Friday, March 4, 2011

Scenes from Saigon

Four years ago, I had this great big plan to backpack alone through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  But life had other plans for me taking me to Singapore, Hong Kong and many other places in between.  So this year, when a budget airline went on sale with an irresistible price from Manila to Saigon, I grabbed the opportunity to fulfill this dream.  I am not impulsive in purchasing clothes, jewelry or tech gadgets. But this was definitely an impulse buy.  I’m happy to report that I never experienced buyer’s remorse at all for this purchase.  So armed with a 11-kilo suitcase, I began my journey.  

Lovely Vietnamese Ladies

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as most still prefer to call it was my first stop.  An aunt working in HCMC for the past 7 years kindly hosted me in her home in District 3,  right at the heart of the city.  The day began with a bowl of Pho Bo for breakfast with my aunt.  I had eaten this steaming bowl of beef noodles garnished with basil, fresh bean sprouts, and chili for lunch or dinner, but never for breakfast.

Despite only a few hours of sleep, I was armed and ready to battle the streets of Saigon on my own.  But first, I had to exchange my US dollars into Vietnamese Dong.

An instant millionaire!

While the US dollars are readily accepted in most shops, it is still best to carry the local currency for better bargaining power. My US $100 instantly made me millionaire. (Well 2,079,000.00 VND to be exact!)   The thrill of being a millionaire in this currency was short-lived. I immediately became confused with the many zeros and the many different colored bills.  I didn’t even receive a single coin during my stay there.

I headed straight to Ben Thanh Market, one of the oldest surviving structures of Saigon. It is a must stop for tourists buying souvenirs, local handicrafts, áo dài, and local cuisine.  The piles of spices, fruits, and plethora of coffee thrilled this foodie. Any lady can’t have enough bags, clothes or jewelry. This market offered heaps of these, too.  Lacquer decorative items are in abundance, dating back to a long tradition since 3rd or 4th BC in Vietnam.  But mustering my self-control, I resisted buying anything knowing I would have to carry my purchases with me to the next two cities.

Vietnam's extensive selection of coffee beans

Pho and cheap eats in the market

  Goi Cuon
I lost my way, but found solace in seeing my first book “Do’s and Don’ts in the Philippines” sold in this bookstore.

I continued my tour of Saigon on foot. I walked marveling at the street food sold around the city. Vietnamese office workers clustered together in tiny plastic stools, eating Pho and other local dishes right on the sidewalk.  I was baffled why the stools were pint sized.  But my thoughts were quickly swept away by the multitude of motorcycles zooming away.

The King of the road

Ho Chi Minh Musuem-lovely architecture

Street side small stools in abundance

For lunch, I was in the company of a plethora of tourists at Nha Hang Ngon, where the menu boasts of many pages of Vietamese food.  My choice was Nem Nuong Cuon Banh Trang, (Grilled Minced Pork Meatballs served with Rice Vermicelli, Rice Papers, and Vegetables). For all the walking, dodging mad motorcycles, and finding my way around the city, I deserved a caffeinated treat, cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee).  There’s nothing like bold Vietnamese coffee, sweet milk and lots of ice to wake up your senses.
Nem Nuong Cuon Banh Trang

Revitalized, I continued my walking tour admiring Notre Dame Cathedral, The Post Office, and a tour of the Reunification Palace.

The Post office 

Inside the Post office
Reunification Palace

Inside the Palace, gorgeous lacquer paintings 

But doing this all by foot, under Saigon’s hot sunny skies wore me out. Ready to call it a day, I was ready to climb into a cyclo to get me back to my aunt's place. But the persistent cyclo driver had other plans.  He convinced me to see the Emperor of Jade Pagoda. I hesitantly let him show me his town.  I feared for my safety he recklessly pedaled amidst a sea of motorcycles.  “If you can’t beat them, join them, I thought.” But I didn’t realize being in the midst of the mad road warriors was worse.
Most unflattering photo in a Cyclo
Motorcycle Madness

Emperor of Jade Pagoda

Shocking Pink Catholic Church, a discovery on our long walk
masks: a fashion statement or an essential accessory?
Vinh Nghiem Pagoda
the 7-story, 40m-high tower

Luckily, I met a fellow solo traveler, Rainier, backpacking from Switzerland.  Together, we continued my walking tour, making our way to two more Pagodas in Saigon.

In the evening, my aunt asked if was keen to try a local restaurant serving only one dish. “Yes!” She brought me to Cha Ca La Vong , a traditional Hanoi dish, a fitting prelude to my next destination, Hanoi. The turmeric catfish dish is cooked in a skillet in front of you, adding the dill and scallion.  In a  bowl, assemble the fish, mint leaves, noodles, fish sauce and peanuts and eat!

This simple and satisfying fish dish successfully managed to whet my appetite for delicious adventures for the next day. 

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All text and photos by Maida Pineda. Copyright2011.No portion of this blog may be reproduced without permission of the author.


  1. Looks like a great trip. Fabulous pictures, too, Maida. Thanks for sharing! Chris

  2. Looks like a great trip -- glad you enjoyed your adventure and got back safely. Thanks for sharing all the photos, Maida.

  3. Chris, thanks for reading the blog... Indeed it was wonderful adventure. Always revealing new truths, food, and people as I journey. Safe travels to you too!


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