Travel Log 2011: Southern Vietnam

Last Updated
Matt Mueller
Photo of Ho Chi Minh City

Update 2023: This travel series was ported over from an older blog. In the previous post, I wrote about my time in Los Angeles. The content has been left in its entirety. Enjoy!

I finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam at 10:30am. I had spent the last day traveling with a 13 hour flight to Taipei, Taiwan and a 6 hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City.

map of Ho Chi Minh City

As I stepped out of the plane and onto the tarmac a rush of moist 90 degree heat hit me, making me hate the long sleeve that I was wearing. I was here on the complete other side of the world in Southern Vietnam.

I was to pick up my entry visa at the airport. I was worried the entire time that my driver would leave or my checked baggage would be stolen as I waited on the other side of customs.

After getting my visa, I walked through customs and headed over to baggage claim. I immediately spotted my bag. It was the only bag still on the belt.

As I walked out, I spotted my driver. Phew! All is well.

En Route to the Hostel

The ride to the hostel was the first chance to take in Vietnam. The streets were wild. The roads were covered little motorbikes. I asked my driver about it and he responded in a very broken English that there are 12 million people in Ho Chi Minh City and 5 million motorbikes.

I also learned that Ho Chi Minh City used to be called Saigon, but was renamed after the U.S. withdrew from the area and Saigon fell to Communism. This would explain all the Communism propaganda. Red and yellow billboards and flags covered the streets with hammer and scythe emblems.

After 15 minutes, we arrived at the hostel and I was greeted by Ms. Vy. I had been talking with her over the last few months as I planned my trip - she proved to be as kind in-person as she sounded in her emails.

Ho Chi Minh City

Armed with a hand-made map and a free day, I set out to explore Ho Chi Minh City. I first walked to the ATM to get money. The conversion rate was striking. 1 USD = 21,000 VND. I took out $100 or 2,000,000 Vietnamese Dong!

Now that I had some cash, I walked over to Ben Tho Market. Ben Tho Market is this indoor warehouse that crams as many merchants and shops in as possible. There must have been hundreds of little shops, selling fruits, clothing, fake watches and purses.

There were merchants sitting on mounds of their own clothing they were trying to sell. This was the first place I felt like a tourist. As I walked through the market people would grab my hand and try to get me to buy something.

After exploring the market, I needed some lunch. Vietnam is known for its Pho. Pho is a smorgasbord of noodles, broth, leafy plants, and sliced meat. I went to a restaurant called Pho 24 and ordered Chicken Pho and a Pomegranate Smoothie. They were delicious and costed me 84,000 VND or $4.

After lunch, I set out for the Reunification Palace. This was the place where North and South Vietnam were reunited after the war. It was a beautiful palace in the middle of the city. I joined a tour for about five minutes, then got bored so I explored the palace on my own. Each room had a unique color representing the intended mood. For example, the president's room was red to represent power - it also had a stuffed jaguar to really make the point.

After walking around for a few hours, I was ready to head back. I barely slept on the plane and was exhausted. I tried to go on Facebook, but it was not working. I later found out that the Vietnam government blocks Facebook. That's alright, I had to wake up early anyway for a morning tour of the Chu Chi Tunnels. I fell asleep around 6pm and woke up refreshed and ready to go around 6am.

Chu Chi Tunnels

The town of Chu Chi was a nightmare for the Americans during the war. I was about to find out why. At 8am I got on a 3 hour bus ride to this little town to the north of Saigon.

We drove deep into the jungle to arrive at the tunnels. We began our tour with a stop at an unassuming patch of brush. Our tour guide took a stick and poked at the brush. The brush swung downward revealing a swinging door with spikes at the bottom.

Our guide explained that the Vietnamese used to use this trap for animals but modified it during the war for humans. He then continued to show us all sorts of different traps the Viet Cong would use on Americans, from swinging spikes to little foot-traps. It was brutal to imagine. We then proceed to the tunnels.

The Chu Chi Tunnels was an underground network that the Viet Cong would hide in during the war. There were little opening all over the land to pop out and shoot. There were three levels to the tunnels. Level 1 was the widest and was meant for living in. Level 1 was large enough to nearly walk hunched over in.

Level 2 and 3 became consecutively smaller, from hands and knees to crawling on your stomach. The Viet Cong would go down to the 2nd and 3rd level when Americans would try to come after them in the tunnels. After explaining the levels we had the chance to walk 100 meters in the Level 1 tunnels. It was incredibly difficult. Many people quit after 20 or 40 meters. It was scorching hot, hard to breath, and hurt your back and knees crawling through.

I made it the entire 100 meters but was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. I could not possibly imagine living down there. After walking through the tunnels, we watched a hilarious documentary on the tunnels.

The film was clearly made during the war and had heavy anti-American bias with the "evil Americans dropping their bombs the peaceful town of Chu Chi". After the tour, we headed back to Ho Chi Minh City. My back and neck was sore from crawling through the tunnels and I was ready for a Vietnamese massage.

A Vietnamese Massage

After getting back, I walked right over to this place called Le Duyen 4. Ms. Vy had recommended it as a great, cheap place for a professional massage with no funny business.

It had a glass window with like 50 Vietnamese women hanging out. I paid for an hour long session for $8. I was a bit nervous because this was my first massage and I did not know what to expect.

After paying, I got to pick the masseuse - something like that scene in Rush Hour 2. The masseuse first started with my head and neck, then massaged my hands, arms and shoulders. Finishing with my back and legs.

She used hot stones on my back to work out the knots. The massage was awesome - probably the most relaxing experience of my life. If anyone ever wants to go get another massage - bring me with you.

Afterwards I made my first rookie mistake of the trip. The masseuse relies solely on tips and does not receive a salary. I meant to give her four 50,000 VND bills as a tip.

Instead I miscounted the zeros and gave her four 500,000 VND bills. This is the equivalent of me giving her $100 tip instead of a $10 tip! Needless to say, she did not mind. A massage that was supposed to cost me $18 costed me $108. Whoops!

Mekong Delta

The following morning I got up at 6am to take a day tour to the Mekong Delta. This delta supplies much of the food and resources to Southern Vietnam. It's a vast market on water with hundreds of boats that gather to trade resources and supplies.

The day tour included a trip to a Vietnam island where we got to try some of the local food. I tried Elephant Fish and some fruit and honey that is native to the region.

We arrived back to Ho Chi Minh City at around 7pm. I visited the night market for a bit, then went back to prepare for the bus ride to Cambodia in the morning.

Next Stop: Cambodia!

The adventure continues in Cambodia.