Tuesday 5 September, fine, late thunderstorm, 32°
We were woken up at 5am by the people downstairs in our cabin getting a phone call and then getting up and ready to leave the train. They said goodbye and left at a station outside of Ho Chi Minh somewhere, we didn't get up to find out the name. As it got light we started to roll into the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City and eventually crawled into Saigon Station at 7am ( right on time ). We jumped off the train ( onto a platform thankfully ) and walked through the station, and after being quoted D200,000 / NZ$12 for a 'taxi' by the first person to accost us, we decided to jump in a metered taxi instead and headed off to our hotel. The metered taxi cost D50,000.
I am still a bit confused about the whole Ho Chi Minh City vs Saigon naming. A lot of people still use the name Saigon ( as do most official buildings e.g. Saigon Station, Saigon Post Office ) but officially it is Ho Chi Minh City. The best I could understand was that the city of Saigon was incorporated to the surrounding district after the Vietnam War, and the enlarged city is called Ho Chi Minh City, but unofficially the city of Saigon still exists within the larger city. I prefer the name Saigon myself, but I will go with Ho Chi Minh City.
Anyway we arrived at our hotel ( Then Hai Hotel ) after negotiating the rush hour traffic in the taxi. We checked in, and paid the additional D220,000 (NZ$15) on top of the room rate of NZ$35/night that we had already paid, so that we could check in early and go up to our room. The room was really nice, but very sparsely decorated and had no view from the window, and the air conditioning was a bit underpowered. But after a train cabin, it was luxury.
We freshened up and then decided we should get some breakfast ( the trolley man never came around before we arrived in Saigon Station ) so headed to the local Starbucks for a couple of croissants.
We wandered back to the hotel, grabbed our day bags and walked to the Reunification Palace at 9:30am. It was a 15 minute walk down tree lined streets to the front entrance of the Palace. We bought our entry tickets ( D40,000 ea ) and went in to the grounds and then into the building.
The palace has been left / reinstated largely as it was at the end of the War, and retains a very retro / cool 60's / 70's style, including the furnishings. We walked around the various levels and up onto the roof, then down the stairs to the bunker in the basement.
It was a very interesting wander around and then we left and grabbed a cold drink at a cafe within the grounds and had a rest.
We left the Palace grounds and walked along Le Duan ( another tree lined boulevard ) to Notre Dame Cathedral ( which was closed for repairs ), and down to the Saigon Post Office. We drew some money and changed some to US dollars ( which we will need for the border crossing to Cambodia ). Then back out on the street and walked down towards the river, grabbed some lunch at a shopping mall ( Pho again, although here in the south it is pronounced Pha ). After exploring the multi-storey mall we walked back out to Nguyen Hue, past the Peoples Committee Buildings and the statue of Ho Chi Minh at the head of the pedestrian mall. We then headed back to the hotel ( a complicated route caused by the construction of a new rail line through town ) at 1:15pm, after a stop on the way for some supplies.
We had a rest, someone had a bit of a sleep ( the effects of the cold were starting to kick in ), booked a bus to Phnom Penh on Thursday and a hotel in Phnom Penh for 2 nights as well.
We headed out again at 5pm, walked down to Ham Nghi and down to the entrance to the Saigon Skydeck, in the Bitexco Tower. We went in, paid our money ( D200,000ea ), had the obligatory photo taken in front of a green screen, and then headed up to the 49th floor of the 68 storey tower.
The view over Ho Chi Minh was pretty spectacular, but sadly there were a couple of thunderstorms moving through the city so there was no sunset to be seen, but the thunder and lightning was pretty impressive. And made for some interesting photos as well. After watching the storms for a while ( and the bats flying around the tower ) we headed back down at 6:15pm, and walked around looking for somewhere to have dinner ( it was only lightly raining at this stage ). We found a fancy looking Japanese restaurant ( Yen Sushi and Sake Pub ) and grabbed a seat. There were more staff than customers ( not uncommon from what we have seen on our trip ) and had very nice meal for D350,000 / $NZ21.
We walked back to the hotel at 7:30pm. For the second time today a random stranger helped us to cross the road ( we didn't really need help, but we were obviously tourists so he helped anyway ), which was typical of the people we have encountered on our trip so far: Super friendly.
We have booked a cooking school for Liz for tomorrow ( D1,150,000 / NZ$70 ) so it was an early start again for her to head to the market, so time for bed.
Our initial thoughts on Ho Chi Minh City are very positive; quite a different city and feel to Hanoi which felt 'older' and more traditional, whereas Ho Chi Minh City feels very modern.