Hoi An ended up being one of my favourite cities in Vietnam. It wasn’t a huge place and had the small town charm about it. It is known as the Lantern City, and at night it's fairly obvious why as there are lights and lanterns hanging just about everywhere, adding to the beauty of the place.
Hoi An is also known as the tailor capital of Vietnam. Before I went out I was keen to get measured up and come back with a nice tailored suit, but thought I wouldn’t have time as we were only going to stay in places for a night or two. Fortunately we stayed longer in Hoi An than planned but I still needn’t have worried. I was measured, went for two additional fittings and had the finished article within 36 hours of walking into the tailors.
I went to a place called BeBe Tailors, and I would highly recommend it given the wonderful service and a great suit.
For about 6 million Dong I took home a three-piece with an extra pair of trousers, the equivalent of walking into somewhere like TM Lewin in London and getting a jacket and one pair of trousers off the rack. So it was a really great deal. (I’ll let you traders open up your charts to work out the exchange rate.)
The rest of the time in Hoi An was spent taking street food tours, exploring the ancient town, hiring bikes and cycling out of town to the beach, drinking iced coffee (Vietnam has awesome coffee) and generally just relaxing.
One evening we went to a restaurant and had to order by candlelight as the whole street had a sudden power cut, likely something to do with the waterfall of rain outside. But once back in the light we ordered the specialty dish of Hoi An, the White Rose, a tasty dumpling of meat or shrimp wrapped up in rice paper.
Because we stayed in Hoi An longer than planned, we booked a flight out of Da Nang (nearest city with an airport) to Ho Chi Minh City. This also saved us the 20 or so hours it would have taken to get there by bus, so with a short flight time of an hour and the cheap cost of just £30, it was well worth skipping the horrendously long bus journey.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)
I had recently finished the book Coined - The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us, by Kabir Sehgal. In it he mentioned that we should all take a look at our coins and notes and understand what the stories behind the faces, art and pictures on the money mean.
The current notes in circulation across Vietnam (Vietnamese Dong) were introduced in 1978 and all of them depict the image of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary leader who was twice prime minister of North Vietnam. After his death and the liberation of Saigon, the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after him. And today he is still considered an inspirational leader, hence his face being on the front of the Dong.
Once we arrived in HCMC we headed to our accommodation, which was bang in the middle of the crazy backpacker street. After a quick dinner sat practically in the road, we ordered a Grab taxi and headed to the more modern part of the city. It was quite a stark contrast. Where we were staying was similar to other cities of Vietnam that we had visited, but driving into the centre of District 1 you started seeing new wide paved roads, large skyscrapers, designer shops like Gucci etc - basically a much more Westernised area.
Our destination was Saigon Saigon Rooftop Bar (although it is officially Ho Chi Minh City, a lot of places still refer to the city as Saigon and even the beer is still called Saigon beer), the bar atop of the Caravelle Hotel, providing a great place to relax with a cocktail and look out onto the city at night.
Cu Chi Tunnels
We had to be up early the next day to catch a two-hour bus outside the city to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels. We had a tour guide who told us a bit about the Vietnam War and took us round a part of the jungle which had original tunnels laid out underground, which had been used during the war.
Although not the originals, we did get to go down some tunnels (made larger for Westerners) to get a feeling of what it was like moving around in such a small space.
Interestingly, we learned that they used termite mounds as natural ventilation holes as it wasn't obvious to the enemy on the ground. As well as showing us examples of the types of traps that the Vietnamese set for the Americans (there were many, which were brutal but imaginative) and an old damaged American tank, the main attraction seemed to be the shooting range. Here you could fire a variety of weapons from a M30 machine gun mounted on the back of a jeep to the classic AK-47.
The whole thing was run by the Vietnamese army and seemed to be a good money-making operation for them as bullets weren't cheap: a single AK-47 round was the equivalent of $2, and when you had to buy the experience by the magazine, 30 seconds of shooting would set you back around £40.
My friend decided to fire the AK and I went down with him to the range to take some pictures. I ended up firing a few rounds myself but what was most impressive was the noise that was emitting from the various guns being fired simultaneously: even with ear defenders on it was deafening.
Although the tunnels are worth going to see, it was a little bit set up to cater towards tourists. It was the War Remnants Museum back in the city which provided more on the history of the war as well as likely having a greater impact on you in terms of learning about and seeing pictures of the atrocities that occurred. It is ranked in the top five things to do in HCMC and is well worth visiting.
We only had two days in HCMC so the rest of the time we spent walking around exploring the city. We had been told about a place called Five Boys Number One, which apparently did some epic smoothies. Yet even with our Maps.Me maps loaded it took a fair while to track down. And there was a good reason why: it was tucked down a narrow side alley advertised only by a small sign and a few exotic looking fruits in a basket underneath.
After reviewing the menu for a few minutes a man appeared out of nowhere and took our orders. I had a mix up of a fruit called Soursops and strawberries - not only did it taste great but it was fresh and cost less than a pound. There were some interesting fruits being advertised, including Durian, Apple Milk (Star Apple), Dragon Fruit, Jackfruit and Sapodilla, some of which I had never heard of. The verdict? It is a great smoothie and worth hunting down if you're ever in HCMC.
Our whirlwind two weeks in Vietnam was coming to an end, but an epic journey wasn't quite over just yet - we had a few days booked in Singapore and the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel to look forward to. But that tale is for another day...