Saigon Spa Experience – Relax Without Feeling A Pinch In The Wallet

Unique wooden bird-cage design at the entrance of Explore Spa

I’m neither a spa nor massage fanatic, but I don’t mind the occasional relaxing massage to pamper myself, especially when I visit neighbouring countries with lower cost of living compared to Singapore. Since I’ve heard & read many positive reviews about the massage parlours/ spa centres in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), it was a must-do for my friend & I. In fact, I think this was the only firm plan we made for our short trip in HCMC. 😛

As Le Meridien Saigon had promised us a complimentary 60-minute spa treatment at the hotel, we were only left with 1 more night to try another spa treatment. On my 1st night, we actually passed by many massage parlours with scantily dressed ladies luring customers outside. Of course we didn’t pick any of these! Read on to find out where we went & how we found the spa experience in Saigon. 🙂

1. Explore Spa at Le Meridien Saigon

Unique wooden bird-cage design at the entrance of Explore Spa

Unique wooden bird-cage design at the entrance of Explore Spa

Located on the 9th floor of Le Meridien Saigon, Explore Spa’s entrance is brightly lit with a futuristic-looking design of bird cage & “space ships” hanging from the ceiling. I was pleasantly surprised that the hotel Marketing personnel offered us the luxurious 150-min (i.e. 2.5 hours) Glow Spa package instead of the 60-min spa treatment promised in the email. The package also included a light meal that we could enjoy before or after the spa treatment. Since the spa closes at 10pm, we booked the last slot at 7.30pm so that after the relaxing treatment, we could retreat to our cosy room to rest.

The Process:

The Glow Spa Package is a promotional package valid from 1 December 2016 to 28 February 2017, priced at 2,017,000 VND (S$127.50), a generous 45% off its normal price. The package comprises the following 3 treatments:

  • 30-min body exfoliation,
  • 60-min marine detoxifying & relaxing aromatherapy massage, and
  • 60-min seawater pearl hydrating facial therapy.

We opted for the light meal to be served before our treatment, so we arrived at Explore Spa around 7pm.

glow-spa-light-meal

The organic salad – sea grape, lettuce, seaweed, citrus, avocado topped with sesame dressing was very nice & refreshing. Together with the miso soup, hot fragrant ginger tea & watermelon smoothie, this light meal was great. After a healthy meal, we were ushered into our private treatment room to begin our indulgent session.

glow-spa-treatment-room

The session began with a sea-salt foot bath (as seen in the top left photo in above collage). Thereafter, I lied down on the bed for the therapist to do a body scrub. Halfway through the body exfoliation treatment when I turned around, the therapist acted swiftly to turn on the rain shower so that the water would not be too cold for me when I enter for a quick rinse. Following, it was such a relaxing body massage that I started to doze off. I think I was totally “concussed” during the facial therapy, similar to the diamond peel facial we have in Singapore. But I do remember that she placed a piece of detoxifying seaweed-soaked aluminum foil on my back while doing the facial.

Verdict:

This Glow Spa package is one of the best spa experiences I have received to date. I didn’t say this because I got it free, but because it was really awesome! It’s very rare that I can really doze off & sleep during massage treatments, because I’m always conscious of the fact that someone is touching me. But my therapist did such a wonderful job to make me totally relaxed & feel at ease. In fact I remained so “concussed” after leaving the spa that my friend thought I looked like I was in a daze. 😛

Furthermore, the treatment was done in utmost comfort and privacy. When the music from the lounge downstairs seemed too loud, the staff pulled down the shutters leading to the treatment rooms to block out the noise. All therapists and staff at Explore Spa were also polite & helpful. Even if I had to pay for the package, it’s actually quite a value-for-money deal considering it’s a 3-in-1 treatment for less than S$130. At this price, it’s hard to find a good facial using modern technology in Singapore, unless you go for Groupon deals & endure the incessant sales talk throughout the session… Really delighted that I had the opportunity to enjoy this rejuvenating Glow Spa package at Le Meridien Saigon. 🙂

2. Miu Miu Spa

 miu-miu-spa

We went to Miu Miu Spa through recommendation from contacts who said this was a decent spa with no hanky panky. There are 4 outlets, all located in the heart of the city in District 1. There’s online booking facility on its website, but too bad it wasn’t working during the period we were there. As miumiu3 outlet is just a short walking distance (about 5 min) from the hotel, we decided to swing by on our last night to try our luck. Fortunately we only had to wait about half an hour & managed to get 2 slots for our 90-min aroma massage with hot stones (450,000 VND, S$28.45) at 9pm.

The Process:

The counter staff mentioned we could take a shower in the spa while waiting for our turn, but alas, we already showered before going to the outlet. We were asked to complete a checklist to indicate our massage intensity preference. While waiting, pre-spa refreshments were served – ginger tea, jelly dessert & some snack (I forgot what it was). The ginger tea was pretty diluted, though the jelly dessert was quite refreshing with a tangy flavour. Soon, we were brought upstairs to change into our spa robes. Thereafter, we entered the spa treatment room where it was so quiet that even a pin drop would be deemed as noise. That’s good in a way since it meant we could relax in silence.

Verdict:

My friend enjoyed this 90-min massage tremendously, as she loved that her masseur applied strong pressure throughout the massage. In fact, she preferred this over Explore Spa which she claimed was a bit too soft for her liking. On the other hand, while the hot stones part was great, I thought my masseur’s skills were just average. I had a severe coughing bout shortly after the session started, so bad till I felt like vomitting. That somehow spoiled my session as I couldn’t fully recover from the cough. So, maybe she was just unlucky that I labelled her as a “so-so” masseur (we had to rate the masseur after the session at the counter) given my situation. Ironically, despite my massage pausing for a while because of my bad cough, my session actually ended earlier than my friend’s! So how to give an excellent rating like many others I read online?!

Although I can’t say I know enough of Saigon spas, I believe they are definitely worth visiting. Not just because the price is much lower than in Singapore, but also because the Vietnamese are known to massage pretty well, & they will usually ensure you are able to rest & relax without disturbance. Or maybe because there’s the language barrier haha. Nonetheless, do make time for at least 1 reputable spa when you visit HCMC to pamper yourself a little without feeling a pinch in your wallet!

A Peek Of The Strong Café Culture in Ho Chi Minh City

From top left in clockwise direction: Cyclo, Marou Iced Chocolate, Carrot Cake, Fish & Chips, & Tossed Soba Noodle Salad

In a congested tropical city like Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), a sip of its Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá) is certainly a cool reprieve from the hot & humid weather. Made using medium to coarse ground dark roast Vietnamese-grown coffee with a small metal Vietnamese drip filter, this traditional coffee recipe has won numerous fans from all over the world. I may not be an avid coffee drinker, but I do like the strong aroma of Vietnamese iced coffee too. Having read online about the sheer number of unique cafes in the city, I was kinda excited & looked forward to visiting some of them during my short trip last Dec.

Cool cafes abound in the city

Cool cafes abound in the city

I only managed to visit 2 cafes on my 1st 2 days in HCMC, because on my 3rd day, we lost our bearings in the large District 7, an expats’ district supposedly flooded with cafes. Unfortunately, the only cafes we saw in District 7 were Caffe Bene (bottom right photo in above collage) at Trung Tâm Thương Mại SC VivoCity & Angel-in-us Coffee at Lotte Mart. Just within District 1 around the upmarket Dong Khoi Street, I spotted many prettily decorated cafes as I explored the area. Too bad my stomach isn’t big enough to try so many cafes on my own. Read below for the 2 cafes that I managed to sit in & try some f&b. 😉

1. Satra Bakery & Cafe

satra-bakery-cafe

I chanced upon Satra Bakery & Cafe after exploring the famous Ben Thanh Market. This little bakery cafe is situated along the street facing the Cua Tay entrance of the market. As its name implies, the cafe sells various kinds of baked breads, pastries & cakes. Of course, there’s the traditional iced milk coffee that is almost customary to order in any Vietnamese cafe. As I visited in the late morning, I didn’t order any filling sandwiches to go along with the coffee. Instead, I only ordered a slice of taro cake which I thought was quite nice with a faint taro fragrance & not too sweet. I don’t remember the individual item price, but I know the total bill came to 47,000 VND (about S$3). Nothing to shout about for Satra’s interior, but it’s a convenient cafe to visit for a break away from the city’s heat if you are in the area.

2. L’Usine Le Loi

lusine-le-loi

L’Usine Cafe was highly recommended by Le Meridien Saigon’s Marketing personnel. Following her recommendation, I googled on the list of top cafes to visit in HCMC & discovered L’Usine Le Loi was one of the hot favourite cafes in the city. Thus my friend & I hunted down the cafe in District 1 for dinner on my 1st day.

Housed in an old 3-storey shophouse nearby Ben Thanh Market, L’Usine is an unassuming lifestyle store cum cafe on the outside. Pass through the door & you will be welcomed by its chic lifestyle boutique on the 1st floor. Climb up the wooden stairs to reach the cafe with white-washed walls. The decor is simple but gives a clean & modern look. We chose to sit indoors, because I thought the balcony area (beyond the glass door of the bottom right photo above) would be too warm for comfort. 😛

Menu clipped on a wooden board

Menu clipped on a wooden board

Personally, I like the way the menu was presented on a wooden board. To read beyond the 1st page, just remove the huge clip at the top like I did. 😉 The price range here is considered more high class than other cafes but some of the items looked quite interesting. After much consideration, we decided on a 3-course dinner to share – 1 appetizer, 1 main & 1 dessert, plus a drink each.

From top left in clockwise direction: Cyclo, Marou Iced Chocolate, Carrot Cake, Fish & Chips, & Tossed Soba Noodle Salad

From top left in clockwise direction: Cyclo, Marou Cold Chocolate Milk, Carrot Cake, Fish & Chips, & Tossed Soba Noodle Salad

I heard from the hotel that Marou chocolate is a reputable artisan chocolate brand in Vietnam, hence I ordered the Marou Cold Chocolate Milk (90,000+ VND, about S$5.70+) as my drink of the day. It’s a glass of ultra-rich chocolate drink that choco lovers will definitely fall in love with! 🙂 My friend’s Cyclo (mango, orange & strawberry blended juice, 85,000+ VND, about $5.40+) was very fresh & quenching. Compared to the usual salads or appetizers we see & eat, the Tossed Soba Noodle Salad with roast salmon, kale, edamame & wasabi (240,000+ VND, about S$15.20+) was an interesting bowl of salad that tasted wonderful.

As for our main course, the Fish & Chips with tartar sauce (210,000+ VND, about S$13.30+), it was a pity the fish was a little burnt & “chow-dar”, otherwise the thick-cut fries were great. Our Carrot Cake dessert (95,000+ VND, about S$6+) was quite moist & dense, but we both felt the cream on top was too sweet for our liking. Ended the dinner on too sweet a note! 😛 Nonetheless, I enjoyed the dinner as a whole in such cosy ambience at L’Usine. I would definitely recommend L’Usine as 1 of the must-visit cafes if you are in HCMC. 🙂

It was a bit of a waste that I couldn’t manage to squeeze a few more cafes into my trip. If you love to cafe-hop, do make time to check out the exquisite cafes hidden in the narrow alleys of the city. There are so many lovely cafes in HCMC that you wish you have time for all of them. Plan your route before you go to maximise your cafe-hopping trip! 😉

A Taste of Saigon’s Must-Eat Local Specialties

Roadside stall selling Bánh Cuốn

While I have read & heard a lot of raves about Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) being a food paradise to cater to the most discerning taste buds, it has never spurred me to try out Vietnamese food at all. In fact, I avoid Vietnamese food whenever possible, because the amount of garnishes like basil, onions etc that they put in every dish just turns me off. 😛 But since I was in Saigon for a short trip, I decided to just try some of the must-eat local delicacies that have won the hearts of so many. As the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Given that it was a short 72-hour getaway, I didn’t get to eat a lot as well. Nonetheless, here are the 5 signature Saigon dishes I had a taste of:

1. Phở

My 1st meal in Saigon was Phở at the Pho Ong Hung restaurant nearby the hotel recommended by the Marketing personnel I met. Although there was plenty of garnish like basil & spring onions in the soup, it was quite a tasty broth with smooth rice noodles & beef balls. I especially love the generous portion of crunchy beansprouts by the side (2,000 VND, S$0.13). After slurping this bowl of Phở down, I’d say Vietnamese food can be quite yummy too. 😉

In fact, I went back to Pho Ong Hung with my friend for late dinner after massage on our last night again, because I thought they really do their Phở quite well. Pho Ong Hung has many outlets in the country, it’s somewhat like a casual fast food chain where you pay a little more than what you pay at street hawkers, yet still very affordable compared to proper restaurants. They open from early morning around 7am till late at 11pm too. Furthermore, food is served to your table, without service charge, I like. 😉

Pho Ong Hung menu

Pho Ong Hung menu

My late-night dinner spread

My late-night dinner spread

This 2nd visit, I tried the Hủ Tiếu Bò Kho, i.e. beef stew (71,000 VND, S$4.50) which was not bad too, but the flavour was a bit too heavy for me after a while. We also ordered 2 appetizers – Gỏi cuốn (i.e. Vietnamese spring roll stuffed with pork & shrimps, top right in above collage) and Bánh Cuốn Nhân Thịt (i.e. rice paper rolls stuffed with pork & mushrooms, bottom left in above collage), at 42,000 VND (S$2.65) each. Love the yummy appetizers, which finally had basil separated from the main dish! 😛

2. Bánh mì

banh-mi

Before the trip, Bánh mì was the only local food I thought I wouldn’t have problems eating, because it is essentially baguette stuffed with a variety of ingredients like meat, pickled vegetables & chilli. I thought I wouldn’t have difficulty finding a cheap & good Bánh mì for breakfast since the old French colonial city has been eating this bread for a long time.

Alas, I was wrong. The Bánh mì I tasted above was neither cheap nor wonderful. I had it as my lunch on my solo city tour day, when I was already famished & tired from the walk & search for good food under the hot sun. So, I stepped into Black Cat Restaurant in a corner of District 1, as online search claimed that it was featured on CNN.com as 1 of the top 10 must eat experiences in the world (& I was nearby).

I ordered The Saigon Bánh mì (baguette stuffed with roast five spice pork, Vietnamese pork cake & homemade cognac duck liver pate with picked vegetables and chilli) that costs 109,000+ VND (S$6.90+). Although I was so hungry I thought I could eat a cow, I didn’t really finish the bread in the end, as the pork was a little too dry for my liking & serving was rather huge. The restaurant was furnished like a bar & that afternoon, it was pretty empty with just a handful of customers & listless-looking waitress. 😦 So sad I didn’t get to taste a delicious Bánh mì…

3. Chinese-style dry noodles in Vietnamese style

At Tan Dinh Market, there were several cooked food stalls selling local hawker food, & we spotted a few Chinese-style noodle stalls. It was nice to be able to savour a familiar taste with a touch of local flavour in a completely foreign land. The best part was, the hawker uncle could converse in Cantonese, so finally we could tell him what we want, instead of behaving like a mute. 😛 This bowl of dry mee pok came with generous slices of cha siu & lettuce, at only 40,000 VND (S$2.50). The special chilli sauce was spicy with a ‘kick’, & uncle gave me some fish paste to enhance the flavour of the dish. The fish paste certainly gave it an authentic Vietnam flavour. While it may be a food stall in the market, the environment was quite clean, & sitting on the old-school stools made me feel I was finally in the “real Saigon”…. 😉

4. Cơm tấm

com-tam-deli

Cơm tấm is a Vietnamese dish made from rice with fractured rice grains, so it can be called “broken rice” as well. Frankly, I had never heard of broken rice before, so I was curious about how it would taste like. Originally after visiting Tan Dinh area, we had wanted to check out interesting cafes in the growing expat neighbourhood in District 7, but somehow we lost our bearings & ended up at Trung Tâm Thương Mại SC VivoCity.

Yes, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you, there is a VivoCity in Saigon, & it belongs to MapleTree as well. Anyway, I had my 1st & only Cơm tấm meal at a casual dining restaurant known as Cơm Tấm Cali. Just like Pho Ong Hung, it has many outlets in the city. I had the Cơm sườn non nướng (BBQ pork ribs with broken rice) set for 77,000 VND (S$4.90), which included some surcharge for a plate of herbs I didn’t touch. -_- Luckily it’s still affordable so I shall not dispute over this. The broken rice tasted like 锅巴, i.e.  rice that sticks to the bottom of your cooking pot, something we’re familiar with in the claypot rice dish. The inside of the rice grains felt soft. I kind of enjoyed this dish with the flavourful BBQ pork ribs. 🙂

5. Bánh Cuốn

This has got to be my favourite local dish out of all that I’ve tried. I was brought to Nam Giao Restaurant near Ben Thanh Market. My friend’s Vietnamese colleague brought her to Nam Giao for lunch & she likes it very much, so she brought me there too when we were in the area. It is located in a quiet alley along Le Thanh Ton Street, where we had to pass through 2 lines of cheap nail roadside stalls.

The steamed rice rolls stuffed with pork was really soft & smooth. Eating this felt like eating chee cheong fun. The pork stuffing didn’t smell overpowering too. A great snack to eat in between meals!

Outside Tan Dinh Church, we also saw a few roadside stalls & one of them was selling a Bánh Cuốn lookalike too. I didn’t try as I was still full from my dry noodles breakfast in item #3 above. But it looked really cheap & good too!

Roadside stall selling Bánh Cuốn

Roadside stall selling Bánh Cuốn

As you can see, I didn’t really get to taste a wide variety of local food, given my time constraints. My little regret was I didn’t have a chance to try local street food sitting on low stools by the roadside. That would be quite an experience I guess! Hope I get to do it if I visit Vietnam again next time! 😉

A Visit To The Old Hub Of Saigon In Tan Dinh District

The unique pink church in Tan Dinh

Originally, we had wanted to venture to District 5/6 where the biggest Chinatown in Vietnam could be found. Known as Cholon locally, the Binh Tay Market is a major attraction in this district, offering everything from fresh produce to local goods with a Chinese flavour. However, through our local contacts (the hotel’s Marketing personnel I met up with + my friend’s Vietnamese colleague), we realised the market was closed that weekend. The Marketing personnel suggested we head to Tan Dinh area, which isn’t too far from our hotel, after I told her we wanted to go to a local market to experience the local way of life.

So off we went on a short taxi ride (less than 15 min) to Tan Dinh Market as our 1st stop on Saturday morning. Located at the border of District 1 in HCMC, Tan Dinh Market is the 2nd oldest market after Ben Thanh Market. Unlike other markets in the city, Tan Dinh Market’s main gate is of a unique ancient style, constructed in 1927 by the French colonial government.

Tan Dinh Market ancient gate

Tan Dinh Market ancient gate

Upon entering, we could see rows of fabric stalls everywhere. No wonder this is a popular place where locals shop for quality fabrics at reasonable prices. There were other types of stalls in the dry goods section as well, but majority of the stalls were selling fabrics. As the market is not that big, we completed a tour of the entire dry goods section within about 30 min! Anyway, we weren’t interested in buying fabrics to make our own clothing. 😛 Nonetheless, I didn’t leave the market empty-handed. At the dried food area, I bought some cashew nuts & lotus seeds from a friendly Vietnamese lady, who allowed us to sample the products that tasted quite fresh.

tan-dinh-market-1

After that, we moved on towards the back of the market where there were several cooked food stalls. There were many stalls selling cups of desserts that looked like chendol. Finally decided on a Chinese-style noodle stall because I saw other customers eating his noodles, which looked like the meepok style that I’m familiar with.;) It was great that uncle could speak Cantonese so ordering was much easier! More about the food in this post. 🙂

Live seafood at the wet market section

Live seafood at the wet market section

Next was an eye-opening experience at the wet market section where we saw lots of live seafood, as well as live poultry. It was like back to the good old days in Singapore. The only difference between an authentic local market vs a Singapore market in the past is the omnipresent bikes that were constantly vying for space with us. Most locals would go to the market on their bikes, buy the fresh food produce they need & zoom back home. Hence we had to be very careful as we walked, so that we wouldn’t bump into or get hit by the bikes accidentally.

Tan Dinh Market is definitely not as large as Ben Thanh Market, but it also doesn’t feel as touristy. In fact, I think foreigners aren’t common in the market, such that the local stallholders kept looking at us as we moved around, as if we were aliens. Haha. But it was a good experience to immerse ourselves in authentic Vietnamese culture that morning. If you are interested to visit Tan Dinh Market, it is open as early as 6 am till late afternoon, with some cooked food stalls opening till late night.

As we left the market, we spotted a striking pink church across the street. It wasn’t easy to take a perfect shot of the entire church without any obstruction on the road or the electric wires hanging in the air. After a while, we decided we shouldn’t be so fussy about such “disturbances”, since this is the eclectic charm of the city – busy roads with electric wires hanging everywhere.

The unique pink church in Tan Dinh

The unique pink church opposite Tan Dinh Market

Later on, we crossed the busy road to check out this unique pink church, and realised it is called Tân Định church. Located at 289 Hai Bà Trưng street in District 3, Tân Định church is the 2nd oldest & largest church after the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. Constructed during the French colonial era in 1880s, it is affectionately known as the Pink Church because of its pretty rose-coloured Roman-style façade. Given we hadn’t done enough homework prior to the trip, it was a surprise find for us & we were both so enchanted to it that we kept snapping photos from different angles.

tan-dinh-church

Happy to have found this by chance, but it was a pity we didn’t go in to take a look. After we left, my friend searched for the landmark online & realised its interior is just as lovely as its exterior! Gosh… “painful” lesson learnt for not being adventurous enough to check out the entire church compounds… 😦

In case you are heading to HCMC soon, do visit this beautiful Pink Church in District 3, open from 5 am to 5 pm daily for some great photo moments. 🙂

Going Through The Tourist Ritual in Saigon… Part 2

The Saigon Opera House from across the street

Continuing my touristy route towards the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon where other noteworthy architecture are situated, I passed by the Ho Chi Minh City Hall, with a bronze statue of Uncle Ho (Vietnam’s late President Mr Ho Chi Minh) standing at the park in front of the French colonial-style building.

Ho Chi Minh City Hall

Ho Chi Minh City Hall

Frankly, I didn’t know the name of this landmark until I returned home & searched online. 😛 Nonetheless I must say I was quite intrigued by the beauty of this impressive architecture. Originally the Hôtel de Ville de Saïgon, it was built in 1902-1908 for the old Saigon city. In 1975, it was renamed as Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee. The statue of Uncle Ho was only installed in 1990 in the park in front of the building to celebrate his 100th birthday. However, what you see above is a new statue that replaced the old one in May 2015, to commemorate the 40th anniversary that marked the end of Vietnam War. As expected, there was a constant stream of visitors here to snap some great shots of the landmark throughout the short 15-20 minutes I was there.

After that, while on the hunt for food to satisfy my hunger pangs along the upmarket Dong Khoi Street, I spotted the stunning Saigon Opera House (also known as Municipal Theater).

The Saigon Opera House from across the street

The Saigon Opera House from across the street

Built in 1898 by French architect Eugene Ferret, Saigon Opera House was deliberately set to be 2m higher than the street surface with 2 layers of door to prevent traffic noise. The ancient building certainly looks grand with the stone-carved ornaments & statues at the entrance. But it certainly wasn’t easy to take a fully unobstructed photo of the entire architecture without any traffic in a congested city like HCMC. 😛

Finally I managed to grab some banh mi lunch (Vietnamese baguette) from a cafe nearby. All energised again, I made my way to the famous Saigon Central Post Office.

The iconic Saigon Central Post Office that doesn't look like a post office ;)

The iconic Saigon Central Post Office that doesn’t look like a post office 😉

Actually, I wasn’t sure I had arrived at the post office, since the sign at its main entrance was in Vietnamese (above the clock). This yellow architecture with green windows was constructed between 1886 & 1891 during the French colonial times, hence you can see the Gothic, Renaissance & French influences to the building. Even as I entered the beautiful building, it didn’t give me the feel of a working post office. It looked more like a busy European railway station. It was also quite unbelievable that this place has been in operation for over a century, as it was very well-maintained. Love the vaulted roof, elaborate furnishings & beautiful tiled floor 🙂

Sending a postcard home from the impressive Saigon Central Post Office

Sending a postcard home from the impressive Saigon Central Post Office

I had a mission to fulfill at the Saigon Central Post Office, which was to send a postcard home & hopefully receive it soon upon my return. After browsing the wide selection of postcards, handmade 3D greeting cards & local handicrafts at the kiosk in the middle of the post office, I bought the beautiful postcard you see above. The total cost of the postcard + stamp for a Singapore-bound letter was a mere 16,000 VND (about S$1). Kept my fingers really cross that I’d receive it back home, although I also didn’t want to pin too high hopes as I’ve heard people who didn’t get theirs in the end.

But lady luck was with me & I received the postcard in my mailbox exactly 1 week after I sent it out! Woohoo~

Just across the road from Saigon Central Post Office, is the most famous symbol of the city – Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. The Nhà thờ Đức Bà Sài Gòn (its local name) was a cathedral constructed by the French colonists between 1863 and 1880 in the downtown of Saigon, using building materials imported from France. Despite its age, this neo-Romanesque style cathedral looks marvellous from any angle. Nonetheless, I found the best shot was taken from the flower garden with the granite Virgin Mary statue in front of the architectural masterpiece.

Admire the majestic architecture with 2 60m tall bell towers standing behind Virgin Mary statue

Admire the majestic architecture with 2 60m tall bell towers standing behind Virgin Mary statue

Needless to say, there were throngs of tourists visiting the cathedral & the post office building. But strangely, the atmosphere around was tranquil, & not as rowdy as compared to the lively scene around Ben Thanh Market. I also went into the cathedral to take a peek at the sacred church interiors with gorgeous stained glass mosaic windows.

saigon-notre-dame-cathedral-2

Do note that the church is only open to visitors either in the morning from 8–11 am or afternoon from 2–4 pm. So do check the time before you make your way there, otherwise you may be disappointed that you don’t get to fully appreciate the elaborate craftsmanship of Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. I’ve read that the church is popular as a wedding venue, so see if you are lucky enough to witness one when you visit!

Compared to the earlier part of the touristy day, I thought I enjoyed myself better at these fine architecture of great French influence. Guess I am still very much the type who prefers to see beautiful things, rather than shop or explore history. 😛

How about you? Which part of my tourist ritual do you prefer? 😉

Going Through The Tourist Ritual in Saigon… Part 1

Stalls selling a myriad of goods in the market

Unlike other overseas trips where I would usually make concrete plans what I’d do, this Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) trip was one that was quite relaxed with no detailed itinerary. Yes, I still did a bit of homework on the must-see sights in the city, but I didn’t pen them down into a physical time-table to follow through. Therefore, rather than write my HCMC posts on a chronological / day-by-day basis this time, I shall adopt a different style. I will compile what I’ve done in HCMC & write them in the same post, if they fall under the same category. 🙂

Generally, I like to head to places where locals frequent & enjoy when possible when in a foreign city. However, I am a tourist after all in a completely foreign territory like Vietnam. So it’s inevitable that I also went through the usual tourist route. 😛

On day 2, after lazing around in my cosy hotel room for a long while, I set off for a visit to the oldest market in Saigon – Ben Thanh Market, in the late morning. As the oldest market in the city, developed informally as far back as early 17th century by street vendors gathering together near the Saigon River, Ben Thanh Market is an important symbol of Saigon. Located in the city centre, the market is also at the roundabout junction that we pass by daily on our way out from hotel to other destinations in the city.

around-ben-thanh-market

The market building we all see today has existed since 1912 after the original building was destroyed by fire in 1870 and rebuilt to become Saigon’s largest market. It’s a pity I didn’t manage to take a photo of its main gate with the name, because that is situated in front of the busy roundabout junction. I don’t know how I could get through the heavy traffic to stand on the tiny roundabout for photo-taking. 😦 Regardless of when you visit, the market is always crowded with people. It’s not difficult to understand why. Being the largest & oldest market in HCMC selling fruits, vegetables, dry goods & souvenirs etc, it’s natural that this market gets the most attention from locals and tourists alike.

Stalls selling a myriad of goods in the market

Stalls selling a myriad of goods in the market

I spent about an hour or so walking the numerous small lanes in the market to soak in the lively atmosphere at Ben Thanh. Frankly, it got somewhat tiring after a while when I kept hearing the repeated chanting of the same old “Miss, T-shirt for sale. Cheap!” & the likes of it from the stallholders. I had wanted to get some local street food from the rows of food stalls here, but there weren’t as many tantalising stalls as I had imagined. Most of the food stallholders looked worn out from idling around with hardly any customers. I also couldn’t understand what they were selling since the menus were in Vietnamese without pictures. Hence I dropped off the idea of eating here. No souvenirs bought at all too, until the next day when I returned with my friend in the late afternoon. Probably it’s more fun when you are doing bargain shopping together, which heightens the shopping mood. Haha

1 thing I missed out was to experience its night market that open after 7 pm daily. The surrounding streets will be closed off to vehicular traffic from that time, & outdoor food stalls will be set up thereafter. I thought it was a good way to experience the Vietnamese way of alfresco dining. 😛 Too bad we had to leave the place though we saw the stalls being set up on day 3 evening, as we had wanted to go for a massage near our hotel.

After checking out Ben Thanh Market & its surroundings, I continued on foot to other major tourist sights in District 1, towards direction of Notre-Dame Cathedral etc. Along the way, I stumbled upon this unique French architecture with an Oriental style building along Ly Tu Trong.

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Curious, I entered the gate of the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City & bought my ticket (15,000 VND per foreign visitor, about S$0.95) at the little ticket booth (which looked more like a guard house btw). There is an additional price to pay if you wish to take photos in the museum. I think it was 10,000 VND (about S$0.65) but I couldn’t be sure as there was no receipt, & I saw people commented online that it costs 50,000 VND more. While I did wonder how would they be able to check if you will be taking photos inside (since no one checked my bag etc), I still paid the additional sum.

Originally known as the Gia Long Palace, the building was built in 1885 – 1890, intended for use as a commercial museum exhibiting native specialities, but it became the Cochinchina governor’s palace. Having gone through turbulent times in Vietnam, the palace became Revolution museum of Ho Chi Minh city in 1975, and later renamed as Museum of Ho Chi Minh City on 13 December 1999.

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The building is quite big but there weren’t too many exhibits. There are 2 floors of exhibitions showcasing the history and culture of Vietnam. Apparently, there is an underground air raid shelter in the building, but I didn’t see any entrance to this secret shelter. Of course, there was also a section with displays of the wartime artillery during Vietnam War. Although I couldn’t remember most of the things learnt from the informative boards, I think what struck me was the close relationship & similarities Vietnam has with China. I don’t remember the details but I just have this memory from the many exhibits displaying the local lifestyle, clothing, culture of the past.

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Outside the main entrance of the museum, there are some display of the fighter jets & artillery tank being used to defend the country during war. To tour the whole museum compound, it took me barely 1 hour or so.

It’s a pity that the large historical space wasn’t fully utilised to let visitors gain more in-depth understanding of the history & culture of Saigon. I guess maybe that is why this museum isn’t highly ranked on top sightseeing spots in the city. Visit if you have time or pass by, like me. Although the museum isn’t air-conditioned, it’s still a good place to hide away from the heat & humidity out there in the city! 😉

Le Meridien Saigon – A Pampering Stay In Ho Chi Minh City

Bright & airy lobby to welcome guests

Located in the financial & commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) – District 1, Le Meridien Saigon is a 5-star hotel under the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Group. This stylish hotel only welcomed its first guests in September 2015, making it one of the newest hotels in HCMC, if not the newest. While I didn’t play a part in deciding where to stay in HCMC, it was a truly enjoyable stay at Le Meridien Saigon. Read below for my detailed review on the various aspects. 🙂

Hotel lobby

Bright & airy lobby to welcome guests

Bright & airy lobby with a lovely X’mas tree to welcome guests for the festive season

I like the warm & inviting ambience at the airy lobby upon arrival at the hotel. Since it was the year-end Christmas season, there was a tall glittery X’mas tree standing in the middle of the reception. Large posh sofa seats occupy the right hand side of the lobby. The Marketing personnel I met told me that at Le Meridien Saigon, the lobby is known as the hub, a gathering place for like-minded travellers to come together. She also highlighted to me about the colourful wall behind the reception counter. It is actually a map of Vietnam with the Saigon River flowing through. Reception staff were all friendly & helpful, speaking good English. This was the only place where we enjoyed barrier-free communication in the city. LOL

The chic Latitude 10 lounge in the day

The chic Latitude 10 lounge in the day

To the left of the entrance, beside the elevators to guest rooms & other facilities in the hotel, there is Latitude 10, a relaxed coffeehouse by day and stylish cocktail lounge by night. This was also the place where I claimed my cup of complimentary freshly brewed coffee every morning. We didn’t check the lounge out at night, only passed by on our way back to the room. It looked like a cool bar to chill out at with soothing jazz music playing in the background.

Guest room

le-meridien-premier-classic-roomOriginally, my friend booked the Premier Classic room with city view (lowest tier guest room) under corporate account. However, we were given a complimentary upgrade to a river view room (2nd lowest tier guest room), thanks to the hotel Marketing Manager. The only difference between the 2nd & 1st lowest tier guest room is in the view we get from the large window.

As you can see from collage above, the guest room is roomy (38 square metres) and tastefully furnished. This is quite a luxurious size considering it is the cheapest room available in this 5-star hotel. Even with 2 large beds, the cheery red chair by the window & airy bathroom, there is still plenty of space to move about in the room. The bed is also very comfortable with 4 plush pillows for a wonderful night’s rest. To block out loud traffic noise from the street, draw down the blackout curtains using the master remote control by the bed. I only discovered this on the last night accidentally & enjoyed a peaceful sleep throughout the night.

If I had to nitpick, it’d be the housekeeping. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they don’t clean or tidy our room well, but I was surprised to enter an uncleaned room on my 1st day at 1+pm. My friend had checked in the day before so when I entered the room, I still saw her used towels lying in the bathroom, an “untidy” bed & a cup with the teabag still soaked in it. 😦 (You can see some evidence in pic above haha) Usually hotels will do their housekeeping in the late morning, when guests check out & before the arrival of new guests. So it’s a little surprising that in such a high-class hotel, they only clean the rooms so late.

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After some freshening up in my room, I met up with the Marketing personnel for a hotel inspection. Take a look at the collage of the spacious Grande Deluxe Suite of a whopping 55 square metres above. Fresh fruits & the famous artisan Marou chocolate are served daily in the suite’s living room. It can sleep up to 3 pax (inform hotel in advance) very comfortably. No worries of fighting over TV channels since there are 2 42″ smart LED TV too. I wonder when would I be able to stay in such luxurious suite without feeling a pinch in the wallet? 😛

Dining

Besides Latitude 10 on the ground floor, Art Cacao next to the lounge offers dessert & pastry lovers decadent bites made with local seasonal ingredients. Other dining options include: Latest Recipe restaurant on the Mezzanine floor, as well as Bamboo Chic & Explore Bistro on the 9th floor.

Bamboo Chic - an interesting Cantonese-Japanese fusion restaurant

Bamboo Chic – an interesting Cantonese-Japanese fusion restaurant

Bamboo Chic is open for lunch & dinner, serving a creative fusion of Cantonese & Japanese cuisine in contemporary setting. I didn’t try the food here, only visited the hip restaurant in between meal times for photo-taking.

Casual relaxed atmosphere at Latest Recipe

Casual relaxed atmosphere at Latest Recipe

Scrumptious breakfast buffet enjoyed on my last day

Scrumptious breakfast buffet enjoyed on my last day

Guests can choose to book a stay with breakfast at the Latest Recipe restaurant that looks like a cool cafe. The restaurant is brightly lit with simple white-washed walls for a cosy & casual atmosphere. I opted to pay for a breakfast (495,000 VND, S$31.30) on my last day here as I had read online that it serves a wide variety of delicious Asian & European cuisine. Indeed, those reviews were true, there was really quite a lot of food to take my pick from. Favourites include the waffles (so crispy & fluffy!), juices, smoothies & ice cream! Well, actually most of the offerings were yummy hehe. I had such a hearty breakfast that morning, that I didn’t even feel like taking lunch later on.

Last but not least, there is also the Explore Bistro in between the spa and indoor pool. Come here to detoxify with healthy food & beverages, especially if you are feeling guilty after all the irresistible feasting. We had our light meal here before the free spa treatment. But more on that in another post. 😉

Health & wellness facilities

On the 9th floor are the fitness centre, indoor saltwater pool and Explore Spa.

Unique wooden bird-cage design at the entrance of Explore Spa

Unique wooden bird-cage design at the entrance of Explore Spa

The Explore Spa at Le Meridien Saigon is definitely worth special mention for its excellent ambience & service. I’m not saying this just because we got an indulging 150-minute spa treatment courtesy of the Marketing Manager. But look at the entrance, the wavy platform to the reception makes you feel like you have entered a whole new world. Read my detailed review of this experience in this post. 🙂

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Next to the spa is a large fitness centre equipped with an extensive selection of machines to cater to different fitness needs. I was a little amazed by the number of equipment in the gym, because hotel gyms are usually quite pathetic in size. It’s also good to know that you can choose to look out of the large windows into the tranquil Saigon River if you don’t wish to watch any programs on the individual TVs fixed on the machines. Too bad my stay wasn’t long enough, else I would have come here to do some workout!

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There is also an indoor saltwater pool overlooking the river adjacent to the fitness centre. Rain or shine, you can enjoy your swim. Even if you don’t swim, you can enjoy the breeze & chill on the swanky poolside chairs.

Location

Last but not least, location is of course an important factor when deciding where to stay. The hotel is just a 30-minute drive from Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Major tourist sights like Ben Thanh Market, Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica and Reunification Palace are a quick 10-minute drive away too. There are also convenience stores, local eateries & restaurants, spa etc nearby the hotel. We also found a lovely art street as we exit the hotel & turned right, with a few indie cafes & beautiful murals.

art-space-shopping-streetWhile some may think it is better to be located within walking distance to popular sights, imagine the crowd & noise you may be subjected to. Personally, I find the hotel’s location perfect for a relaxing holiday, because it is away from the hustle and bustle of the congested city, yet still within convenient reach to major sights. Its idyllic location along the Saigon River also allows guests to check out the river view without the need to pay for entrance to the observatory deck of Bitexco Financial Tower, the city’s tallest building. 😛

Saigon River view from the comfort of our room

Saigon River view from the comfort of our room

This was the 1st time I wasn’t involved in the selection of my accommodation for a leisure holiday at all. But it’s alright, this hotel booking recommended by friend’s local colleague was wonderful! I really enjoyed the comfort & great service here. If you are thinking of pampering yourself for your next HCMC trip, book a stay at the 15-month old Le Meridien Saigon. Trust me, you can hardly go wrong with new hotels! 😉