March 6 to March 9, 2012
March 6: HCMC-XO Motorbike tour
Flight to HCMC from Siem Reap takes a little over an hour. Thanks to TripAdvisor contributors we know exactly to proceed to Landing Visa for VOA, Visa on Arrival, upon arriving in Saigon airport. With Entry/Exit Visa application form in my hands already filled out, we stand in line and hand our application & passports at the window. About 15 min later (there’s not very many people waiting), they call our names, handed our visa and pay $25 usd each in cash. We pass thru immigration, collect our luggage and meet our driver already waiting outside. I pre-arranged our pick up with Mrs. Nhung of Tonkin Travel for $18 usd each way for a private car transport.
A word about the streets of Saigon. It is one of the busiest, craziest, most crowded, jam-packed with motorbikes and cars whose drivers seemingly don’t care about you, the pedestrian. You don’t have the right of way on the street, like in United States. For a first time visitor, crossing the street in Saigon is the most intimidating and terrifying experience. You must conquer your fear, battle with the drivers, cross with conviction; stop or freeze for the oncoming traffic and let them swerve to avoid you, instead of you avoiding them. The traffic on both directions hardly ever clears up, so if you don’t learn the technique, it can take you forever (10 min or more), or worse will never be able to get across a street.
Early this morning “Traveler’s diarrhea” starts to attack me, so I quickly take countermeasures with Pepto-Bismol. It sucks for I book an XO Motorbike Food Tour for this afternoon and will be picked at 5:30pm from our hotel. We arrive at Saigon Sheraton Hotel at around 1:30pm, and pleasantly surprise they upgrade our room to a junior suite at no extra cost. One of the benefits of being an SPG Gold member. I used our award points to book this hotel for our 2 nights stay, so it’s essentially free. This is the only luxury hotel we stayed during our trip; the rests are small boutique type hotels which I much prefer. Our room is on 19th floor with a view of the Saigon River, very spacious with a living room area & a fully equipped kitchen. But who would cook while visiting Vietnam?
Our room gives us access to the Club Lounge which provides free breakfast, refreshments, appetizers & drinks, served from 5 to 8pm daily. The Lounge also provides free internet and check-out services for the convenience of its SPG members.
Pick up time for our tour is getting close, and my stomach has not settled down. Time for drastic measure, so I swallowed “Cipro” The antibiotic works like magic, settling my tummy and enabling me to eat all the foods offered during the tour.
At 5:20PM, just outside our hotel, two young ladies wearing Ao Dai (Vietnamese outfit) are waiting to pick us up for our XO Motorbike Food tour. They put on our helmets, give instruction on how to get on/off the motorbike safely, pose for pictures with them…then off we go. To our very 1st riding experience on motorbikes and the perfect choice to test our nerves; the busy, crazy, clogged up “arteries” of Saigon. Holding on tightly for our dear life, it surely is nerve wrecking, until we slowly find our comfort zone and start enjoying the ride.
At $58 usd per person for XO tour is expensive, esp. in Vietnam standards. I pay less than that for walking food tours in the US. But for us, it is definitely worth the price. There are 8 people in our group in this tour: couples from England, Hungary and California. Our ride covers all 7 districts of Saigon, and learn few things about Vietnam from Mr Tu Dung, the owner of XO Tours. He grew up and got his education in the US (Texas), then came back to Vietnam to start this business. With less than 2 years since its inception, the business is very successful and rated #1 in TA for things to do in Saigon. Book early as it is often sold out.
Our 1st stop is a specialty place for Pho. It’s really good and tasted way better than we’ve ever had in California. Afterwards, we make our way cycling, weaving thru many streets & interesting places in Saigon. We stop for photos at certain places such as Vinh Ty market in Chalon. Mr Tung, takes our pictures from his camera, and sends our photos by email afterwards.
Stop # 2 is another place packed with locals located in another district of Saigon. Here we get to eat grilled goat breast, shrimp & okra; whole frog gulf down with banana wine. Ramon is enjoying all the attention and pampering from his driver, Ming (?), I think that’s her name. I’m jealous, but not of her. Bong, my driver is not giving me the same attention and not feeding me well. We talk the entire duration of our tour, giving her chance to practice her English and learn more vocabularies. I receive the best compliment, when she says I’m a good teacher, and suggests I should teach English language in Vietnam. To which I reply, ” You should pay me then for this tour, instead of me paying.” She gets it, my joke. Did’nt I tell you she’s smart?
Stop #3 is for seafood: grilled scallops on shell with peanuts & chopped greens; clams steamed with lemon grass & ginger; grilled quails and for desserts, coconut flan & the best, unique dessert, coconut jello served inside a whole coconut shell …sooo good!
Around 9:30pm we are back at our hotel, with big smiles and full tummies. What an enjoyable & fun evening. We hug, say our thank you’s and slip tips into their hands. They look, then both gave us, even bigger smiles.
March 7: Mekong Delta Cruise-Cantho
Today we go to Mekong Delta for a private tour and spend overnight in Cantho (pre-arranged with Mrs Nhung of Tonkin travel). The pick up from our hotel is scheduled at 7:30am, but due to some confusions, our departure is delayed. Our guide is looking for Spanish people because of our last name, and he did not hold up a large sign with our names. After looking around for almost 20 minutes, we find each other.
The Mekong Delta, often referred to as Vietnam’s rice basket, is the biggest rice-growing region in the country. Despite being a predominantly rural region, the Mekong Delta is one of the most densely populated areas in Vietnam and most of the land is under cultivation. Other delta products include coconut, sugar cane, fruit and fish.
We arrived in My Tho, one of the main delta town, and go visit a Cao Dao temple. Our original itinerary is to visit this temple at noon time to witness their ceremony where its worshippers wear different color robes. But we made changes to our schedule and come here first in the morning. The inside of the temple is very ornate and colorful; with interesting architecture and the “Eye” at the center of the altar. Cao Dao is a Vietnamese religious movement with a strongly nationalist political character. Cao Dai draws upon ethical precepts from Confucianism, occult practices from Taoism, theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism, and a hierarchical organization (including a pope) from Roman Catholicism. Its pantheon of saints includes such diverse figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen.
After the temple, we go to the boat terminal and transfer to a beautiful boat privately hired just for us. We start our cruise on the Mekong river.
We then transfer to a sampan (a smaller boat) to go on small waterways and stop at some villages.
The village is so pretty with many blooming flowers, tropical fruit-growing trees and souvenir shops. We get to see coconut candy making factory, and taste free samples of different flavors. There is also a performance, locals from the village sing Vietnamese songs accompanied while we drink tea.
Our tour includes a short bike ride around the village, but realize we can’t ride our bicycle safely. We are unable to control the bike, going on zigzag fashion & ends up abandoning it, a few times to avoid falling on a ditch or in the bushes. We end up “walking our bike, instead of riding our bike”, so embarrassing! Our guide is very understanding and arranged for our bikes to be taken back to our boat. We ride on a carriage driven by a horse to take us to the end of the village.
We get on another boat to cruise the waterways in Ben Tre. Ben Tre is less visited by tourists, and surrounded by many islands with coconut trees. We stop at a rice making factory, at my request, before we head to lunch. We did not see the process in progress, only the finished products and surprise they come in different flavors (sesame seed, banana, etc). I get a package of banana flavored ones to eat and share with our guide & boat operator as we are getting hungry.
Our boat takes us on an island for lunch, which is well-developed to cater for loads of tourist, as well as locals. It is huge with plenty of tables & chairs. I see locals having hot pots, but for tourist, the standard meal is served. Lunch is included in our tour, but drinks are extra. Our meal consists of fried “Elephant Ear Fish”, fried spring rolls, noodles & soup. The best dish is the deep-fried Elephant ear fish, which is crispy on the outside, but tender inside. A server wearing gloves takes the meat off the bones, add vermicelli, mint & basil to make spring rolls, dip it in a fish sauce, then to your mouth. My hubby dissected the fish to take all the meat until what’s left is a skeleton of bones.
Day trippers go to My Tho to see and experience cruising on Mekong Delta river, have lunch and return to HCMC. If you have time, it is better to do the 2D/1N tour as it is more pleasant and you get to go to Ben Tre which is less crowded and nicer. Other tours go to Cai Be to see floating market, but go to Cai Rang which is better.
We stayed at Kim Tho hotel for our overnight in Cantho city. Our room (#608) is clean, with modern décor, and a view of the Mekong river. Location is convenient, close to the park alongside the river, walking distance to many restaurants and the night market; plus the boat station.
Since we arrived in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, HCMC , I have been taking two showers per day, due to heat & humidity, dirt, I feel so uncomfortable. It’s no different in Cantho. After my 2nd shower of the day (psst…hubby only takes one per day), we head off to explore Cantho. We stroll along the river, spot young couples out on dates (obvious), local families eating & relaxing , children playing. The street is full of food carts selling Vietnamese dishes, fruits eggs, grilled corns, boiled peanuts. You can also have manicure and pedicure right there on the streets.
At the night market, hubby gets a custom cut, punched holes adjusted to his waist, leather belt to replace his old Yippy! As night falls, the main street gets crowded & busy with pedestrians & motorbikes. Our stomach growling, we find Nam Ho restaurant to have dinner. The restaurant , recommended by our tour guide , serves Vietnamese & Western dishes, prepared w/ hygienic standards , thus safe for tourists. No wonder the place is packed with foreigners, and prices are moderate to expensive. My hubby ordered the 5-course fixed menu: pumpkin flower soup, spring rolls, fried calamari, pork stewed in a clay pot with coconut, vegetables, steam rice & choice of dessert, fresh fruit salad or coconut ice cream. While everything is good, the pumpkin flower soup is to die for. It’s made with clear, very flavorful broth loaded with mushrooms, pumpkin flowers and bits of chopped beef. Initially not feeling very hungry, I order only spring rolls but after tasting the soup; ask our waiter to bring another bowl for me.
March 8: Cai Rang and Pho Dien Floating market
We are ready when Kun, our tour guide, arrived at our hotel at 5:30am. We walk for few minutes to get to the boat station, board a medium sized beautiful wooden boat, hired privately so we are the only passengers. It is lovely to watch sunshine while cruising on the Mekong Delta River.
As the sun rises the daily life on the delta river is exposed; fishing, washing clothes, transporting goods and people. It is evident Mekong Delta River provides the lifeline and main source of livelihood for the locals.
We see homes on stilts, built with scraps of woods, plastic, aluminum. There are nice homes built with concrete, complete w/ gardens & nice landscaping; obviously a clear contrast between the poor & ugly and the rich & beautiful.
The main reason tourists go to Cantho is to see the over 100 yrs old tradition of Floating markets, and the best, and largest is in Cai Rang, a wholesale market, which is a thirty minute boat ride from the city. The boats have poles and hang item(s) to show what they sell. It is best to go early in the morning to observe all the action, or you’ll miss most activity if you arrived late. We approach one of the boats to buy pineapple, which is peeled so we enjoy eating right away…. sweet & juicy.
The other floating market is in Pho Dien, a smaller one with about 15 boats and sells retail. It is about an hour boat ride from Cantho; and you have to come even much earlier, or selling is over by 9:00am. Boats here are small and carry lighter loads of items to sell.
After visiting the floating markets, we go back to our hotel for breakfast and head back to HCMC. We make a stop at Mekong Restaurant for bathroom and/or lunch break. Our tour guide reminds us to bring our camera, and I see why. The landscaping of the restaurant is very nice; there’s a lotus pond, colorful bougainvillas and many flowers & trees. This place is famous for their “sticky rice” that looks like a ball when fried.
We took only overnight bags to Mekong Delta, so we pick our stored luggage and check back in at Sheraton Saigon Hotel. They upgraded us to a junior suite, again, without extra costs. Thank you very much, I’m loving it! We go to Club Lounge for dinner; and skip our plan to go up to the club on the 23rd floor for our free drinks, we are exhausted!
March 9: HCMC – Hue
We feel good and refreshed this morning, and have breakfast at the Club Lounge. I have their Pho and Congee, which I really like. Food choices served buffet style at the Club are limited, but enough to fill you up. On the way back to our room, Ramon mentions there’s a letter that was slipped into our room, and hands it to me. I find out that for breakfast, we have options to go to the Club Lounge or at the Saigon Cafe. What the heck, we just ate breakfast! How could we have missed this great opportunity? I read that buffet breakfast at Saigon Cafe is awesome and at $25 usd per person is worth the price. We have about 30 minutes before our transport pick up to the airport, so we quickly head to Saigon Cafe. I just want to see and agonize more….
From the south, we head towards the central part of Vietnam and fly to Hue this morning. Good bye Ho Chi Minh, hello to the Imperial City of Hue.