Don’t sleep on all that Vietnam has to offer!
I highly recommend that you add it to your travel bucket list before it’s just another Tokyo or Singapore.
The airport was my introduction to how family oriented Vietnamese people are. I think whole families come to greet and see family and friends off as there were hundreds standing & waiting in arrivals at the airport and hundreds standing around outside in departures. After pushing our way through the crowd, we finally found a few inches of space on the curb where we could stand and search for our Grab driver.
Grab is similar to Uber in that you use an APP to search for a driver. The key difference, is although they give you a price estimate when you request the service, you pay cash to the driver when you’re dropped off.
Ten minutes later we spot our driver and he’s driving a car equivalent to the size of a Yugo. My first thought is he probably shouldn’t accept rides from the airport knowing there’s a good chance that you’ll have luggage; but, he somehow managed to squeeze our four pieces of luggage into the “mini” trunk and front seat and off we went. It’s not long before we’re in the heart of traffic, surrounded by a street full of scooters, making this “mini car” feel like a limo when compared to most of the other vehicles on the road.
The path to city center is strategic… the tree-lined streets, the well-lit shops and the people coming and going, welcome you almost immediately. It reminds me of pretty much everywhere else I’ve been in Asia, in that the city is still very much alive at 10:30 pm.
We are quickly falling in love with Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). We’re smiling! We’re excited! We’re looking forward to this being home for the next couple of days and suddenly, the driver abruptly pulls over and stops the car and says you have to get out and walk from here.
I’ll pause here for a minute or two and let you think about who he just told to get out and walk with 4 pieces of luggage at 10:30 p.m. in a country we’ve never been too …………
To know us is to love us, but if you really know us you know how close we came to jumping this man and putting him out of his own car.
Meanwhile, while the driver keeps gesturing for us to get out and we’re standing firm in WE ARE NOT GETTING OUT until we’re at our hotel, I decide to check GPS to see how far we were from the hotel. Since it said we were only 4 minutes we got out, grabbed our luggage, paid him and started (angrily) walking in the direction he was pointing in. Although he didn’t take us all the way to our destination, considering we had just spent the last 4 days paying $40 for 15 minute Uber rides in Tokyo, we weren’t going to waste time arguing with him about an $8.00, 15 minute ride.
As we got closer to the hotel, the sidewalk was filled with teenage boys and girls on parked scooters where the girl was either standing next to a bike with a guy or sitting on the back of his bike.
Two blocks later and there it was…
It was majestic!
The doorman greets us, takes our bags and hands us over to the next doorman who escorts us up to the 7th floor to check in.
District 1 is one of the most prominent areas in Saigon and The Reverie Saigon (ranked #1 in Vietnam and the 4th best hotel in the world) sits in the heart of it. Nguyen Hue Boulevard and Dong Khoi Street run through city center and are considered the best area for luxury shopping, premium hotels, French colonial architecture, fine dining, sightseeing and entertainment.
Having just left Japan where everyone greets you with a smile and bow, I didn’t think I would find a group of people more pleasant than they are. However, the hospitality at the Reverie exceeded my expectations, by a long shot. Everyone from the front desk, housekeeping, the spa staff, to the chef in the main restaurant was very pleasant and extremely accommodating.
On our first day we went to breakfast and afternoon tea in the main restaurant in the hotel, Cafe’ Cardinal. During our tea service we watched the head chef meet with the other chefs and taste and critique every dish that they were preparing to serve that day. There were students and experienced kitchen staff standing around, some listening to his every word and others taking notes.
The next day we decided to go ala carte for breakfast instead of having the full buffet. Shortly after our food arrived, the head chef approached our table and offered us a few of his newly created dishes that were not on the menu or the buffet. The taste and presentation were A-plus!
But hospitality extended well beyond the hotel, we met some of the most genuine and warmest people throughout our visit. With our favorites being the team of ladies that escorted us on scooters on our “night foodie” tour.
That leads me to…
Things to do
The XO Foodie Tour was ranked the #1 Food Tour in Vietnam by Forbes Magazine. XO tours is the first company to offer an all female scooter tour in Vietnam. The ladies were super friendly, very knowledgeable and very personable. We had a great time spending the evening with them. Throughout the tour they talked about their country, their families and the changes they have seen over the last decade.
14 courses and 5 Districts later, we saw everything from what I call little “America”, to China town, to some of the poorest areas in Saigon. All Districts that most tourist never get to see.’
District 2 & 7
If you want to leave home, but feel at home go to District 2. This is where you’ll find housing, restaurants and amenities that you’re accustomed to at home, whether you live in the U.S.A. AU or Europe. This is where most Americans or wealthy Vietnamese live. District 7 is another area that a lot of expats live in, but it’s a little further away from city center, but many American’s live there if they have families because the schools, groceries stores and amenities are designed to cater to Westerners.
At each stop, we would jump off the scooters, grab our belongings out of the seat of the bike and head toward the restaurant, so when we stopped in District 2, I did just that. However, this time I followed the wrong group and ended up in a room full of men.
The “geisha girl” dressed woman was escorting a group into what appeared to be a restaurant but as we got closer to the entrance I found them staring at me, but with a very odd smile. As I proceeded to go down the stairs with the group, the other “geisha girls” kept trying to get my attention, I’m guessing to ask where I was going, but with the language barrier I had no way of knowing what they were saying so I kept going until I looked around and realized that none of my group was in the room. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
I’m sure the ladies were relieved because they looked like they didn’t know how to make me leave. They were as pleasant as can be.
District 5 aka China Town
One thing I’ve discovered throughout my travels is there’s a Chinatown in almost every country I’ve visited and they all look the same. Here we learned that you should skip over Ben Thanh Market, which is where most tourist go, and go to the market in China town. You won’t have to haggle to pay a 1/4th of the price that they’ll charge you in all of the other markets. This is where many of the vendors in Ben Thanh Market buy their goods to sale.
Ben Thanh Market
As we left China Town and headed over to District 8 we rode right into the Vietnam that everyone imagines. Although Saigon has come a long way since the war and their overall economic situation has improved significantly, poor people and shanty houses still exist along the Canal and Mekong River.
In the U.S.A. wealthy people live along the waterfront. In Vietnam, the poorest people live along the water.
In 1976, Saigon’s name was changed to Ho Chi Minh. Textbooks will tell you it was because they merged with another province. Natives will tell you it’s because they wanted to escape the stigma of the war by changing the name and that many want them to forget the devastation it caused, but to them it will always be Saigon so they only call it Saigon.
Saigon has a two child only policy and women don’t leave their families until they are married, so although most of the women guiding our tour live in housing compounds near city center in order to work, they all return to their parent’s homes or neighborhoods very similar to the homes in District 8 for holidays and vacation.
During this tour we witnessed a lot families commuting with babies/children, dogs, luggage, boxes, etc. and as many as four passengers on their scooters returning home for the long Vietnamese Independence Day weekend.
There’s one bridge in Saigon that takes them home, so there was a traffic jam, but our drivers navigated through it, effortlessly.
My next favorite attraction is the Saigon Opera House
Through acrobatics, song and dance, the AO show illustrates life in Vietnam. It’s very entertaining and worth visiting.
After breakfast we wandered aimlessly in search of a spa so I could get a pedicure. Everywhere you go in City Center there’s at least five people per block trying to get you to come into their shop for a manicure, pedicure or massage (for “good price”) and typically I keep going but I was in need of a pedicure. We walked into a few shops and for one reason or another I decided not to have them service me. After stopping by a handful of shops, I had given up because we were running out of time. Our 11:00 tea service reservation was approaching quickly.
Just as we started to head back to our hotel, a young lady approached us from across the street and asked if I wanted a pedicure. It turns out she was from the shop next door to the very first spa that we stopped in, so she either overheard me or they sent her to find me after I left the first shop.
By the end of the day, I had a pedicure, individual lash extensions and my eye brows micro bladed for less than $150.00. To put this price in perspective, in the United States I pay $80 for individual lash extensions, $400 for microblading and $40 on average for a pedicure. I’ve had my eyebrows micro bladed, with a color boost every year for 3 years and my brows have never looked as good as they do now.
Off to TEA
I try to have afternoon tea on all of my trips so on the recommendation of another traveler, I booked reservations, long before I left the states, at Village Royale Antiques and Tea Room and it did not disappoint.
I spent some time chatting with the owner who’s originally from Australia. He talked about his love for Vietnam, made tea pairing recommendations, and shared a little background about his tea house, and our hotel. It’s here that we discovered that the clock in our hotel’s lobby is worth more than $40 million and that the sofa was inspired by a sofa that was in Michael Jackson’s house.
Tourist traps or Nah?
Last, but not least, there are the ordinary touristy things to do, such as Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, Bitexco (the tallest building in Saigon) and the floating market.
The central post office houses many services. They accept utility payments, unemployment & benefits payments, there’s a souvenir shop, and an 88-year-old letter writer who’s worked there for 28 years, writing and reading letters in English and French for individuals who can’t read/write and he only charges fifty cents per page.
Central Post Office
Instead of paying to go to the top of Bitexco we had lunch at Cafe Eon, which is on the 51st floor in the Bitexco building. The only way you’ll gain access to this level is to have reservations at the restaurant. We enjoyed the food, drinks and the view.
Cafe Eon aka Eon 51 is known for good drinks and asian food.
A day on the Mekong Delta on the Cai Be Princess Cruise
The only part of this tour that makes it worth the price and the time it takes to get to Mekong Delta from Saigon, is Le Longanier Restaurant. The service, the food and attention to detail at this hidden gem was well worth the 2 hours it took to get to Cai Be.
As part of the Cai Be tour, we stopped at a rice paper making shop. During our stop, the tour guide put his hand on the rice paper and asked if we could try rolling it. The shop employee slapped his hand, smiled and said no and continued working as if we were not standing there. I’m sure she sees these tours day in and day out and it’s disruptive.
If you’re short on time, skip the Mekong Delta / Cai Be tour and go to Thailand or another part of Vietnam where floating markets are still a primary way of making a living. The only other boats/canoes on this tour were the tourist boats.
We spent our last day in Vietnam at the spa in our hotel and our last night on the legendary Rex Rooftop Garden at the Rex Hotel.
Our Mekong Delta tour guide recommended Rex Hotel Rooftop Garden Bar , noting that they are ranked one of the top rooftop bars, with the best view and the best B52. I hadn’t had a B52 in at least 15 years, so it was my first drink and it did not disappoint.
Afterwards, we walked to the ice-cream shop for dessert and people watching, while Nguyen Hue and Dong Khoi Streets filled with locals. By the end of the night there were thousands of locals on the street celebrating Vietnam’s Independence Day; which, ended with fireworks.
It was a GREAT ending to a GREAT trip!