Saturday, April 2, 2011

Review and Guide to Ho Chi Minh City

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We were in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) for a duration of 4 days and 3 nights and stayed in District 1. Our hotel was the Thien Xuan Hotel, located in Le Thanh Ton street and within walking distance to the Ben Thanh market. We managed to cover visits to the Reunification Palace, Opera House, People's Committee Hall or City Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office, which we went to by walking. We also managed to catch the world-renowned Water Puppet show

The only tour we took was a half-day city tour, which covered the Chinatown. This tour included a visit to the Cho Binh Tay market or Cho Lon, a brief stop to an ancient pagoda, a one-hour visit to the War Remnants Museum and finishes off with lunch.

For this trip, we did not go to the Chu Chi tunnel or the Mekong Delta. Thus this review and guide will only cover what we managed to visit and did in HCMC.



Preparations from home:
  1. Naturally, you would want to determine on your inbound flights into HCMC. As most of you should already know by now, both AirAsia and MAS fly into HCMC with multiple flights daily. Both have pros and cons. We decided on MAS, because on our travelling dates, the ticket fares were not much different. Because we were travelling with our two young children, we also wanted to take advantage of MAS' in-flight food, baggage allowance and comfort.
  2. Now, for the hotel. The best and most reliable booking services are www.booking.com and www.agoda.com. Both have good deals. We used booking.com and chose the Thien Xuan hotel because of its cheap rates and location. We do recommend you to find hotels on Le Thanh Ton street, for its close proximity to Ben Thanh market. If you are planning to go to HCMC, we also recommend you to check-out the Liberty Central hotel and the Norfolk hotel.
  3. What to pack? Food, of course. Yes, you can find halal food in HCMC, but unless you are going on a full-board tour, the price of Malaysian food or halal food is expensive in HCMC. We will explain more on that below. 
  4. A stroller or jogger is also highly recommended if you are travelling with kids. Though HCMC is a busy city, they do have wide walkways and pedestrian friendly streets.
  5. Change some RM into Vietnamese Dong (VND), and some RM into USD. The USD to VND exchange rate in HCMC is slightly higher. RM is accepted in some shops, but is not advisable. 
  6. Don't worry about tours. Arrange them when you are in HCMC, it is cheaper. Thien Xuan Hotel has a few tours which includes city tours, Chu Chi and the Mekong Delta.


Arriving there:
  1. You will arrive at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport which has a modern and clean arrival terminal which looks similar to KLIA, but not as deserted. Make your way out of the arrivals gate, and you can take a taxi right here but only a company called Sasco can take passengers here, and they charge higher fares.
  2. If you want cheaper fares, then go up to the departure level using the elevators to the left of the arrivals terminal. Go out and try to catch either Vinasun or a Mai Linh taxi, which are both recommended and charge using the meter. You have to be fast here though, because they are not supposed to pick up passengers here, but will do so if you flag them up.
  3. Prepare a clearly-written note of your hotel's complete name and address. Most taxi drivers here cannot speak English.


Checking-in:
  1. Thien Xuan Hotel has friendly, English-speaking staff but we were a bit surprised when they told us that the Hotel will keep our passports during our stay. Maybe it was for their payment security. But at the end, we got our passports back safely.
  2. Most three-star HCMC hotels do not have windows, so check and request for room with a window if you wish for one. Our room was a triple room, with one king bed and one queen bed with clean toilet and enough space for our family of four.

Getting around:
  1. The best and safe way to get around HCMC is by taxi, so make sure you flag only Vinasun or Mai Linh taxis. Again, they do not speak English and will not be able to understand you even if you have the address written down.
  2. So our tip is to ask the hotel staff to write down the name of the places you want to go to - in Vietnamese language. For example, when we wanted to go to the Water Puppet show, the taxi driver did not understand at all - we had to show him the map. So it would be better to have it written down in the Vietnamese language.
  3. You can also walk safely in HCMC, during the day and night. The pedestrian walkways and boulevards are wide enough that their citizens sit, eat and drink on the walkway, and even ride motorcycles on the walkway to avoid the traffic.
  4. And now, the most important part - how to cross the street. When you are in HCMC, you will notice that the city is full of motorcycles and the drivers will always honk. They honk to tell you that "they are here, be aware" and not to ask you to move away. So don't get angry when they honk at you, and don't get offended, it may be annoying at first but you'll get used to it.
  5. When you cross the road, remember that "pedestrians are like rock and motocycles are water, and water goes around rock" - so walk slowly and confidently, and don't make sudden movements or stop suddenly. The motorcyclists are good, have some courtesy especially towards foreigners and do not speed around (and again, sadly, unlike in KL).

What to visit:
  1. You should be able to cover the Reunification Palace, the Central Post Office and the Notre Dame in one go - they are located nearby to each other. Only the Palace requires an entry fee. We did not pay, so can't tell you what is inside.
  2. The Post Office is a grand old building largely untouched from the early 20th century while the Notre Dame is a catholic church. Both were built by the French.
  3. Next, you should be able to cover the People's Committee Hall (or City Hall) and the Opera House together. There is also a statue of Ho Chi Minh in a park in front of the City Hall. 
  4. It would also be worthwhile to visit the War Remnants' Museum, where there are many tanks, helicopters and military hardware from the Vietnam War on display at the Museum's grounds. There is also an exhibition hall where they are more exhibits and pictures (most are gruesome). One hour is more than enough to spend here. 
  5. If you have the time, visit District 5 of the Chinatown. Pay a visit to the oldest pagoda in HCMC. Try also to drop by the market, the Cho Binh Tay.
  6. Another must-see is the Water Puppet Show, which is internationally recognized. It is located at the Golden Dragon Theater, near Tao Dan Park, still in District 1. Entrance is 120,000 VND, with shows at 5.00 pm and 6.30 pm. Do try to ask for front-row seats to have a better view. We came early and got the first row. It was an entertaining and lively 50-minute show.
  7. Like we mentioned above, it would be okay to pay for a half-day city tour to cover places farthest from your hotel. And enjoy walking to the rest of the attractions.

Shopping:
  1. Like we said, bring both VND and USD. Exchange your USD in HCMC, but the rate varies and differs.
  2. Always insist the trader to tell you the price first before letting them to show you the items. At the markets and night markets, there are no price tags - the traders will pluck any figures out of thin air and quote you a price of their fancy. So ask them the price first, and start bargaining from there.
  3. Bargaining is difficult in HCMC, though the general rule of bargaining two-thirds of the quoted price applies here, most traders are getting wiser. They will refuse to reduce prices even as you threaten to leave or started to walk away.
  4. Another general rule is always bargain and pay in VND. The traders cannot refuse to take VND, though they will gain more profit by trading in USD. Most shops will have price tags or quote prices in USD, and then calculate that into VND. This is where you must bargain more, and then try to cut about 10,000 to 20,000 VND from here.

Where to buy:
  1. Last time I was in HCMC (5 years ago) - there was a lot of embroidery items such as paintings and blouses, but now rather scarce.
  2. If you can go to Cho Binh Tay in District 5, it is recommended to buy some fabric here - cotton and Vietnam silk - they are cheaper here. Silk tie for the men also cheaper here.
  3. If you want to buy baju kurung, blouse, baju melayu, telekung, jubah - then you can visit Hong Anh Collection, Saigon Mai and Minh Collection, all located on Le Thanh Ton street. Go to all three shops and compare prices according to your needs and priorities. Saigon Mai is the most comfortable and friendliest shop. 
  4. When you are buying baju kurung, always make sure you try them on, because the kain for baju kurung is straight cut, and may not suit people with wide hips or plum-shaped ladies. Vietnamese ladies (and also men) are slim, a lingering effect of the War.
  5. The Ben Thanh market is cramped, with shops located so close to each other. It is not recommended if you bring small children along. At the back of Ben Thanh (around Entrance 14), there are stalls marked with Fixed Price boards - supposedly already cheap but no bargaining will be entertained.
  6. For the usual souvenirs, we do recommend you to get Paper Arts - different coloured papers rolled and made into pictures. Also you can get wood crafts, lacquered crafts, keychains and others. Shop around to get the best choices and prices.
  7. At night, take a leisurely stroll at the Ben Thanh Night Market, open until 11.30 pm. Items here are a bit cheaper but choices are a bit limited.

Where to eat:
  1. You can google-up many halal and Malaysian eateries in HCMC, but remember, Malaysian food here is considered cuisine - so prices are expensive. For example, nasi lemak is about RM10 here. But fair enough, because Vietnamese roadside food (like Pho noodle) is expensive in KL.
  2. We only tried the D'Anjung stall at the Parkson food court supermarket on Le Thanh Ton street and it was okay. The Parkson food court also has a halal Pakistani stall in it.
  3. We also had lunch at a restaurant at Beautiful Saigon Hotel - we just order vegetarian and seafood. The shrimp spring roll is very tasty.
  4. As for drinks, always buy at places with price tags - like Parkson or Circle K, because roadside stalls or even shops will charge foreigners double the price. Buy lots of water.

Leaving HCMC:
  1. If you survive the shopping onslaught and have some more VND left, it is better to finish them off (because it is imprudent to exchange them back to RM). The Tan Son Nhat departure terminal has many duty-free shops where you can shop till your last Dong.
  2. Tan Son Nhat departure terminal has many shops, facilities and cafes (again, not like KLIA) - so get to the airport, relax and enjoy your journey home.







Map - District 1


1 - Our hotel - Thien Xuan Hotel
2 - Reunification Palace
3 - Notre Dame Cathedral
4 - Central Post Office
5 - City Hall
6 - Hong Anh Collection
7 - Saigon Mai
8 - Minh Collection
9 - Ben Thanh Market
10 - Parkson
11 - Saigon Opera House
12 - Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre



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