Set on the rooftop of the famous 5 star Rex Hotel, the restaurant and bar is accompanied by live bands and streetlights at night. Despite being a 5 star hotel, the food is only typical, nothing fantastic. Nevertheless, the experience is still great. However, would still recommend SH Gardens.

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