Watching the dawn steadily break over one of the world’s most iconic temples, enjoying a bowl of steaming pho while slurping noodles and grappling with chopsticks, getting slightly stuck in the Cu Chi Tunnels, visiting a traditional stilt house in a rural village, drinking in a myriad of sights, and creating vignettes of memories to keep forever – I experienced all this, and more, on a recent trip with Insider Journeys to Vietnam and Cambodia. New sights, new sounds, new smells, for me this trip was filled with plenty of first-times, as I had never been to Asia before…and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect first visit.
Saigon was our first destination. After a twelve-hour overnight flight, and a 6 hour time difference, it was a bit surreal leaving Saigon airport to head to our transfer bus, because we were greeted by dozens of Vietnamese crowding the arrivals exit, all lined up and watching eagerly, presumably waiting for friends or relatives, but instead it felt like we were on parade! This was also the first time I met the rest of my group properly, although I had previously met Nancy (from Insider Journeys) before, and saw her at check-in at Heathrow. I was travelling solo, but soon felt very comfortable travelling in a small group - in many ways, it's an ideal way for a solo traveller to enjoy experiencing new destinations, as there's an opportunity to get to know new, like-minded people keen on travel, while being able to go back to your own space at the end of the day. Insider Journeys also offer the chance for solo travellers to share with another solo traveller of the same sex, without a single supplement. Greeted by our Western tour leader, Ian, we were taken to our hotel, the Caravelle, which was originally built in 1959, but has recently been renovated, including the addition of a new wing. For two nights, I stayed in the Heritage Wing (part of the original hotel) in a spacious and comfortable Executive Room, which meant that I enjoyed a range of privileges, such as exclusive access to the Executive Lounge, where we checked in upon arrival and were greeted with cool towels and a refreshing orange juice. We were also able to enjoy Happy Hour in the Executive Lounge, complete with canapes. The Caravelle itself boasts an excellent location, just opposite the Saigon Opera, and within easy walking distance of such landmarks Ho Chi Minh Square, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office. You can see the spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral from the hotel's famous rooftop bar, Saigon Saigon.
The Vietnamese city of Saigon was once a quiet port, until the French arrived in the 19th century and transformed it into a city. Today, it’s a bustling, vibrant and frenetic city, where the energy clings to you like the heat. There’s constant sound and movement – never mind New York, this is the city that never sleeps or stops! If there are nine million bicycles in Beijing, there must be the proportionate equivalent of motorcycles in Saigon. Yet crossing the road was much less daunting than I’d anticipated – probably because western tourists are trained to steel themselves and expect madness in Saigon – but instead I found the rules are pretty simple; to paraphrase Dory in Finding Nemo, ‘just keep crossing!’
We were thrown into this wonderful city quickly. After a quick refresh, we headed out for Vietnamese style coffee at a coffee shop called Legends, one of the best in the city. The Vietnamese are really into coffee, but they do it their own way (and occasionally doctor the coffee, adding charcoal and other materials to make the coffee black). We all had iced coffee, which our Western tour leader – Ian – recommended. The coffee slowly filters into a glass, which already has some condensed milk in the bottom, and when it’s ready, you mix it with some ice, and voila! It really did the trick after the flight! From there we went to a local restaurant called Mon Hue, which actually served some Hue specialities, and it was my first taste of how incredible Vietnamese food is. Afterwards, we did a tour of Saigon, visiting the hard-hitting War Remnants Museum – which exhibits photography documenting what we call the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese call the American War – as well as other landmarks such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Reunification Palace, the Post Office, and Ho Chi Minh Square, facing the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee. The spirit of the city really grabs you, the hustle and bustle, and what I really enjoyed was watching people on motorbikes, trying to spot what or how much they might be carrying. The landmarks of the city stand as testament to its history – when the French began to develop it as a city, or when North and South Vietnam were reunified – but its people are its lifeblood, breathing life into the city, as they weave in and out of traffic, as street vendors crouch on the streets with steaming food. On our first night, we ate at a local restaurant – Lemongrass, one of the top 100 restaurants in the whole of Asia, and justifiably so with its delicious dishes – and we had a glimpse of people coming out to socialise along the newly pedestrianised strip which leads up to Ho Chi Minh Square, with young people hanging out, some playing guitars and singing together, and this just added to the atmosphere, creating a friendly hub, and a laid-back vibe.
On our second day in Saigon, we had the chance to turn back time and discover the fascinating history of the Vietnam War at the famous Cu Chi Tunnels. The Viet Cong were renowned for their guerrilla warfare tactics, and this extensive honeycomb network of tunnels – which consisted of three different levels – was credited for their ultimate victory. Life in these tunnels was tough: cramped, dark, infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions and other unpleasant creatures, and with a scarcity of water, air and food – but all this just highlights the Viet Cong’s tenacity and determination. I had expected the Cu Chi Tunnels to simply be a stretch of tunnels you walk through, but our local Vietnamese guide – Na Duc – showed us much more, starting with a Viet Cong propaganda video from the late 1960s, to the various traps the Viet Cong used, how they would prepare food, how they used nature to disguise where they were, and lead the Americans astray. After a fascinating and insightful morning, we enjoyed a bowl of Vietnam's signature dish, pho, at Pho 2000, made famous 16 years ago when then US President Bill Clinton visited and tried pho for himself. As it's traditional to eat everything in Vietnam, including pho (noodle soup), with chopsticks, I certainly did my best to grapple with chopsticks, trying hard not to slurp on the noodles too much! Pho is served with chillies, limes, and flavoursome leaves on the side, which you can add to your bowl.
We had some time at leisure in the afternoon and evening. I'd bought tickets at the Post Office the previous day for Saigon's famous AO Show at the Opera House (or Municipal Theatre), which was conveniently situated opposite our hotel. The Saigon Opera is an elegant French colonial masterpiece, built towards the very end of the 19th century. The hour-long AO Show depicts how a rural Vietnamese community adapts to urbanisation, and the tale is told through traditional music, dance, and absolutely astounding acrobatics with exuberant energy. The cast are incredibly talented, and there were times when I was amazed at how they could do what they were doing! Using props such as bamboo poles and giant wicker baskets, the performers cleverly convey their story, and even seemingly manage to create animals such as flamingos and frogs. We were soon to bid farewell to Saigon and Vietnam, and continue our travels to neighbouring Cambodia…
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Ho Chi Minh Square
Notre Dame Cathedral
Cu Chi Tunnels
Read more about Amy's trip to Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys...
Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part Two, Iconic Angkor
Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part Three, the mighty Mekong in style
Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part Four, Coastal Serenity
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