For our first full day in Vietnam, we had a blast in Saigon. Together with our friend Luc visiting from Hong Kong, we walked around the city in the morning, visited the Independence Palace in the afternoon and enjoyed excellent Vietnamese food throughout the day.
We met with our friend Luc at 9:30 AM in our hotel’s lobby. Though he did not stay in our hotel, his was just across the street from ours (so close in fact that he claimed he could see our room from his window). The plan was for the three of us to grab breakfast outside but due to a last minute misunderstanding, he ended up having breakfast on his own before meeting us. We still sat down for breakfast however. We picked Trung Nguyen, a trendy coffee shop not far from our hotel. We tried Vietnamese iced coffee for the first time: delicious. Mimi and I also ordered eggs. They came smiling but were not happy.
After breakfast, we started walking in the direction of the Independence Palace which we wanted to visit after passing by a few smaller monuments that were on the way. We first passed by the Ho Chi Minh City Hall, previously called Hotel de Ville de Saigon before the city was renamed. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century in the typical French colonial style architecture.
Next we passed in front of the Saigon Central Post Office which is now a popular tourist attraction. We quickly checked out the inside. It looked more like a train station than a post office. A large portrait of Ho Chi Minh was hung up on the back wall.
Next to the post office, we also walked by the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon which reminded us of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris though with a lot less tourists.
We then walked through a small city park in between the cathedral and the Independence Palace. Crossing the streets in this very busy part of Saigon was quite challenging for us given the heavy traffic almost exclusively composed of motorbikes. We never saw such a high concentration of motorbikes and many of them seemed to not respect traffic rules at all! Some riders would not stop at red lights, while others saw no issue with riding on the sidewalk (they would even occasionally honk at pedestrians on their way!). So when Luc and I had an opportunity to cross the small street separating the city park we came from from the Independence Palace, we rushed through without hesitation, not realizing that Mimi was left behind. She was brave enough to stop the traffic with her hand, however.
In front of the Independence Palace, we were told that it was closed for the lunch break and that we would have to come back after 1 PM.
No problem, we thought, let’s just explore the area some more and then have lunch! Mimi and Luc researched nice vegetarian-friendly places in the area (our friend Luc is also vegetarian). They settled on Pho 2000.
On our way there, a young man holding a carrying pole with coconuts asked us where we were going. It was really just an excuse to start talking to us however. Without warning, he then took his carrying pole and asked Mimi to hold it. Of course I immediately took the camera out to take pictures and videos of the unexpected scene. As he took it back from her and we were about to leave, he surprised her a second time by giving her a fresh coconut and a straw.
He then gave me and Luc a coconut each. And then he asked for money. 50,000 VND per coconut! Yes, he fooled us but we felt like we had to pay him now. Less than ten minutes later, we saw the real price these coconuts cost: 15,000 a piece. What a scam! It’s decided, from now on we’ll be much more alert when locals randomly start talking to us: we are not in Laos anymore.
It did not affect Luc’s goofiness however. I wonder why he chose to elbow the male flight attendant, perhaps he was annoying his (attractive) female associate so much that Luc felt he had no choice but to intervene?
We walked in front of the Ben Thanh Street Food Market and went inside to check it out quickly. It was not very busy at this time of the day. One stand specialized in desserts had these weird looking and super long ice cream sticks. They looked delicious and we agreed to come back here in the evening to try them.
On the side of the street food market, a large graffiti called onto Mimi to express her artistic creativity. Of course, a good picture is 50% the subject and 50% the person taking the photograph, in this case myself.
We made one last stop before lunch by walking through the Ben Thanh Market (not to be mistaken with the food market we walked through previously).
We arrived at Pho 2000 at noon. Mimi is a huge fan of Pho back at home so she was the most excited to try real authentic Vietnamese pho.
Pho 2000 is a very well reviewed restaurant in Saigon, and therefore hugely popular pretty much at any time of the day. Even Bill Clinton came for lunch here while he was still in office (he visited on November 19th, 2000)! The restaurant proudly displays a framed picture of this very unusual guest. I wonder if he got a free meal?
We got lucky when we arrived as a table was just about ready. We all ordered the same dish: large bowl of vegetarian pho. The food was indeed very tasty, no bad surprise there!
After lunch, we walked back to the Independence Palace and bought tickets. The complex, which is also known as the Reunification Palace, used to be the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the war. The first things we saw inside the complex were a tank and fighter jet both used by the North Vietnamese to infiltrate this complex during the last days of the Vietnam War.
The building itself has a few floors. We started on the first floor which has many large conference rooms.
We spent more time in the lower level which served as a bunker during the Vietnam War. It had many rooms featuring original equipment used by the South Vietnam army during the war. Luc showcased his best Russian accent pretending one of the rooms had a control panel for nuclear missiles that could be fired to wipe out enemy cities such as New York.
It was fun looking at such old equipment. One room had old style rotary telephones. Another one had several radios. A third one had these old looking bulky machines which we could not figure out.
Still in the bunker, we also visited the kitchen with oversized appliances as well as a room dedicated to practicing shooting on targets. We also partially watched a propaganda movie produced by the North Vietnam regime during the war to encourage people in the South to rebel against the “puppet government controlled by the US imperialists.”
We then kept going up the floors of the building and visited the other rooms. There were all kinds of rooms to see, from bedrooms to movie theaters. Most were pretty boring and repetitive so we went through them relatively quickly. On the top floor, we were rewarded with a nice view over the large avenue leading to the palace grounds and its large fountain.
In the back, we also saw another army helicopter that looked quite cool.
We were done with the Independence Palace around 3 PM. We walked back in the direction of our hotels, more or less retracing our steps in the morning. It was super hot then and we felt a bit lethargic. Luc and I decided to go get a massage while Mimi stayed at the hotel to enjoy the very nice swimming pool. After the massage, I went with Luc to pick up the laundry Mimi and I had dropped at a local store yesterday and then we came back to our respective hotels to rest for a bit.
We met again in the evening at 8 PM to go for dinner. Mimi researched banh mi places online ahead of time and found one that was not far and with very promising reviews: My Banh Mi. The three of us walked there and had no problem getting a table. In fact the restaurant was surprisingly almost empty.
We ordered three vegetarian banh mi with the creamy smoky roasted black pepper sauce. When the sandwiches arrived just ten minutes, we all started foaming at the mouth (well at least I did!)
At the risk of sounding like the stereotypical American foodie that has his/her “best meal ever” every single meal, I can honestly say that this was the best banh mi I have had in my (short) life of enjoying Vietnamese food. The baguette was perfect: crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, the pan roasted tofu had the perfect texture and chewiness, and the sauce was excellent. Five stars without hesitation. In fact it was so good that I lobbied Mimi to order another banh mi for the two of us to share, but she felt it was too much food for her and wanted to leave room for dessert.
We left My Banh Mi around 9 PM with the firm intent to dine there at least once more before departing from Saigon! Next we walked back to the Ben Thanh Street Food Market to try those weird looking ice cream sticks that we had seen in the morning. Once again we passed by the (other) Ben Thanh Market on our way.
We arrived and were relieved to find the ice cream stand still opened. Luc got a boring waffle while Mimi and I both ordered the specialty ice cream stick for 40,000 Vietnamese dongs each. Mimi got melon flavor.
I went for the more classic strawberry.
Both flavors were delicious! Nothing beats a good ice cream after a long and hot day of wandering around in the city. After that we took our time to walk back to our hotel again and went to bed so we could wake up early for our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels tomorrow morning.