We pulled into Saigon nearly 15 hours after leaving Kampot (Cambodia), and had spent the previous 6 hours contorting ourselves on a minibus like a tin of sardines from Chau Doc, after crossing the border with Cambodia at Ha Tien. Needless to say we were glad to arrive.
Our first and lasting impressions of Saigon are that it is a coffee lover’s paradise. At almost every turn you discover both locals and tourists sat on small plastic chairs, which are really only designed for children, next to low metal tables on the side of the road, sipping on coffee and watching the world go by (or more appropriately, scooters go by).
I’ve never been a coffee lover, and being from England I’m more of a tea fanatic. However, the coffee in Saigon won me over. My personal favourite was served iced, with condensed milk; it tasted milkier and sweeter than the coffee I had drunk in England. Tasting more like a milk shake but was incredibly delicious and addictive. We found a street stall which we made our ‘local’ for breakfast and we’d always wash our breakfast down with a glass of their iced coffee.
We stayed in Pham Ngu Lao, the main backpacker area in District 1 and so we were surrounded by cheap hotels, bars and restaurants. In the evenings the pavements on Mui Bien became lined with people sat on little plastic chairs drinking cheap grog, and at 12,000d – the equivalent to $0.60c for a saigon beer who can blame them. There is definitely something to be said about eating and drinking on pavement side; there is something very atmospheric about it, and it is a great place to undertake one of my favourite pastimes, people watching.
Whilst in Saigon, we popped into the barbers so Ben could get a quick haircut, although we emerged an hour later with more than we bargained for [see my photo essay here].
We also took a half day trip out to see the Cu Chi tunnels. We had an ex war veteran as a guide called Jackie who was definitely Jackie Chan’s lost brother. He kept repeating a number of phrases but not actually explaining anything useful, but he was a bit of a laugh. His favourite sayings that we seem to hear contently were:
“The Vietnamese love babies!”
“No tourist visit Vietnam for 4000 years”
“I was there, I know what the war was like”
On the way out of Saigon we stopped at a warehouse in a small village making all sorts of furniture and home decor and had the well rehearsed sales pitch, before carrying on to the tunnels. This warehouse was staffed by people with deformities caused by agent orange, so we thought we may purchase something to show our support. However, at those prices we thought again pretty fast. The things were nice but far to expensive. I believe if they made the prices far more reasonable more people would buy something. Maybe not, but all I know is no one brought anything from them on our bus. They had stacks and stacks of the stuff piled up in the shop so obviously they weren’t selling much to other tour buses either.
There are both original and tourist tunnels at the site, however most guides don’t seem to let you climb down the original tunnels, ours did. Three people volunteered to go down the original tunnels and they emerged with stories of bats, cockroaches and pitch blackness (it took them 5 minutes to crawl 5 metres due to the twists and turns).
We skipped the original tunnels for fear of never being seen again and climbed down the tourist tunnels, specifically made to give tourists an idea of what they were like, although they are wider than the original tunnels so that us fat tourists don’t get stuck. The tourist tunnels are also well lit, very clean and have many exits if you get scared!
At the site there are also examples of the boobie traps that were used in the Vietnam war, as well as examples of the underground living spaces such as a kitchen and a hospital. No one actually lived in the tunnels, they were only used to move around.
Considering it was only advertised as a half day tour, we didn’t arrive back in Saigon until 3pm and we were rather tired after spending two hours walking around the tunnels site listening to our guide repeat the same three phrases.
I hope after reading this, you’ll add Saigon to your list of places to visit and find your love of coffee.