Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh (HCM) Itinerary

My itinerary:
Day 1: City walkabout - Notre Dame Cathedral, old post office and Ben Thanh Market
Day 2: Day trip to Mekong - 7.15 am ~5.30 pm           
Day 3: Half day trip to Cu Chi - 7.45 am ~ 2 pm
            Vietnamese Water Puppet show - 7.45 pm
Day 4: Chill and relax

To See:

Notre Dame Cathedral
This cathedral occupies scenic Paris Square in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Established by French colonists, the cathedral was constructed between 1863 and 1880. It has two bell towers, reaching a height of 58 meters (190 feet).

Its structure does bears some resemblance to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Do note that the church may not be open to public and it all depends on one's luck. We got in the church and soon after the gates were locked behind us.

Old post office - It is a functional office not just a place to tour.  Lots of sight to see and items to buy.

Ben Thanh market
The market is one of the earliest surviving structures and one of symbols of the City, popular with tourists seeking local handicrafts, textiles, and souvenirs, as well as local cuisine.

The first bustling town of the Mekong Delta is My Tho, 70 km from HCMC.  This is a 1.5 hr bus ride. From My Tho, on the local motor boat, you will see four islands: Dragon island, Unicorn Island, Phoenix Island and Tortoise Island and then stop on the Unicorn island.

From there, we will continue our boat trip to Ben Tre province to visit a handmade coconut candy workshop. Then transfer to a small motor boat and travel along canals and stop at a local food shop for vietnamese lunch. 

You will also enjoy tropical fruits, honey and wonderful " southern vietnamese folk music: performed by Islanders.

Some of the sights and sounds on the Mekong tour is coconut candy factory, wooden carraige ride drawn by the horse, monkey bar walk across a pool. Do not expect too much from lunch and if  you need more that be prepared to pay a little extra. The last part of the mekong tour is by a sampan canal tour and rowed by the villages. I was a little concerned as some of the boats that we are in showed signs of leaking. Fortunately, we arrived at our motor boat safely. This is a little different from the floating market experience in Thailand where the boat we are on is a motor boat.

Cu Chi
Cu Chi used to be a bitter battleground for many years during Vietnam war (located 60 km from HCMC). It is legendary for its tunnel system of over 220 km, a popular spot for both vietnamese and foreign tourists. 

The present Cu Chi is preserved in 2 areas of Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. Its a 1.5 hr by bus from HCMC to the tunnels at Ben Dinh village where you will watch the documentary film, study a wartime map and a model of the tunnel network; see some bloody traps, special smoke - tie kitchen, first-aid clinic, fighting stretches, bunkers and american knock-out tank. You will find it hard to imagine the destruction, the damage and the defoliation all over the area, caused by bombing and mines when Cu Chi was "A Free Target Zone".

While the crawl through the tunnels are pretty freaky at first with no end in sight, but it really a very short crawl if you endure the heat and small enclosed space. But if you are able suggest to try it at least once. Remember to also grab a bit of the tapicoa served at the end with the peanut dip. Nice and interesting combination.

Important: Do buy some food from the K-mart or provisions stalls at the early stops before you board the bus, you will definitely need it on way the way back as there are no stops made for lunch.

Vietnamese Water Puppet Show

Vietnamese water puppet show by Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre (55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, District 1).
Show times: 5:00 pm/ 6.30 pm / 7.45 pm

Show program:
1. Raising the festival flag
2. The narrator: Teu
3. Dragon Dance
4. On a buffalo with a flute
5. Agriculture
6. Catching frogs
7. Rearing ducks and catching foxes
8. Fishing
9. Returning to the native land after winning the first place of nation-wide exam
10. Lion dance
11. Phoenix dance
12. King Le loi on boat tour or the legend about "restored sword"
13. Children playing in water
14. Boat racing
15. Unicorns play with ball
16. Fairy dance
17. Dance of four Holy animals

Something different from the usual theatre shows. I marvelled at how lifelike the puppets are especially the scene with the fishes swimming on water. I'm also in awe of the puppeteers who stayed immersed in water throughout the 1 hour show. The show would have been much better if there has been a cohesive storyline.

To Eat with review and recommendations:
Rated: 1 - 5 stars
Price: Budget, mid-range, luxury
Ambience (only rated for restaurants) : romantic, soothing, scenic

Tous les Jours - 4 stars, mid-range

Paris Baguette - 3 stars, mid-range

Local cuisine
Pho hoa - 3 stars, budget
This is like out kway tiao soup just a little sweeter.

Trung Nguyen - 4 stars, mid-range

The flavours of one particular noodle dish "Pho Kho Gia Lia" took me by surprise. Its very yummy and flavourful. Don't be intimated by the huge bowl of greens on top. The meat is very well marinated and the soup is so delicious that we went back for this dish a second time. Coffee is generally good and you can ask the staff for recommendations based on personal preference.

Jollibean - 3 stars, budget

Western restaurants
La villa french restaurant - 3 stars, luxury, romantic

Service and support of the staff is really very good. The food is ok, but the price- quality value is poor if you compare it to the rest of the city. I find it too expensive for just fine dinner. But I would recommended it for people who are seeking for good atmosphere. Also, i find it amazing that upper floors of the bungalow is the residence of the chef while the ground floor is served as a dining restaurant. This mix use restaurant is a first for me.

If there is 2 of you, suggest to choose a degustation menu and the probably another mains and the serving is too much for a lady.

Skybar at AB Tower - 3.5 stars, luxury, romantic, scenic

The reception provide a very exceptional service. Our heart sank when we were informed that there was a dress code for gents but we are pretty surprised that they provided free change of pants for the guests. I was pleasantly surprised with the exquisite taste of the waygu beef. I must say its one of the best meals i had and its comparable to some of the restaurants standard in Singapore.

The bar manager attitude is very snobbish and rude when attempt to step out and take a view of the night sky. I understand that the reluctance to let us out while its still raining. But i was snapped at when the skies cleared and the guy cannot even communicate well in english. So i tried to approach an ang moh and he was able to explain to me that on fridays and weekends they are fully packed for the tables that at the edge are reserve for guests that have pre booked and open at least a bottle of champage. I left once i knew i am unable to secure a seat with a good view without burning a hole in my pocket.

To Stay:
Novotel Saigon Centre Hotel - 3.5 star

Location is good and getting a taxi from the hotel is easy. Most cab drivers are able to locate the hotel. But to play safe always remember to bring the hotel map just in case!

Service and cleaniness of hotel is good. I am pretty intrigued with the glass wall of the toilet which fogged up and become opaque with a click of a switch.

Room service is prompt but my husband is pretty peeved with the poor wifi service in the rooms which requires resetting every other hour.

The alcove library hotel - not rated

This is the other hotel that i was considering. Generally a boutique hotel with quite good reviews and quite accessible location

Travel tips: 
For day tours, its more value for money to make a trip to Pham Ngu Lao (also know as the backpackers  street) to make the booking.

Different agencies will combine customers to form a bigger group to make up the numbers.

If you wish to see the water puppet show at Thao Dien Village (195 Nguyen Van Huong, Thao Dien Ward, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City 7000, Vietnam), its advisable to call in advance. We made a trip down to a very inaccessible area and was informed that there is no water puppet shows at the location. Its a real wet blanket.

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