1. Volunteer at a Local School
We landed in Ho Chi Minh City, or better know as Saigon on a Friday, June 17th at 11:20 am and headed straight to Vietnam Australia International School to conduct a workshop with students put on by my company.
When we arrived, the school offered us complimentary school lunch, which was a cool experience and not something a regular traveller would get to enjoy. We also learned that all students take mandatory nap time (these are 9-14 year olds!) after lunch, since it is so hot. (I think offices should implement the same.)
Since the school is private, their big focus is on English language learning. The school had several American summer counselors working with students for the summer (one from Shreveport, LA and one from Katy, TX, our “neighbors”). They have several campuses around Ho Chi Minh City. Contact the school to find out how you can volunteer. They are very welcoming to visitors willing to share their expertise with the students.
2. Cu Chi Tunnels
Saturday we woke up early (which was harder to do without the rooster’s singing) and headed straight to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels. I recommend you get there early if you’re visiting during the weekend as it gets pretty busy with tour groups by 10 am.
We got to see (and try!) a sample of the tunnel system that was used during the Vietnam War.
The tunnels were functioning as a city with their own underground kitchens, meeting rooms, hospital, and “bedrooms.” The conditions were poor with poor air circulation, humidity, and bacteria. About half of Vietnamese soldiers died from various illnesses when compared to battle wounds.
Today you have a chance to shoot an AK-47 for $25 at the shooting range on the grounds.
3. Visit an Orphanage
We visited Abandoned Little Angels orphanage. This was my first visit to any type of an orphanage and I was extremely impressed with its clean facilities and caring nuns. The organization is incorporated in Texas and is Catholic-backed, but they support religious and non religious schools and families that need help. Adoption is not popular and has been made challenging in Vietnam by the Communist government. There are many kids that need assistance.
The facility we visited only had a few very young children. The children were adopted by each of the nuns working at the orphanage. They were not accepting new children into their facility, but were assisting local families with food and medication.
The orphanage welcomed us with a full table spread of egg rolls, juices, and fresh fruit including mangosteen, which I tried for the first time.
Our group made a monetary donation to the orphanage while there and we already had a donation letter for tax purposes upon return to the states a week later. They’re extremely organized!
4. Hoi An Vietnamese Restaurant
This was a cute lunch set up. It’s located in a hidden narrow street, but with Hoi An in its name I knew it had to be a hit (and it was).
5. Independence Palace
After lunch we made our way to the Independence Palace. Such a simple place at first glance, but has high significance in Vietnamese history.
The palace was originally built when France took over Central and South Vietnam in the mid 19th century. In 1945 the Japanese took over. The French regained control during the WWII and later surrendered to the anti-communist State of Vietnam. But in 1962 two pilots from the newly proclaimed Republic of Vietnam flew their fighter planes into the building destroying part of it beyond repair. The building was then completely torn down and rebuilt. In 1975, when North Vietnamese bulldozed through the front gates of the building, the palace became the place where Vietnam War ended.
6. War Remnants Museum
Seeing the exhibits and the photos at the War Remnants Museum I became even more fascinated and in love with the Vietnamese culture. The atrocious crimes committed during the war were hard to believe. It is impossible to hold back the tears when looking at the crimes that were captured on camera, with many more being undocumented. I knew very little about the war prior to our visit to Vietnam. It was an interesting experience for me being from a Soviet Union, who supported one side of the war, and US, who supported the other.
I salute and admire the Vietnamese for their ability to respect and recognize the past, but not to dwell on it.
7. Saigon River Dinner Cruise
Saigon River dinner cruise is a perfect way to relax after a long and emotional day (if you visit the War Remnants Museum before). There are several ships offering 2 hour cruises down the river after the sunset and most of them include traditional performance on the boat as well. The food and drinks were OK, nothing to rave about, but the experience and night views were worth it.
8. Level 52 Heli Bar
If you’re feeling like partying or want to see the best view of Ho Chi Minh City, grab a drink at Level 52 Heli Bar. It’s located at the Bitexco Financial Tower-Saigon Skydeck and is accessed by a special elevator. There are people in uniforms working at the building, so just ask them and they will guide you. 🙂 The drinks don’t come cheap, be prepared to shell out $10-12 per drink, but the views are worth it. They also had a live band, which played anything from Beatles to Enrique Iglesias. There is a place to dance, but it’s very small and the waiters seemed very frustrated having to go around us.
9. Mekong Delta
Mekong is better knows for its busy life on the water. There are house boats, shops, restaurants, and even gas station on the river. We started with a ride on a small boat, 4 of us paddled by an elderly Vietnamese woman. Then we got on a bigger boat and visited several shops. Saw local coconut and rice “crispies” made and drank some snake wine. The wine was disgusting, and yes it had a huge fermented snake in it, but at least we tried it. YOLO! :)))
I would not recommend buying material trinkets, as they were very overpriced and the sellers didn’t seem too eager to negotiate. We had lunch at one of the local houses on the river. They served free rice wine (sake) to start, which was delicious and did not have a snake in it.
BTW, getting to Mekong Delta from HCMC was a breeze via first freeway in Vietnam only for cars and buses and no motorbikes.
10. Visit a Local YMCA
You don’t have to be a YMCA member to visit. And no, you don’t go to work out. There is no gym or pool. YMCA’s focus in Vietnam is to provide skill training, like motor bike repair and sewing, to help people find jobs. If you have skills to share, want to donate, or just want to learn more, visit the local YMCA chapter.
11. Saigon Central Post Office
Cool place to visit and they have reasonably priced jade! They won’t haggle, but will provide a small discount if you buy more than one.
12. Ho Chi Minh City Hall
You won’t be able to go inside as it is a working office of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, but it’s still a photogenic piece of French architecture in South East Asia.
13. Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon
We ran out of time and weren’t able to go inside, but it’s another popular tourist attraction. Personally, I thought it seemed out-of-place.
14. Grab a Banh Mi and Wander Around Ho Chi Minh Square
You can’t go to Vietnam and not try a Banh Mi. For $1 you get a french baguette filled with different meats and veggies. Our guide, Tre, took us to his favorite Banh Mi stand, which was located partially inside an electronics shop. To be honest, I’ve had better Banh Mi in Houston, but I can say I tried the local one. 🙂
There were many shops around with air conditioning! They’re a bit more pricy than what you would find in Hoi An, for example, but the items appeared to be higher quality.
There is also a Starbucks, so if you are “You’re Here” mug collector, you can pick up your Vietnam mug here.
15. Haggle at the Day and Night Markets
My local coworker warned me that the initial price on items will be 80% higher than what it’s worth, but if you get an item at 60% off original price, you’re still getting a good deal. Just don’t pay more than that.
There is a fixed price store inside the day market, which helped me orient myself when navigating further down to other shops. You can get a good deal on jade and other jewelry, but be prepared to haggle. And if you ask someone how much something is, they will not leave you alone!
I enjoyed the night market more, it was more vibrant with lights and there was a good crowd on a Sunday night! Grab some ice cream and just wander around.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Lavender Boutique Hotel. Great city location, but it was difficult to adjust to the city life after Hoi An. The rooms were small, but comfortable. The bathroom wall, however, was all glass, which had curtains you can pull for privacy, but it’s still a little strange when rooming with someone. Thankfully my roommate and I were super chill and cool and it was not an issue for us. The breakfast was also nice, but not like the breakfast in Hanoi or Hoi An.