Special OFFER. Saigon Unseen is now offering Ho Chi Minh City highlights readers a substantial discount on all their tours. You can find out more about this generous offer HERE. Not convinced? Read about my day out on their Urban Chaos Tour below.
Saigon Unseen – Getting away from the usual tourist haunts.
Tim and I usually travel independently because we have an aversion to group tours. Nothing annoys us more than being slapped with a name tag and told to follow the umbrella. “Horses for courses,” I say, but it’s just not us. So when I was scoping out tours to recommend here on Ho Chi Minh City Highlights, I went looking for small group tours that take travelers into the real Saigon typically unseen by most tourists. Don’t get me wrong. I think the sites like Reunification Palace, The War Remnants Museum, and others are well worth a visit, but you can easily do them by yourself on a self-guided walking tour. Just hire a guide when you get there if you want all the facts and figures or take your guidebook along.
It didn’t take that much searching to find what I was seeking. While researching one of my previous posts on walking tours, I stumbled on reviews for a company called Saigon Unseen. They have a 5-star rating on Trip Advisor from over 100 reviews and awards for excellence for the past four years. The description of their tours seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. They are a small company with three core tours and the ability to customize them if you want. To quote their website:
Our tours are more of a cruise to different parts of the city. We aren’t going to hammer you with facts, we want you to see with your own eyes the diversity and color of Saigon….. Saigon, it ain’t always pretty but it’s always pretty amazing!
A few days later I was meeting up with Adam (one of three Adams that run the company!!!) and he was recommending I take their Urban Kaos Motor Adventure. I do like a bit of chaos. That’s partly why we live in Ho Chi Minh City, so I was more than happy to agree. I’m delighted to report it was a fantastic day and met all of my expectations.
We were picked up by the affable Mr. Sau and Mr. Hieu at 8.45 am at our apartment in the suburbs and headed straight out to Binh Thanh, a sprawling district not far from where we live. Mr. Sau was extremely attentive to my safety and well-being til he realized I traveled on the back of motorbikes every day and wasn’t fazed in the least by the manic traffic that engulfed us. His driving was streets ahead of most lunatics who drive here, but I can understand his concern. I imagine that his ribs are almost crushed at times by tourists experiencing the thrill of riding pillion in Saigon for the first time. It’s not for the faint-hearted but it certainly is a buzz and once you relax it can be quite a pleasant experience if you have the right driver.
Our first stop was the Mausoleum of (THE LEFT WING) General Le Van Duyet’s. (Sorry couldn’t resist the brackets; it’s the description on the official brochure.) This guy was a former Governor here in the South in the days where the King ruled from Hue and was opening up more of the country. He’s buried here in one of the city’s most beautiful temples, long recognized as culturally significant to the nation. It’s a functioning temple, and we were careful not to disturb the worshipers as we admired the intricate design.
Back on the bikes, we headed into one of the busiest local markets in the city (Cho Ba Chieu) and then through the suburbs as Mr. Sau pointed out the diversity of living conditions. Little shacks perched on the canals sit just around the corner from modern, multi-storey apartment blocks. Parts of the city are densely populated while others are completely undeveloped with animals grazing on the side of the road.
We did a big arc of the city passing briefly through District 2 (one of the new expensive areas) and getting plenty of opportunities to photograph the city from different viewpoints. As we headed back to the center of town along the main highway, I couldn’t help but note the lack of traffic and the contrast with the usual bedlam in the busier areas of town. It was a real buzz to head into the new 1km long tunnel under the Saigon River that popped us out in downtown District 1. We weren’t there long though as we headed over the first bridge and deep into District 4, a far more traditional area brimming with life and activity. I haven’t seen that many Vietnamese “non la’s” (palm-leaf conical hats) in one place in a very long while.
It was coffee time, so we zipped through narrow alleys, past more local markets and pulled up to enjoy a traditional brew in a small café. I love all types of Vietnamese coffee, but Café Sua Da (filter coffee mixed with condensed milk and poured over ice) is second to none on a warm day. As we continued deeper into District 4, the streets became even more narrow and filled with vendors hawking their wares. We couldn’t ride through safely, and there were so many picture opportunities we didn’t want to miss, so we jumped off the bikes and walked through to get a closer look. Mr. Sau tells me this is where the Saigon Unseen photography tour comes, and I’m not surprised. After wearing out our photo fingers, we had a quick look at the oldest Catholic Church in Ho Chi Minh City before heading off again.
Our last stop before lunch was the newer District 7 (Phu My Hung) where many of the expats of Ho Chi Minh City live. It’s one of those places that could be anywhere in the world. Modern shops selling international brand names, tall apartment blocks and whole streets of western restaurants flank wide avenues with almost no traffic. It’s worth a look to see another side of Saigon, but not somewhere I would live. Things are just a bit too clean and sterile for my liking, not to mention loads more expensive. As we turned a corner at a major intersection and re-entered the chaos, Mr. Sau jokingly said: “Welcome back to Vietnam.” My sentiments exactly!
We continued onto the next stop for lunch where Mr. Sau expertly taught us how to eat pho, the favorite dish in Vietnam. We were served up a magnificent bowl of Pho Bo, Vietnamese beef noodle soup and all the bits to add. As he showed us how everything worked, I didn’t have the heart to tell him I eat this delicious concoction every chance I get. Anyway, I got a great video which you can see here.
As we’d driven through District 7, I’d spotted a cart with some strange looking “fruit” on it. Mr. Sau told me it was Water Coconut, a species of coconut that grows around waterways from much smaller plants than the usual coconut palms. The next thing I know, we’re down by the river at a floating market watching a local lady expertly prepare the fruit on her floating stall. Twenty seconds later she delivered me a small bag full of the fresh gelatinous “meat”. To my surprise, it tasted just like green coconut flesh. I’m not sure why I was surprised. Probably because the whole nut looked so different from the usual ones.
The tour ended with a ride through District 1 and past some of the most iconic buildings in town. Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon City Hall, The Opera House, the Rex Hotel and Ben Thanh Market before dropping us off on Bui Vien Street in the heart of backpacker central. We were meeting friends there. Otherwise, the guys would have dropped us home.
And that, my friends, was the end of our journey with Saigon Unseen. We had been to places in Ho Chi Minh City that we didn’t know existed despite having been here for well over a year in total. The motorbike ride had been an exhilarating way to tour and the sites we’d visited had provided a taste of all the different sides of Saigon. It seemed to me I only had to show an interest in something and Mr. Sau would do his best to seek it out. Both drivers were extremely careful, and Mr. Sau’s English was excellent. At $45 its money well spent. We’d had a great time and hadn’t seen another tourist all day, so I’d agree with reviews that report it is “untouristy.” I might even sign up for one of their other two tours when I get time. The walking tour gets into the heart of District 4 as does the photography tour and that’s one of the fascinating parts of Saigon for me.
Don’t forget to get your discount on any of Saigon Unseen’s tours HERE.
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