HO CHI MINH CITY, LO'S 1ST OVERSEAS TRIP

Our lil' princess' first overseas trip! We are planning to bring her to Japan next spring, so we thought we needed to do a 'test...

Our lil' princess' first overseas trip! We are planning to bring her to Japan next spring, so we thought we needed to do a 'test run' first, by bringing her to somewhere not too far (about 2 hours' flight), somewhere we've never been, somewhere not too hectic, somewhere we don't have to travel far to get from one place to another.... well... We were ambivalent about this as it was gonna be our first time bringing a toddler to another country, so, we decided on Ho Chi Minh city after some consideration. No itinerary planned (for the first time too), we were just gonna go with the flow - how she behaves/reacts when we get there. Worst case would be spending most of the time in the hotel room. Lol.

Before the trip, I started reading articles on how to travel with a baby/toddler, what to expect, what can I bring or what should I bring, airline regulations on food items etc. Traffic in Ho Chi Minh is pretty congested with lots of motorbikes on streets, so we decided to just bring the harness instead of stroller. I wasn't planning on letting her eat outside food just yet, so I had to think of how to prepare food for her when we get there. Was wondering if I should get an electric cooker like the other mums suggested until I read about cooking using the Thermos food jar, and ---Voila!! It's exactly the one I have at home! I've always thought that its function is to keep food warm or cold, that's all. Hah. Anyway, I don't need to get the cooker, which will take up luggage space. Whee! 

That big day finally arrived. I woke up early and steamed some carrots for her to chew on, in case she gets airplane ear during take off or landing. She was cheerful and energetic that morning, guess she sort of knew we were going on a holiday :D. No issues during take off but after an hour plus, she got bored and started making noise. Luckily a short while later, the captain announced that we will be landing soon. 

From the airport, we took a taxi to our hotel, the Lavender Boutique Hotel. The journey took about 30 minutes. Remember to look out for Vinasun or Mailinh. We read that only these two taxi companies are reliable, the rest will try to cheat or sell you unnecessary travel packages. Also, beware of imitators who copy the logo colors, have a name that's very similar, or even phone numbers that are very similar. The location of the hotel is good, right in the middle of the city centre and just about 300 meters behind the Ben Thanh market. The staffs were very friendly and professional, and the room was clean, though a bit small.

After checking in, we headed out to look for some food. First meal here has definitely gotta be Vietnamese. We went to Nhu Lan, one of the city's most accomplished bakery and a perfect place to go for cheap and delicious food. They have almost everything: banh mi, pho, spring roll, bun bo etc. Busy place and service was so so. You order/buy, eat and go. 


Pork pho
Bun Rieu Cua - Vietnamese crab noodle soup
The Vietnamese spring rolls

This is some super duper spicy chili!!


Walking on the streets was quite a bit of a challenge. There were vehicles coming from almost all directions. Don't rely too much on the traffic lights as the drivers sometimes do not stop although it's showing green for pedestrians. After observing for some time, we realized the key thing is to pick up our courage, just step out and cross when there are lesser cars. Few attempts later, we decided it was just a little too much hassle, especially we have our baby with us, so we took taxis. Taxi rides were cheap and they were willing to take us even for just a short distance. Oh, another thing is, keep a lookout on your belongings when you are walking on the streets. The hotel staff warned us that there are many pickpockets out there.

We did some shopping and sightseeing in the city the next day. First stop was Saigon Square shopping mall, which is air-conditioned and under cover, so it is more pleasant than shopping in the nearby Ben Thanh market. This 2 level shopping mall is packed with stalls selling clothes, jewelry and accessories. It's generally accepted that prices are better here and many locals shop here too. But beware of counterfeits though. Remember the old saying, 'If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.' Haggling is expected here. If you see something you fancy, shop around and ask about the prices as it is fairly easy to see similar products being sold at different stalls. Just consider how much you are willing to pay for a particular item and bargain accordingly. 

After shopping, we took a rest and filled our stomach at the nearby Highlands Coffee, a Vietnamese coffee shop chain. You can see this almost everywhere, like Starbucks in KL. Nice seating, friendly baristas, strong coffee (Ooh, I so love the coffee) and tasty pork banh mi! 


Salty, sweet, lil' bit of spiciness, all packed in this freshly made crispy baguette
Feeling refreshed after coffee, we took a walk to the Saigon's Notre Dame Cathedral - a French-built Catholic cathedral. It's free entry and closed for lunch and on weekends. This cathedral was constructed between 1863 and 1880. It has two bell towers, reaching the height of 58 meters. The outside wall was built with bricks from Marseille. Without the use of coated concrete, these bricks retained their bright red color until today. Standing in the flower garden in front of the cathedral is a statue of Virgin Mary made with granite. This statue was reported to have shed tears during October 2005, however, the top clergy of the Catholic church in Vietnam couldn't confirm this incident.


Saigon's Notre Dame Cathedral with the statue of Virgin Mary

The cathedral nave

One of the small altars

Probably far less impressive than Notre Dame de Paris, which we visited a couple of years ago, but for this city, it's beautiful and has always attracted many people. 

Next to this cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office, one of the oldest buildings in Ho Chi Minh city. Built between 1886 and 1891, this beautiful Gothic/Renaissance/French architecture still serves as an active post office - a perfect place to write and send some postcards, plus picking up some souvenirs.


The Saigon Central Post Office
The interior

For those who are interested to shop like the rich and famous in HCMC, you can head over to the nearby Diamond Plaza. This is a luxurious shopping centre with famous brands, selling at fairly expensive prices.

We headed to Ben Thanh market for a second round of shopping and dinner before retiring for the night. This market is huge, hot, with so many vendors and stores selling almost everything from clothing, bags, souvenirs, coffee, food, drinks, snacks etc. Haggling is a must because the prices of stuffs here are jacked up by at least 40-50%. Almost all vendors here understand simple English, or they will just pass you a calculator to input the price you want. If they won't sell you the stuff, feel free to walk away nicely and try bargaining at another shop, as you are bound to find the same thing at other shops. From late afternoon onwards, the area around this becomes a night market. You will find some vendors selling their goods here after the main building closes, and food stalls with plastic sheets over tables and seemingly filthy surroundings. If you are a clean freak, you probably will be deterred. Hehe. We looked around, picked one with the most people and ordered some fried spring rolls, grilled prawns, fried rice and some cold beer to go with our meal. Food was served fresh and warm. They cooked it right there and then after we ordered. The spring rolls were delicious, the rest was just OK.

Day 3: More coffee at The Workshop, which is situated in a pretty chic part of HCMC, near the luxury French colonial/classical French Riviera styled Hotel Majestic, Dior and Louis Vuitton boutiques. When we stepped in and saw the tubes, stands, conical flasks etc., my first impression was like, err, is this a chemistry lab? For those who like a true coffee experience, this place is a must visit. 'Aeropress', 'Pour-over', 'Immersion', 'Kone', blending science and art to create an ultimate brew. It's a 'western' cafe, so don't expect to find Vietnamese style iced coffee here or drinks selling at local prices, but it's good to finally have coffee without condensed milk :P. Coffee was superb, service and atmosphere were great, but food was kinda average though.


The Workshop

Like in a science lab
Like in a science lab

Coffee through 'alchemy'. Lol




Aeropress
Latte

After leaving The Workshop, we took a walk to the nearby Vincom Centre, the biggest shopping mall in HCMC. On the way, we passed by the elegant architecture of the Municipal Theatre, also known as the Saigon Opera House, another example of French Colonial architecture. This mall is just like any other multi-level high end shopping malls, but covering the top two floors is a quality supermarket - the resident supermarket, Vinmart. This supermarket sells fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood,  dairy products, household products - all reasonably priced. We did see some funny looking fruits/vegetables that we've never seen before in Malaysia, but because the tags were written in Vietnamese only, we had no idea what they were called or how to eat them. Lol! For those who want to buy coffee back for family and friends, it's slightly cheaper to buy the Trung Nguyen (No.1 coffee brand in Vietnam) coffee here than from the brand's coffee shop itself. 


The Saigon Opera House


Dinner was at Ty Coz Saigon. Read some good reviews about this French restaurant and decided to give it a try. We asked the hotel receptionist to make a reservation for us this morning before we left. This restaurant is a bit tricky to find. It's tucked away in an alley and up a flight of stairs. The dining room is somewhat basic and old fashioned. The highlight would be the menu - written in French on a blackboard and presented by the restaurant owner in details, including the ingredients and the way of cooking. Everything was explained professionally and we could see the passion he exhibits when he was going through the menu, but the downside was, we had to wait nearly half an hour after sitting down before he got to us since he was the only one doing the explanation, table to table. Service was a little patchy as the waitresses understood very little English. The food was good, not excellent, it was more to authentic home style French food. Probably the best thing was the reasonable price tag: appetizer, main and dessert all come under one price. Overall, I would say, if you are looking for French food at affordable prices, this is the place to go.


The blackboard menu
Assiette Provencale

Carré d'Agneau

Faux-filet Wagyu

French yellow plum clafoutis

Creme Brulee

All in all, I think our baby did pretty well, even with all the walking under the scorching hot weather and eating bland food coz I didn't manage to get nice fresh vegetables from the nearby grocery shops, before I discovered Vinmart. Of course, there were some whining and screaming here and there, but she's going through the screaming phase right now so that's pretty much unavoidable. We didn't visit Cu Chi tunnel or any of the history/war museums as I thought it wasn't suitable to bring her to those places. Maybe it's just me, but in my opinion, HCMC isn't really a child-friendly city. Ty Coz was the only place we went that had a baby chair, even our hotel cafe doesn't have one. Plus, we didn't see many locals with kids on the streets, in fact, the only ones we saw were foreigners/tourists. After this trip, I'm really looking forward to bring our lil' Princess to Japan to see sakura!

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