Monday, April 27, 2009

Saigon to HCMC (2)

The international airport of HCMC is definitely larger than its current needs, and the new terminal 2 looks quite new and nice. But the management of the airport is rather lousy – only around 10 flights inbound and outbound per 6 hours, yet they need to change boarding gates and even ask the airplanes to hover in air waiting for the track!
Normally it shall take 30 min to travel between airport and District 1 by taxi, normally. Actually, you need to arrange for 1 hour for this trip, due to the heavy traffic jam. And there is no such thing like “Airport Expressway” – basically your cab will be overwhelmed by waves of scooters as soon as you turn out of the airport parking lot.

My hotel is good enough to let me check in at 9:30 am without any additional charge. But the so-called “tour desk” they put on their website is actually a “recommended tour agency”, named “Sinh CafĂ©”. Anyway this agency is quite big (they even have their own hotel and resort somewhere in Vietnam), and location is convenient (office @ Pham Ngu Lao is just one block away from my hotel), price also reasonable. They provide various tour packages from half-day HCMC city tour to 15-day Indo-China Peninsula Full Tour. You can even travel along the famous “Ho Chi Minh Path”, i.e. starting from Hanoi, entering Cambodia, and finally arriving HCMC, or vice versa. I picked a one-day tour which includes a half-day Cu Chi Tunnel tour and half-day HCMC city tour. The limo bus tour with tour guide only cost VND 170k (a.k.a. S$17 or US$11). If you got several companions, can try their private tour, which will provide you with a private tour guide and travel by vans or even cabs.

For myself, I chose two “focus areas” that would not be covered by the city tour for my own exploration: The People’s Committee Hall area and the ferry area.

From Pham Ngu Lao, walk towards north-east direction, you will see a big square with a statue in the middle. The main statue is of Tran Nguyen Han, but most travel books mistake it as “Tran Nguyen Hai”… He was recorded as the first Vietnamese that used pigeon as a communication tool in the war, so his statue is he riding on horseback with a pigeon in one hand.

North to this square is the largest and oldest market of HCMC, Ben Thanh Market, built by French in 19th century. It’s quite big inside, and also quite hot. Can savor it by buying some souvenirs. Not worthy spending too much time bargaining if you do not do wholesale.
From the square continue walking towards north-east, there are several paths leading to the People’s Committee Hall area.
The Hall itself is a logo of HCMC, built in European style. (In case you don’t understand, the “People’s Committee” is like the parliament plus mayor’s office, for there is no mayor here. Simply speaking, this is the City Hall of HCMC.)
Right opposite the Hall is a small park with the statue of Ho Chi Minh himself. (Actually his portraits and statues are everywhere in this city with his namesake.)
Beside the park is the famous Rex Hotel, which was the headquarter of foreign journalists during the Vietnam War. Although still a 5-star hotel today, it was rated as “old, out-of-date” on Internet. In case you wanna have some “historical” experience, the standard room price is starting from S$200 per night, quite OK actually.

At the other side of the park, the Opera House is only one block away. Again built by French, it is still in use today.

After a two-hour walking and photo-taking, I picked a local restaurant named “Pho 2000” (@ the Tran Nguyen Han square) for lunch. In Vietnamese “pho” means “rice noodle”, and the beef rice noodle soup is one of the most famous Vietnamese dishes. The biggest chain restaurant in HCMC is “Pho 24”, meaning selling pho 24-hourly. M & K are not popular in Vietnam, only several branches in HCMC.
In general Vietnamese food is quite healthy: less oil, less deep fry, and healthier sauce. My lunch consisting of a big bowl of beef rice noodle soup and ice coffee (local coffee is a must-try!) only cost me VND55k, quite reasonable in a hot travel spot.

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