Saturday, October 13, 2018

Cruising the Mekong River

Trip date: December 2017

We were leaving Ho Chi Minh City and heading to the Mekong River where we had booked a private charter with Mekong Eyes. A mini van picked us up at our Airbnb and in 2 hours we arrived at our boat, Dragon Eyes 2, in Can Tho on the Mekong Delta.

The boat was much nicer than we had expected! There was a formal library/sitting room, 2 staterooms each with their own bathroom, a fantastic upper deck with lounge chairs, a covered dining area as well as an uncovered one.

We were welcomed on board with drinks and soon after we set sail our steward spent some time explaining where we were going (Cambodia) and what we would be seeing along the way. I was super excited! We had some time to relax and watch the life of the river before lunch.
Our lunch was fantastic! It started with a whole fried fish that we picked the meat from and used to make our own fresh spring rolls, being advised by our steward.
This was followed by some delicious grilled chicken served with rice and vegetables. We were really pleasantly surprised by the meal! After lunch we spent some more time on our lounge chairs, napping and reading. It was so relaxing. And the scenery was pretty incredible.

As our boat passed various villages, little kids ran to the riverbanks yelling HELLO!!! Most likely the only English they knew and excited to see foreigners sailing by. Seems like they had the schedule down pretty well!

Late in the afternoon we made our first stop in one of the tiny villages.  We were led off the boat and crossed the river on a pedestrian/motorbike ferry, it probably could have held a car but I doubt that anyone in the area owned one.

We were welcomed by a local family to explore their home, which had a mini farm of goats and pigs onsite, as well as fighting cocks, and a bath where snakes, frogs, and fish were kept for cooking. The house was plain from the outside but pretty modern when we peeked in.
From here we continued through the village and out to a rice paddy where we watched one of the villagers seeding. The color green was so beautiful!

Before heading back onto the boat we were given a little information on the local church's religion of Cao Dai. And then it was cocktail hour aboard the boat, while we continued sailing along at sunset. They made us gin and tonics and set out some fresh fruit, coconut, and spicy peanuts.
We were seated outside for dinner and were served another fantastic meal of dumpling soup, shrimp and bamboo salad, and a stirfry. I'm pretty sure we drank them out of wine!

We were up bright and early the next morning for breakfast, a big spread of scrambled eggs, toast,  juice, coffee, and platters of fresh tropical fruit. Then we had another 2 hour sail, the river was very quiet early in the morning.

We came to another village and said good-bye to the Dragon Eyes 2. We were transferred, along with our luggage, to a smaller traditional style boat, and taken to the Tan Phong islet, where we transferred again into sampans, for a tour of the canals, rowed by villagers.

After reboarding our smaller boat, we cruised along to the Cai Be floating market. Just like your normal farmers market, with vegetable, juice, soup, cookware vendors, only all the vendors here were working off their boats. It was small but pretty interesting!

Our last stop on the Mekong River was a factory where locals were making coconut candy and rice paper wrappers. None of us were very interested to be honest, but we were polite and followed our guide in. The stop ended up being really interesting, and the candy delicious. It was so cool to see how they made everything, but especially the rice paper, a brand that I buy here in Seattle, being made and then dried on bamboo racks outside next to the river!

We weren't at our final destination yet, but we were leaving this part of the Mekong River sadly. A van arrived to pick us up at the dock in Cai Be and we loaded in for the next part of our adventure.

All photos from the Mekong River here.

Other posts from this trip:
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two

Trip date: December 2017

Continuing my top ten (1-5 are in Part One, here)

6. Drink on a rooftop bar.

I don't think I've ever been to a city that has more rooftop bars. They are really a thing in HCMC! The first one we checked out was Social Club on top of the Hotel des Arts Hotel. They have a long G&T menu, pairing different gins with tonics that they feel are complimentary, fantastic city views, and a scary glass bridge that you can cross, 25-floors up. It's a bit posh and definitely more expensive than other places we drank at but we had a great afternoon up there.
More casual was the oddly named Broma Not A Bar. It took us a bit to find the building, marked only by its address, and then work our way up the dark interior stairs to the roof. But the bar has good views of Nguyen Hue Street, is very comfortable, and had a large craft beer list as well as cocktails.
The Caravelle Hotel rooftop bar is well known for being the bar to correspondents during the Vietnam War. The bar has a good menu of drinks, and has both inside and outside options. 

As we were there during the holidays the hotel also had some large and very fun gingerbread displays, including a replica of the hotel itself!

7. Ride a motorcycle.

One night our group decided to take a "Back of the Bike Food Tour". Ho Chi Minh City is huge with over 10 million people and 8 million bikes. Roads are jammed packed with bikes and intersections don't always have signals. Crossing the road can be a death-defying act. So we were all a bit nervous, and a bit excited, to zoom around the city on the back of a motorbike.

We were picked up at our Airbnb and set out for the night. Our tour was 3-hours and our drivers were mainly college students, they were super friendly, fun, and great to chat with.

I started out so nervous that my guide joked I had "very strong thighs"! haha! There was more than one intersection where we came very close to having a collision. But that's kinda the way it is in Saigon!

We made five different stops, all over town, and at each one we were served drinks and the specialty of the house. Everything was delicious and our guides also sat with us and showed us how locals would dress and eat each item.

We tried goi du du bo (traditional green papaya salad with dried beef liver and prawn crackers), cut chien bo (fried quail with pickled mango), bun cha Hanoi (grilled pork meatballs, crispy spring rolls, sliced pork belly with rice noodles, herbs, and fish broth), banh xeo (crispy rice flour crepe with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts), and a selection of desserts of fruit, ice cream, and sticky rice combinations.

Our friend James got to try making banh xeo, and at this particular stop you could try balut eggs also. These are the eggs containing a partially developed fetus. I chose not too but I think Forest did?

At the end of our trip, our guides nicely offered to drop us off at the cocktail bar we were going to. And I was definitely in need of a cocktail!
It was a fantastic tour, I highly recommend!

8. Get some history

Vietnam's history here can be a little overwhelming. As can trying to understand this one-of-five still communist governments in the world. I have only been to communist Cuba before, which is much more traditional with its lack of capitalist businesses, ration-carded locals, and a government which is still very much feared. Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world right now, which I don't generally associate with communism.

We started our trip with a nice walk around the city, and it was easy to spot the communist flag flying from all government buildings. We strolled past the Reunification Palace, the site of the end of the Vietnam war when a North Vietnam tank crashed through it's front gates.

From here we walked to Notre Dame Cathedral, and then into the big old beautiful central post office.
We continued on to the Hotel de Ville, and then into the pretty city park where the statue of Ho Chi Minh stands.
Another day we all met up at the War Remnants Museum which chronicles the support from other countries of Vietnam as well as the war crimes of the Chinese and Americans against the Vietnamese during the war. It's not for the faint of heart and I had to cut my visit short after about an hour.

There are also displays of bombs used on the country, and planes, helicopters, tanks, etc. that were captured or left after the war.

9. Drink coffee

Vietnam is known for their coffee and for good reason. Served hot it typically arrives with a traditional single brewing filter. Served iced, I had mine with regular milk, but condensed milk gives you a decadent caffeinated buzz.

Caitlin and I went shopping at one of Nguyen Coffee retail shops so that we could bring home bags of beans. They also sell the little tin pour over contraptions.

One morning we made our way to L’Usine cafe. This part boutique/part cafe, served up excellent coffee. We also had a delicious brunch here. It wasn't a cheap & cheerful type of spot but it was very good and it's in a cool building.

In the backpackers district, near our spa, we checked out The Note Coffee. The baristas spent about 15 minutes asking us all sorts of questions regarding how we wanted our coffee order. We were served delicious coffee, with cute little notes attached, at a ridiculous expensive price. The free WiFi almost made it worth it.

10. Go to the market.

Ben Thanh Market sits right in the center of District 1 and is bustling with every type of good you could want. Clothes, household items, produce, meat, flowers... it's all here. We stopped in one afternoon in search of a snack and were confronted with way too many options. We chose to sit at a very small stall that was being run by 3 women, and the specialty seemed to be all manner of mollusk. Not on ice.
We went for the safer items of bo lot and bun cha  with a few beers. But the displays of shells were impressive and they had a lot of customers ordering. I was just amazed that the 3 women were able to prep, cook, and do dishes in a space the size of my bedroom closet!

It was really hot that afternoon and it was sweltering in the market so we only did a quick browse after our snack but it's an awesome market for sure.
There is also the Ben Thanh Street Food Market which happens at night. It's a great atmosphere with all sorts of food stalls, communal picnic tables, and is very tourist friendly. In fact, I doubt there were any locals but it was perfect for our group as we could all get whatever we wanted and sit together with a bunch of Tiger beers.

I was after banh khot, tiny savory rice flour "pancakes". I found them and got a delicious variety order of them, as well as had some great bo lot  and a good banh mi.  It was also a very fun atmosphere.

Farther away in the Cholon district, we visited the Binh Tay Market. This area is called Chinatown and the market is massive! When we were there, the main building was under construction so stalls were in long, narrow, temporary buildings. Each one seemed to be selling the same things; one of kitchen products, one of candy, one of Chinese New Year decorations. The walk way down the middle was hardly there!

When we were able to find a proper walkway we had to jump out of the way of motorbikes and dodge street food vendors. It was a madhouse and very claustrophobic! It was also unlike any market I have ever been to (which is a LARGE number!).

The Cholong neighborhood was also an absolute sea of traffic. Just the noise was confusing to the senses! Buses, taxis, cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, all jammed together with no streetlights or crosswalks. It was crazy!

I'd recommend going to this market and area but I would actually hire a private guide to lead.

We found that there was so much to do, see, and eat in Ho Chi Minh City that we never got outside of it for any day trips. I absolutely loved this huge bustling city and hope to get back to explore more.

All HCMC photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One
Cruising the Mekong River

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One

Trip date: December 2017

Our annual New Year's Eve trip was to Cambodia, but we decided to start in Vietnam and take a slow boat there; literally, more on that later.
I had a very long, albeit comfortable flight, on Korean Air in Prestige Class (business class to you and I). I left Seattle at 4:30pm on Dec 23rd and arrived in Seoul, Korea Dec 24 9pm. Thankfully I had taken full advantage of the delicious champagne, Korean dinner (bibimbap at 30,000 feet!), and lay flat bed.

I then had an unexpected 7-hour layover due to fog conditions at the Incheon airport. I met up with Forest and Thibault briefly before their flight to HCMC departed. We were supposed to meet our friend James in the airport too but he had not realized the need for a visa to travel to Vietnam and was refused check-in. It's a 3-day process to get a visa so he wouldn't end up meeting us until the 26th. I had used this site to get mine and just printed it off without a problem.

It was late and everything was closed so I mainly just hung out in the Korean Air lounge. My flight finally left at 4am! I was one of only 3 passengers in the Prestige cabin, and slept soundly in my pod the entire flight.

I finally landed in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly referred to as Saigon (and also now what the Vietnamese millennials tend to call it). On the advice of our Airbnb,  I prepaid a taxi thru Song Viet into town. They have a desk right as you exit baggage claim and it cost me about $12.

As soon as I was in my taxi I looked at my phone and for the first time in many, many trips saw that  I had zero service.

1. Be ready to be unplugged or get a SIM card.

I’ve been to a lot of places on my unlimited data plan and honestly I can’t remember the last time I had no service. And it wasn’t just me. My friends from France and England had no service either. This meant that once we left our wifi enabled Airbnb we had no access to Google, Maps, or even text! ZERO! We learned quickly not to leave home without a paper (!!!) map and a plan, as well as a meeting point if we got separated. But even then, things happen when you are in a foreign country, and sometimes the place you planned to meet at is closed for holiday. Sorry, can’t text your friends and make a new plan. Must instead wait until everyone arrives and then regroup.

Buy a local chip. You will thank me.

2. Download Grab.

It’s HCMC’s version of Uber. Since we didn't speak Vietnamese, being able to type in our destination address made it much easier for both the driver and for us. The only challenge was that if we were out and about, we needed to find a spot with wifi to call Grab. Not having to dig around for cash was great too. The one time we caught a taxi on the street we asked if he took Visa as there was a logo on his car and he said yes. But when we went to pay he said no. This led to a pretty heated argument as we didn't have enough money and there weren't any cash machines around.

Be forewarned that if you are solo you may get a motorbike ride share!

3. Get a massage.

Southeast Asia is a spa girl’s dream. And I’m not talking about the happy ending kind, although those are to be found if that is your thing. Forest, Caitlin, and I had a massage pretty much every day.

The first day we went to the backpacker district and checked out a cheap and cheerful option at Hoang Thy Spa. For $7 we had a 60 minute full body massage. Granted, it was in a bare bones communal room, but these girls gave us the full treatment, including walking on our backs! We all ended up having manicures too.

The next day James joined us and we checked out My Spa in District 1. This was much more posh and traditional, with robes, slippers, and heavy draped partitions between clients. And the massage was good and included hot rocks. But at $7 more (LOL) we decided to head back to our backpackers special the next day. This time we added in a hair wash with blow out. We are super fancy like that.

Spa/salons are the only place where tipping is customary and you should plan on leaving 20%.

4. Eat street food.

I know that scares a lot of people but the street food and literal hole in the walls served us much better food than the restaurants we went to. On our first day we had an absolutely fantastic lunch at Banh Xeo 46A (also the address). The women in the open-air kitchen had large woks, smoking hot over coal fueled burners. We ordered the “special” banh xeo (pork and de-shelled shrimp), egg rolls, some noodles, and a couple rounds of beers. All for about $5 per person. The Vietnamese crepes were huge and absolutely delicious. Highly recommend.

One night while in District 8, randomly trying to track down a Christmas light display, we walked past a little entry way that smelled amazing. There was a man with a portable gas stove cooking… well we didn’t know what it was but everyone sitting in the open room was eating it so we ordered. Turned out to be bot chien, a dish of fried rice flour cakes topped with fried egg, some scallions, crushed peanuts, and a bit of crispy pork. Delicious!

Across from our spa in the backpacker’s district, the girls and I enjoyed an awesome breakfast of bo ne, or pan fried steak and eggs, served with a smear of pate and a baguette. We dug in, from our tiny plastic stools just out of the way of the street, twice in four days.
Street food carts are all over the city and I rarely really knew what they were selling. But sometimes it is fun just to buy, taste, and find out for yourself if you like it or not. Worse case scenario is you spend a few baht and toss whatever it is out. 

5. Drink cocktails

Saigon is certainly not known for having a big cocktail scene but we found some really good lounges. And a few mediocre ones.

At Eon Heli Bar, on the 51st floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, you will absolutely have the best views of the city. The drinks however are basic at best. So go for sunset and maybe just get a glass of wine.

Quite the opposite is Snuff Box, a speakeasy hidden in an old crumbling building in District 1. Once we found the right door we were all surprised at how pretty it was inside.
The menu has a great selection of classic cocktails as well as interesting house creations. The only reason we didn't stay longer was they do allow smoking inside and unfortunately the table near us was taking full advantage.

Not as hard to find was Alley Cocktail Bar, which also had a great Happy Hour! We had more than a few rounds of excellent drinks and also some good snacks. This is absolutely one of my top cocktails picks in HCMC. It's also non-smoking!

Our bartender at Alley had given us a short list of his favorite bars, so the next night we checked out The Gin House. As the name alludes, the menu is full of delicious drinks made primarily with gin and interesting gin infusions. Another spot I would recommend!

The Racha Room is pretty well known around town, and we made a stop one evening. It's actually a restaurant first, which we weren't aware of, and the night we were there the bar was packed. It was good but nothing out of the ordinary, I'd go back and try the food though.

Just next door we found the wooden door signalling the brand new speakeasy Firkin. Once up the stairs we found the small whiskey den, with approx. 500 bottles, to be excellent! Great selection, drinks, and service. A must stop!

The manager at Firkin nicely took us over to Layla for a nightcap. It's another bar where you have to first make your way through an old colonial building before entering a modern, cool space.
Layla has an outside area for smoking, but inside is smoke free. And they have a martini menu!

All HCMC photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two
Cruising the Mekong River