14 February 2017

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) - Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

Date of Exploration : 29 Jan 2017

Completed in 1880, the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is perhaps the oldest major monument of its standing in Ho Chi Minh City. It is conveniently located within the heart of the city in District 1, just opposite the main entrance of the Reunification Palace (the two attractions are separated by a park).

I did a half-day self-guided walking tour of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, the city's Old Post Office next to it, and ending off at the Reunification Palace.

As the foliage of the park that separated the Reunification Palace and Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon parted, the cathedral's transept made its stately presence felt.

I had wanted to start my day's exploration at Reunification Palace first but it was closed during lunch (11am - 1pm) so I came to the cathedral instead.

While I was at the closed gate of the Reunification Palace, a motorcycle taxi rider came up to me and offered to bring me on a ride to show me where the various attractions are located for US$5.00 (duration of ride is about 30 minutes). I did not take up the offer and pointed towards the park in front of the palace's main gate and indicated that I'm going to the cathedral. He told me that the cathedral is not located in the direction which I pointed and offered to take me there. So I consulted Google Map and it showed that the cathedral is very near.

With the staggering amount of traffic in Ho Chi Mink City, getting a clean shot without any vehicle in it is good training for patience. God knows how long I waited to get this shot without any vehicles in it.
I was a little baffled, wondering to believe him or not but I declined his offer anyway and decided to cross the park to find out. As it turned out, the motorcycle taxi rider hadn't been truthful. The cathedral is located exactly in the direction that I pointed and it took me under 3 minutes to cross the road from the gate of the Reunification Palace, cut across the park, and arrive at the side transept of the cathedral!

Personally, I feel that the attractions (Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City Old Post Office, Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Ben Thanh Market, the French Quarter and Bitexco Tower) are located within a reasonable walking radius. That's if you stay at the centre of District 1 which is near Ben Thanh Market. So it is not necessary to take the motorcycle taxi ride. Moreover, US$5.00 (approx. 115,000d.) is rather expensive to just ride past the various sites. Anyway, there are a lot of taxi scams and other money rip-offs in Ho Chi Minh City so be very careful. Click here for some of the unpleasant encounters I experienced.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is right next to another of the city's historical gem - the Ho Chi Minh City's Old Post Office that was completed in 1891. It is also listed as one of the city's attractions to visit.

My visit coincided with the Chinese New Year period so while I was crossing the road to Saigon Cathedral, I caught sight of this CNY decoration on wheels. Talk about flower power! LOL

Facade of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. Officially known as the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception. I shall call it "Saigon Cathedral" for short.

Building materials for the cathedral were brought over from France with the marble statue of the Virgin Mary fabricated in Rome. "Notre Dame" means "Our Lady" in French.

Getting that essential "I am here" selfie shot :o)

In 2005, this statue of the Virgin Mary apparently wept tears from her right eye with a tear trail running down her right cheek. Is it a miracle?

The weather quickly turned gloomy with light rain during my visit but thankfully, the full blooming sunflowers planted around the statue added a smile to appreciate the cathedral with.

The two bell towers housing 6 bells each stands at a height of 58m.

Getting upclose with the Saigon Cathedral.

The cathedral was closed during my visit so I didn't get to see the interior.

Reflection of a star attraction from the French era of Ho Chi Minh City.

I stayed about an hour snapping photos of Saigon Cathedral's facade, most of the time spent waiting for traffic or people to clear the scene for cleaner shots of this historic religious monument.

Saigon Cathedral may not be as elaborate or atmospheric as the gargoyles-laden and medieval Notre Dame de Paris, but it offered a glimpse into the early Europeanisation of Vietnam. The "invasion" of France into Vietnam's politics started because a Catholic priest asked the French government to provide military support and help to Vietnam's Emperor Gia Long in reclaiming lost lands from the country's rebelling peasants.

So, always be careful when asking for help. Or one may end up losing much more.

09 February 2017

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) - Taxi Scams & Other Rip-Offs

Date of Scamming Experiences : 28 - 30 Jan 2017

There are many things that could go wrong during a vacation but nothing mars a holiday more than being scammed by the locals, resulting in a constant worry of what more you could be losing or the bad things that might happen next.

You simply cannot trust the people you rely on for help and hospitality.

And my first visit to Ho Chi Minh City was a crash course on the myriad ways one could be scammed, especially by the taxi drivers.

My 9D8N Vietnam trip spanned Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi. During the course of my research of the 3 cities, I came across a lot of warnings about the dishonesty of taxi drivers and cab scams in the various cities. I thought I was well-informed and prepared. But I was wrong.

There are other tactics that were not spoken about which I will share in this post as a matter of direct, personal experiences. Not something I've read about, or heard from, but actual incidents that happened to me.

I spent 4D3N in Ho Chi Minh City and can't help feeling I'm nothing more than a wallet on legs. From the moment I arrived at the customs to getting a cab to the city to various experiences in patronising businesses as well as street encounters, the whole city just came across as being very money hungry.

Here are my experiences with the money scams that I encountered in Ho Chi Minh City...

Custom Officer Asking for Ang Pow Money

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on the first day of Chinese New Year (28 Jan 17, Saturday). While getting my passport cleared at the customs, the immigration officer kept saying something I couldn't decipher while he cleared my entry into the country. He kept repeating himself and when I continued to have a blank expression on my face, he opened a drawer next to him and blatantly waved a collection of about seven pieces of S$10 notes. There were other monies of different currencies in the drawer.

That's when I realised hes asking him to give him "ang bao" (red packet) money because it is Chinese New Year. I just smiled and waited for him to stamp my passport and left without acceding to his request for money. My friend who is Malay and got his passport cleared by another immigration officer did not experience that.

If you visit Ho Chi Minh City during Chinese New Year, or possibly during any other major festive periods, just be mindful that the immigration officer might take the opportunity to ask for money. Just smile, wait for the immigration process to be completed, take your passport and leave.

Taxi Coordinator Asking for a High Flat Fee for a Ride into the City

Outside the airport, we wanted to take the metered taxi to the city centre where our hotel is. A coordinator who's helping passengers get cabs told me that it is Chinese New Year, all the cabs go by fixed rate and not by meter. He asked for a flat fee of 250,000d. (approx. S$16). This is the taxi coordinator, not even the taxi driver. What if we paid this coordinator and get on the taxi and the taxi driver still charge us a metered fare?

When you exit Ho Chi Minh Tan Son Nhat International Airport, turn left to get a public taxi to your hotel. There are touts offering taxi rides inside the airport but those will ask for a flat fee that will be much higher than a metered fare.

From online sources, estimated fare from airport to the city centre is about 140,000d. I didn't believe the coordinator so I asked a Vietnamese who's also waiting for a cab next to me if it is true that it's a fixed rate. He said no, the taxi should go by the meter. The coordinator promptly walked away and we got on a cab who used the meter to take us to our hotel.

So if you encounter a taxi coordinator asking for a flat fee, ignore him. Check with a cab if it is using meter and get on. As a general rule, use only the green Mai Linh taxis or the white with blue and dark green Vinasun taxis.

Taxi company to take in Ho Chi Min City - Mai Linh Taxi (green).
Tel : 38 38 38 38

Taxi company to take in Ho Chi Minh City - Vinasun (white with red and dark green logo).
Tel : 38 27 27 27

I've taken both Mai Linh and Vinasun and the drivers use the meter. But be careful of copycat companies who use these taxi company colours but are not by them. The copycats may use the same colours (especially the Vinasun colours) or similar looking logos.

While drivers from these two taxi companies are generally trustworthy and use the meter, that does not stop them from not giving exact change or going a long way to clock mileage so they can earn a higher metered fare. And that takes me to the next scam...

Taxi Driver Did Not Give Exact Change

On reaching our hotel, the metered fare showed 118,000d. Less than half the price that the coordinator asked for. But our driver turned around and asked for 200,000d. I said no. Unfortunately, I do not have smaller notes as I've just arrived in HCMC so I gave him 200,000d. and asked for change back. He gave me back only 50,000d. instead of the correct change of 82,000d.

Before I could ask for my exact change, he promptly got out of the cab and unloaded our luggage.

Driver Stole Handphone

The worst of the experience was when we took a cab to a further district. We made the mistake of not sticking to Mai Linh or Vinasun taxis as we couldn't get any. After walking around quite a bit, a taxi driver called to us near the Ben Tanh Market area and we boarded his cab. I can't recall which taxi company it was but it's neither Mai Linh or Vinasun although it is mostly white in colour.

When we got on the cab, the meter showed 100d. I immediately wanted to get off as I thought the driver is charging me a starting fare of 100,000d. But he assured me it's only 10,000d. So we took the cab and when we reached our destination, the meter showed 188,8880d. We were shocked and confused about the fare as it couldn't have cost so much since the journey was barely 15 minutes. So the driver clarified by taking a piece of newspaper over to explain the fare.

The newspaper covered my friends bag. He explained that it's only 18,000d. We gladly paid him 20,000d. and he kept the change. We thought we were in luck to have taken such a cheap ride. 20,000d. is roughly only about S$1.30. Immediately after we got off the cab, as a habit of checking our belongings, my friend realised that his handphone was gone. He placed it in the front pocket of his bag and the driver has distracted us with the confusing fare, newspaper and stolen it.

Driver Went a Big Round to Get Higher Fare

When we headed back to the city centre, we took a Mai Linh taxi and the driver went off on a tangent road, attempting to make a big round instead of the direct road that leads to our hotel. Thankfully I've been following our journey on Google map and asked him why he didn't take the direct road. He said he saw the address on our hotel's card wrongly, but I doubt it. The fare came up to 90,000d.

The scary thing is that we encountered all the above money scams all in a single day!


1. Take only Mai Linh or Vinasun taxis
2. Use Uber instead of the public taxis
3. Invest in a local SIM card and turn on Google maps to track your journey
4. Take a photo of the driver's license displayed on the car's dashboard. If the taxi driver doesn't display a license, it is most likely a scam cab. Get off.

Dishonest Motorcycle Taxis

The four-wheeled taxis aren't the only ones that will potentially scam you, the motocycle taxis will do that too.

I went to the Reunification Palace for a visit but it was closed during lunch time. As I exited the ticketing office, a motorcycle came up to me, offering to take me on a tour around the city sight's such as the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon and other sights for US$5.00.

The Reunification Palace is closed to visitors during lunchtime from 11:00am to 1:00pm.

I declined the offer saying that I'll just walk to the Notre-Dame Cathedral as it was just across a park at the opposite end of the Reunification Palace. I pointed right ahead across the park to where Google Map showed me the location of the cathedral is. The motorcycle driver immediately said no, that that is not the cathedral and that he will take me there.

I smiled, declined his offer again and walked off. I crossed the road from the Reunification Palace towards the park, cut across the park and rising before me after the park's tree foliage cleared was... you guessed it, the Notre-Dame Cathedral! It took me under 5 minutes to walk from the palace to the cathedral.

Another motorcycle scamming incident was when we headed out to a club for a drink. It was about 2am when we left and there were no taxis in sight on the road. A little drunk, we had no clear idea of our location. After walking for a while, a motorcycle came up to us and offered to take us back to the hotel for 150,000d.

As it was late, we were tired and a little tipsy, we agreed to the price thinking we were far. However, we actually weren't that far from our hotel. The bike ride lasted only around 5 minutes. If we had taken a cab, the fare would've probably been around 50,000d. Our bad for agreeing to such a high price.

Coconut Con Artist

Other than the transport scams, there's another high level scam around the outside parameters of the Reunification Palace. This is the coconut seller scam, which belongs to the highest grade of conning.

As we were making our way to the War Remnants Museum, we walked past a coconut seller. He walked alongside us and engaged us in light banter, asking where we are going and pointing us the way (even though we didn't ask as I was using Google Map). Then he said his coconut burden is very heavy and asked us to try. So we had a feel of it, posed for some photos and returned it to him.

We saw many people posing with the coconut seller's prop and there were a couple o them operating in the area.

Taking back his coconuts, he went on his way without trying to sell us anything. This is where the psychology game sets in. We felt bad for him and the fact that he wasn't trying to sell us anything and yet so friendly made us decide to buy drinks from the seller.

So we caught up with him and I asked him how much for one. Before he even answered me the price, he already split open one fruit and stuck a straw in it. He was about to open another one when I stopped him That's when he told me the price. Each coconut costs 50,000d. (S$3.20). At a restaurant, one coconut costs about 20,000 - 30,000d.

That's when we realised he's a high level type of scammer. So we paid for the expensive coconut drink and take it as fees to learn yet another lesson about the scams in HCMC.

Pay no enough in Singapore. Come holiday also must work part-time as coconut drinks seller. But I promise I won't scam you. LOL.

The scams we encountered were total holiday mood killers. It was such a damper when my friend's phone got picked and the police weren't of much help, telling us to go from one station to another to lodge a report until we gave up.

This was my first visit to HCMC and the more I ventured into city, the more I felt ripped-off and can't wait to leave. I've never felt like this before for any other place. It will definitely be the last time I come to this scam city of Vietnam.
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