If you were give an airline ticket to visit any place in the world, where would you go? Traveling to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, was a big check off my bucket list and don’t think it would have ever happened without the assistance of Turkish Airlines. See, in October 2015 they ran a campaign launching new air service between Miami and Istanbul, Turkey.
Part of that campaign was a Twitter promotion in which I was one of the lucky winners to be awarded an airline ticket to fly anywhere in the world they fly. Yes, my friends. People really do win contests! And, Turkish Airlines flies to more than 100 countries.
Vietnam has been high on my bucket list and decided this is where I would go as an adventure to celebrate my birthday. Due to day-job commitments, I only had 9 days for this trip, four of which were traveling there and back, and had intended this to be a leisurely trip where I would explore the city and chill. However, the more I researched, the more I decided to make the most of the trip and ended up booking five tours (two were taken in one day). I mean, when, if ever, would I be back?
Following are the best things about my solo trip to Ho Chi Minh City.
Touring Saigon with Urban Adventures
Three of the five tours I took were with Urban Adventures. I’ve taken a tour with them in Philadelphia years ago, was familiar with the company’s philosophy and was comfortable booking Ho Chi Minh City tours with them. While a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels and Saigon Street Food at Night were booked through the travel agent, I booked the Ho Chi Minh Discovery Tour on my own and extremely glad I did.
Ho Chi Minh Discovery Tours
The Discovery Tour was the first tour I took that week and it provided an excellent orientation to the city and Vietnamese culture. The tour picked me at my hotel and there were three of on the trip. My guide, Jay, was entertaining and informative as he led the group through the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace and a couple of markets in Chinatown. The tour included lunch at Pho 2000, made famous in 2000 when President Bill Clinton ate there.
Jay taught me how to safely cross the street, educated me about the “Happy Room” (bathroom), and shared his personal connection to how the Vietnam War impacted him. (Note: everything I read and heard said people don’t refer to it as the Vietnam War in Vietnam but the American War. During the week, most everyone referred to it as the Vietnam War and I don’t know if that’s because the younger generation (the Millennials) weren’t born during that time and with an almost entirely open access to the Internet, they are able to research, learn and make their own determinations about the War vs. parroting propaganda.)
Cu Chi Tunnels
The next day I took the Cu Chi Tunnels tour and my guide, Trinh, was just as nice and accommodating as Jay. And speaking of Jay, he met me in front of the historic Saigon Post Office, meeting point for the Cu Chi Tunnels tour to say “hello.”
“I told Trinh to take care of you because you’re my special jewel,” Jay told me, then gave me a big hug.
I suspect it was because I gave him a nice tip after the previous day’s tour but maybe it was because I am a nice person. In either case, it was extremely nice seeing him and hope he gets his wish someday, to visit the United States.
On the way to the tunnels, Trinh said there will be an anti-American propaganda film shown prior to venturing into the tunnels and specifically said I could skip it if I wished.
“Did Jay tell you he made me cry in the War Remnants Museum?” I teased.
“Yes, he did,” Trinh replied.
“I’ll be fine,” I told him.
Prior to arriving at the tunnels, we stopped at a woman’s house and learned to make rice paper and fed the adorable piglets and mamma pigs rice paper. (Think about, it’s made from rice so of course it’s edible.)
Read more about the trip in this post, Travel to Vietnam: Waddling Through the Cu Chi Tunnels with Urban Adventures and Travel to Vietnam: I Felt a Little Weird Firing an M16 at the Cu Chi Tunnels
If you get emotional, keep tissues handy on this tour. For the most part the War Remnants Museum has a lot of anti-American propaganda and the Agent Orange Room is the most powerful. In addition to images of people impacted by agent orange, there are preserved babies with birth defects allegedly caused by agent orange on display.
- Be sure to tip your tour guides and drivers!
- At the end of each tour, I was given a card valid for 10 percent off a future Urban Adventures tour. Since I pre-booked and pre-paid for my tours, I couldn’t use them. April is the off-season and I probably didn’t need to pre-book tours prior to arriving but I felt more comfortable doing so.
Saigon Food Tour
This was the third trip I booked with Urban Adventures and the most filling. Because, well, it was a food tour! I learned to sit at one of the little plastic tables on a little plastic chair and have the confidence it wouldn’t collapse on me. I ate gloriously grilled and fried items and sipped deliciously sweet Vietnamese coffee. Of course, the banh mi sandwich was included, which is a baguette with seasoned pork, lime juice, red onion, sliced cucumber, and cilantro.
Learn more about the trip in this blog post, “Travel to Vietnam: Saigon Food Tour by Night.”
Mastering the Saigon Shuffle
“This will save your life,” Evelyn Hannon of Journeywoman replied to my Facebook post when I announced I would be traveling to Ho Chi Minh City. She posted this link on how to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh City.
Learn more in this blog post about getting hit by a motorbike!
Saigon Street Eats on the Back of a Motorbike
“Do you want to go by motorbike?” Vu, co-owner of Saigon Street Eats, asked when I met him at my hotel for the Pho Trail – A Morning Walking Tour.
“Really?” I replied, unsure if he was serious.
Find out more about that trip in the blog post, Best Tour I Took in Ho Chi Minh City Was With Saigon Street Eats.
Getting By with English
I feel like an ignorant American because I can barely speak a second language (Spanglish is a language, right?) and was concerned about the language barrier, such as what I’ve experienced in Brazil. To my surprise, most everyone I met spoke English. Many people wanted to practice their English and often while walking along Nguyen Du (a street), men and women stopped me and ask where I was from. When I replied “the United States,” their eyes lit up and wanted to talk some more. Sometimes, they walked with me, peppering me with questions, curious about who I was and why I was there.
Learn more in this blog post about how we’re all the same same.
Being Reminded Communication is More than Language
Other times when they didn’t speak English, there was the universal communication of smiles and head nods, especially when I greeted the Empress Hotel security guard each day. While visiting a home in the Mekong Delta where a grandmother, daughter and her three granddaughters hand-wove mats, grandma embraced me in a big hug after she taught me how to weave. She gave me a bigger hug as I was leaving after she learned I spent about $10 USD worth of her goods.
Truly Going Solo
“You’re traveling alone?”
“Why are you traveling alone?”
These were common questions I was asked by the tour guides and Vietnamese people I met during my journey.
It had been a long time since I’ve done a trip like this alone. Sure, I cruised Portugal’s Duro River with Viking River Cruises the summer of 2015 but this was different. With this trip to Saigon, I needed to plan everything and rely on myself to get from point A to point B.
“How do you plan a trip like that?” someone asked me shortly after my return.
“You just do,” I replied.
I’m old-school and relied on my local AAA travel agency to assist in finding a hotel, arrange for airport transfers to/from the hotel and a couple of activities. Yeah, I could have researched and booked this myself but I didn’t have time to do so.
I booked the rest of the activities and once in-country, tossed aside my fears and embraced the experience. Everything was new, new sights, sounds, smells and flavors.
Walking Ho Chi Minh City’s streets alone gave me a much needed confidence boost and sense of empowerment. I didn’t worry about work piling up at my day job and embraced the new sights, smells, sounds and flavors of Saigon. In some ways, I felt like a golden unicorn with my Western style, blue eyes and, uh, American figure.
In the mornings, I watched as shopkeepers swept sidewalks in front of their shops and hung caged birds on lines above the sidewalks or designated bird cafes (like the one in Tao Dan Park). Motorbikes zipped by with an occasional “beep beep” of a horn and customers sat on red or blue low-to-the-ground plastic chairs by the sidewalk, sipping Vietnamese coffee they purchased from a coffee cart vendor. School children in blue shorts or skirts and white tops played in their schoolyards. When I walked through Tao Dan Park, people exercised in the sunshine and slightly humid air. They power walked, danced, hula-hooped, and played badminton under the shade of trees.
During the afternoons, I noticed shirtless men playing pool in a pool hall and women wearing conical hats selling fruit from their bicycle baskets. Bicyclists loaded up with some sort of food pedaled down the streets with a recording
After dark, more motorbikes zipped by and horns beeped indicating others should get out of the way. Men missing a leg and many teeth walked with crutches holding lottery tickets asking others to buy them (the government holds a lottery each night and people who sell them receive a portion of each sale.) Although they are there all day, the male motorbike “taxi” drivers seemed to be more visible at night and they asked if I needed a ride or wanted a tour.
Everywhere I went I was welcomed. And in a socialist nation where the citizens don’t have the same freedoms I do at home, I felt free.
View my images on Flickr.