Traveling (almost) Solo in Saigon

May 30, 2012

Note: This is my first time to write a full-length entry (and the most photo-heavy entry I’ve ever done) about a personal travel experience, and I shall do my best to sound interesting, haha.

HO CHI Minh City (Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam) resembled Manila so much that when we left the airport, it felt I did not leave my hometown as I breathed the warm tropical breeze at two in the morning and looked out at the streets from our bus window. Yi, our tour guide, looked Filipino too, only that his accent when he speaks in English gave away his Vietnamese roots.

I had gone on a five-day Vietnam tour with my dad’s best friend and her wife last May–my first time to travel without friends or parents, and having a hotel room all to myself. I did not mind sleeping in a hotel room alone, especially when there is high-speed Internet (I got to use FaceTime with my parents for the first time which made my dad looked utterly thrilled, seeing me on his iPad screen).

We had a typical most-visited-tourist-spots-in-Vietnam itinerary. Well-traveled people often say traveling on tour will not give you a complete cultural experience of the country, compared to exploring the place yourself or going backpacking, but I am grateful how travel agencies lessen the burden of planning the logistics, and all we have to worry about is waking up on time, taking good pictures, and making the most of our trip.

Our first stop was a tour in the Cu Chi underground tunnel system which the Vietnamese soldiers constructed in resistance to the US Army during the Vietnam War. I’ve seen so many pictures of this place from other people’s (a confession: apart from her sense of style, I’m a huge fan of Tricia Gosingtian‘s stunning travel photography) and friends’ photos of Củ Chi that it felt like I’ve been here before. Before arriving, I already have a vague mental image of the how the place looks like, including this underground door leading to the tunnels.


After our tour, I got to hold a machine gun and fired 3 bullets in succession (which of course did not hit the targets). The sound of simultaneous gunfires was a dozen times louder than the loudest firecrackers, which made me wonder how the soldiers and the people living there in wartime could bear the constant firing of guns and bombshells around them. My ears couldn’t stand being in the shooting range for more than five minutes.

I left Cu Chi with a sense of admiration over the sheer persistence and cleverness of the Vietnamese. Only they could have thought of designing a 75-mile tunnel system, complete with weapons factories, makeshift hospitals, airholes, escape routes, booby traps. It’s astounding too how Vietnam has recovered so fast and kept up with other Southeast Asian countries’ economic growth a few decades after winning the war.


We rode a speedboat along the Mekong River Delta (the ‘mouth’ of Mekong River, the 12th longest river in the world) to stop by some islands, where we visited a coconut candy factory, eat some fresh fruits and listened to some locals sing. The last thing we did before going back to the city was ride little boats along the river and we got to wear these symbolic coned-shaped hats.


This is the Cao Dài Temple, a colorful, intricately designed temple where people worship a religion called Caodaism. Believers worship multiple gods from different religions and abide by the principle of universal faith, meaning that all religions come from the same divine origin. It’s absolutely astonishing to see figures of Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Confucius at the altar. They also have images of saints, including the Joan of Arc, Thomas Jefferson, Sun Yat-sen, and Victor Hugo. This recent NYTimes article explains it better.


The sunflower is one of my favorite flowers, and we saw a whole bed of sunflowers in front of the Buddhist Dai Nam Temple but I was slightly disappointed that they were small. I want to see sunflowers as tall as me.

What I love most about traveling: making new friends and being in the company of wonderful people. I learned a lot from my friendly Filipino and Filipino-Chinese tourmates. Stories about their adventures around the Philippines reminded me I need to explore my home country more. (Side note: they gave me more to add on my mental dream destinations list: hiking in Sagada, white-water rafting in Cagayan de Oro, scuba-diving in Batangas.)


A big black bear!


Biggest achievement from the trip: riding a go-kart. Being accident-prone, I am still apprehensive on driving in messy Manila streets, although this kind of proves that I know how to drive, I think.


These are clearly fashion design students, busy sketching away on their drawing books, illustrating a shop window display of gowns and dresses at a mall.


I have never seen so many motorbikes in my life. I sometimes wish motorbikes were the norm in Manila instead of cars and jeepneys–this would surely lessen traffic.


The Notre Dame Cathedral. As I was taking pictures of the church’s interiors, a middle-aged man suddenly approached me and asked, “Were you able to take a good shot? I can’t do it with mine.” He was holding his cell phone, smiling sheepishly. We then chatted a while about where we came from (he’s Australian) and why we came to Vietnam (he was there to attend a friend’s wedding, if I remember correctly). Meeting kind strangers is always a delight for me.


The Central Post Office, where I bought stamps even though I don’t really collect stamps.


Hotel-hopping. I accompanied my aunt to go examine the hotels in the city. Because she is a travel agent, we were given special tours of the suites and hotel rooms. We visited about seven hotels in all.


The city stays bright and colorful in the evening.


One humbling experience: I only learned how to take proper bokeh shots from my friend and tour bus seatmate, who always uses manual focus on her DSLR (I always put mine on auto)–and she’s a high school junior. “Tawag diyan, tamad! (That’s what you call lazy!)” she teased me. I cannot believe I did not bother about manual focus before. This was when we went out of the airport the day we were leaving for Manila to take photos of the Supermoonanother one of my favorite moments in Vietnam. She’s admirably smart and mature for her age, and we’ve had many interesting conversations together.

This almost-solo trip out of the country had been my first taste of real independence, and I’m grateful everything turned out quite well. Next goal: travel alone.

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  • Ceej

    Great post, Des! Looks like you had a great time! :)

© 2014 Desiree Grace Tan. All Rights Reserved.

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