Flying rice and Elephant-Ear fish

A intriguing serving of Elephant Ear Fish
With its rich culture and history, there’s plenty to do and see in Ho Chi Minh City, writes PEGGY LOH

THE crush of motorbikes with fearless, masked riders, crowd the streets in Ho Chi Minh City at rush hour. Providing a contrasting picture to the madness in the city are downtown shady streets lined with cafes reminiscent of Paris street cafes.
But their plastic deckchairs are, however, placed in rows, facing the streets instead of in cosy groups.

The hardworking Vietnamese really knows how to relax, reclining on these comfortable chairs with a leisurely cup of coffee, to people watch, oblivious of the chaos and constant blare of horns.

On pavements and in backlanes, hawkers serve piping hot pho (pronounced “fur”) or beef noodle soup, and hungry patrons sit on low stools around low tables to slurp up this delicious soup. Driving through the countryside, I observe rows of street cafes where weary travellers can park their motorbikes, enjoy meals and have a refreshing nap on a hammock.

Here are some of the Top 10 things to see and do in former Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City.

Tourists captivated by vivid images in Museum
1. War Remnants Museum - This museum is dedicated to systematically study, collect, preserve and display exhibits of war crimes and the aftermath of foreign aggression on the Vietnamese people in the War from 1959 to 1975.

It has eight permanent thematic exhibitions including Historical Truths that chart the causes and origins of the war, Requiem and Vestiges of War Crimes and Aftermaths, presented in photos with vivid scenes taken by war reporters. If a picture tells a thousand words, then these photos certainly speaks volumes of the war atrocities suffered by the Vietnamese.

Be prepared to deal with the brutality of war because at least 5.7 million people, both civilians and American troops, died in the war. Located at 28 Vo Van Tan, District 3, HCM City, the museum is open every day from 7.30am to noon and from 1.30pm to 6pm, with the last admission at 4.30pm.

Peggy crawling through underground tunnel!
2. Cu Chi Tunnels - Just 70km to the north-west of Ho Chi Minh City is a unique network of over 200km length of tunnels in the military revolutionary base of Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. This web of tunnels is a legacy of the ingenious pride, wisdom and heroism of the Cu Chi people as they escaped to live in underground villages, created in several levels with sections for living, cooking, training, meetings and spying.

Marvel at their methods of escaping detection, their cunningly concealed traps and experience a little of their claustrophobic lifestyle by climbing into secret grottos and squeezing through a tight tunnel. Website:

Impressive interior of Saigon Post Office
3. Old Saigon Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral Saigon - These are two fine examples of French colonial architecture in the heart of the city. The Cathedral, constructed between 1863 and 1880 with materials imported from France, still looked sturdy but tiles that were damaged by the war have been replaced with locally-made tiles. Its sacred sanctuary and twin bell towers are similar to cathedrals in Europe but since this design was not suitable for Vietnam’s hot and humid climate, modifications were made to improve ventilation.

By contrast, the interior of the adjacent Saigon Post Office is well-ventilated and filled with natural light from its two-dome ceiling. It was designed and constructed between 1886 and 1891 by Gustave Eiffel, builder of the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris. After admiring the awesome architecture, check out the maps preserved on the walls and the beautiful bank of telephone booths before buying some stamps at this functioning Post Office to send home some souvenir postcards.

Meticulous work in lacquer ware
4 .Cong Ty 27-7 Handicapped Handicrafts - This is an enterprise that employs disabled people, mostly war victims who can no longer work in offices or farms. They are given opportunities to develop their creative skills and learn the fine art of lacquer painting.

This is an ancient art in Vietnam and here, they use egg shells to construct the paintings and a tree resin for a glossy varnish. Observe how each item goes through a meticulous process from wood preparation, drawing, varnishing, polishing and inlaying mother of pearls before further polishing and varnishing into a brilliant lustre. Workshop and showroom is located at 153 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh, P.17, Bin Thanh, HCM City. Website:

5. Flying Rice at Com Nieu Sai Gon Vietnamese Gastronomy Restaurant - Com Nieu or “baked rice in pottery” is more than just a rice dish. It’s a unique culinary experience that involves both skill and showmanship in aerial acrobatics. Don’t be alarmed to hear the claypot shatter but watch the disc of rice being tossed across the room to land deftly on the catcher’s plate. Before it’s served, the disc of rice is cut into quarters, drizzled in sauce and dusted with black sesame seeds and pepper. Chewing the crunchy exterior may bruise your mouth but you can savour the fragrant sticky parts inside because it comes with such a spectacular show. Website:

6. Bonsai Dragon Boat Dinner Cruise - Leave the city bustle behind and come on board the double-decker Bonsai, Vietnam’s biggest dragon boat, for an enchanting evening cruise on the Saigon River. See Ho Chi Minh City by night over a delightful dinner and enjoy live entertainment in cultural dances, traditional music and lively lounge music. After a leisurely meal from a generous buffet spread, move to the rear section behind the bar to indulge in a relaxing neck and back massage therapy by a professional masseuse for a more memorable end to a lovely day.

7. Elephant-Ear Fish Lunch Spread - Even though it does not quite resemble an elephant ear, don’t miss a photo session with this propped up crispy-fried fish from the tilapia family. Then gently lift the flaky fish meat, roll it with rice paper with sprigs of herbs like mint leaf and basil before dipping into fish sauce. To better enjoy this Mekong Delta specialty, keep the rolled portions small enough to fit into your mouth.

While the meal includes several meat and vegetable dishes with familiar Chinese flavours, another obvious specialty is the “sticky rice bowling ball”. This deep-fried ball is made from a glutinous rice mixture, swirled in a wok of hot oil to create a hollow ball. At the table, it’s snipped with scissors and split into wedges for you to enjoy its chewy fragrant flavour.

Cruising down the Mekong River
8 .Mekong Delta Island Trail - A short river ride across the murky Mekong water continues with an island tour of cottage industries such as bee farm, rice products and coconut candy. Tours are so well organised that any items bought are labelled and sent back to the boat while you continue comfortably on your island trail. After a short break to savour freshly-cut fruit and ‘live’ cultural entertainment, head for the highlight of the trip — a canal cruise on traditional flat-bottomed boats.

Manned by two experienced boatmen or women, the sampan-like boats will sail down to the delta, meandering pass similar sampans that ply the waterway. Don’t worry about the sun because your boatman will provide traditional conical hats to protect against the sun. Sit back and enjoy the ride but keep your eyes peeled for wetland wonders like monitor lizards, mudskippers and elusive sea coconuts.

Peggy climbed 723 steps up the hill!
9. Christ of Vung Tau Monument on Mount Nho - A two-hour drive or 125km from Ho Chi Minh City is the tourist town of Vung Tau with the Christ Of Vung Tau monument overlooking its long coastline and beautiful beaches. Vung Tau is also accessible from HCM City in about 80 minutes by hydrofoil.

Standing at the height of 32m, this statue of Christ with outstretched arms spanning 18.3m atop Mount Nho is reminiscent of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio De Janeiro. A gentle trek up 723 steps will take you to the feet of Jesus and another 133 steps inside the statue will bring you up to the peak at its shoulders for a panoramic view of the surroundings. Standing five-storey high, the statue is a magnificent landmark supported by a four-sided platform embossed with lovely picture carvings of the Last Supper, the Nativity scene, Peter given the keys to heaven and Jesus in Herod’s court. The monument is more a tourist destination than a pilgrim’s journey but it’s still a worthwhile and challenging climb.

10. Ben Thanh Market - A visit to Ho Chi Minh City is not complete without spending some time and money at this iconic market. It’s a maze of stalls in narrow alleys, selling a wide variety of merchandise ranging from local food, fresh fruit and vegetables to spices, provisions, electronic products, hardware, handicrafts and souvenirs. You will hear over-zealous vendors, cleverly calling out in Malay language, persuading you to stop and buy because many stalls stock the same merchandise. Be prepared to bargain boldly and take the vendor’s price down before working your way up to agree somewhere midway. The market starts to close between 5pm to 6pm but you can still enjoy night shopping at stalls along several streets nearby.

For tour package details, contact SS Holidays on email Tel: 07-332 2858/334 2858/335 2858 Fax: 07-333 1858

This article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 16 June 2010

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