Cao Dai, Cu Chi Tunnels, and NYE in Saigon!

On our second day in Ho Chi Minh we decided to venture outside the city to see the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai temple.  Because we were new to the region and unsure of the transportation situation, we decided to book a tour through our hostel the night before for the sake of convenience.

We were up and ready to go at about 8:00am and the bus picked us up around 8:30.  The tour bus we were on was mostly full but we were still able to find seats next to each other and we were also given free bottles of water.  The bus ride was about 2.5 hours west of Saigon to the Cao Dai temple.  The ride was smooth (except for the small Vietnamese boy who got sick next to us 😦 ) and we only stopped once at a rest stop which was a warehouse full of crafts made by handicapped people affected by Agent Orange.  We got to walk through and watch them working which was very humbling and if you didn’t want to purchase anything, there was a donation box in the front.

This was also our first encounter with the “hole in the ground” toilets that your relatives who have never actually been to the country love to ‘warn’ you about.  If you’ve ever been camping (like real camping, not in a tent next to a bathroom) you can handle this.  You don’t have to touch anything, it’ll be fine.  They even had toilet paper.

The ceremony was starting just as we arrived at Cao Dai.  There were guards on either side of the front entrance showing people where to walk.  You have to take your shoes off before entering and it’s respectful to have your shoulders and knees covered.

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Our tour guide really liked throwing West sides.
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The gate into Cao Dai
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Walking toward the temple
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Nicole just inside the gate

The inside was even more ornate than the outside, and absolutely stunning.  The only weird part was that the temple was packed with people, so the tourists were practically walking on top of the attendees.  I imagine that is a common occurrence, as they didn’t seem to really notice.  There’s also something that feels a little disrespectful about gawking and taking pictures during a religious ceremony, but we did our best to respect their practice and be grateful for the opportunity to sit in on something so sacred.

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Mural in the front entrance of the temple

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Cao Dai is a relatively new religious movement in Vietnam that combines concepts and practices of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity.  You can read more about it here.

 

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Cao Dai Rooftop
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Beautiful pillars in Cao Ddai

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After exploring the temple, we walked back outside and explored the rest of grounds which were equally stunning.

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(It was very bright.)
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Jojo admiring the architecture
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Beautiful landscaping!

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After about an hour we got back on the bus and headed back eastward toward the Cu Chi tunnels.  We stopped at a small town restaurant on the side of the road for some (entirely too expensive) food and we couldn’t resist getting a coconut.  Touristy: yes.  Delicous: yes.  We watched our waitress crack it open right before bringing it to our table.

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Jojo hanging out by the road
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The restaurant where we stopped.
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Fresh coconut water and a Bia Saigon (Saigon Beer)

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After that we were back on the road to the tunnels.  First we walked through the battlefield area and saw the tiny openings above ground where the Vietnamese would pop up and shoot at the enemy.  It was shocking how small some of them are!  We also saw some examples of the terrifying booby traps they would set, most of which involved sharpened bamboo sticks.  There is also a shooting range next to the tunnels where you can shoot semi-automatics weapons.  It was eery walking through the jungle and listening to rapid gunfire, and it definitely added another layer of intensity to the experience.

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B52 Bomb Crater
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Underneath the booby trap
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Booby trap waiting to be stepped on
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Tunnel Entrance
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One of the tiny openings from the tunnel that the Vietnamese would use to fire at the enemy

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Then we got to actually go down into the tunnels.  At first we could easily just duck our heads and walk, but as we went on, the tunnel got smaller and smaller until we were crawling on our hands and knees, and it was a pretty tight squeeze in some areas.  It also got really hot down there, so it was a relief to finally make it to the end.  Another humbling experience to think about people actually living down there and having to crawl through them regularly!

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This tour was not terrible as far as feeling too touristy and herded around, but we decided that we probably wouldn’t be taking any more tours and just do things on our own from now on.  The convenience factor is nice but you sacrifice a lot of the integrity of the experience.  It’s also not that difficult to get where you want to go in Vietnam.  You could literally walk around showing people a piece of paper with your destination written on it and they will help you get there (or at least point you toward someone who will.)

We hopped back on the bus and arrived back in Ho Chi Minh at about 6:30pm.  Still jetlagged, we went back to our room and tried to muster up some energy to hold us over into the evening.  It was New Year’s Eve, afterall.  Each night our hostel gave us each 2 free beer tickets, which we had not taken advantage of the night before.  Thus, we had 8 free beer tickets to use for the celebration.  We went up to the 9th floor of our hostel which had a rooftop bar overlooking the city.  It was packed with intoxicated backpackers and promised a night of debauchery, but we opted to chug our free beers (then buy a few more) and venture out into the city instead.

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Jojo trying out one of the free exercise machines scattered throughout the park

 

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View from the rooftop bar

 

The streets are always full of motorbikes in Saigon, but this night the streets were literally full of motorbikes in Saigon.  We had to step over and in between motos until we worked our way up to the front of the 23/9 park.  Caught in the middle of a sea of people and blinking LED lights, we counted down to midnight and watched the fireworks off the Bitexco Financial Tower, along with millions of other visitors and locals of Saigon.  The energy was high, the vibes were good.  There’s something about celebrating New Year’s Eve out on the street that makes it just a little more energizing.  We bought and played with a Vietnamese Foot Shuttlecock, walked back to our hostel in a blur of hiccups (the mark of a successful NYE), reminded each other that this was the coolest thing ever, and proceeded to pass out.

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NYE Selfie
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Fireworks!
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The park full of people and motos on NYE

 

 

Tea: 25,000vnd ($1.17 USD)

2-Cao Dai/Cu Chi Tour: 380,000vnd ($17.77 USD)

Lunch: 180,000vnd ($8.42 USD)

2-Cu Chi Entrance Fee: 180,000vnd ($8.42)

Beer: 180,000vnd ($8.42)

Shuttlecock: 20,000vnd ($0.94 USD)

Private Room: 625,535vnd ($29.25 USD)

Total Spent: 1,590,535vnd ($74.37USD)

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Into the Unknown – Exploring Saigon

After a much needed horizontal sleep, we were up and ready to go see Saigon at about 7am.  Our hostel, Vietnam Inn Saigon, offered a very adequate complementary breakfast, served on their rooftop bar (fantastic view!), which we happily indulged in.  They had several options including fried eggs, scrambled eggs, toast, and fresh fruit plates.  Jojo also got an iced coffee which was strangely thick and sweet, resembling a porter more than a Western-styled coffee.  It was delicious all the same!

Our first destination was the War Remnants Museum.

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Jojo standing next to a US aircraft from the Vietnam War
Jojo standing next to a US aircraft from the Vietnam War

This museum is significantly (yet not surprisingly) different than the US Vietnam War Memorial.  There is a heavy concentration on the aggression and war crimes committed by the US including disturbing images of Vietnamese people affected by Agent Orange and Napalm, letters to and from people in the US government, and anti-war demonstrations all over the world.  They also have a lot of military equipment, weaponry, and uniforms.  The building itself is very large with multiple levels and beautiful landscaping and open-air architecture.

Nicole in front of War Remnants Museum
Nicole in front of War Remnants Museum

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Origami Necklaces from the war
Origami Necklaces from the war

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Next, we headed to Nha Hang Ngon for lunch.  The draw here is that there are a ton of local street food vendors that all work in this restaurant.  They are lined up on the side of the patio, each making their signature dishes, and you can walk along the path and watch them.  The prices are pretty decent here (and are fixed.) We ordered 2 bowls of Pho and a beer, totaling 144,000vnd. The drawback is that this place is pretty touristy (like all destinations featured on Lonely Planet.)  We were happy with our experience-the patio is full of beautiful plants and it was nice to escape the obligation of haggling, due to the fixed prices.

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Jojo enjoying his Pho

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After lunch, we just roamed around for a while and found ourselves at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.  Another site with impressive landscaping and architecture, the museum was opened after the death of President Ho Chi Minh and houses many documents, photos, and artifacts collected from his time as the leader of Vietnam.

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Jojo on the balcony of the HCM Museum
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Nicole on the balcony of the HCM Museum
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Underneath the HCM Museum

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We spent the rest of the day walking all around Saigon getting lost, found, and lost again.  Motorbikes are a very common mode of transportation in Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh is absolutely full of them.  To cross the street you just walk with a purpose and they fly all around you, anticipating your movement.  It’s a little nerve-racking at first, but it’s actually quite impressive how smoothly the traffic flows.  Sometimes we would see families of four riding on one motorbike!  We walked along big roads and ducked down alley ways, admiring the architecture and people-watching.  One thing we found very interesting is how open the apartments are.  A lot of the time you can see right into their dining and living rooms, as the doors are often left wide open.

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View from our hostel

 

As evening fell, we stopped for street food and squatted on tiny stools while eating roast chicken and pork with rice.  We sat and watched as the woman who served us stood next to the street, cooking everything on a tiny portable stove.  We ended the day with a beer on Pham Ngu Lao, watching people, cars, and motorbikes fly all around us.

 

Iced Coffee: 25,000vnd

2x War Remnant Museum: 30,000vnd ($1.40 USD)

Lunch at Nha Hang Ngon : 144,000vnd ($6.73 USD)

2x Ho Chi Minh Museum: 30,000vnd ($1.40 USD)

Dinner: 100,000vnd ($4.68 USD)

Private Room: 625535vnd ($29.25 USD)

Total Spent: 954,535vnd = $44.63 USD

Cincinnati to Saigon – Welcome to Vietnam!

At last, the long awaited day had come!  We had been saving up for almost a year, packed 99% of our belongings into storage, and mentally prepared ourselves for a long, indefinite journey to Southeast Asia.  The last few of our possessions were loaded into our backpacks, just small enough to fit Delta’s carry-on requirement; losing track of everything we effectively own just wasn’t worth the luxury of not lugging them around the airport.  And thus, we embarked!

We started with a 5 hour flight from Cincinnati to Seattle, a 2 hour layover, 11.5 hours to Seoul, another 2 hour layover, then another 5 hours to Ho Chi Minh City.  With a grand total of 25.5 hours plus losing 12 hours with the time change, our travel time was long, but pretty seamless!  We got delayed in Seattle but we thankfully had enough time in Seoul that it didn’t affect the rest of our itinerary.

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Our first few experiences in Saigon were a bit rocky.  As soon as we stepped out of the airport, we were immediately approached by multiple people offering us taxi rides.  We haggled with the first driver down to 400,000 vietnamese dong (14USD) which was a pretty bad deal, but after many hours of travel and it being 1:00 in the morning, we didn’t have a ton of energy to argue.

We put our backpacks in the trunk of the car and got in, but when the driver pulled up to the end of the parking lot, he stopped, turned around, and asked us for what sounded like “5 dong” to exit the parking lot.  Not only was this confusing because 5 dong is not even convertible-because it is essentially nothing-but the smallest bills we had on us were 20,000s.  As we were trying to understand what he was asking for, he started saying “half dollar.”  We asked if he wanted coins, but that seemed to further the confusion, at which point he started reaching for our money and attempting to grab it out of our hands “to show us” what he needed.  The vibes in this taxi were getting pretty sketchy so we decided to bail.  Luckily he let us out and let us get our bags with no further issue.  We walked back across to the taxi area and haggled another one down to 300,000vnd.  This was still not a great deal (should be about 200,000vnd for where we were going), but no sketchiness and we actually got to our destination this time.  Yay!

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We arrived at our hostel, Vietnam Inn Saigon, which we had booked in advance because of the timing (didn’t want to risk not having a place to stay in a huge city during NYE, nor did we feel like walking around at 1:00am looking for a place when we got there.)  We decided to splurge on a private room for the holiday and celebrate our first few days in Vietnam.

As we are standing at the reception desk to check in, another guest runs in frantically and tells the employees that he had just escaped an attempted robbery.  He explained that he had hopped on a moto (you can pay for a ride on a motorbike here, same as taxis) and had the driver take him to an ATM so that he could pay him.  When he got off the bike, the driver told him to give him all of his money, that he had a gun, and that he would shoot him if he tried to run away.  Apparently he ran away anyway, and thankfully was unharmed.  Between this and our scuffle with the taxi driver at the airport, this wasn’t the greatest first impression of a city we had ever received, but it wasn’t enough to put us off.

We retired up to our surprisingly lovely private room with huge windows overlooking the city.  We finally got to lay down and have a moment to reflect, (we’re in Vietnam!!!!) and fell almost instantly to sleep.

2 Vietnam Visas: 3,100,000vnd ($144.96USD)

Taxi from airport: 300,000vnd ($14.03 USD)

2-1.5 liters of H2O: 30,000vnd ($1.40 USD)

Private Room: 641,571vnd ($30 USD)

Day 1 Total Spending: 4,071,571vnd ($190.39 USD)