Some time in May last year, there was a promo by a low cost carrier for a limited number of RM0 air fares to certain places on certain flights. I had totally forgotten about the promo on the day it started, until I read a friend’s status update on FB, grumbling about her attempts to access the carrier’s website, to no avail.
So I just tried my luck, without much hopes of achieving anything, and without even thinking of where I’d like to go. But guess what? I managed to access the website and even managed to find the dates where there were RM0 fares available to Ho Chi Minh City. I immediately called my sister and she called her daughter, and we all agreed to just book without even bothering about whether we’d be available on the dates. The dates were after all, about 9 months away, and it was too early to tell if we’d be able to make it on the dates. With regular fares to HCMC being over RM300 one way before tax, under normal circumstances, we’d probably have to pay about RM800 to and fro inclusive of airport taxes etc. For this one, inclusive of airport taxes, convenience fees, travel insurance AND check-in baggage fee, each of us had to pay less than RM200 for a return trip to HCMC.
So, on Monday 14th Feb 2011, off we headed to LCCT – my sister, my niece and myself, each with a trolley bag, which could have been brought in as cabin baggage, but my niece decided to go for check in baggage for herself & her mom, and since there were still extra kgs available, I put mine as check-in baggage as well. Our flight was at 2.55pm, so we decided to have lunch first, then jamak zohor/asar before we proceeded to the departure lounge. Our flight was on time and the weather was fine. We reached HCMC at approximately 3.45 pm as scheduled.
First thing’s first… get a taxi to get to the guesthouse we booked. Having read about how some tourists got duped by taxi drivers (just like some taxi drivers in Malaysia who like to dupe tourists), we opted for the airport taxi. We were quoted in USD. When we said we didn’t have USD and asked for the price in Vietnam Dong, they asked if we had Singapore Dollars. Again we said no and asked for the rate in VND. They then asked for Malaysian Ringgit, which of course, we had. So we paid RM25 for the taxi fare from the airport to our guesthouse. I guess they all prefer foreign currency than their own.
Not wanting to mispronounce the name of our guesthouse, I had written down the name of the guesthouse, Diep Anh Guesthouse and showed the address to the taxi driver.
Our accommodation… Diep Anh Guesthouse, at an alley off Pham Ngu Lao… a popular backpacker area.
The taxi stopped across the road from the alley leading to our guesthouse, so we had to cross the road… with our luggage and all. Scary at first, especially with Saigon traffic, but seeing the locals simply crossing the road without even looking left or right, we made it across with the taxi driver accompanying us halfway. We had to walk about 100 metres through a small alley to get to the guesthouse (which could be rather scary if it was an alley in KL…) but there were many guesthouses along the row… full of backpackers. I had initially booked this place in view of the good reviews given by previous occupants.
We were first welcomed by Mrs Anh, who then called her husband who spoke better English. Before showing us our room, Mr Anh gave us a Saigon map, and explained to us about the interesting places and things to do in Saigon. We immediately booked for 2 tours – a half day tour of Cu Chi tunnel for the next day and a 1 day Mekong tour the day after. Mr Anh arranged for the tour for us. All we had to pay was 5 USD for the Cu Chi tour (not inclusive of entrance fee) and 23 USD for the Mekong tour (we opted for the boat ride back to Saigon from Mekong city instead of taking the bus, otherwise it would have been only 9 USD). Going for private tours would be more expensive and we figured by joining the group tour, we’d be meeting other people from various countries as well.
While waiting, a couple walked in, and talked to Mrs Anh. I didn’t really hear their conversation, all I heard was Mrs Anh saying, “Malaysia.” They must have asked where we were from. I had thought the guy must be Vietnamese, until he came over and asked, “Akak dari mana?” in very fluent Malay. He’s a Malaysian Chinese from Seremban, was already there for a few days and would be leaving the next day.
By the time we were shown our room, it was already about 5 pm. We decided to take a short rest and wait for Maghrib (which was at about 5.35 pm or so) before going out again to survey the area. So yes, after Maghrib, off we went, first for dinner. There was a halal restaurant at the very same alley as our guesthouse… so finding a halal place was not a problem. So yes, for day 1, we had dinner at Taj Mahal Restaurant, selling northern Indian food. I had read earlier a review of the place, mentioning that one portion of briani was quite big, so we opted to order 2 to be shared by the 3 of us. More than enough to fill our tummies. And I must say the chicken briani was good. I loved my drink too… I ordered the mango shake. Yum!
After dinner, we walked around to survey the area.
At the other end of the alley was Bui Vien street, where there were various shops and a few more halal Indian restaurants and a halal Turkish restaurant (which we only noticed on the final night, don’t know how we missed this place on the first night!). One guy from an Indian restaurant, noticing that we were obviously Muslims, came over to us, saying, “Halal! Halal!” and gave us a flyer.
We walked and walked to survey the surrounding area and found where VN Halal (a popular restaurant amongst Malaysian tourists) and where Ben Thanh market was.
On the way back to our guesthouse, we stopped at a minimarket to buy some biscuits, chocolates and drinks. We opted for products with the halal sign – some were even Malaysian products with the JAKIM halal sign. Although we had a halal restaurant very near our guesthouse, Taj Mahal Restaurant only opens at 10.30 am. Having breakfast at VN Halal was not a good idea for the next 2 days as our tours were to start early morning.
As early as 7.45 am on the second day we were already at the guesthouse lobby. My niece had brought along instant noodles from home and had that for breakfast, while I just opted for biscuits bought the night before and the 3 in 1 coffee provided free by Mr and Mrs Anh for their guests. Although we were told that a rep from the tour agency would fetch us at 8.20 am from the guesthouse, the guy came as early as 8 am. We then joined with some other tourists from other guesthouses at the same alley. In our group were tourists from various countries including Indonesia, Philippines, Canada, UK and Australia.
Our first stop was the handicap's handicrafts centre.
The finished products.
We just stopped at the handcrafts centre for about half an hour or so. We were told that some of the fees charged by the Cu Chi tunnel management, were used to support this programme for the handicapped. I didn’t buy anything here though. Although the items looked nice, I didn’t want to bring anything bulky and/or fragile home.
We were then brought to the Cu Chi tunnel area, where we needed to buy the entrance tickets first. 80,000 VND per person.
Once we got ourselves the tickets, we were brought to the entrance of the area…
First up, we were shown a short documentary on Cu Chi tunnel…
That was followed by a briefing by the guide about the location and a bit of its history. The guide, a veteran of the war, was a Filipino who ended up marrying a Vietnamese lady. He took part in the war as part of the Philippines army, fighting as a US ally. So he had personal experience of how the Vietcongs fought the war.
We were then brought around the area, where were shown the traps and holes…
Not forgetting the tanks used during the war…
I even took the opportunity to try out the AK47, a made-in-Russia weapon used by the Vietcongs.
Finally, we were brought to the highlight of our visit, the Cu Chi tunnel! (not the original one, but a remake, slightly bigger to suit western tourists who are bigger in size. They may get stuck in the original one!)
I was the first to enter the tunnel (after the guide), followed by my sister and my niece. We didn’t bother who followed behind but we were lucky we entered first. Apparently, a few claustrophobic tourists entered the tunnel in the middle of the group, causing congestion inside the tunnel, thus causing many of them deciding to get out the emergency exits available at every 30 metres of the tunnel. By the time we reached the 3rd emergency exit, the guide stopped and asked if I wanted to continue. Hey, I had already done 90 metres by then, might as well go all the way. He then stepped aside at the emergency exit, and asked me to move forward as he wanted to check on the tourists behind. So the 3 of us moved forward with me leading the way. The guide had brought a small torchlight with him, so when I moved forward to lead the way, there was total darkness. Lucky me, I brought along a torch (the same one I used during my Gua Tempurung trip). Upon seeing nothing but total darkness, I simply grabbed the torch from my backpack, put in on my head and switched it on. The guide saw me, and said, “Very good! Now move! Move!” So off I went leading the way (just for my sister & my niece as I didn’t know what happened to the group behind us), telling them where we had to climb up and when we had to slide down etc.
We finally made it through the whole 120 metres of the tunnel with the next group taking quite some time to reach the end of the tunnel after us. I even had the time to go back in and pose for a pic…. :)
The majority from the group actually got out at earlier exits. Only a few made it all the way and the few included my sister, my niece and I… woo hoo!
By the time we got back to Saigon, it was already after 3 pm. We haven’t had lunch yet, but we decided to go back to our room for our prayer first before heading out again. We ended up having lunch (at VN Halal) at 4 pm before heading to Ben Thanh market. We just initially walked around first to survey the things before deciding on what to buy. The stalls on the outer side weren’t much of a problem for us, but once we got deeper inside, they started hassling us. One guy even pulled my arm, showed me a seluar katok (knee length) and said, “Kakak! Cantik kakak!” Yeah sure, cantik my foot!
For someone who dislikes shopping (I usually only go shopping when I need to), being hassled like that wasn’t my idea of a holiday. And my sister and niece didn’t like the hassling either. So we just walked through just to “see-see look-look” first before leaving the place, and headed to Saigon Square. We took the trishaw ride there…
My niece had wanted to look for haversacks and her search through the internet indicated that there was a particular shop at Saigon Square. But when we went there and found the shop, they didn’t have it the size my niece wanted. So off we went, this time heading to Dong Du… where the Jamia Mosque was located and where there were quite a number of halal restaurants available. I needed to go to the mosque to give to the imam some donations given through me by my mother and a friend. By then it was already dark, and we were rather tired due to the crawling in the tunnel attempted earlier in the day, so we figured we might as well have dinner before heading back to the guesthouse. But we weren’t hungry yet since we just had lunch at 4 pm. At the same time, we didn’t want to regret not having anything in case we may get hungry later at night.
So we just entered Halal @ Saigon and just ordered coconut drinks and some light stuff to eat. No rice.
After that, equipped with the Saigon map given to us earlier on day 1 by Mr Anh, we walked back to Pham Ngu Lao. However, knowing that the next day’s tour was to start as early as 7 am, no time to buy any halal breakfast, we decided to stop at Taj Mahal Restaurant again and ordered samosas to be packed before heading back to our room, intending to have them for breakfast the next day. We knew that food there are freshly cooked (hence you may have to wait a while for your orders to be ready), we figured the samosas would still taste good the next morning.
Then back to our room, mandi-mandi… and zzzzzzz…
Coming up next… Days 3 and 4…