1st Time To Vietnam: Lessons Learnt From A Whirlwind Ho Chi Minh City Trip

I haven’t travelled out since my last overseas holiday to Korea in spring, which was about 8 months ago. [My frequent day trips to Johor Bahru don’t count! :P] Thanks to a friend who had to travel for business to a few cities recently, I could break the 8-month vacation-less drought. Out of her business destinations, I decided to tag along for the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam leg, as I had never been there before.

This was quite an impromptu decision, but thankfully airfare surcharges didn’t escalate much in view of time constraint. As it was a really short trip for 3 nights, in fact a whirlwind 72 hours, I didn’t have time to venture out of the city at all. Nonetheless, I learnt quite a few things from this impromptu short trip to Saigon:

Lesson #1: It doesn’t hurt to ask and be given

Upon confirming the hotel where my friend would be staying at, I decided to be “thick-skinned” & write to the hotel’s Marketing department of my intention to write a review for them on Trip101, in return for sharing my article on their social media platform. I wasn’t pinning high hopes on hearing back from them, given the many rejections, or rather, lack of replies from other establishments that I tried to reach out to previously.

However, to my pleasant surprise, they were quite responsive & even offered a complimentary upgrade for our room. Furthermore, I was also offered either a free meal or spa treatment at the hotel. In the email, only the complimentary high tea offer was specified as for 2 pax. As I thought it’d be better if I could share the offer with my friend, I braced myself to ask if the buffet lunch/dinner or spa treatment would be for 2 pax as well. So glad I clarified, because I could choose any complimentary offer and both of us would be able to enjoy it!

Moral of story: It doesn’t hurt you much to request for something, as long as it’s not against the law or cost an arm or leg. While you may get “no” for an answer at times, often, the other party will be more than willing to oblige. 😉

Lesson #2: Stay vigilant at ALL times

As I booked my flights quite late, I couldn’t depart together with my friend. Hence, the arrangement was to meet her at the hotel directly, i.e. I would have to find my way to the hotel from airport on my own. Before the trip, I had already done my homework online & decided the best way was to take a Vinasun or Mai Linh taxi, & to be cautious of plenty of touts with licenses looking like these 2 taxi brands. Generally, I consider myself as a relatively savvy traveller who would unlikely fall into any tourist traps. Gosh, I was wrong. Here’s the long “horror story”:

The airport may be small, but I was somehow lost in my search for the taxi queue. Along the way to the taxi stand, I was approached by several touts, & I actually followed the last one to his vehicle with a Vinasun license lookalike! 😦 Only when I got to the vehicle I realised something amiss, as it was a car, not a taxi. At that point, I questioned him but he insisted in his limited English vocabulary that he was a Vinasun driver.

After I got in the car & he wanted to drive out of the carpark, he asked me for a 10,000 VND note to pay the airport toll fee. Obviously as a tourist who just stepped out of the airport, I didn’t have small notes with me. He didn’t believe me & insisted he needed exact change, even suggested I gave a S$1 note instead. Of course S$1 is in coin form, not note, so he rejected & tried to grab my wallet to search for small notes. His abrupt action sorta scared the wits out of me & I refused to budge. Finally he asked me to get off the car to request for small change at the airport. Boy, I was so relieved to leave the car & fortunately with my luggage too. At the airport, I checked with the information counter for specific directions to the taxi stand. This time out, I made sure I ignored all eye contact with any touts along the way as I made my way to the extreme left end of the airport where the taxi stand was.

Taxi Stand is on the extreme left end once you exit the airport

Taxi Stand is on the extreme left end once you exit the airport

I was actually just a few more steps to the taxi stand but was stopped by the last tout! 😦 Anyway, it was a smooth ride for me as I chose a Vinasun (white taxi with red/green logo & wordings). I wasn’t even asked to produce a 10,000 VND note (about S$0.65) for the toll fee upon leaving the airport. All I did was to pay the final amount (140,000 VND, S$8.85) to the driver when I alighted at the hotel.

Moral of story: Always stay vigilant & safe. Never let your guard off for a moment, especially when travelling alone.

Lesson #3: Have a flexible plan so that you can adapt to last minute changes

Well, actually this is one of the rare trips that I hardly made any concrete plan on what to do at all. Partly because it was an impromptu trip. Partly because I was busy with my work. & of course, I was kinda lazy too. 😛 While I did think of booking a day trip like Mekong Delta tour when my friend was at work, I was advised by another friend (who had been to Vietnam several times) to book the tour only when in the city as it’d be cheaper. We didn’t really discuss about what we should do on our weekend together too.

With no concrete bookings and plan in place, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because of delays at the airport & hotel (due to hotel inspection) on my 1st day, I didn’t manage to complete my “half-day city tour”. So not booking any tours meant I could still go on my city tour the following day. On the weekend we went out together, our next destination was always only decided when we were about to leave the current spot. It was a really flexible plan that we could adjust easily. I must say this is one of the most flexible & relaxed trips I had! 😉

Moral of story: Planning right down to the specific timing is no doubt organised, but it can also ruin the trip if unforeseen circumstances arise. So the key is to make a plan that is flexible with buffer in between schedules!

Lesson #4: Crossing roads in Vietnam isn’t as hard as I thought

Before the trip, I heard that crossing roads in Vietnam could be a daunting task. That made me somewhat worried since I’d be on my own for half the trip. But I think I somehow mastered the art of crossing roads in the city after half a day of practice. 🙂

You will have to be swift in making that 1st step out onto the road, but yet not too rash to dash all the way, as you need to know how to “work” with the motorists to get to the other end of the road. There are loads of bikers on the road, so you need to watch out for them, although they generally will know how to “siam” (Singlish, meaning avoid) you.

A typical scene on the road in HCMC

A typical scene on the road in HCMC

Moral of story: Be brave to make that 1st step out, but be observant & maintain your situational awareness till you reach the other side of the road safely!

Lesson #5: Vietnamese food can be quite tasty too

People who have dined with me would know that I shun Vietnamese food whenever possible, because I’m put off by the amount of garnishes (basil, spring onions etc) they put in every dish. But well, it’s kinda weird if I visit Vietnam but not try their food. So I did try the signature dishes like Phở, Bánh mì, Bánh cuốn & Cơm tấm. While I can’t say I have fallen in love with Vietnamese food, they aren’t as terrible as I thought. I still don’t like the overpowering taste of basil (& don’t understand why they love to put so much basil in the dish), but it’s bearable after removing as much garnishes as possible from the dish. 😛

Look at the generous amount of garnishes (the green stuff) in the bowl of Pho!

Look at the generous amount of garnishes (the green stuff) in the bowl of Phở

Moral of story: Drop the biased thoughts & just try to eat like a local, without judging the food by its appearance. Never try never know if the taste is indeed what you hate or love. 😉

Lesson #6: HCMC is much more developed than I had imagined

Night view of the towering skyscrapers & construction by the Saigon River

Night view of the towering skyscrapers & construction by the Saigon River

Prior to trip, I had read that the tallest building in Saigon is the 68-storey tall Bitexco Financial Tower located in District 1. I had also briefly noted the presence of a trendy high-end boutique street called Dong Khoi Street in the city. However, I thought HCMC wouldn’t be as modern as some fast-growing cities like Bangkok. I was expecting to see more of retro-looking streets like Singapore in the 1960-70s, with many makeshift hawker stalls by the roadside. But gosh, the city centre, i.e. District 1 surprised me with many towering skyscrapers & construction fighting for space in the densely populated city. There were many upmarket & trendy shopping malls too, all dressed up prettily for Christmas as well. There weren’t that many roadside stalls as I had expected to see when exploring the city on foot too…

Moral of story: Don’t underestimate the speed of urbanisation in Vietnam. They are fast catching up with already developed countries, particularly in big cities like HCMC.

Just a short 72-hour HCMC trip & I could learn so much. Not too bad eh? 😉

Below is an outline of what I did in HCMC:

Day 1: Arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport around noon. Checked in to Le Meridien Saigon hotel in District 1. Met up with the Marketing staff for a hotel inspection, followed by super late lunch (more like tunch) in the vicinity. Had dinner in the evening with my friend at L’Usine cafe near Ben Thanh Market area. Also checked out the Christmas lights in the city.

Day 2: Started the day with a tour at the famous Ben Thanh Market, followed by a tour at the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City which I passed by. Explored the city centre on foot, visiting the Saigon City HallSaigon Opera House, Saigon Central Post Office & Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. In the evening, enjoyed a truly relaxing spa treatment, compliments from hotel.

Day 3: Together with my friend, we ventured a little further to Tan Dinh Market which borders District 1 in the morning. Found a unique pink church diagonally across from the market – Tan Dinh Church. Later on, we went all the way to District 7, hoping to find some cool cafes there, but no luck. Instead, we chanced upon modern shopping malls in this expat district. Returned to Ben Thanh Market area in the late afternoon for souvenir shopping, pedicure & snacks. Last stop of the day was a 90-minute body massage at Miu Miu Spa near our hotel.

Day 4: I paid to enjoy a sumptuous hotel breakfast before checking out. Nothing else done except walked many rounds in the airport while waiting for my flight home around noon. 😛

Finally, here’s a tip for those who wish to stay connected when abroad and not just depend on free Wi-Fi. It is much cheaper to get a local prepaid data sim card than subscribe to data roaming with your home telco. Through my research, Viettel & Vinaphone are the 2 established telcos that you can purchase from, although Viettel is slightly more expensive than Vinaphone. Both telcos have shops located at the airport with English speaking staff. Upon claiming your luggage & clearing customs, just turn left & walk right to the end of the small terminal. You will find both shops next to each other.

telecom-shops-at-airportI bought a Vinaphone 30-day prepaid data sim card that came with 3GB of local data & about 30 minutes of local calls for 150,000 VND (S$9.50). The local call bundle is useful should you need to make any local calls for your tours etc.

This is how the Vinaphone prepaid sim card looks like

As you can see, my itinerary looks pretty empty haha. In my coming posts I will be sharing more details. So do stay tuned. 🙂

You may also like these Trip101 articles:

Le Meridien Saigon: Stylish Comfort By The River In Ho Chi Minh City
7 Things To Do During A 36-Hour Whirlwind Getaway In Ho Chi Minh City
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