I found my first few days in Vietnam a little difficult to be honest. While there were some personal reasons for this, my luggage left languishing at Singapore airport for example, I think it was also in part because Ho Chi Minh is a tricky city. I wrote a couple of days ago about the cerebral reasons for this, but there are also some practical ones. With no easily accessible public transport (if you can figure out the buses you’re a better woman than I) and streets so chaotic I was put off my favourite form of transport – motorbike taxis – I felt rather trapped in District 1 which is where all the sights are but not where the locals live and work. The museums and galleries are also very poorly curated, and it can be hard to know exactly what it is you’re looking at. And while I had studied the Vietnam War as part of my History IB I couldn’t fit together what I remembered of it with what was in front of me. The people are also slightly more reserved than I’ve found in other parts of South East Asia, less willing to return a smile (I’m being too coy: they can be really quite cold).
After a day spent exploring on my own, I felt no closer to the city at dinner than I had at breakfast. I felt like I was missing a key jigsaw puzzle piece, so took to my laptop and booked three tours, something I hadn’t been planning on doing.
One of the first tours I tried to book was Tim Doling’s History Walking Tour which is recommended in the Lonely Planet. Unfortunately he was out of the country at the time, but he did point me in the direction of his book, Exploring Ho Chi Minh City, which is stocked at FAHASA bookshop on Nguyen Hue. While I would obviously recommend seeing if he is around, if he isn’t then this book is a great substitute. It is on the dry side (I’m being coy again, it’s drier than your tongue the morning after the night before!) but it is packed with information. I found the museum and gallery guides particularly useful in pointing me towards the things worth seeing, and explaining the history of the buildings themselves which are often far more interesting than the artefacts they display (The Ho Chi Minh City Museum for instance, see my Instagram below). It also has some self-guided walks around the city which I dipped in and out of and I found the history of buildings and streets I would otherwise have blithely walked past fascinating.
The HCMC Museum. I found the building itself far more interesting than the tired, and under-explained, displays. It’s housed in a neo-classical building designed by Alfred Foulhoux (who was also responsible for the Hotel des posted) who’s history is a distilled version of the city’s as a whole. It was the home of the French Lieutenant Governors until the Japanese occupation, when it was taken over by their governor. It was then placed under British command, after which it became the seat of what was to become the State of Viet Nam. It was later used as a reception for visiting dignitaries, until the bombing of Norodom Palace forced Diem to move into it. Once the new palace was completed it became the headquarters of the Supreme Court, and then, after the fall of Sai Gon in 1975, it was finally converted into a museum. Phew! #VSCOcam
Before I get onto the tours, there was one other thing that really helped me feel more comfortable in Ho Chi Minh: Talking with the Tourist. This is the name given to a project which organises groups of university students to sit in parks in the evening and ask passing tourists to sit and chat with them for a while. The aim is to both improve their English and understanding of other cultures, and for tourists to be able to ask them questions about Vietnam. I ended up sitting with them for well over half an hour, and was impressed by their knowledge of the UK parliamentary system! It was a fantastic way of meeting Saigon’s youth, hearing their opinions on the country and government, and listening to their hopes for the future. I was given a little guide “Surviving Saigon” and a lovely fan for my efforts. I found them in 23/9 Park, which runs alongside Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacking district, about 6pm-ish.
So here are the three tours I did: one art, one food and one outside the city! People either travel north to south or south to north in Vietnam which makes it great for swapping tips with people you meet going in the other direction. I’ve recommended these to everyone I’ve met heading south, as while I think Ho Chi Minh would be a lot easier after a few weeks already in the country, it is still a place that you get a lot more from if you delve a little deeper.
Sophie’s Art Tour
This is possibly one of the best tours I’ve done on this very extensive trip! It’s essentially the history of 20th and 21st century Vietnam told through art, and I loved how it wove the two together, sorting out the timeline of events in my head, and opening my eyes to how art has both chronicled, and played an active role, in the country’s history. I found the North’s use of combat artists in the Vietnam – America war particularly interesting. Whilst the South and its America sponsors had photographers at their disposal, the harder-up North was dependent on artists to show the people back home what the front was like, or rather, what their government wanted them to think it was like. Stuart (the eponymous Sophie was out of the country, but Stuart was a fantastic guide) showed us some simple pen and ink drawings in The Fine Art Museum of soldiers, most displaying far bigger muscles than any Vietnamese man I’ve seen in the country! Also, as the soldiers didn’t wear dog tags they were highly prized among the troops as personal portraits, a means of identification should the worst happen. This was particularly important as many believed that their souls would only be at rest once their bodies had returned to their family home.
We were also taken to the San Art Laboratory, which is at the forefront of modern Vietnamese creativity. With no government funds for the arts it relies heavily on sponsorship (see Kickstarter page here) but is home to a thriving community and some incredible projects. The tour was the highlight of my time in Ho Chi Minh, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Sophie’s Art Tour website / $55 or 1,150,000vnd per person
XO Tours: The Foodie
Of all the countries I planned to visit on this trip, the one I was most excited about eating was Vietnam. Yet I had a few disappointing meals early on in my time in Ho Chi Minh. Where was the zing?! So I booked XO’s nightly ‘the foodie’ tour, hoping to find some new dishes and gain a bit more confidence in ordering. XO is the only motorbike tour company in Vietnam with all female drivers. The feminist in me sang! My guide Dam was so lovely, spoke fantastic English, and most importantly, was excellent at navigating Saigon’s hairy streets.
We had three food and two sightseeing stops, and were treated to dishes beyond the usual pho, banh mi and spring rolls. The highlight for me was the seafood at the end of the night – the chilli powder coated and roasted crab, scallops baked with eggs and spring onions, and lemongrass steamed mussels were all top notch. It was also great fun, with chop-stick games played and lots of laughter.
I did however feel a little uncomfortable at times – the Vietnamese girls cracking crabs and preparing food for their charges without enjoying any of it themselves felt a little, well dated, for wont of a better word. Plus, despite having all female drivers, the man in charge was indeed a man (boo hiss). However, it is a Ho Chi Minh institution and a great experience, so I do recommend it!
XO Tours website / $72 or 1,540,000 vnd per person
Vietnam Vesper Adventures Mekong
I had originally toyed with the idea of spending a few nights in the Mekong Delta, but decided against it in preference for more time in the places I was really looking forward to visiting. Instead I booked Vietnam Vesper Adventures half-day tour of the Mekong. I did a night foodie tour with the same company in Siem Reap and had been impressed with their drivers and nattily adapted vespers with back rests!
On the day it was just me and a radio presenter from Mexico, Laura, on the tour. I’ve done enough of these by now that I do tend to roll my eyes slightly at the mention of cottage industries (I’ve seen enough looms that I could weave my own scarf tbh) but we visited two that I hadn’t seen before: an incense stick maker and a rice wine producer. The landscape was stunning, and I couldn’t believe how quickly we left the city behind. The village market we visited was fascinating if slightly nauseating (people like their frogs fresh but can’t skin them, so they skin them when alive and then kill them to order – you see skinless frogs hopping around trays. Disgusting), and our guide a real laugh.
Vesper Adventure website / $89 per person
As you will see from the prices these tours did add up, but they were completely worth it I think. While I will always love exploring cities on my own, coffee cup in hand, I think sometimes you just need to recognise when you need a bit of extra help!