Hoping to inspire people to take time out and travel with their family

Ho Chi Minh City; M is for motorbikes and more motorbikes

When we left Vietnam we bought Dervie, our 3 year old a really nice alphabet book; the A to Z of Vietnam. We all laughed when we came to the letter M as we just thought it perfectly summed up Ho Chi Minh City; M is for motorbikes and more motorbikes. This was the first thing that struck us when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh (formerly known as Saigon), it was absolutely packed with motorbikes.  

 

Motorbikes on the roads but also motorbikes on the footpaths driving and parked. Sometimes they were so tightly parked on the footpaths that there was no space for us to walk on them so we were pushed on the roads. If there weren’t any motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh, in fact in any Vietnamese city, they would be so nice. It’s definitely a hazard walking round with small kids.

 

Also everybody wears face masks, you can see them in the motorbike picture above. It’s slightly concerning and does makes you wonder what fumes you’re breathing in everywhere. They come in every pattern and colour, hello kitty being a favourite with our crew. 

Vietnamese carry all manner of goods and creatures on their bike. We’ve seen baskets of pigs, dozens of eggs, fridges, full families of 5 or 6 people, dogs, trees, huge logs, flowers etc on the back of bikes. It’s fun seeing what you’ll spot next. 

 

We had booked into a hostel called “Long hostel” in Ho Chi Minh. We got a great room on the top floor with 5 large single beds so for once everybody had a bit of space. Only negative was it was 5 flights up, 142 steps (yes I counted :-).  The hostel is located in a great area in a little side street off the “Binh Thai” market. We paid about €24 for our room which included breakfast. The family running the hostel were extremely nice, helpful and friendly. Overall there was a nice vibe. We’d stay again. 

The first thing we did in Ho Chi Minh was something we all take for granted and something which should be so simple, it was simply to cross the road. Nothing difficult there, right? Wrong! Ohh so very wrong…. Granted it was a big road, there were 4 lanes but we were at a pedestrian crossing so this should be fine? Yes that’s what you’d think but not so…. We stood at the crossing looking at the streams of bikes and thought how does this work. We stuck a foot out as you do at home, but nothing. Not a hint of traffic stopping. We took a step out further, same, so we hopped back on the path. Then I had a vague recollection of somebody telling me that to cross a road in Vietnam you just go for it and the traffic parts around you. So….we went for it. Sure enough, you just walk out and the bikes and cars just part around you…. Scary but also quite fun! Easy for one person or a couple but with 3 small kids it’s a bit tricky. Still we quickly became dab hands at crossing the road and would laugh as newly arrived foreigners looked panicked.

As a city Ho Chi Minh is a pretty nice one, there are lots of green spaces and trees which I wasn’t really expecting. The girls had a ball running through the sprinklers cooling down.  

 

As a contrast, there are also huge sky scrapers and lots and lots of neon lights. Somehow it all marries together well. 

We spent our first day wandering around Ho Chi Minh finding our feet. We’d heard about a really nice playground at reunification palace so we went along. You can get into the grounds free if you go to the side gates where the playground is. There are also 2 coffee shops and a restaurant there so you’ll be in no rush to leave. We loved this playground, there’s not a huge amount to it but there’s something lovely about it. The equipment is all quite old but quaint too. And it’s set in front of a coffee shop in a really shaded area under huge, beautiful, old trees with widespread roots. 

  

It’s perfect for getting out of the heat and getting away from the motorbikes :-). The best thing about the playground is a traditional looking merry go round with big stripey balls hanging off ropes that you jump on as it spins. The kids adored it, actually as you can see below, we all did.  

We loved the playground, just the simplicity of chilling out under a tree getting away from the crowds was fab.  

 

After chilling for well over an hour in the playground, we decided to go see a water puppet show. We didn’t have tickets but went to see if we could just buy them there. You can, no problem and good ones too. The ones we got were 4 rows from the front. 

Vietnam is famous for water puppet shows. They’re basically shows where the stage is a pool and the puppets dance, swim and act on the water. The puppets are attached to metal bars which stay out of sight under water and are controlled by puppeteers behind a curtain back stage.  There are musicians to the left and right of the stage who sing and narrate the whole way through in Vietnamese. We had no idea what was going on but despite that we really enjoyed the show. Ro and Dervie both managed a little siesta in the middle of it :-). I’m hoping they were relaxed rather than bored. The puppetry is amazing. I’ve no idea how it’s done.  They squirt water from the puppets mouths, set off fireworks and splash the crowd, it’s very clever.

  

  

That evening we ate in a little local place called “Pho Quynh” on the street with metal tables and chairs. We hadn’t a clue what to order but had heard good things about Vietnamese food and this place in particular so weren’t too worried. We ordered a few bowls of “Pho Ga” or Vietnamese chicken noodle soup. Wow what a choice. Simple but absolutely delicious! Here’s a recipe if you’d like to give it a try. The author also paints a really nice picture of Vietnam in her description.  Pho is basically a noodle soup made in a clear broth. There aren’t a huge amount of ingredients but the flavour is just delicious. I think the key is the stock it’s made with. Pho is served with a plate of garnishes, various lettuces and herbs, lime halves and bean sprouts. The idea is that you add these as you eat. There are different varieties Pho Ga is chicken and Pho Bo is beef. It’s served everywhere in Vietnam, from street stall to fancy restaurant. Pho became a firm favourite of ours over the next month and our girlies still talk about how much they miss it today.   

 

The next day we set off on an adventure to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are tunnels built by the Northern Vietnamese (the Viet Cong) to live, hide and fight in during the Vietnamese war. The tour started off well with a guide meeting us at our hostel and bringing ourselves and two others to the bus. Great we thought, a nice small group. Hmmm not so….. We were put on a bus with at least 50 other tourists and a really annoying tour guide talking over the speaker. Ohh no… This really wasn’t our idea of fun. It went from bad to worse then as the bus stopped for a coffee break about 10 minutes into the journey. Nobody really wanted or needed a break then. To us it seemed like the bus driver just needed a cigarette. Back on the bus and we drove for another 10 or 15 minutes when the bus stopped again. This time the driver got out with a spanner (the tool not the tour guide although I could give him the same name :-). It seemed the bus had broken down. Marvellous! After another 10 minutes or so sitting on the bus we set off again, this time with no AC which had broken down. It took us about 3 hours to get there, yet it’s only 100k away. The roads and traffic in Vietnam are pretty diabolical.

We arrived to be told that we had to buy tickets for the tunnels. This was pretty annoying as we’d booked a tour of the tunnels so you’d asssume this included the entrance fee. At this stage I was generally in a fowler (poor ro) and this just added fuel to the fire. Lots of people were equally frustrated. We had to stick with our annoying tour guide and group of 50 tourists as we went around the site. This wasn’t our thing, we usually preferred to explore ourselves or at least with a smaller group. At this stage I’d firmly decided I hated every bit of this day. But yet again I was wrong…. I’m happy to say I got over my negative buzz (we both did) pretty quickly. The tour did get better as we went on and our guide got marginally less annoying.  He was actually pretty interesting telling us his father had fought in the war on the American side. 

The first thing we did was to explore some of the tunnels. We were told the first one we went into was an original as opposed to those widened for tourists. Not sure how true that is but it was a tight squeeze! Our guide said it was ladies first. I wasn’t entirely convinced my ample hips would fit through the entrance hole but much to my relief they did (I would have been so morto if they hadn’t :-)), and down the tunnel I popped. Freya and Shuna following closely behind. We had the torch from our phone to guide us thank God,as it was completely pitch black (can’t see your hand in front of you) inside. The guide told us to keep left or we’d end up in Cambodia. I laughed nervously at this. When we were outside the tunnel, the task of going in didn’t look so bad, we could see the exit about 10m away so the tunnel couldn’t be too long. What we didn’t know is that it snakes over and back underground so is actually a lot longer. And it’s not just one tunnel, there were lots of branches off. I kept trying to remember which way he had said not to go! You crawl along on your hands and knees in the dirt and leaves and on the tunnel roof there are small bats hanging upside down. They fly around you as you crawl by. At this stage I was starting to have a serious attack of the Heebie Jeebies while trying to be brave in front of the girlies. I couldn’t wait to get out of the damn tunnel. All that they were missing were a few rats and it’d be like “I’m a celebrity get me out of here”. Finally I saw some light and made a bee line for the exit

  

Then it was Ro’s turn. “It’s fine honey”, I said, “don’t bother with a torch, it’s just a nuisance down there” (Mwah hah hah :-).   

The tunnel network at Cu Chi is amazing. During the war the tunnels would stretch from Ho Chi Minh city to the Cambodian border with over 250km of tunnels in Cu Chi alone. There were often several levels of tunnel with full living quarters, kitchens, command centres, weapon rooms and hospitals underground. They had air tunnels leading over ground often in termite  mounds. The Americans soon realised that they could find these by sending sniffer dogs to smell for people so the Viet Cong started putting American uniforms near the air holes to deter them. The tunnels were an ingenious tool to facilitate the Viet Cong during the war. They allowed them meet and plan attacks over wide areas. Allowed them mount surprise attacks on the Americans and rig an area with boobie traps before disappearing underground. We saw some of the boobie traps used and they were horrific, false floors that when you stood on them you’d drop into a hole and be empailed on sharpened wooden spears. We also saw rotating knives that would cut you multiple times and doors boobie trapped so when they were kicked, a large sharp spear would fall down and impale the kicker. 

   

   

The Americans got so frustrated with the tunnel network that they resorted to huge firepower to destroy them and the area became one of the most bombed and devastated areas during the war.

Our guide gave us an insight into life in the tunnels saying that living conditions were often horrific. He said there were periods of time when the Vietnamese would be stuck in the tunnels underground for days on end. Sometimes the air would be so limited in an underground chamber that those inside would have to lie face down in the tunnel to conserve air. If anybody there couldn’t handle this and stood up, they’d be shot by their friends so everybody else could survive. They could be stuck like this for days on end. 

Our girls loved the tunnels, they couldn’t get enough of them sometimes disappearing down on the guides instruction when we turned our backs and popping up a few metres away. I guess they’re not as scary when you’re 3ft tall. 

  

The only thing we really didn’t like about Cu Chi is that there’s a rifle range you can visit as part of the tour and shoot live rounds of ammunition. A few people from our group went and did it but the vast majority didn’t and we had to sit and listen to all the gunshots. It’s surprisingly intimidating when you’re up close to it and neither the girls nor us liked it. 

We left the tunnels after a few hours.

The return bus trip was uneventful, our previous bus had been replaced with a different one so at least the AC worked. We got dropped off at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh. We’d heard loads about this museum but were very apprehensive about bringing the kids as we’d heard it was very graphic. I read somewhere though that there was a children’s play area inside which could keep the kids occupied while parents visited the museum. Sure enough there’s a great children’s play room on the 2nd floor. It’s a really big room with dress up, teddies, books (many in English) and toys and games. Our girlies had an absolute ball in there and didn’t want to leave. 

   

   

The only down side of the whole place was the lady looking after the room. She was the grumpiest person alive (I had to choose my words carefully there). She told the girls they’d have to take off the dress up as soon as they’d put it on, that it was only for photos. What’s the point in having a dress up rail if you’re not allowed use it. 

Then she proceeded to scowl as the girls laid all the teddies on the floor to play with them. She clearly didn’t like children and was in the wrong job. I actually think her problem was that she was ready to close up when we arrived to wreck the place. Still it was an hour before closing time. Just to annoy her I told the girls not to tidy up as we were leaving (actually she kicked us out 10 minutes before closing). It was hard explaining it with Freya saying “so let me get this straight Mom, you actually DON’T want us to tidy up????” Very childish I know but it made me feel better :-). 

The museum itself is very moving and disturbing. We took it in turns looking at the photos and exhibits as the other person stayed in the playroom with the kids. The first room I went into was made up of photos depicting the war. As it’s one of the most photographed wars in history, there’s a lot of very graphic images. When I first went round everybody was staring in shock at the images and reading the inscriptions in total silence. I found myself walking around with a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat.  I think everybody there felt the same as they walked around in total silence. 

There are rooms showing the affects of Agent Orange, a chemical sprayed from airplanes killing everything it touched. It devastated huge areas of woodlands and forest as well as having huge effects on people. There are still generations being born today, 40 years later with missing limbs as a result of it.  There were pictures of children born with deformities as a result of their parents coming into contact with the various gases. And also unborn foetuses in jars with deformities. We both found this room particularly upsetting, I think anybody would. 

In the grounds outside the museum there are US tanks, airplanes and helicopters and artillery on display. 

  

There’s also a section showing what happened in the prisons French and South Vietnanese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son islands. They show the French guillotine and the horrific tiger cages used to hold the Viet Cong prisoners. 

The war remnants museum is well worth a look. Be prepared to be shook and horrified and give yourself a few hours to go round it. We had to rush as we were there at 4pm not realising that it closed at 5pm. 

The next day we got up early and wandered around the Thai Binh market beside us. It was full of buzz and hustle and bustle. We were all shocked to see bunches of large live frogs tied together so they could barely move. I even saw a trio manage to jump together to freedom off the counter only to be picked up and put back on again. Poor frogs, I wanted to free them all like Elliot in E.T.  

 The girls were particularly traumatised to see a lady with skinned frogs which were still moving! The market lady was so delighted by their screams that she chased them through the market holding up a squirming skinned frog. 

The market is full of delicious fresh ingredients. We’d read that restauranteurs visit the markets twice a day to ensure they have the absolute freshest ingredients. You can really tell from the taste of their delicious food. 

   

 

In Ho Chi Minh city and in fact in every city or town in Vietnam you’ll find people (usually ladies) squatting on the street selling their wares. It could be a stall of spices, some fresh fruit or veg or a mobile Pho stall. Often you’ll get the best and cheapest meals from these ladies so be sure not to pass them by! 

   

 

We decided to keep on our war history theme and head to the Reunification Palace. This is quite a bland rectangular building designed in a 1960’s architecture. 

  

It was the residence of the president of South Vietnam unti 1975 when the Southerners lost the war and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh city. The building is closely associated with the fall of Saigon. The first communist tanks to arrive into Saigon drove right though the gates of this residence and a VC soldier ran up the steps to the roof of the building to raise the communist flag. The tanks crashing through the gates was a widely photographed scene, you may have seen pictures of this. 

  

The original building on this site was the residence of the French Governor General back in 1898. When the french departed it became home to the South Vietnamese president Diem. He was an extremely unpopular radical president who had very strong catholic beliefs. He was put in place by the Americans. He was extremely anti-Buddhist so much so that he started closing down temples and prompted many highly publicised self immolations (setting oneself on fire) by monks. These episodes were widely photographed and shocked the world. Diem was so unpopular that his own airforce bombed the palace in 1962 in a failed attempt to kill him. He rebuilt the palace and commissioned an elaborate basement safe house to be built which was finished in 1966. He never actually saw this as he was killed by his army in 1963. This time they were successful. The people of Saigon rejoiced to news of his death. He really was an unpopular, corrupt individual. The new building was renamed Independence palace and was home to subsequent South Vietnamese presidents. 

The rooms in the palace are really very bland. There isn’t a lot to keep small kids (or mums to be honest :-)) amused. One of the best parts is the private residence where you can see some presents given by foreign dignitaries to the president including a delightful pair of elephant feet. I think I would have regifted had I received those, no wonder they were left behind when the president moved out :-). 

  

The basement bunker was also interesting to see with old telecoms equipment from the war as well as maps and command centres. 

  

That made it worth the visit. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go see the palace, it is worth a look. Just don’t expect very much from it. 

We wandered back around the side of the building to the playground we mentioned earlier and whiled away a very chilled hour or so. It really is a chilled place to relax and get away from the madness of Ho Chi Minh. 

We then had a lovely wander around the French Quarter which is a really beautiful part of Ho Chi Minh. There are beautiful old buildings to be found on tree lined, cafe filled streets. This was one of the nicest areas we’d seen. We visited the large cathedral called Notre Dame.

  

And also the beautiful green, yellow and white old post office designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel who designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It’s a lovely building to visit. There’s a huge mural of Ho Chi Minh himself at one end of the building.   

  

There’s also a nice gift shop where we had fun trying on some of the traditional cone-shaped hats. Not sure the assistant was too happy with us but we had fun!   

 

Our day wasn’t over yet. With some hungry kids in tow we wandered to Ben Thanh market, a bustling market nearby. Ths is a great market packed with anything and everything. Here you’ll find full aisles of shoes, t-shirts, shorts, jewellery, gifts, food and drinks. It’s great. You’ll get geat copies of branded clothes here including Hollister, Abercrombie and Fitch, Superdry, Roxy, Billabong and Quiksilver as well as many others. Perfect for teens and pre-teens. Ours are still a bit too young to care about brands. 

There are also really nice jewellery and craft stalls, great for presents for people. 

  

   

   

We picked up a few chicken sticks for the kids which they adore and continued to explore. 

  

We really wanted to visit one of the tall towers in Ho Chi Minh to see a sky view of the city so we headed for the Bitexco tower. We’d heard there was a great sky deck there. When we arrived we discovered that for the same price as a visit to the sky deck on the 48th floor, we could go to the heli bar/retaurant on the 49th floor and get a beer or an ice cream for the same price. Much better plan! So that’s what we did and it was great. We were there for sunset which is a great time to go. Not only is sunset beautiful but then you get to see the streets and buildings start to light up. Ho chi Minh is so colourful and vibrant at night with neon street lights and decorations everywhere. It was super.  You can get to the heli bar by walking into the building and gong up the lifts. Just ask at information. It’s free in and you’re above the sky deck. You just need to pay for whatever delights you decide to consume. 

   

   

Our tummies started rumbling then so it was time to go. We wandered to a street BBQ place we’d spotted round the corner from our hotel. This was a cool little spot, basically they put your own clay BBQ with hot charcoal on your table and yu cook your own food. We ordered a selection of chicken, beef and pork which arrives raw, chopped up and marinated. It was delicious. Just slightly nerve wracking having a mini BBQ on the table with little hands around. 

   

 

The BBQ didn’t quite fill us, so as a treat we wandered round the corner to the delicious crumbs bakery for some loveliness. They had a delicious selection of buns, cakes, brownies and doughnuts. There was a deal of 3 for the price of two so of course we had to order 6 and fight over the extra one. We were completely stuffed after this and had to be rolled back to our hostel, happy out with our cake and BBQ-filled tummies. 

  

What a great way to end our few days in Ho Chi Minh. We found ourselves starting to really settle into Ho Chi Minh and realise there was so much more to explore. Pity we were leaving the next day but the beach was calling us so it was off to the town of Mui Ne further North for us.

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