For what seems like the first time in a very, very long time I’ve set off on a big trip. The last couple of years has seen me potter about Europe with the occasional trip out to Dallas. I’m not sure why really but I just didn’t feel like I had the energy to plan and organise a trip to places too far away.
Earlier this year though, something changed. I had a bit of a sense of adventure again! And a yearning to go someplace different – to countries I haven’t seen before, and to widen my horizons once more. So over the next couple of weeks I’m going to do just that – taking in Vietnam, South Korea and Hong Kong.
After what turned out to be a busy couple of weeks, I had a couple of days in London before embarking on my trip.
A quick stay at Heathrow
Circumstances meant that rather than start my trip from Dublin as usual, this time I’d be flying from Heathrow. My first flight – or two to be precise – would see me touch down in Doha before a longer flight to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.
The Doha flight was an early morning one from Heathrow’s Terminal 4, so I decided to book into a hotel the night before. After navigating the Canary Wharf – Baker Street – Paddington – Heathrow Express tube and train trip with a big suitcase in tow, I arrived at the terminal at about 6pm.
I can’t remember the last time I was even in Terminal 4, never mind flying from there, so I took a while to find my bearings before taking a walkway to my hotel.
Last year IHG opened a brand new Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn Express just a five minute walk from T4. They both share the same building, with a reception that’s split right down the middle. Though they have different entrances you can use the bar or restaurant in either, and the lifts are shared. When you come out of the lifts on a room floor, turn one way for Crowne Plaza rooms and the other way for the Holiday Inn Express rooms. It’s a bit of a weird setup but it works!
It was a toss up between £70 for a Holiday Inn Express room or £129 for a Crowne Plaza room. As I’d only be in the room for about eight hours I went for the former.
Check in was fast and efficient, and before long I was dropping my stuff in my still-looking-fresh-and-new room.
It had everything you needed really, I couldn’t complain! There were plenty of plug sockets, USB sockets, and an iron and ironing board.
After taking a look at the food options in the hotel, I decided to head back into the terminal to see what the options were there.
That’s when I had a bit of a brainwave. I had seen a Plaza Premium Arrivals lounge which was open until 9.30pm. I knew my credit card would get me in, but I wasn’t sure if you had to present a same day boarding pass too. Lo and behold it turned out you didn’t. Free food and drink awaited!
The lounge was really modern, and quiet, although I would imagine it gets busier during the day.
The buffet was a bit disappointing, but I had a glass of wine, some vegetable soup and then chicken bourginon with ratatouille. It wasn’t fantastic to be honest, but it was enough – and it was free!
Before long I was back in my room where I read for a bit before setting my alarm for 4.15am
Flying to Doha
I actually felt not too bad when I woke up about five minutes before my alarm went off. I got out of bed and stumbled in to the shower. Now if I have one complaint about my room at the hotel, it’s the shower. The pressure was weak and the temperature lukewarm. Not what you really want at that time in the morning!
After dropping my key in the express checkout box, I walked back to Zone A of Terminal 4 and checked in. For my trip to Ho Chi Minh, I was flying Qatar – an airline I had no experience of. I was lucky enough to be flying business class, and I’d heard good things about theirs, so I was looking forward to it!
After a quick wander outside in the very misty air, I went through security. Just as I stepped out of the security area a big argument broke out between two ladies behind me. It was vicious! I thought someone was going to get hit but one of them stormed off, so there was no violence.
I walked the length of the terminal and headed upstairs to the View Heathrow Observation Deck which sounded intriguing but was actually a bit rubbish! As far as I could see you couldn’t go outside, and there wasn’t any view either as it was so foggy.
Next stop was the Qatar Premium Lounge. It was a bit tricky to get photos in but it was a big, open space….
…while at one end was a sit down restaurant with waiter service. I couldn’t get any photos there as it was too busy, but I ordered eggs benedict and an americano which arrived after quite a long wait.
After that and another coffee, I decided to head to the gate. I just had time to nip to the loo before the flight started boarding. Through a grotty looking porthole in the airbridge I caught sight of our plane.
An Airbus A350 – a newish plane I haven’t flown on before.
This particular plane had Qatar’s Qsuite business class seats – and I liked it. A lot! You have a massive seat with an ottoman beside it, meaning you can put your feet out to one side and kind of lie along the seat. There is loads of legroom, loads of storage room, and a massive TV. It’s really pretty amazing.
But the thing that sets the seat apart really is the door – you can pull a sliding door to make your ‘suite’ closed and it’s a really weird feeling. You feel like you’re not on a plane but in some weird kind of teeny hotel room or something.
A friendly cabin crew member introduced herself and handed me a hot towel and took my pre-departure drink order – rosé champagne. I couldn’t complain about that!
The flight itself was around six hours and 45 minutes, and it flew by – literally. I had another breakfast – poached eggs with salt beef hash…
…and watched a couple of episodes of Dublin Murders and surfed the internet for a while catching up on emails and expenses (Qatar gives you a free hour of high speed WiFi which worked pretty well).
As we approached Doha I was still pretty full from breakfast, so ordered a ‘lighter option’ of afternoon tea for my second meal. that consisted of sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, and two cakes. I just had one of them!
Then we were descending into Doha’s Hamad International Airport. A quick taxi took us to the terminal, and we disembarked.
Transferring in Doha
This is one MASSIVE airport. There is just one terminal, but it is absolutely ginormous. It’s like something out of a science fiction film I thought as I walked along a wide, spotless walkway. Beside me a futuristic looking train whizzed through the middle of the terminal.
After going through transfer security, I emerged into the shopping and dining area of the terminal. I started to walk around it but to be absolutely honest I got a bit lost. Every time I turned a corner I expected to see a certain shop I’d just seen only to actually come across another completely different one.
I had a half hearted look at a Burger King to see if they had anything different (not by the looks of things) and then decided to head off to the lounge. On my way I passed Doha’s famous massive teddy. Trust me it’s bigger than it looks!
Qatar have, I think, three different lounges at Doha. There’s one for First Class passengers, one for Business Class, and one for elite members of Oneworld airlines’ frequent flyer schemes. I headed for the Al Mourjan lounge – the Business Class one. A man scanned my boarding pass with a mobile device, and allowed me access to an escalator which took me up to the airport’s first floor – which the lounge occupies.
This place is SERIOUSLY spectacular. You cannot help but be impressed. First there’s the size of it – it’s enormous – then there’s the design of it.
Going around the back of a massive silver desk you’re greeted by an enormous water feature.
Behind that is a huge spiral staircase framed by distressed metal. Hanging down the middle of that is a gigantic chandelier. I’m running out of words for ‘big’ here.
There’s a whole load of different seating areas scattered along the length of the lounge – and a business area too. But I found the signage wasn’t actually that clear. I had to ask someone where the showers were, and it turned out they weren’t signposted until you got into the toilets.
An attendant told me I’d be in for a very long wait for a shower, and suggested I check with the showers at the other end of the lounge. A twenty minute walk later (nah that’s a joke!) and through a restaurant cooking hot sandwiches to order, I arrived in the lounge’s quiet zone.
It was full of little booths which would be a good place for a nap I thought!
Thankfully this area also had showers, and there wasn’t a wait for them. In fact I was the only person that seemed to be using them. A helpful attendant handed me a toothbrush and toothpaste, and I had an amazing shower. The only annoying thing was that the whole airport was roasting – it was 29 degrees outside apparently, but surely they have air conditioning? It took ages to cool down after my shower.
Next I headed up the spiral staircase in the lounge to check out the other dining area. It turned out to be a buffet style affair with a bar serving drinks.
I had a little hummus….
…and a small selection of ‘stuff’… including a tiny piece of lamb with harissa which was very tasty.
Two hours had flown by, and it was time to head to the gate for my next flight. It turned out that it involved a ride on the futuristic train.
After travelling for about five minutes, we arrived in another absolutely enormous part of the airport – it just seems to go on for ever and ever! Look at this…
That’s like a tiny bit of it!
Eventually I got to the gate, and after only about a ten minute wait, it was time to board my flight to Vietnam.
The flight to Ho Chi Minh
This was another flight with Qatar, and another A350, but this time with an older version of the airline’s business class. I’ve got to say it was still absolutely great! There was plenty of legroom and plenty of places to store stuff too.
I had another glass of rosé champagne and settled back as we took off into the night sky above Doha.
As I’d literally just eaten and was still feeling stuffed from my last flight, I decided to skip the main course on the seven and a half hour flight. Instead I had a starter of grilled prawns and scallop with yuzu dressing, and then a small portion of ice cream. Washed down with two glasses of Chardonnay (to help me sleep obviously!). Oh and I had this intriguing roll which was delicious.
Excuse the purple mood lighting! After watching an episode of World on Fire, I donned the White Company Qatar branded pyjamas I’d been given, put my seat back into the sleep position and quickly fell asleep.
Just about two hours later though I was woken by turbulence. The pilot had warned us of it, and it wasn’t too bad at all, but it was enough to wake me, and after that I really struggled to get back to sleep. I was hot. And try as I hard as I might, sleep just wouldn’t come again. I lay for a while with my eyes closed before giving up.
I surfed the internet a bit before watching an episode of EastEnders on my iPad. Then before I knew it, it was time for breakfast. I had an omelette covered in some weird kind of watery cheesy tasting sauce. It was ok!
Gazing out the window, Ho Chi Minh – or Saigon – soon came into sight. It looked enormous, disappearing far into the distance, with houses and buildings crammed along both wide boulevards and much narrower streets.
We touched down, and were quickly disembarking. An uneventful immigration process and stamp in my passport later, I waited about twenty seconds before my bag appeared, and walked through an empty customs. Result!
Getting to my hotel
First things first, I needed a drink. I walked up and down the arrivals hall, but there were only taxi desks and ATMs. Stepping outside in to the heat, the first thing I spotted was a Domino’s Pizza on the airport’s concourse. But that was about it. So I headed back into the airport to departures, where a shop was signposted.
When I got there, all I could see was this… 樂
So I walked back outside and quickly learned they don’t sell bottles of Diet Coke here. Only cans! And in fact the cafe I was at didn’t have any. I got a can of San Pellogrino instead and quickly downed it.
I’d read horror stories about people being scammed by taxi touts on arrival, but I was only asked by the one guy if I needed one. I shook my head and walked past him to the official taxi rank, and was soon in a not too clean car, heading out on to the streets of the city.
As soon as we were out of the airport the first thing that hit me (quite literally nearly) was mopeds. They were absolutely everywhere and they were driving four, five, six abreast, weaving furiously in and out of traffic, in front of us, and flying along beside us.
To say they were being driven without skill would be wrong – their drivers seemed experts at spotting a gap and flying into it. It was just all a bit chaotic looking!
A thirty minute ride took me to the front of my hotel. The fare came to 117,000 dong or about £3.75. Not bad at all! I handed over 200,000 and waited for my change, which wasn’t forthcoming. Instead the taxi driver turned around and with a cheeky grin asked “ok?”. I rolled my eyes and gave him a smile back – “ok!” I said, with just a hint of frustration in my voice. He’s obviously used to angling for a nearly 50% tip!
All I wanted to do after getting out the car and walking into the cool lobby was to get my room key and have a snooze. By now the lack of sleep was beginning to catch up with me. Haggard would be a good word for how I was feeling. I sat down at the desk and was given a sugary minty drink on ice while the receptionist noted my details.
And…. unfortunately my room wasn’t ready. I could totally understand that – after all check in was 2pm, and it was only about 9.15am. But I was sad none the less that my head wouldn’t soon be hitting a pillow.
I did need a shower though. The helpful porter took my bag up to the fitness facility, and directed me into the changing rooms. There I unpacked some clean clothes, and had a very long and very relaxing shower. It did do a good job of waking me up. Next it was time to head out and explore the city.
Exploring Ho Chi Minh
The first thing I needed as I was going to be on the move for a while was a coffee. I put that word into Apple Maps which came up with a Starbucks just an eight minute walk away. Now I’m all or an authentic experience, but I was tired remember, so Starbucks would do!
I turned a corner from the hotel and came across a massive street. Which I needed to cross. Mopeds and vehicles flew past me, and there was no green man to help me either. I waited about a full five minutes for a gap in the traffic but none was forthcoming.
Eventually someone came and stood beside me and just stepped off the pavement to cross. I followed them – which worked.
And that was one of my most important learnings in Ho Chi Minh – if there is no green man (not all crossings have lights), wait for a minute and if the traffic doesn’t stop coming just wait until it’s fairly light and step into the road. Cars will stop and mopeds will just speed around you! It takes a leap of faith the first time though.
I made it safely across another road and to Starbucks – it was a posh one too, one of their Roastery Reserve stores.
The helpful assistant took my order for a skinny mocha, and handed me a plastic stand with a number on it. Table service!
I took a seat in the big open space full of young Vietnamese, and about five minutes later my mocha turned up. With some little stars on top!
I sat in Starbucks for a while, working out my spending money and writing a bit before setting back out on to the streets.
I wasn’t quite sure where I was heading, so noting there was a branch of the Japanese department store Takashimaya not too far away, wandered in that general direction.
Before long I came across a brilliant example of the city’s colonial architecture – the City Hall. It was weird how it contrasted with skyscrapers right next to it, and I’ve got to say that sums up Ho Chi Minh really – it’s a real mix of old and new.
Walking down a wide avenue I suddenly came across lots of newly married couples posing for photographers in the street. I couldn’t see anything around which looked special – it was just a normal looking street with some shuttered buildings so that puzzled me. I’d find out later that day what the score was though!
On the next block I came across a building made for Instagram – it was an apartment block apparently which was going to be ripped down, but instead it was invaded by coffee shops for tourists. And as a result, it’s still standing today.
Nearing the department store, I came across Chung Cu 42 Ton That Thiep. A mouthful! It’s also a converted apartment building, but the upper floors have now been taken over by spaces run by cool local designer brands and boutiques.
I made my way up the old staircase and walked along the upper floors’ walkways, peering into shops as I went. All of them had the doors closed and just looked slightly intimidating so I didn’t go in any of them!
I had a very halfhearted look around the branch of the Japanese department store and the attached mall, before beginning to flag a bit – maybe lunch would sort me out!
My first Vietnamese meal
I’d read about a place in my guide book that sounded right up my street while being fairly traditional. A shop with a bistro and coffee shop attached.
Rounding a street corner beside some very expensive hotels with attached Chanel boutiques, and catching sight of Ho Chi Minh’s opera house, I spotted a sign for L’Usine on the first floor of a building. But for the life of me I couldn’t work out how to reach it.
After walking right around half of the building, I decided to go up an alley dividing the building in two, and eventually found a staircase. That was it!
Inside had that kind of Australian brunch place vibe to it – a place for hipsters! Seated at tables were a mixture of locals and tourists, some of them furiously typing away on laptops.
I’ll admit I was very tempted by some of the sandwiches and burgers on offer, but decided instead to go for something slightly traditional! Cơm tấm or Broken Rice. This version came with caramalised pork, a fried egg and mango salad. Sounded good!
To be honest I wasn’t exactly sure what broken rice was. It turns out it is actually rice that has been broken! During the milling process – so the grains are shorter, but apart from that there’s nothing wrong with it.
My dish was tasty – if not really that Vietnamese in my opinion! It didn’t look or taste a million miles away from something you’d have at home.
After paying my bill of £8, I climbed back downstairs and towards one of Ho Chi Minh’s biggest markets. I had an appointment!
Ho Chi Minh with a local
I always think it’s good to do a tour on your first day in a new city – a walking one or bike one that’ll let you get your bearings, and pick up some tips on what to see and do. I’d left it late to book one for Ho Chi Minh – literally just getting it sorted on my flight from Doha.
In the end I booked one through Airbnb as the other walking tours I found online weren’t running on the Saturday. That’s why I was headed to Ben Thanh market.
It is enormous. The building looks a fair size from the outside, but inside it just seems to stretch forever.
And stalls area crammed in absolutely everywhere. As I was a bit earlier I had a quick look around, but a) it seemed to be full of absolute tat (cigarette lighters with the Apple logo on them for example) and b) I got fed up pretty quickly of people trying to get me to buy shirts.
Back at the entrance I met up with my guide Kim and a Venuzualan guy called Orlando who had also signed up for the tour. Kim told us the market was full of rubbish and only for tourists as we marched straight through it and out the other side. I already liked her style! 藍
As we walked Kim asked a bit more about us, and we found out about her – she was a Marketing student in her final year at university. She was really funny, kept giggling and didn’t seem to take any nonsense either! Orlando was also great company – we all got on, so the next couple of hours were going to be fun!
You’re not going to believe the first two places Kim took us on our walking tour. First up? The town hall. She was not impressed I’d already seen it, but she did tell us a bit about the history of Ho Chi Minh and its French past as we took the view in.
Just down the street, we came across married couples having their picture taken again. It turns out that on that corner was an Italian restaurant which has since moved. However, Kim explained, for some reason the restaurant became associated with good luck – hence the newlyweds queueing up to have their picture taken outside what was basically a shuttered building.
Next we walked to a familiar building, up an alley, and up some stairs.
To a gallery right next door to the cafe where I’d had lunch. That didn’t impress her either, but at least I hadn’t been in the gallery I pointed out! She also told me at this point L’Usine was a tourist place, and the broken rice would not have been authentic.
The gallery sold photographs by French photographer Réhahn, who is based in the city. I didn’t see anything I liked enough to buy it, but he had great shots of the people of Vietnam, Cuba and India.
After a stroll past the opera house (yup seen that too sorry!)…
Kim decided it was time for coffee, and took us up some stairs in a beautiful old building…
to a cool coffee shop, Cong. There weren’t so many tourists here – it definitely seemed more of a locals’ place. Orlando and I let Kim order for us, and before long three delicious looking iced drinks were placed in front of us.
Orlando got coffee and caramel (my favourite from the spoonful I had), Kim had a passion fruit ice which was really, really sweet, while I had… well Kim didn’t really seem quite sure. Green bean and “something like rice”. It tasted like a matcha iced rice pudding – weirdly you could taste rice in it. It was very nice, very refreshing and extremely filling. I couldn’t finish it in fact!
We sat and chatted about communism in Vietnam, and what was happening in Orlando’s home country. It was just really chilled out and relaxing. Then we headed downstairs in the same building where Kim showed us some clothes shops packed with teenagers. It seemed to be where Ho Chi Minh’s fashion crowd went.
A short stroll took us to two of Ho Chi Minh’s best known buildings – the Notre Dame Cathedral…
…the view of which was unfortunately covered by scaffolding and hoardings due to renovations. I thought that meant you couldn’t go inside but having looked online I’m not sure that is actually the case, although there didn’t seem to be a way in. Built by the French in the late 1880s, the bricks for its facade were imported from Marseilles.
Perpendicular to Notre Dame was another beautiful colonial era building – what I kept thinking looked really like a train station…
…but in fact is Saigon’s main post office. It’s a beautifully ornate building, and inside, apart from a load of souvenir stalls, it looks practically untouched since the French ruled over the city.
We were still having a laugh as we walked around – Kim was quite light on the history and stuff, and wouldn’t point very much out apart from the buildings, but it was fun and interesting nonetheless. I got an eye roll and an “everyone thinks that” when I mentioned the post office looked like a train station, then a fit of giggles when she suggested hiding from Orlando and I said I would add to my review that she hid from people.
Apart from mopeds, one thing you can’t help notice about Ho Chi Minh is the amount of people cooking everywhere. They cook up alleys, in stairways and hallways of buildings, and on the street.
And it was time to get my first taste of Vietnamese street food. Stopping by a lady and her small cart, we waited patiently in line before Kim ordered two “Vietnamese pizzas” (she was full after her drink).
Here’s one of them being made….
With rice paper as a base, shredded pork, spring onion and dried shrimp are added before two quail’s eggs are cracked on top. Everything’s mixed together, a circle of chilli sauce is added and the ‘pizza’’s folded in half before being placed in a brown paper bag.
That lady was working hard – in fact she didn’t stop. When I pointed that out to Kim I was told dryly it was because there was a queue.
Thirty seconds later Orlando had already polished his off, but it was far too hot for me to eat! Eventually it cooled down enough, but where it lacked heat in one way, it certainly made up for it in other ways. The chilli sauce practically took the roof of my mouth off! Kim told me she had deliberately chosen something not spicy for us. I like spicy food – in fact I add chillies to most stuff, but let me tell you this was very, very spicy.
We wandered up “book street” – a tiny street lined with book stalls, and came across a comedian Kim told us was famous, being filmed presenting someone with a big cheque. If only we’d got there earlier I said to Kim, ‘it could have been you!”
We strolled past a museum (which I’ll tell you about in my next post) and our tour was at an end. I’d had a really good time – Kim and Orlando and I all got on and had a laugh. It also transpired that Orlando had a warning for me – I’d booked a tour for Monday, and it turned out he’d done exactly the same one. And slept for 13 hours after it. Hmmm! That got me a bit worried!
By now I just wanted to head back to the hotel and get checked in – I was beginning to feel absolutely exhausted after two or three hours’ sleep and walking all over town. Kim volunteered to walk me back to my hotel, and when Orlando asked where the best place to get street food was, she said it wasn’t far from where I was staying. So I decided to go with them to see it.
En route we passed near Kim’s university – and caught sight of what can only be described as a piece of brutalist communist design – but which I quite liked! Kids ran up and down the stairs and along concrete blocks which Kim pointed out probably wasn’t safe.
We walked about ten minutes from my hotel and turned down a small alleyway into Kim’s recommended street food spot. All around people sat tucking into delicious looking food.
Meanwhile ladies cooked furiously at their stalls. I couldn’t really tell what much of anything was, but I did spot some snails at one point!
Kim and Orlando decided to stay on but by now I literally just wanted to crawl in to bed! I took a quick selfie with them…
And then my legs could barely carry me back to the hotel.
I finally reached the hotel at about five o’clock. Ten minutes later, I was taking the lift up to the tenth floor and opening the door to my room. Aaaah!
It was lovely. A massive big bed faced a window with a view of the city. Behind that was the bathroom with a freestanding bath and shower.
It would definitely do! After setting my alarm for an hour or two later, I woke up and called home before deciding I really couldn’t be bothered going out for dinner. I was still exhausted. A 7-Eleven next door beckoned. It was time for my traditional on holiday chocolate milk, bag of crisps and sandwich hotel room dinner!
Unfortunately the sandwiches were look thin and sad. There were only two options – so I picked up a pack with one egg and one sausage sandwich. I got my chocolate milk, a little pack of teriyaki chicken sushi and chose the most exotic flavour of crisps I could find – Thai Spicy Squid flavour. They did indeed taste like dried squid.
I sank into bed and sleep came quickly. Tomorrow would be my only full day in Ho Chi Minh, and I wanted to cram as much in as possible.