asia · vietnam

Buses, Boats and Bikes in Saigon

Our time in Vietnam was very much split into thirds – a week in northern Vietnam, a week in central Vietnam, and now a week in southern Vietnam. From Hoi An, we headed down to Nha Trang for some beach time, before getting back to city life and soaking up Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

It was also our first overnight bus of the trip – and our experience wasn’t the best. The actual bus was better than expected, with three rows of “bunk seats” with an aisle between each, and we settled in to our reclining seats. Suddenly, the girl checking tickets started randomly asking people to move – including Ash.

“I’m with someone. She’s sitting just there.” He pointed to me in confusion.

“No. You move to the back.”

He was quickly ushered out of his seat as he called out, “oh well, see you tomorrow, I guess?!” to me, and everyone else on the bus laughed in that not-sure-whether-to awkward amazement. It was about to get worse.

I decided to move to the back too as there was a spare seat next to Ash – and more leg room! The girl continued to move other people, and asked (sorry, told) one girl to move to a top seat. She explained that she couldn’t because the top seats make her feel sick. A full blown argument ensued, which culminated in the poor girl being told if she didn’t move, we wouldn’t be going to Nha Trang tonight and the bus would be cancelled!!!

It was insane – the most shocking customer service I’ve ever seen in my life. Someone was bullied into being sick, when they could have just asked someone else?! I wish I had offered, but after the ruckus we’d already caused, I didn’t feel like I could move again. And why were they moving people anyway?!? It didn’t make any sense.

Eventually, a full hour late, we were on our way – and now that we were sat at the back, we discovered that our air conditioning didn’t work, and we had the heat from the engine instead. Throughout the night, I woke up in such a sweaty mess that I feared I had melted.

A day in Nha Trang

We made it to Nha Trang intact, and on the whole it wasn’t entirely uncomfortable as we’d been able to lay flat. We arrived in the city at an uncomfortable 6am and headed off to our hostel to dump our bags until we could check in. In the lobby, we heard a familiar voice – it was our room mate from Hoi An who was also on our bus! Then we heard another one. A room mate from Hanoi!!

We all went for breakfast together and got our first real feel for how Russian the town is. Yes, really – it turns out that Nha Trang is a beach hotspot for Russian tourists. I think even the place we ate at had signs in Russian.

This was all we had heard from people about Nha Trang – and all being said, we didn’t experience it negatively. But it was definitely strange, being in one foreign country and feeling like we were in another!

nha trang beach, vietnam

And then we had a lazy day, because after all isn’t that what beach towns are for?

Read more: Central Vietnam: Historic, Beautiful… And Very Touristy (we found a great beach there, too!)

We spent the entire afternoon on the beach, ate some delicious ice cream, went for a pretty average meal, and then a little later on the drinks started flowing. For a town that is notorious for being unsafe at night, I felt surprisingly unthreatened. Although I didn’t take my bag out, I walked back alone around 1am and didn’t feel on guard. Our friend stayed out later WITH a bag, and felt the same.

Nha Trang beach, Vietnam

Our hostel even had signs up warning people about how frequent people are robbed or have drinks spiked. How very welcoming. While we didn’t personally have any issues (except REALLY bad sun burn!), I wished we had chosen to go to Da Lat instead, because apart from the beach, it just didn’t feel like there was anything to do. There was none of the atmosphere we’d felt in Hanoi or Hoi An; none of the scenery of Halong Bay or Ninh Binh; none of the history of the rest of Vietnam. But we did have a good time thanks to the people we met (as is often the case!).

However, while I wouldn’t necessarily go back to Nha Trang, the hostel we stayed in (Mojzo Inn) was AMAZING and I’ll miss the staff there! They even had aloe vera plants for our sun burn. I would have happily stayed there for a week. Instead, we were leaving the very next morning, to our final destination in Vietnam: back to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)!

Reunification Palace (Independence Palace), Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City

It was nice to return to vaguely familiar surroundings, and on our first day we met a cool guy from Wolverhampton (I know, it happens) who joined us on our sightseeing spree.

We wandered through the massive Ben Thanh market to the Reunification Palace (pictured above – we didn’t go in but you can do tours of the government building) and on to the stunning building that houses, of all things, the Post Office.

Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

A strange attraction perhaps, but really worth a visit! It was a good excuse to get some of our postcards sent, too.

Opposite the Post Office was another unexpected building – the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon!

Notre Dame Cathedral Of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I was really taken aback by its beauty just plonked in the middle of a city, but more to the point, I was surprised there was a cathedral here at all!

After stopping for coffee, we went on to our main attraction of the day: The War Remnants Museum.

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The War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum is one of the most difficult museums in the world to visit; its Agent Orange room, dedicated to the chemical weapon deployed by US troops which caused decades of disease in Vietnamese people, is particularly notorious, with pictures of deformed children and diseased fighters shadowed by the blood orange light.

However, I actually found the American war crimes room harder to contemplate. Pictures of children seconds before they were mercilessly shot. An American soldier carrying half a Viet Cong corpse in one hand, like he’s nothing. Bombs, quotes, horrific pictures of landscapes torn apart to be filled with bodies.

It was, quite frankly, horrific – but so important to understand and learn from the past.

We left with heavy hearts and a bigger understanding of the tragedy this country has seen. My heart ached knowing how wonderful the people are and what they had gone through.

Read more: Interested in other dark history? I visited Bosnia and wrote this post about the heartbreaking history of Sarajevo

bikes, scooters, roadblock, saigon, hcmc, ho chi minh city, vietnam
Scooters in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
This picture makes me laugh – like the scooter in front is about to lead his scooter army into battle!

After some crazy traffic-spotting and, I’m afraid to say, a KFC (though my sides were rice and soup!), we headed back to the hostel for free beers and met two of our room mates in the bar; an Italian guy and a Norwegian. We ended up going to the night market to haggle down some shirts, stopped at one street restaurant to find it was ridiculously expensive, and walked back to another little street restaurant we had passed on the way.

It was much cheaper and we got chatting to a Vietnamese lady at the table next to us, who asked where we’re all from. Turns out she speaks Norwegian, of all the languages, and the rest of us watched in amazement as the two of them chattered away?!? How unexpected is that?

On our walk back, in the middle of a hugely busy road, we bumped into one of our Hanoi roomies, as well as seeing another one at our hostel! Small world when you’re travelling!

Read more: Loving Northern Vietnam – Hanoi, Halong Bay & Ninh Binh

highlights of asia, mekong delta tour, vietnam

Mekong Delta

The next two days were spent south of Saigon, in the Mekong Delta. It was our only real bus tour of the trip, so we were surrounded by people of all ages who were all on different journeys rather than the typical backpacker crowd, and it was a fab couple of days. I sat next to an older Polish Canadian on the bus who was a good laugh, we met a propa London’a who was also called Ash, and our tour guide, The, was great.

Our first stop included some music performed by a local group, some unidentifiable fruit (and tiny bananas smaller than the palm of my hand) and a poor snake in a bag. [edit: sorry, the music was NOT performed by the fruit or the snake]

Soon, we were on the little row boats doing the picture perfect floating down the Mekong. And it was wonderful.

mekong delta tour, rowing boat, river, vietnam
Rowing down the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

I think the journey lasted less than 10 minutes, which really surprised me. This is the famous image of a Mekong Delta tour, after all!

We arrived at our lunch destination, a pretty little place with uninspiring food – but it was included, so can’t complain! Our afternoon stop was almost as random as the first – a coconut candy factory. We watched candies being made, learned about the process and then got to try it for free. It was actually pretty delicious!

Coconut candy factory, Vietnam

Then it was on to the actual Mekong river on a bigger boat for our final stop of the day: a beautiful temple with three huge statues.

The Mekong river is way bigger than I realised. I think I’d always had the image of serenely floating along through the jungle, when in reality the Mekong river is a bustling thoroughfare for boats and cargo that travel hundreds of miles.

Mekong River, Vietnam
Mekong River, Vietnam

I loved all the boats with eyes painted on them!

The temple we stopped at was Vinh Trang temple, and it was surprisingly ornate and beautiful for being out in the middle of nowhere, with gorgeous gardens to match. I’m not sure if there’s a significance in the Buddha statues being white? They were the only white ones we saw in Asia, I think.

Buddha statues at Vinh Trang temple, Vietnam

And then it was home for the night in Can Tho… which turned out, ironically, to be the worst accommodation we’ve stayed in, and it was one of our only hotels of the whole trip!! Not that it was terrible… just not as clean or facilitated as ANY of our hostels had been.

Annoyingly, we could have paid a little extra for a homestay experience, and I wished we had done that.

The town though? We loved Can Tho! We took a wander along the river until we reached the night market, passing several touristy restaurants and overpriced stalls on the way. The night market was ridiculously cheap, we were the only foreigners there, and at the end of the road we found a cute little café called Mekong Sun, again full of locals.

I had the most DELICIOUS smoothie for around 20,000d (70p), Ash had a good meal for just over £1. It was so good that the following day we had a little break before our bus and came back for lunch with some of the guys on our tour. They all declared it the best place they’d been in Vietnam, and I had an even better smoothie with jackfruit, which I’d never even heard of! (Of course, since then, jackfruit has become a popular vegan-alternative for many things!)

Floating market, Mekong River, Vietnam

The following day started bright and early at 6am with a trip to the floating markets. I didn’t buy anything, but it was a fascinating experience with boats meandering over to sell you fruit, coconut drinks and other wares. We also passed a boat with a guy from our Halong Bay tour on it, which was really random!!

Floating market, Mekong River, Vietnam

Unfortunately, disaster struck and my camera refused to switch back on. I used my phone until we got back to Ho Chi Minh, but the photos are lacking, sadly – they’re all blurred at the edges! So while I could have got better photos of the market, they are rubbish quality. Still, at least it happened near the end?

After the market closed at 8, we were off to another factory, this time a rice noodle one. Again it was surprisingly interesting watching sheets being shredded into noodles, and someone on a scooter turned up to pick up a delivery. I did manage to get my phone out for this one!

Scooter in Vietnam carrying loads of rice noodles

From there, we went to a really nice family-run… place. It was a restaurant that didn’t feel like a restaurant, or a café, or anything else. It was just a place. And it was nice, with a peaceful outdoor area. We crossed rickety bridges, played with adorable puppies… and ate barbecued rat. And it was TASTY. Something I never thought I’d say!

That brought us to the end of our tour, and a four hour drive back to the city left us pretty exhausted after the early start!

The next day was Ash’s birthday, and to celebrate, we, err, basically did nothing. I mean, I guess there’s nothing wrong with a chilled day and we did some exploring around the area of the hostel, but I did hope we might do something more exciting! We did at least find an awesome bar in the shape of a VW camper and got chatting to a few people there until the early hours.

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Cu Chi Tunnels

And then it was our final full day in Vietnam, which was my last chance to visit the Cu Chi tunnels; a must-do on my list. I visited without Ash as he‘s a wimp he doesn’t do tunnels. And they were as morbidly fascinating as the War Remnants Museum.

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We were shown lots of the brutal traps set by the Vietnamese, and the guide happily showed us exactly how they all worked. It was pretty horrifying.

The famous part where you come up out of the tunnel is really just a hole in the ground that you get into (there is a tunnel underneath it but it’s not very accessible and is full of bats! Someone tried…!). So Ash could have come after all and it wouldn’t have been an issue at all. There is an optional tunnel to crawl through, which was fun!

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

But it’s about far more than the tunnels themselves. It’s about how the Vietnamese protected themselves and brutally weaponised the countryside. Some of the traps made me feel sick.

Would I recommend visiting? YES! I did the half-day afternoon tour and it was really interesting. The picture of me in the hole is my profile picture and the tunnels you CAN explore are awesome. I was also hanging out with an Australian guy who really wanted to shoot one of the guns, so I got to shoot one of his bullets!

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Sadly we didn’t go for an AK-47 in the end, but a carbine was still a pretty cool gun to shoot.

And then the dreaded day came. We were leaving Vietnam! 😦 We also couldn’t get seats on the morning bus to Cambodia, which meant we would be arriving in the evening in a city we’d heard a lot of unsavoury tales about – more of that in my next post. However it did give us a few final hours to say goodbye to the country that had captured our hearts.

We absolutely fell head over heels in love with Vietnam. Everything about it – the people, the food, the prices, the hostels, the towns, the cities, the countryside. The beaches, the scenery, the markets. Vietnam is UNBELIEVABLE.

We will 100% be back, as Vietnam is now firmly our favourite country, and there’s plenty more of it to explore. Hopefully we’ll get back to northern Vietnam in nicer weather, and actually buy tailored clothes in Hoi An, and maybe even make it to Da Lat next time. Either way, Vietnam is waiting for us and we cannot wait to get back!

I have lots more adventures from Asia for you to read! Check out some of the highlights here:

Loving Northern Vietnam – Hanoi, Halong Bay & Ninh Binh
Central Vietnam: Historic, Beautiful… And Very Touristy
An Incredible Week in Siem Reap: Angkor Wat and Meditating With a Monk
Songkran in Bangkok: One of the Craziest Festivals in the World
One Of The Best Weeks Of Our Lives Volunteering At Elephant Nature Park
A Surprising Paradise on Koh Phangan and How Not to Survive the Full Moon Party
Koh Tao: Our Favourite Thai Island
And Then We Fell In Love With Koh Lanta
Krabi, Railay and the Most Beautiful Beach in the World, and Climbing 1200 Steps to a Temple

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7 thoughts on “Buses, Boats and Bikes in Saigon

  1. Sigh we also have a not so good experience riding a bus in Hanoi. Good thing a friend of mine an expat in Vietnam can speak their language. The lady also insisted that we should move back and it is so cramped and sweaty hot. And yes there were arguments.
    Nevertheless the experiences you have in exploring Vietnam just cancels the bad situation. But this is something to know and manage your expectation ideally before going to this country.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha I’ve seen quite a few people saying they had similarly bad experiences with the buses! I wonder why they move people? It’s hardly like a plane where they need to distribute weight! Haha. And I totally agree, Vietnam is incredible so it’s very worth it!

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  2. Vietnam is such an amazing place! Lot of things to do, it seems that you have enjoyed as much as we did.
    We can totally relate to your nightmare in buses, we had a few of them…one worst than the other aaahah.
    I like to call the city Ho Chi Minh City instead of Saigon.
    Great post friend!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha quite a few people have said the same about buses!

      It’s funny you should mention Saigon/HCMC as back when we did the trip, a lot of people were still referring to it as Saigon, but I’ve noticed since then that most people have been calling it Ho Chi Minh. Which is weird as it’s been HCMC for a loooooong time!

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