In Ho Chi Minh City, Hanna Hussein soaks in its history and enjoys a romantic dinner cruise along Saigon River
THROUGH the big window of my room, I can see the chaotic traffic below. Every so often, I can hear the honking.
“How are we supposed to go and explore the city like this?” I ask my husband as he gets ready to go for breakfast.
He nonchalantly says: “This is a normal sight in Ho Chi Minh City, and the honking is not rude at all.
“Back home, it can be stressful and rude, but here, it’s a friendly signal.”
Ho Chi Minh City, which is fondly known by its former name, Saigon, is known as the motorbike capital of the world with more than eight million scooters on the road daily.
Saigon is in the southeastern part of Vietnam. It is one of the country’s most populous cities with more than 14 million people.
One of the city’s highly-rated activities on Klook is a discovery tour on a scooter with lovely guides (normally women) who will take you to see the city.
The tour allows you to save time and money. You also get to see more compared with riding a taxi or walking.
We almost take up the Saigon Motorbike Adventure but change our mind as I’m not comfortable riding with a stranger, even a female rider.
Instead, we book a cyclo, a three-wheel bicycle taxi.
Shortly before 8am, I receive a WhatsApp message from a Saigon Cyclo Half Day Tour guide, Michelle, telling us that our rides have arrived and are waiting for us at the hotel, Le Meridien Saigon’s lobby.
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In the lobby, we are greeted by a short- haired woman wearing big glasses and a bright blue shirt. “Hi Mrs Hanna and Mr Amzar, nice to know you. I’m Michelle and I will be your guide today.”
She leads us to the three-wheeler ride and invites us to get on the passenger seat. We will ride on a separate cyclo (which is actually a rickshaw of sorts).
Before we start the journey, Michelle briefs us about the tour, giving us hints on the places that she will take us.
She says that she will meet us at the next point of interest, as she will ride a scooter.
The weather is windy with a bit of sunshine. It’s a pleasant ride, especially when the wind brushes against my face.
On the way, we get a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh City Hall and Ben Thanh Market. Using basic English, our drivers inform us what we are looking at.
After an almost 15-minute ride, we arrive at our first attraction — the Thich Quang Duc Monument, a memorial park dedicated to the famous Burning Monk.
The bronze statue depicts a peaceful-looking monk on fire. It’s built to honour Thich Quang Duc’s final act of courage, which makes him a symbol of Boddhisattva, that is, an enlightened person who foregoes Nirvana to save others.
Michelle says that in 1955, in the days leading to the event, the country was divided into two. South Vietnam was led by Ngo Dinh Diem regime, a pro-Catholic who discriminated against Buddhists although the country’s population is made up of 80 per cent Buddhists.
Then Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk, came up with an idea to stop the problem.
In June 1963, he travelled to Ho Chi Minh City in a car. Two days later, he arrived at the intersection of Phan Dinh Phung Boulevard and Le Van Duyet Street, not far from the Presidential Palace (now the Reunification Palace).
There were rumours saying that there would be an important event, but most media organisations disregarded the message. Only a few people turned up, including Malcolm Browne, the photographer who captured the iconic moment.
The monk got out of his car and sat in a Buddhist meditative post on a cushion placed by his colleague.
Another person opened the car trunk and took out a five-gallon petrol can. He doused the gasoline over Duc’s head as the latter recited a word of homage. Duc struck a match and dropped it on himself.
It is said that even though flames had started to consume his body, the monk remained calm until he died 10 minutes later.
Michelle says that although Duc’s body was severely burnt, his heart remained intact and untouched, which was considered holy. It is placed in a glass chalice and is kept at Xa Loi Pagoda.
Browne’s photo became a media sensation and was featured on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. The act became the turning point in the downfall of the Diem regime.
HONOURING JADE EMPEROR
We head for Ngoc Hoang Pagoda, one of Saigon’s most sacred temples.
In fact, due to its lovely locale, then United States president Barack Obama had requested to visit it during his trip to Vietnam in 2016, which earned the temple its nickname: Obama Pagoda.
Built in 1909, the pagoda was constructed as a tribute to Ngoc Hoang, the supreme Taoist god, also known as Jade Emperor.
The design, based on the Chinese architecture style, such as the colourful tiles on the roof and grandly carved guardian statues, is amazing.
Before heading inside, we explore the front of the temple, which has a fish tank and is said to bring luck.
The turtle tank on the right is believed to help couples conceive. Just bring a baby turtle, set it free in the pond, and pray.
Inside the temple, there are more than 300 statues, altars and paintings. There are three halls: front, mid and main. Buddhists come here to pray for luck, love, health, career, business as well as fertility.
Michelle says that many married couples who have difficulty conceiving will come here to pray to Kim Hoa Thanh Mau and the 12 midwives, who are the goddesses in charge of fertility on Earth.
ICONIC FRENCH ARCHITECTURE
We have visited two of Saigon’s must-see places, and it’s 10.30am. Since we have a couple more hours to go, we hop on our cyclos to see two more landmarks.
Located next to each other, the Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica were constructed when Vietnam was part of the French colonial era.
These buildings are my favourites due to their beautifully-preserved remnants of French architecture. I feel like I am transported back to the past.
Michelle takes us to the Central Post Office. Designed by Alfred Foulhoux, the grand building, which has Gothic, Renaissance and French influences, was constructed between 1886 and 1891, with intricate designs using marble floors and looping arches.
Inside, we see antiques such as telephone boxes, as well as painted maps of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia on the left side, and a map of greater Saigon on the right. At the front, we see a large portrait of the revered Ho Chi Minh.
Remarkably, the post office is in service and is abuzz with activities. I see people waiting in line at small booths. In the centre, there are people selling souvenirs.
Michelle introduces us to a man who comes to the post office daily to help people fill in forms and send letters.
After that, we walk to the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, also known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception. It was built by the French between 1863 and 1880.
The cathedral stands majestic with two bell towers, reaching a height of 58m.
According to Michelle, the building materials were imported from France. However, after the war, some of them were damaged and were replaced with local tiles.
During our visit, the cathedral was hosting an event and tourists weren’t allowed in.
In the evening, we go on a cruise to see the beautiful night view of the city from the Saigon River. But we make it extra special by ordering the five-course dinner on board the Saigon Princess Cruise via Klook.
Booking is made easy with the Klook app, from confirming the dates to choosing the menu. There are many options, including meat selections, seafood and even vegetarian choices. We opt for seafood.
From our hotel, we take a taxi to Saigon Port slightly before 5.30pm to make sure that we don’t miss the cruise. Traffic is bad, but we arrive just before 6pm, which is still early.
We head for the registration booth for Saigon Princess Cruise and are welcomed by the hostess, who ushers us on board and shows us to the dining room, which is exclusive for those who opt for the dinner package.
There are not many tables but they are arranged for couples, with flowers and candles. So romantic!
We are early, so my husband and I decide to explore the upper deck. There, we enjoy a band performance and the beautiful night while waiting for the ship to start its journey.
Once the attendant announces that the ship is moving, we head back to our table. It is 7pm, and our dinner is about to be served.
While waiting for the appetiser, a group of Vietnamese musicians dressed in traditional attire enter the room with traditional musical instruments and serenade us while we dine.
The five-course menu starts with green New Zealand half shell mussels served with mushroom and Vietnamese green chilli sauce and yoghurt dripping. It followed by one of my favourite dishes on board, the almond crispy soft shell crab.
There’s also the soup, which is essence of lemongrass and tomatoes with king prawn and dry seaweed flakes. For mains, we have crispy skinned black cod served with black sticky rice.
The dessert, pistachio and almond tart garnished with white chocolate custard and praline ends the night on a high note.
After the sumptuous and romantic dinner, we head back upstairs to again enjoy the night scenery.
PICTURES BY HANNA HUSSEIN
DELUXE SERVICE FLYING WITH VIETJET SKYBOSS
THE sight of the long queue at the check-in counters upon our arrival at Kuala Lumpur International Airport is such a kill joy, especially if you have planned to roam and shop at the terminal.
My husband and I come early to the airport so that we could take our time. But when we arrive at Counter A
to check in our baggage for our flight to Ho Chi Minh via Vietjet, the line was very long.
Luckily, we’ve made the decision to upgrade our seat to Vietjet Skyboss. It offers benefits, treats and conveniences for passengers and one of it is priority check-in at designated Skyboss counters at the airport, so you can skip the queue at the normal line.
Skyboss passengers will also get generous baggage allowances of up to 10kg for carry-ons and 30kg for checkin baggage.
Oh, and the perks of travelling with Skyboss is that you will be granted privileged access to airport lounges.
You can relax and dine before your flight. On board, you will get the good hospitality from the crew, including getting a welcome drink upon boarding, complimentary hot meals as well as drinks and snacks. You can select seats (Skyboss seats are built to offer a heightened level comfort with a wider seat pitch, offering more legroom).
What impress us most is the service upon arrival at Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Not only do we get to be the first to disembark the plane, but we also get a first-class transfer via a private van to the terminal, while other passengers have to take the bus.
Besides any applied difference in published fares, Skyboss passengers will not be charged any fee for any change of date, flight, route or schedule change up to three hours before the flight.
Founded in 2007, Vietjet is the first airline in Vietnam to operate as a newage airline offering flexible, cost-saving ticket fares and services. It not only provides transport services but also uses technology to offer products and services for consumers.
From just a handful of domestic routes when it launched, Vietjet now has more than 400 flights daily, covering more than 140 destinations in Vietnam and international destinations, such as Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, India and Cambodia.
Vietjet operates a daily service between Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City which takes one hour 55 minutes. For information, visit www.vietjet.com
PLAN WITH KLOOK AND TRAVEL WORRY-FREE
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VERDICT: We booked our activities, WiFi and airport pick up via Klook before we flew to Vietnam. Portable WiFi pick up at the KLIA is easy and reliable, as always. However, my concern is the airport pick up in Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Saigon. We stated our flight details and arrival time upon our booking through the apps and received the confirmation and meeting point at the airport. Upon arrival, we joined the long queue at the immigration. I’m glad that I made a note of the pick up to be two hours after our arrival time. It took us an hour and a half to clear the immigration before we picked up our luggage. We rushed to the meeting spot where we met the person holding a Klook board, who took us to our transportation.
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