My First Time in a Tiny Monarchy and Being Pleasantly Surprised in Vietnam

This time I’d like to regal you with stories from my trips to Brunei and Vietnam. It all started with a direct flight from Taiwan to Bandar Seri Begawan – the capital of Brunei. I was in Taiwan for a short visit after my stay in Palau.

Landing in Bandar Seri Begawan

From Taiwan, I arrived in Brunei. If you don’t already know, Brunei is a tiny nation on the island of Borneo. Malaysia and the South China Sea surround it, and it is known for its beaches and biodiverse rainforest.

The capital, which is the main focus of my visit, is home to the opulent Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque and its 29 golden domes. Keep in mind Brunei is a wealthy, Muslim state with lots of oil and a Sultan. It is no wonder that the capital harbors the massive Istana Nurul Iman palace, which is the residence of Brunei’s ruling Sultan. There are a few other tourist attractions worth noting, and I go over them in the paragraphs below.

However, I only spent two nights in the city. Basically, I just wanted to cross Brunei off my list. To be quite honest, I didn’t really expect too much from the place; for most people, it’s a shit-hole, granted, a very rich shit-hole.

During my time in Bandar Seri Begawan, I booked a nice stay at the Radisson Hotel. I arrived there late in the afternoon and didn’t really do much else that day. I was scheduled to explore the capital the next day, so that afternoon I stayed in my room, did consulting calls, and worked a little bit well into the evening.

The next day, I started the city tour by visiting the Royal Regalia Museum, which is located in the heart of the city. It is where the Sultan is praised, and it houses the regalia of the Sultan and the royalty. All the presents the Sultan receives from heads-of-state from around the world are also in display. It is basically a very pompous museum with a lot of gold and a lot of precious stones – all the things that are important to the Sultan.

I love tiny monarchies. This museum displays all the presents the Sultan of Brunei has ever received, as well as all the crown jewels and royal items.

The museum displays a historical review of the present Sultan’s life, narrated through family pictures with detailed texts. Side note, there is even a photograph of the Sultan smiling at his circumcision ceremony. It is basically a shrine to the Sultan, which is not surprising since the Sultan himself opened the museum.

After the museum, I walked around the entire city center, making a stop at the childhood home of the Sultan, and afterward, arriving at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

View of the famous mosque from across the river.

It is no wonder that this Islamic mosque is often considered one of the most beautiful mosques in the Asia Pacific. It is not only a place of worship for the Muslim community, but it is also an important historical site and a famous tourist attraction of Brunei.

I went inside, and it was indeed, a beautiful place.

It serves as a symbol of the Islamic faith in Brunei, while also being a remarkable example of modern Islamic architecture. It is one of the two national mosques in the capital, the other being the Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque.

It really is a remarkable example of modern Islamic architecture.

After the mosque, I continued my walk along the waterfront, visiting different tourist sights, and taking pictures. I also considered visiting Kampong Ayer, a historical settlement area across the river – its name literally means ‘water village’. The settlement consists of a cluster of traditional stilt homes built on the Brunei River. Boat drivers were inviting me to cross, but I didn’t feel like it. Instead, I took photos from across the river… check it out:

Here you have it: The Venice of Asia.

For the rest of the afternoon, I continued to walk along the waterfront and city center until I returned to my hotel.

Sightseeing in Brunei and I suddenly got a stinging whiff of something nasty… then I saw this…

So there you have it, my time in Bandar Seri Begawan: a few hours walking around the city center and the waterfront – and I saw everything I needed to see. 🙂

The next day I was planning to visit the Ulu Temburong National Park, which is found in the extreme east of Brunei, in the Temburong District. The park is enclosed by three other districts and the Sarawak state of Malaysia. It is made up of a lowland rainforest that covers 40% of the region – in an area of 212 square miles (550 km2). I should note that Ulu Temburong was the first national park to be established in Brunei in 1991. It contains an unspoiled jungle, and it is known as the “Green Jewel of Brunei,” making it an excellent spot for ecotourism. Also, the national park can not be reached by land; it can only be reached by river, accessed by longboats that leave from the capital. It’s quite the endeavor!

Sadly, I didn’t book in advance – and with such short notice, I couldn’t find anyone to bring me there. So, that morning I just slept-in and worked from my hotel. For lunch, I ate at a very nice Indian restaurant inside the Radisson. That same afternoon I headed to the airport to catch my flight to Ho Chi Minh City.

I went to Ho Chi Minh City to meet my business partner Stephan (I am one of the investors in his Airbnb business). We meet every three-to-four months in different places across the globe. This was the first time either of us was visiting Ho Chi Minh (commonly known as Saigon).

Our first evening in the city, we met up around 8 pm to explore the town. A friend of mine who had been to Ho Chi Minh recently had recommended some places for us to visit. We started at a craft beer place called the Pasteur Street Brewing Company. It had a pretty good menu and we ordered A LOT of beer – I think we had six kinds of beer, EACH. Luckily, they also served delicious German sausages and pretzels, so we ended up having quite the nice German dinner in Saigon of all places!

Great craft beer, pretzels and sausages. The perfect Germain dinner in Vietnam, of all the places. I’ve been since informed they serve Durian beer there… maybe next time…

After dinner, we went to check out some bars; we started with one that had been recommended to us. It was a very fancy bar and they were panicking about the Coronavirus. So they checked our temperature and made us diligently wash our hands before entering – that was a first for me. Inside, the decor was quite posh, and everything on the menu was costly, around 5 times the prices in the rest of the city. Side note, this bar was also a playing ground for high-class escorts!

I really had no idea Saigon had such a nice skyline.

However, we didn’t stay there very long. Instead, we decided to move on and find another place. Sadly, we didn’t find anywhere we wanted to stay, so we walked around a bit more before going back to our hotel.

I really liked Saigon right from the start.

Fortunately, this wasn’t the end of the night for us. The concierge at our hotel told us of another place to go, so we went. Shortly after, we found ourselves at a famous bar called Apocalypse Now – which is basically another establishment to meet local  girls. This place, however, had much more appealing music, lots of people and lots of foreigners. So, we stayed for some beers, ciders, and cocktails.

I won’t bore you with too many details; I’ll just leave you with this photo and tell you it ended up being a great night out on the town.

I am really mostly wondering how big the losses of Grupo Modelo S.A. are right now – or shall I say, profit gains due to free advertising? 😉

The next day I organized a half-day city tour in two old, convertible VW vans. We were driven through the streets of Saigon, visiting all the key tourist sights. We started by going to the Chua Van Phat – temple of ten-thousand buddhas. This temple is crammed into a corner of Cholon (Chợ Lớn – a district in Ho Chi Minh), so it goes up rather than out – meaning there are lots of stairs to climb. Nonetheless, it was still a pretty impressive sight.

Discovering Saigon in style.

We continued our drive gazing at the old colonial buildings as we arrived at the Independence Palace (Dinh Độc Lập). This palace is a landmark in Saigon. During the Vietnam War, it was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam. It was also the site of the end of the Vietnam War, during the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates. Lots of history in this city!

After the palace, we continued to visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. A beautiful church established by French colonists and constructed between 1863 and 1880. The most notable part of its architecture is the two bell towers, which reach a height of 58 meters tall (190 feet).

Fun Fact: All the original building materials were imported from France. Since construction, many tiles have been made in Saigon to replace the tiles that were damaged by the war.

Likewise, we visited the Tân Định church (pink church), which was also built during the French colonial period in the 1870s and completed on 16 December 1876, back when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. Since 1957, it has been painted pastel-pink both inside and out, earning it the nickname of “the pink church.”

It is the second-largest church in Ho Chi Minh City, after Notre-Dame Basilica in District 1.

Next, we visited the Ho Chi Minh city hall, also known as Saigon City Hall, built in 1902-1908 in a French colonial style for the then city of Saigon. It was renamed after 1975 as Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee. Although this elegant colonial building is not open to the public, it is still trendy for its great photo opportunities.

Then, we visited The Ho Chi Minh City Post Office or the Saigon Central Post Office. It is located pretty close to Notre-Dame, so why not! This building was also constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in the late 19th century, and it is now another popular tourist spot.

The tour ended at the Bến Thành Market. This market is one of the earliest surviving structures in Saigon, and it is an essential symbol of the city. It is a famous destination for many locals and foreign tourists from all around the world. Today, Ben Thanh Market welcomes more than 10,000 visitors per day, and it operates all year round.

Inside the market, there were lots of people who picked us out of the crowd right away, waiting to exploit us. There was also a fish market, which was really interesting to see. There, they have living fish in buckets, I actually saw a live one jump out of the bucket and land on the street flopping around – I think it definitely didn’t make it. This whole thing was both equally exciting and disgusting to witness.

Sightseeing in Saigon.

When it was all said and done, we ended up at a coffee shop in the center, where we finished a long morning of sightseeing with a nice cup of coffee. Afterward, we went back to the hotel to rest and meet a couple of hours later for lunch.

Great city. Much cleaner and orderly than Bangkok or Manila

After lunch, we visited the Saigon Center and the Bitexco Financial Tower. The latter is the most famous skyscraper in Ho Chi Minh. At the time of its completion in 2010, it became the tallest building in Vietnam and kept this status for a whopping year, until January 2011, when the Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower surpassed it.

Top Viewpoint of Vietnam.

With 68 floors above ground and three basements, the building has a height of 262.5 meters (861 ft), making it the second tallest building in the city, fifth tallest in Vietnam, and the 352nd tallest in the world, as of the beginning of 2020. At Floor 49, at height around 178 meters, there is an observation deck open to the public, which offers 360-degree views of the city.

We went up to the viewing platform and enjoyed some really nice views of the area. Apparently, Saigon is just growing like crazy these days. If you went to visit ten years ago, there were no high-rise buildings or skyscrapers. Back then, there were only tuk-tuks on the streets. Now, the same streets are filled with construction and there is even a large metro system underway.

So much construction and development going on.

There are many tall buildings with incredible views in the city, even where we were staying (The Renaissance Riverside Hotel) also has some breathtaking sights. Still, from this tower, we could see our hotel and every other attraction the city has to offer. So we stayed to take some pictures and marvel over the growth happening in Saigon.


In the evening, we met up with a friend of mine who has been living in Saigon for a while. We met with him and his girlfriend at the rooftop bar of our hotel. Just as they arrived, it started pouring rain, so we stayed at the lounge for an hour drinking cocktails. When it finally stopped raining, we went to El Gaucho Steakhouse for dinner, the place was quite expensive for Vietnamese standards, but they served delicious steak. We had 300g of the finest 9+ MS Wagyu fillet and an excellent steak tartare. The whole dinner experience with my friends was really nice.

Here you have the 300g of finest 9+ MS Wagyu filet – delicious – and my favorite (tax-free) Bermudan Dark n’ Stormy.

After the feast, we were pretty much done for the night – keep in mind we ate a lot and drank a lot. So we just went back to our hotel to be well-rested for our excursion the following day.

The next day we went to visit the tunnels of Củ Chi. These are an immense network of connecting tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Saigon. They are part of a much more extensive network of tunnels that underlie a lot of the country.

The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters, as well as serving as communication and supply routes to hospitals, food, and weapon caches. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces and helped to counter the growing American military effort.

Can you spot something fun among here?

American soldiers used the term “Black Echo” to describe the conditions within the tunnels. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food, and water were scarce, and the tunnels were infested with poisonous centipedes, snakes, scorpions, spiders, and rodents. Most of the time, soldiers would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops, or engage the enemy in battle.

Sometimes, during periods of massive bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second-largest cause of death next to battle wounds during the war.

Must have been big fun to be a an American soldier during the Vietnam war.

Basically, it is in these tunnels that the Vietnamese won the war against the U.S. troops. We saw the tunnels and also an American-captured tank. Funny story, we were there with some Russian tourists, and one Russian guy went inside the tank to take a lot of pictures. It was quite funny, seeing a Russian in an American tank… finally. 😉

In the area, they also have a big shooting range where you can shoot a lot of different rifles and weapons. We didn’t do that since it didn’t seem too exciting, and the ammo rounds were quite expensive. To be honest, some of the most interesting things to see were the traps that the Viet Cong used to hurt and even kill American soldiers. There were some really nasty traps where you could easily fall through if you roamed the jungle.

At one point, I crawled through the tunnels, which was very hard for me since they were built really small, and as you know, I stand tall at over 2 meters. As a tall guy, this part of the tour was not very comfortable, I couldn’t even go through all of it. I just crawled 30 meters to get a feel of what it would have been like for the Vietnamese who had to be there or even the American tunnel rats. Which is what they called the American soldiers that went into the tunnels to fight the Vietnamese in close combat.

No matter how hard it gets, never forget to smile for the gram 😉

The visit to the tunnels was really surreal and it was super interesting to see and imagine what life must have been like during the war.

After the tunnels – and on a much lighter note – we visited a town where villagers make paintings on local ceramics. After briefly checking it out, we continued on a long drive to the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam is a vast maze of rivers, swamps and islands, home to floating markets, Khmer pagodas, and villages surrounded by rice paddies. For this area, boats are the primary means of transportation.

First views of the Mekong.

I wanted to see the river, so we did a boat tour and went to a bee farm on one of the islands nearby. This farm is quite famous for its bees and honey. At the farm, there were thousands of bees hives. I actually got to see and hang out with a bunch of them – they were actually quite harmless. I really enjoyed the honey there and seeing how they protect other ecosystems in the area.

Saving the bees from their vegan enslavers. Unfortunately, you never get to see the other side…;)

Apparently, this island is always super crowded with tourists, but this time it was utterly deserted. The reason being that all the Chinese tourists are gone thanks to the coronavirus.

Now is the perfect time to visit Asia. Few tourists, less traffic and low prices. Thanks Corona 🙂

On the island, we also sat down at a restaurant and enjoyed some local fruits. There was a group of Vietnamese locals singing folklore songs for us. After that, we went on a smaller boat for a tour of the river. In this area, there were houses all along the shore – we had someone pushing us through the river with a stick, which made us feel like we were on a gondola ride in Venice.

Following a very eventful day, we returned to the hotel in the evening with a craving for Spanish food. So we went to a small tapas bar that was very well hidden. We drank sangria and ordered a lot of tapas, with lots of cheese and chorizo and Jamon Iberico. After dinner, we moved to Level 22 Wine Bar at the Sheraton Hotel. Also a great place with great views. I actually took some nice pictures of the skyline of Ho Chi Minh from that bar.

Great food, great bars and the cutest girls in Asia. You really notice how the Vietnamese have a higher IQ average than their neighbors. I’ll be back for some deeper Vietnamese exploration next year.

All in all, I quite liked the city of Saigon and what I got to experience of Vietnam. I had a great time with my AirBNB business partner – we talked a lot about business but also went to explore and enjoy all the great things the city had to offer. Everything I saw of Vietnam I liked, so much so, I am already making plans to come back next year and see the north of the country. I want to explore Hanoi, Halong, and Da Nang next, so stay tuned to learn more about this beautiful country after my next visit.

Bye Bye Saigon, until we meet again 🙂